Curbside Classic: 1966 Pontiac GTO – A Goat or a Mule?

(first posted 6/11/2012)   Paul Niedermeyer and I have occasionally described ourselves as yin and yang when it comes to Curbside Classics.  So, when Paul the Yin brought us a 1967 Pontiac Tempest that was a GTO wannabe awhile back (here), his car reminded me of a car I shot last summer.  May I (Yang) present a 1966 Pontiac GTO.

Except maybe it’s not.  I really don’t know.  I have been wondering how to approach this car for quite awhile, but there is no time like the present.  Since Yin gave us red, Yang shall present green.  Reef Turquoise, actually.  Mrs. JPC and my daughter came home early one evening and announced that there was a cool old car parked outside of the neighborhood Mexican eatery, and that I should go and check it out.  I did, and they were right.  Here it is.  But what, exactly, is it?

As Paul told us, everybody and his brother has taken an old Tempest and turned it into a GTO clone that is indistinguishable from the genuine article to most of us who are unschooled in the VINtracacies of Poncho identification.  This is understandable on one level, because the GTO is certainly one of the most iconic cars of the muscle car era, and widely considered to be the one that gave rise to the genre in 1964.  It was John DeLorean, as head of the Pontiac Division, who led the guerilla campaign to stuff the big engine in the lightweight A body, contrary to GM’s corporate policy.  The lore has become well known that by the time upper management found out about the subterfuge, the car was a hit.  DeLorean kept his job and everyone else in the industry jumped on the big engine/small car bandwagon.

Here is my quandry.  You will note that this car is an automatic with a column shift and no console separating its bucket seats.  A review of the Pontiac sales literature of the time indicates that such a combination was possible.  Is this one of those cars?  If so, how depressing – a rip-roaring 389 with either a 4 barrel or triple 2 barrels trying to do its job through a miserable 2 speed automatic.  Ugh.  DeLorean could not have been very happy about that.  In the brochure, the full sizer proudly boasts of a Turbo Hydramatic.  The GTO?  The generic “automatic transmission” doesn’t even merit a name.  You can almost see the copywriters blushing just a bit as they typed it.  But if anything could overcome the inherent weakness of the two speed drive, it would be the hairy chested big engine in the still-lightweight A body.

So, is this a genuine Goat?  Or is this one of those many Tempest 326s that had a little cosmetic surgery (or has “had some work done” as we may more euphamistically say).  To paraphrase the title of an old song, I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don’t know enough about GTOs.  So, I am going to leave the CC Commetariat whether this is a genuine GTO or whether it is the result of a Tempest combined with some money, some wrenches and a parts catalog.

But just because I don’t know the answer, doesn’t mean that I am above a little speculation.  If you are doing breast augmentation on a Tempest, why do you stop short of a full console/floor shift conversion?  Why do you paint it turquoise instead of resale red?  And where are those redline tires on the Rally wheels?  If you have a real column-shift GTO that has to be one of the rarest of them all, why would you throw in a homemade console thingy and drive the car out to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant and leave it unattended?  I guess it does have “The Club” protecting it.  And wouldn’t a restoration worthy of such a car have body seams that line up better than these?   Just because I can ask these questions, don’t think that I have any idea how to answer any of them.

When I was a kid, my next door neighbor’s mother drove one of these – beige with a black vinyl roof and a 4 speed.  One thing that I vividly recall about that car was the plastic woodgrain steering wheel, that I thought was one of the coolest things I had ever seen up to that time.  My other vivid memory is how big of a mark the black handgrips on my Schwinn Stingray left along the paint on the left rear fender.  Even though it rubbed out, my friend’s mother was not pleased.  Mrs. Bordner’s  ’66 was my favorite of her three GTOs (she later had a dark green ’68 and a lime green ’71).  Still, the car did not carry the street cred among the neighborhood kids of Mr. Colchin’s Avanti down the block.  The Avanti was supercharged, you see.  And red.  And any self-respecting 8 year old could tell you that any car with a supercharger (especially a red one) was faster than any tan car without.  This only confirmed the other universal test of a car’s performance.  The Avanti’s speedometer went to 160, while the GTO’s topped out at a mere 120.  Only as we got older would we pay attention to esoteric things like the additional one hundred cubes under the hood of the Goat that made considerably more than the R2 Avanti’s 290 horses.

I have always considered the 1966 model to be the ultimate GTO.  And it’s not just me.  At nearly 97,000 units, the ’66 was GTO’s peak of popularity.  In fact, this is one of the few 1966 cars that did not drop in sales from 1965’s industry-wide record breaking year.   It is not hard to see from the lines of this car how DeLorean’s finely tuned team at the Pontiac Motor Division had their collective fingers on the pulse of the American youth market.  The longer I look at this, the more I marvel at its nearly perfect styling.  How many cars of the mid 1960s can we say was better looking than this one?

This was the first significant revision since the GTO came out as a 1964 model.  I can only imagine the car-lust that this car would have caused on the auto show circuit in late 1965.  No need for scantily clad women to drum up enthusiasm at the Pontiac exhibit that year.  And is that a young Paul Niedermeyer drooling over the white  OHC 6 LeMans Sprint in the background?  Pontiac truly did build excitement in 1966.

But back to the question of the day.   Is it live or is it Memorex?  Does she or doesn’t she?  Is you is or is you ain’t?  Sorry, I jumped aboard the obsolete metaphor bus, then missed my stop.  I see that this car lacks that woodgrain steering wheel.  Maybe it was an option, or maybe it came with the console.  Or maybe this is the giveaway that this car is (or was) “just” a Tempest.

However, as Paul so ably pointed out, being “just” a Tempest was no small thing in 1966-67.  This was a beautiful car, and would have looked no less attractive in anodized aluminum wheelcovers and whitewalls and with that 326 logo on the fender.

Maybe Paul’s red ’67 and this aqua ’66 are not so much Yin and Yang, as they are “before” and “after” GTO plastic surgery.  And if I can say nothing else definitively about this car, I can positively state that I like this color MUCH better than I like resale red.