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Pontiac GTO turns 50

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the one true original muscle car: Pontiac GTO. Introduced as an option on the ’64 Tempest, the GTO went on to such success that it kicked off the muscle car era, which lasted until 1972.

The one true original muscle car from 1964, Pontiac GTO.
The one true original muscle car from 1964, Pontiac GTO.
Photos by author, Aaron Ahlstrom

Originally conceived as a way to bypass General Motors’ corporate decree of limiting engines in mid-size cars to no more than 330 cubic-inches, the Pontiac GTO is proof that rules are meant to be broken. By making the GTO an option package on the Tempest, Pontiac could skip the 326 cubic-inch engine and go directly to the larger 389 mill found only in the full-size Catalina and Bonneville lineup.

While John DeLorean, Bill Collins and Russ Gee are credited as the creators of the GTO, it is generally considered that Jim Wangers is the “Godfather of the GTO.” Wangers’ creative marketing and advertising contributed immensely to the GTO mystique, making the car attractive and exciting to the youth market.

That formula, a stylish and affordable car with a performance edge, became the basis for what is now known as the muscle car. The big-engine-in-a-mid-size-car theme became the calling card for a litany of performance cars in the late ‘60s. Upon the success of the GTO, eventually Plymouth released the Road Runner and GTX (both based on the Satellite); Dodge would create the Super Bee and R/T options (on the Coronet) and the Charger R/T; Ford produced the Torino Cobra. GM itself jumped on board and created performance options at Chevrolet with the Chevelle SS396 and Oldsmobile had the 442 Cutlass.

With memorable and legendary engine options, the Pontiac GTO started with the 389 in 1964 and went as large as 455 cubes. Along the way, Tri-Power induction, where a trio of 2-barrel carburetors were mounted, became synonymous with GTO performance.

The muscle care era spanned from ‘64 through ‘72, and ended due to a combination of mounting emissions regulations and inflated fuel and insurance premiums that plagued the ‘70s. It would take years – well over a decade – for factory cars to regain the same performance edge that proved so popular only years before.

Today the GTO is revered for its performance pedigree. The most popular GTO models are always going to be the ’64-’72 iterations. Though not as admired as its forbearers, the ’73 GTO still offered sleek “Colonnade” styling with rear window louvers and blacked out grill, if only for one year. The ’74 GTO would be ungraciously retired, becoming an option on the compact Ventura line. Eventually the GTO did return in ‘04, thanks to a re-badging of the Australian Holden Monaro. Styling was panned but performance was good thanks to the powerful LS1 and later LS2 versions.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original muscle car, here’s a collection of photos celebrating one of the most important cars ever produced: GTO.

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