Curbside Classic: 1965 Pontiac GTO – How To Create a Legend and Build a Brand

How does one build a brand, propelling it from near-obscurity to the hottest one on the market? How does one create a legend, one that became the icon of a whole era? Ask John DeLorean and Jim Wangers, who along with a few other Pontiac execs, ad men and engineers created the GTO, which fueled Pontiac’s rise into its most successful years ever.

Hint: it’s not the engineering.

There were only a very few auto execs in Detroit in the 60s who ever really got what was happening in the contemporary American automobile market or what was about to to it happen in the future. John DeLorean got it the most. And that’s simply because he transcended his engineering background and made an effort to learn marketing, connect with the LA in scene, the trendsetters of the nation at the time. He was the only one who was ever really cool, (along with a few other mixed-bag qualities) and cool is what it’s really all about; certainly so in 1964. The car market has always been driven about perception, prestige and sizzle ever since GM surpassed Ford in 1925 with cars that put the emphasis on style, color and image over unvarnished utility.

The GTO was DeLorean’s greatest hit, but it was a rather fleeting one. That’s because he was trying to do the impossible: create an American car performance car (and brand) that could stand out from the humdrum, cookie-cutter limitations put on the divisions by thee top corporate execs. DeLorean wanted a brand that reflected the best engineering as well as the best image, because he knew that standing still is dying. And he must have known that American cars would need to eventually stave off the inevitable tsunami of imports. The GTO, with its conceit of being a genuine Ferrari-beater with world-class performance was intended to be an American performance car that could appeal to a wide spectrum of potential buyers, not just the Woodward Avenue stop-light racers. DeLorean was gunning to have Pontiac be the American BMW before BMW came and stole that market segment,

It all worked for a couple of years, but then the tectonic shifts in American culture caught up with it, and it turned out just to be another American car. That was not going to work after about 1968 or 1969 so; from about then on, the American automotive market, mirroring the cultural changes, split forever into imports and domestics. And Pontiac’s rise was doomed. By 1970, Pontiac was utterly lost (with the exception of the Firebird), and began a long tailspin as the Great Brougham Era, that reaction to the action by the Silent Majority, took its death grip on the American auto industry. Which is as good as dead now; might as call it the American truck industry.

Of course the big question is what would have happened to Pontiac had DeLorean stayed at Pontiac instead of moving to Chevrolet in 1969. We’ll never know, but even JZD couldn’t magically move mountains. It just wasn’t going to work out in the long term, one way or another. So it’s probably best he left when he did.

 

Back when he was just an engineer at Pontiac, DeLorean was obsessed with the idea of giving Pontiacs the qualities that made imports so desirable. There was the concerted effort to give the ’59 big cars independent rear suspension, which never happened but led to their wide track, a critical component (along with their styling) of the success the big Pontiacs would enjoy in the coming decade. 1959 was the year Pontiac sales started their climb up the mountain.

 

The 1961 Tempest did get independent rear suspension, even if it was a bit crude in terms of it being swing axles as a result of borrowing the Corvair’s transaxle and mating it with a flexible driveshaft to the half-a-V8 four cylinder up front. By 1962, with the arrival of the LeMans coupe, the combination of the high-output Trophy four, an available four speed stick and big 15″ wheels and tires, DeLorean and Pete Estes had  essentially created an American BMW before BMW had created the their seminal “Neue Klasse” cars, which were the vanguard of a line of cars to be the key to their success, especially in the US. We covered this chapter in some detail here.

Pontiac went even further in 1963, by adding back the other bank of cylinders of the Trophy Four, or in other words dropping in Pontiac’s V8, in a new smaller version, advertised as a 326, but with 336 CID actually. In the compact LeMans and with 260 hp, it had a very healthy 12:1 weight to hp ratio. Since it still had its rear transaxle, weight distribution was not at all bad. The only compromise was that the Corvair-sourced four speed transmission was not up to the husky V8’s torque, so only a three-speed manual or the two-speed Tempest-drive automatic were on tap.

This was the direct antecedent of the GTO. With a four barrel carb and four speed, it would have been quite worthy of the name. As it was, there wasn’t anything quite like like it. But even this was just a mild foreshadowing of things to come.

The introduction of the GTO in the spring of 1964 is an event that has been chronicled to death, and we’ll try to avoid doing that again here. Let’s just say it was a reflection of the degree of independence that a quite small Pontiac management team pulled off by the virtue of keeping its head ducked as much as possible in relation to GM’s lobotomy-inducing corporate management structure. Once it was clear that the taboo GTO was a hot seller, who on the 14th floor was going to take the GTO’s daddies to the woodshed? Sales trump all; even insubordination.

The reality of substituting a slightly larger displacement version (389 CID) of Pontiac’s V8 in the new 1964 A-Body Tempest and LeMans instead of the externally identical 326 version was not exactly a radical or complicated undertaking. And as it came off the assembly lines, in the overwhelming majority of the time, meaning without the full complement of optional HD parts, the GTO was hardly a screamer.

The 325 (gross) hp four barrel base engine was essentially identical to the 330 hp version as used in the full-sized cars, and the optional tri-power 348hp version had been used in the big cars a couple of years earlier, before the 421 took up its role as the top power option there. This was not a genuine performance power plant: the heads were not particularly good, and sported rather modest 1.92″ intake valves at a time when Chevy’s smaller 327 engines had 2.02″ intakes. The 389 had a power peak only slightly more than 5,000 rpm, and would float its hydraulic lifters at 5,500; the Chevys would spin happily to 6,000 and more.

In fact, the GTO was never really a successful drag racer. The legendary 1962-up Mopars with the 426 Max Wedge dominated the top of the pecking order, and of course the new 426 hemi was already available for racers in 1964 and would become optional in street cars in 1966. And then there was Chevrolet’s new “porcupine” 396 and 427 engines, whose heads offered much more potential.

It wasn’t the GTO’s engineering that made the legend. It was the bold decision to offer it in the first place, with an advertising campaign that was absolutely brilliant. Nothing like it had ever been seen before; it was the very leading edge of sexy and cool mid 60s thinking; its significance would take some time to penetrate the thick skulls of the 14th floor.

DeLorean’s key partner in his crime was Jim Wangers, embedded in McManus, John and Adams, Pontiac’s ad agency that was a critical component in their rise from near-death in 1958 to almost selling a million cars in 1969. And the work that Wangers did in collaboration with DeLorean was typically brilliant, as in this magazine insert from the GTO’s introduction:

This was the epitome of cool advertisement work for its time. Understated, yet blatant. Sexy without being overt. Positioning the GTO as an all-round performance car rather than targeting the hard core drag-race or NASCAR set, who might be more likely to puncture holes in the veil of the actual GTO.

Contrast it to this ad for Olds’ new 4-4-2 package. Day and night. Or find any other ad from 1964 that is as sophisticated and hip. Maybe a few Corvette ads.

And this was just the start. GTO and Pontiac advertisements became legends in their own right during this period. And it worked, hugely. The timing was absolutely perfect, as the first baby boomers were just hitting 18. And even if they weren’t buying them, they were influencing a lot of decisions. Wangers got that, and DeLorean got the religion from Wangers, in thrice-weekly 6:30 AM session which DeLorean set up so that he could learn the black magic of marketing. And Wangers assures us here that JZD was a quick study.

Yes, the GTO was our thing, even if it was being created by guys in Detroit two, three, four and five times as old as us. But they had their ears on the ground, and knew just what was…our Thing.

And in large quantities, at that. Although it’s instructive to note how GTO sales exploded and peaked in only its second full year (1966) and then began its terminal slide. Why? it took a year and a half for everyone else to respond to the GTO, and boy, did they ever. Chrysler had its Plymouth GTX and Dodge the R/T, both of which came standard with the 440 and optional with the 426 hemi. Good bye, GTO!

And Chevy came out with its very popular SS 396, which was cheaper and could also be faster if the 375 hp solid lifter version was specified. Buick and Olds also fielded competitive cars, as did of course Ford. Given all of that, it’s not surprising the king of the hill took a bit of a hit.

But the real body blow came in 1968, by Plymouth’s 1968 Road Runner. This new creation not only co-opted the lead in cool youth-oriented marketing, but it was a brilliant packaging job that made a muscle car even more affordable right at the time the kids were starting to be able to afford new cars. Who wants to pay for all that chrome and doo-dads?

But the RR also marked the cultural watershed; there was a reason VW was selling some 400k Beetles at the time. For a rapidly growing number of young adults, the RR was now for “the others”. It’s not exactly what you’d pick to drive to Woodstock.

Meanwhile, the GTO was becoming more grown-up by the day; five years old going on fifty. Nice styling, but the goat had lost its edge. Whitewall tires too. Yup, we kids noticed that there was an ever-larger contingent of middle aged buyers who wanted the GTO’s cachet to rub off on them. No wonder there was a 265 hp two-barrel low-compression 389 available as a delete option in 1968. Not cool. But you wouldn’t see the nice upper-middle class woman down the street driving a Road Runner. It was the beginning of the end for the GTO.

Pontiac had been caught off-guard, and responded with The Judge in 1969. Sure, we’d take one. But we also knew exactly what this was: Pontiac desperately trying to recapture the youth image that the Road Runner had stolen away in 1968. And it wasn’t really working. Of course the Road Runner would soon enough get eaten up by its junior offspring, the Duster 340. The youth performance car market was always looking for the next cheap thing, by its nature.

Meanwhile, John DeLorean was off to Chevrolet, which he would find was a whole different kettle of fish than Pontiac. A giant one, and one that would do its best to boil him. There was no Jim Wangers and he had to suck it up with Chevy’s ad agency, Campbell-ewald. In a complete turnabout from Pontiac, DeLorean was now forced to put his reputation on the line with the Vega, a car foisted on him from a corporate development group. It was all a setup for his eventual demise on the 14th floor. No more rogue division General Managers running amok.

Although the GTO was undoubtedly a huge propellant in Pontiac’s rise these years, there was a casualty too. The 1963 Grand Prix had been a big hit in 1963, the year it really came into its own. One could say it was the GTO’s big brother. But once the upstart sibling showed up, it soon fell into its shadow.

GP sales swooned during the GTO’s heyday, unlike the Buick Riviera. But then the GP was never as distinct as the Riviera, as it was really just a Catalina with a distinct roof and trim. And as the big Pontiacs become wide and poofy during the middle-late 60s, so did the GP, and as such lost any real appeal. The market was changing fast.

DeLorean’s brilliant repackaging of the Grand Prix for 1969 as a mid-sized car unleashed a giant trend towards mid-sized semi-luxury personal coupes, a trend that would propel that class right to the top of the charts in the form of the Cutlass Supreme. I take it back: the ’69 GP was really DeLorean’s Greatest Hit, in overall commercial terms outside of Pontiac.

The GTO story is huge, and I’m struggling to boil it down to an easily digested one. Let’s take a break from those lofty image and perception issues and the legend that was created to take a look at this ’65 GTO that I found in the parking lot of Joe’s Garage in Eugene. I’ve long wanted to find a ’64 or ’65 that wasn’t the usual overdone-restomod fare, and this is as close as it’s likely going to get in the modern era. It looks like GTO one might find in about 1970 or so.

 

Externally, there weren’t a lot of visual cues to differentiate the GTO from its Tempest or LeMans stablemates. But young eyes are quick to notice these things, and we did, from some distance. from the front, the was of course the “GTO” in the grille and the hood scoop. From the sides, there was the engine badge on the lower front fender.

 

Yes, it spelled out “6.5 Litre” in the way Ferrari would have spelled it, which of course they didn’t on any stinkin’ badges. But it all added to the Pontiac’s international aspirations/pretensions.

 

And of course another GTO badge on the rear fender. But compared to the way most muscle cars were soon sporting over-the-top graphics and gigantic scoops on all sorts of places, this was very understated.

And the interior was too. Well, the $295 GTO package was just a few performance upgrades; there was really wasn’t much different as far as the interior goes. The wood-grain steering wheel was optional, as was the console. And if one didn’t order the console, the two-speed automatic had a column-mounted lever.

Speaking of, an automatic GTO of this vintage was almost embarrassingly modest in its actual performance. But then there were plenty of folks who wore not into worrying about that sort of thing, right from the get-go.

Let’s get specific: despite being the best American performance sedan/coupe of the times, the GTO in its standard form had some serious deficiencies. The little drum brakes were inadequate, the steering was woefully slow, the stock engines weren’t exactly wild tigers on the hunt, and the stock suspension settings were not exactly in Ferrari territory. Yes, the extra cost options were available to address these to one extent or another, and as we’ll see in the famous Car and Driver road test (to be posted after this CC) of a couple of very carefully prepped ringers, the GTO could be made to really hustle.

And to make that happen, Pontiac had a special arrangement with the nearby dealer Royal Pontiac to effectively be their outlet for race-ready parts and cars, since the corporate edict of no more official racing activities had gone down in 1962. Royal was the de-facto racing department for Pontiac. And all the performance cars that were available for the media came from Royal Pontiac, conveniently enough. Pontiac became king of the ringers. But it’s the perception that counts, and Pontiac was scoring.

Why would I shoot the rear seat of a GTO? Because it’s there. And it so reminds me of a kid that worked with me at a gas station in 1969 that drove a LeMans exactly like this one without the GTO badges. But one can dream.

And the GTO was the dream car of its time. DeLorean’s dream of an all-conquering affordable American  performance car that would beat back Ferraris on the track, Mopars on the strip, and BMW 2002s on the canyons of LA and other hip cities was just a wee bit too lofty. And when everyone woke up, things were never quite the same. But we were all innocent in the mid-sixties, and more than ready to buy into a whole lot of dreams. Including a Tempest with a bored out engine. We just needed to be seduced properly.

 

Make sure you check out Don Andreina’s superb portrait of John DeLorean and the Birth of His Namesake Car