The Pontiac Synonymous with ’60s Performance is Still a Perennial Favourite

For some Baby Boomers, Pontiac’s GTO is the automotive equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner guitar shred at Woodstock: powerful, iconic and emblematic of an extraordinary era in American history. Pontiac offered a GTO until 1974, then dusted off the badge again for its last hoorah 30 years later on the 2004- ’06 edition. A few versions of the model were significant, at least one was legendary (we’re looking at you, The Judge), but it was the pure-and-simple ’64 that lit the fire. The GTO’s origin story is almost as legendary as the car’s performance reputation. In the late 1950s, Pontiac General Manager Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen resuscitated the brand with an infusion of electrifying styling and performance. The division also firmly established itself in motorsports and became America’s third best-selling automaker. All of this attention neatly coincided with many Baby Boomers reaching driving age. When Knudsen left for Chevrolet in the early 1960s, Pontiac was flush with talent, and the young engineers he’d hired to aid in the division’s turnaround were promoted. E.M. “Pete” Estes became Pontiac’s general manager and John DeLorean became its chief engineer.

These young execs recognized the need for a fast, agile, affordable car that could further expand Pontiac’s performance image. The perfect candidate arrived in ’64: the mid-size A-body that replaced the compact Y-body. The new car eschewed the earlier model’s advanced unit-body platform, swing-axle rear suspension and transaxle, in favor of more traditional architecture: a full-frame, a solid axle with four-link rear suspension and a conventional drivetrain layout. As a result, the 389 V-8 engine from the full-size line, and three- or four-speed manual transmissions could easily fit in the A-body. Paired with heavy-duty suspension, the car’s handling qualities could be elevated to equal the big engine’s performance.

As the story goes, during tests of a ’64 Tempest at the Milford Proving Grounds, Pontiac chassis engineer Bill Collins noted that the 389 would fit in the new chassis, engineer and engine specialist Russ Gee proposed the swap and DeLorean agreed. Soon after, a running prototype was completed.

The name “GTO” was chosen for this performance edition; it’s an acronym for “Gran Turismo Omologato.” When used on a Ferrari, it meant it was homologated by the Fédération Internationale D’Automobile for racing. Pontiac’s GTO wasn’t, but the name implied exotic performance, and that was good enough.

At the time, GM had limited its intermediate cars to a V-8 ceiling, so to get around that, the GTO was offered as an option instead of a model. Thus, for $295.90, code 382 turned a Le Mans into a GTO with all of the performance bona fides, plus emblems, blacked-out grilles, and hood scoops to make it stand out. Just $2,776 ($27,000 in 2022) bought you the base pillared GTO sports coupe.

Many road testers were enthusiastic about the GTO’s style and acceleration. Others panned it for its name and other short-comings, like its brakes. Nevertheless, the overall impression was positive. A masterful marketing campaign for the GTO by Jim Wangers and his team at Pontiac’s ad agency MacManus, John & Adams, did more than a little to create that same impression among buyers. With 32,450 GTOs sold that first year, the formula for success was established.

What is a First Generation GTO Worth?

First generation GTOs have been a mainstay of the collector car hobby for decades due to their popularity among Boomers. According to multiple value guides, 1964-’67 GTO prices have remained fairly steady over the last five years averaging in the $50,000- $60,000 range, overall. The ’64—which we’re singling out for analysis here—has followed a similar trend. One of the more notable, recent sales of a ’64 GTO occurred back in July 2022, at a GAA Classic Cars auction in Greensboro, North Carolina. The car was a nicely restored black coupe and it changed hands for $88,000. At Mecum’s Chicago auction in October, a good-looking black ’64 convertible sold for $64,000; at the company’s Kissimmee sale in January, a stunning black convertible sold for an impressive $107,250. Meanwhile, on the more affordable end of the market, a very presentable, driver-quality ’64 coupe was sold by its second owner on Hemmings Auctions in September for $24,460.

The GTO’s traditional fanbase is still a driving force in the collector car hobby, but it’s gradually turning the market over to Generation X and Millennials, who may be less interested in cars of the early 1960s. Still, the original GTO isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s probably safe to say that expertly restored examples and cars with professional-grade restomod treatments will continue to command lofty prices, but the overall value trend will remain steady into the foreseeable future. If you’re in the market for one of these pioneering American performance machines, here are some points to keep in mind.

First Generation GTO Engine Options

The GTO’s standard-issue 389 was topped with a Carter four-barrel carburetor and rated at 325 hp at 4,800 rpm/428 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. The Tri-Power option swapped the four barrel for three Rochester two-barrel carburetors. The center carburetor acted as the primary and, when the throttle was two-thirds open, the outer carbs kicked in via a vacuum-diaphragm-controlled linkage.
Pontiac advertised the Tri-Power 389’s output as 358 hp at 4,900 rpm/428 lb-ft at 3,600 rpm. Both engines came standard with a cast-iron, dual-plane intake manifold; 421 H.O.-spec cylinder heads with larger ports; 1.92-inch intake/1.66-inch exhaust valves and HD valve springs; cast-aluminum pistons helping to deliver 10.75:1 compression; a cast crank and rods spinning in a block with five main bearings and two-bolt main caps; and iron exhaust manifolds feeding dual exhaust. The single four barrel and Tri-Power 389s used a hydraulic flat-tappet cam with 273/289-degrees advertised duration and .410/413 lift activating 1.50:1 ratio rocker arms. To help keep the package cool, a seven-blade 18-inch declutching fan was also included. The 389 is a generally reliable engine but be sure to check for any odd noises, smoke, and leaks that would indicate mechanical issues due to age or neglect. Many owners added Tri-Power to their ’64 GTOs years after purchase, so be diligent in checking engine codes and date codes to ensure that a purported factory Tri-Power GTO is accurately represented.
There are no new stock-replacement engine blocks or iron heads being reproduced, and though cores are getting scarce, they are still available. If you’d like to modify your GTO, large-bore aftermarket Pontiac-style blocks, various aluminum cylinder heads and intake manifolds, and carburetor and EFI options are offered. There are also solid and hydraulic flat-tappet and solid and hydraulic roller camshafts, forged rods and pistons, cast and forged cranks, and stroker kits on the market.

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