Curbside Classic: 1966 Pontiac GTO – The Perfect Childhood?

I did not have a perfect childhood.  Does anyone?  But a few months ago I stumbled across this pretty yellow GTO and memories of my childhood came flooding back.  It may not have been perfect, but in retrospect and from the vantage point of a car-crazy kid, I guess it wasn’t so bad.

The sporty coupe may have been the Crossover of the mid 1960’s.  By that, I mean that it was what stylish and fashionable housewives were driving then, at least those who were able to avoid the dreaded station wagon.

I grew up in an upper middle class suburb in the northern Indiana city of Fort Wayne.  There were quite a few kids my age and most of our fathers had white collar jobs and could afford fairly frequent new cars.  By 1965 or so the concept of a “good car” for Dad and a “second car” for Mom had gone pretty much out the window in my neighborhood.  I am not saying that we were the first on the street to break the pattern, but maybe that is what happened when, in the summer of 1964 our family traded Mom’s daily-driver ’61 Olds F-85 station wagon for a new Oldsmobile Cutlass.

The author between his mother and sister at a Wisconsin motel. Summer of 1965 on a trip to California by way of Minnesota.  The Cutlass was an extremely dark green which Oldsmobile called Jade Mist.  An uncommon 1964-only paint color apparently offered only on Chevrolets  (as Bahama Green) and Oldsmobiles.

 

In 1964 most A body Oldsmobiles were still called F-85s.  The Cutlass was restricted to the top line hardtop and convertible.   Ours included bucket seats, a console which contained a tach and a shifter for the automatic, and the 4 bbl/premium gas version of the Oldsmobile Rocket 330 V8.  I did not understand at the tender age of 5 that Oldsmobile claimed 290 horsepower for our Mom-mobile.  I just knew that she raved about the “pick-up” that it had.  That car’s acceleration probably had something to do with the “Super Shell” that she asked for at the gas station.  To me, it was just another dull, boring Oldsmoble (albeit a shiny, new one).

On one side of us lived Mr. Johnston.  I think he owned a paint store and was a diehard Mopar Man.  For those familiar with the old Dennis The Menace comic strip, Mr. Johnston was my real-life version of “Mr. Wilson”.  Fortunately, he was not as cranky and always seemed able to find some candy in the house when I would come ambling over. Which was often.  The Johnstons had an only child and, as successful parents of only children sometimes do, they bought him a car.  I think this happened after he dragged a derelict ’55 Chevy home to “fix it up.”  I was fascinated by the old Chevrolet, but his parents were definitely not.  A new navy blue ’65 GTO was evidently the price to be paid for getting the embarrassing antique Chevy out of the driveway.

The author (in the football helmet) along with his little sister and neighbor Jon Crist. Wasn’t Kodachrome amazing?

 

This is the photo that made me decide to reconsider whether my childhood had achieved perfection after all.  Jon Crist lived across the street and came over to play this particular evening.  I think my father may have taken this picture because he was so excited to see a football helmet on my head, something that may not have ever happened again.  My head was into cars, not football, and this picture shows the nearly new Next-Door-Goat in all of its glory, right down to the redline tires.  I am not sure how we let my little sister talk us into letting her play.

Photo source: newoldcar.com

 

I knew that it was similar to our Cutlass but also knew that it had a stick shift and black seats with diagonal pleats, which were way cooler than our own dark green seats with straight pleats.  I experienced those when another kid and I somehow talked him into driving us to school one morning.  His next car would be no less cool: a ’68 Plymouth Satellite GTX.  But I never got a ride in that one.

Kevin Bordner was my next door neighbor on the other side.  Kevin’s father was an attorney who had gone to law school a little later in life.  Kevin had two brothers who were in college by the time we were in grade school, so he was pretty much an only child.  Was it a coincidence that the hot hardtops down the street led directly to Mrs. Bordner’s blue VW Beetle being replaced with a 66 GTO?  This may not have been about keeping up with the Cavanaughs, but when the Johnstons’ teenage kid was driving a nicer car than you have, well, things must be done I suppose.  I will add that my father had not upped the bar one bit by getting a 289-powered ’66 Country Squire the previous December.  No Mom trying to hang onto her youth would feel the need to go that direction.

I had a fair amount of seat time in that ’66 GTO.  I remember being wowed by two things.  Woodgrain and FM.  The woodgrain on the dash was something completely lacking in our ordinary old Cutlass.  And the woodgrain steering wheel was da bomb.  An expression I would not hear for another few decades, but it fits.

Photo source: Hemmings Motor News

 

I had only seen that combination in my other friend Tim’s father’s ’64 Avanti.  I knew that the Avanti was a rare exotic, so if a car had a woodgrain steering wheel, it was really something to fuss over.

The GTO also had an FM radio.  Normal people and normal cars all had AM radios.  Because everyone listened to WOWO, “the big 50,000 watt voice of farming in the midwest!”  FM wasn’t something for kids, of course, because the only FM stations in town played music with strings and bongos and exotic bird sounds.  Look up Martin Denny’s Quiet Village if you don’t understand what I mean.  Which didn’t seem to go with that GTO.  But then neither did Mrs. Bordner.  The beige GTO also had a black vinyl top.  Only the coolest people had black vinyl tops.  Well, only the coolest Moms.  They would never get convertibles because it would have tripled each family’s expenditure on aerosol Aqua Net.

I didn’t know that the GTO packed nearly sixty more cubes into its V8 engine than Oldsmobile could get into our Cutlass.  I just knew that the GTO had to be faster because it had wheels with exposed lugs and those redline tires again.  Also, Mrs. Bordner was workin’ a 4 speed where my own mother was evidently incapable of such things.  The automatic shifter on the console suddenly seemed so . . . matronly, in comparison.

One time I got a little too up-close and personal with Mrs. Bordner’s GTO.  Do you know what happened when a guy rubbed the black handgrip from a Schwinn Sting Ray along the side of Pontiac’s shiny non-metallic Mission Beige lacquer paint?  A big long ugly black streak along the car’s flank, that’s what.  Kind of like the way our dress shoes used to leave black heel marks on linoleum floors.  Mrs. B was none too happy with me and spoke to me in the same tone of voice that mothers everywhere have mastered when it comes to realizing that they just can’t have nice things.  It did, however, buff out.  So I was eventually allowed back.  And about that color, I don’t think anyone has chosen to paint a GTO in that nondescript beige ever since.

Really, were there better surroundings for a kid who was nuts about cars than what I had?  A premium gas Cutlass, a pair of GTOs and a freaking Avanti (supercharged and three pedals, no less).  But I was somehow nearly immune.  Sure, it was interesting to discuss the cars’ top speeds.  We knew that Tim’s father’s Avanti was faster than Kevin’s Mom’s GTO because the speedometer in the red Stude went to 160.  The GTO was probably really no faster than our Cutlass because both speedos topped out at 120.  Although the Pontiac’s round one was probably good for maybe 5 mph over the strip readout in our Olds.  Tim’s father tried to tell us that the GTO was faster, but we thought he was just being polite.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

 

My real love was the unusual stuff.  Like the pink and white ’55 DeSoto that my Grandma would drive when she visited.  I wish I had known then that that thing had a Hemi, it might have given me another contestant in the neighborhood theoretical speed wars.  Or not.  Because a fat old DeSoto was the opposite of cool in 1966.  Especially a faded pink one.

In my mind the cars of the mid 1960’s represent an apex of style and performance that has been tough to beat.  Many of my own favorite cars have been from that period of time.  But as much as I found a home in the products of Ford and Chrysler, I have been coming more and more to appreciate the stuff coming out of the General’s five car Divisions in the years of my childhood.  It is easy to see why Pontiac owned the 1960’s, if not in sales, at least in influence.  If this is not the most perfect iteration of that mid-’60s GM A body, I don’t know what would be.

I shot pictures of and wrote up another ’66 GTO a few years ago.  But for some reason, that one did not remind me as strongly of my childhood.  Perhaps the color combo of this pale yellow one that was so close to the beige one that lived next door in 1966?  Or perhaps it was this car’s console, 4 speed and proper wheels that strapped me into the Wayback Machine, features missing on that turquoise car.

The author at the rear (with his hand in the marshmallow bag), doing his very best impression of a seven year old Thurston Howell, III.

 

My parents would separate in late 1966 and Mrs. Bordner would get two more GTOs (a ’68 4-speed and a ’71 automatic) before my mother would replace our Cutlass with a new one in 1972.  Life would get more complicated and the cars would seem somehow less appealing, like the series of Grand Prix’ that Mrs. Bordner would drive through the ’70s.  Maybe this is because I was getting older and was looking at things differently, starting to understand the things that the older kids had been understanding for awhile.  In 1966, however, I was still seven and still able to look at that beige GTO as somehow being both normal and a little magical at the same time.  And looking at these pictures of this yellow Goat I still feel the same way.  If not a perfect childhood, it was a pretty good one in that long ago summer of 1966.

Further reading:

1965 Pontiac LeMans – Paul Niedermeyer

1966 Pontiac GTO –  J P Cavanaugh

1967 Pontiac Tempest Custom – Paul Niedermeyer

1967 Pontiac LeMans 389 (Capsule) – Paul Niedermeyer