Best of 2020 – Curbside Classic: 1968 Pontiac GTO – Redpop!

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

Some of my favorite things about returning to Flint, and to Michigan, in the summer for vacation are getting to experience many tastes that are specific to this state and region of the Midwest.  Vernor’s ginger ale is not like any other soda you’ve ever had in that it’s extra gingery and packs a wallop.  In undiluted form (meaning before a lot of the ice has melted in your drink cup from local favorite Halo Burger), Vernor’s can almost clear your sinuses.  It’s one of only two pops (yes, we say “pop” in Michigan to refer to a soft drink) we occasionally had in the fridge when I was growing up, and it was often administered almost like medicine to treat a legitimately upset stomach.  The other soda in the Dennis household when I was a kid was 7-Up, which was for my father.

Faygo Redpop!

Just because I wasn’t allowed to regularly have pop in the house as a kid doesn’t mean I never (carefully) sneaked any of my dad’s, or that I didn’t buy some with my own allowance or paper route money.  Faygo is a Detroit-based soft drink company that is over a century old, with operations originally starting back in 1907.  So many different flavors of Faygo – orange, grape, and Rock & Rye (think cream soda with some cherry bite to it) – remind me of carefree summer days, riding bikes or playing tag with my friends in our neighborhood, and pumping quarter after quarter into one of several video games (Shinobi, Paperboy) at the convenience store on my block.  Rock & Rye seems to be the most popular Faygo flavor by a landslide whenever a social media thread pops up about the subject.  I love Rock & Rye, but my current fave would have to be Redpop.

What does it taste like, you ask?  Like red.  It’s supposed to taste like strawberry, and I suppose it does to some extent.  I say that Redpop tastes like “red” in the same way I mean that green beverages generally taste like citrus, or blue drinks taste like, well, blue.  (I really am at a loss to come up with a description for the flavor of the blue drink that’s currently in my fridge.)  Even if the berry growers at Smuckers jam might hesitate to put their name on it, Redpop is so good on a hot summer day that it is worth the risk of acquiring the dreaded “Kool-Aid mustache” on one’s upper lip if enjoyed out of a cup.  Out of a chilled glass bottle is just fine with me.  I’m not fancy.

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

It’s not all about the food and drinks when I return to the city that shaped me.  Every summer, there’s a giant, annual car festival called “Back To The Bricks” that takes place in Flint and the surrounding areas during the second week of August.  It brings hundreds of thousands of people to the festivities from both out of town and the immediate area to celebrate our love of the automobile.  Those seven days or so are the happiest I am throughout the entire year.  This year’s events are now officially cancelled out of precautions being taken against spread of the COVID-19 virus.  I could see this coming from the middle of March.  I want my fellow Michiganders and car fans to be healthy and safe more than I need to be back home for the car party, which I hope will return for 2021, bigger and better than ever.

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

I’ll get to the featured GTO in a minute, but I wanted to point out that at the time I had seen and photographed it in downtown Flint back in 2016, it was not during a car show or any automotive themed event.  It was just sitting by itself at the curb downtown on Saginaw Street across from the former Lunch Studio sandwich shop (now the new location of Hoffman’s Deco Deli & Cafe), with all of its windows open, confident, secure, and just asking for a closer look.  I’m often awestruck when I think about having grown up in a place where so many guys and gals still have the know-how to work on and restore cars like this, all concentrated in little, old Genesee County.

I had been in Flint this time for the 2016 edition of the annual Drop Fest electronic music festival (also cancelled for 2020) instead of for “B2B”, which I would not attend for the first time in six years.  Seeing this GTO seemed to serve as the consolation prize for missing the latter.  Standing alone outside of the goings on of a car show served to emphasize what a strong presence it had on its own.  In its bright, summery PPG Solar Red finish (or one very close to that GM factory color), it popped even against the red bricks of Saginaw Street.

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

Pontiac’s intermediates were redesigned in 1968, with coupes given a more closely coupled, curvier, semi-fastback look which contrasted against the more traditionally styled, long-trunked ’67s.  This generation would be the first on which the two-door models rode on a 112″ wheelbase that was four inches shorter than on the sedans and wagons.  Nowadays, body colored bumper covers are standard practice.  I find it hard to envision how revolutionary the ’68 GTO’s sculpted Endura front nose must have looked at the time, blending as seamlessly as it did with the frontal sheetmetal.

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

The ’68 GTO was Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year, with its performance, handling, styling, and engineering cited as some of the reasons why.  I can immediately think of two other designs that were new for ’68 that get my motor revving: the Corvette and the AMC Javelin.  I say this only to reinforce my impression that there were a lot of desirable, new machines coming out of Detroit in the late ’60s.  Equipped with the standard 6.6 Liter / 400 cubic inch V8 rated at 350 horsepower, the 3,600-pound GTO hardtop did 0-60 miles per hour in 7.3 seconds equipped with the three-speed automatic, according to MT’s period test.  With the Hurst four-speed manual and the optional, 360-hp Ram Air V8, it was capable of 0-60 mph in the mid-six second range.

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

Curiously, the front fender badges read “6.5 Litre”, when 400 cubic inches translates to 6.55 liters, which would more accurately be rounded up to 6.6 liters to the nearest tenth.  Overall GTO production was up in 1968 by about 6,000 units over ’67 (87,700 vs. 81,700), which represented an increase of about 7.3% over the prior year.  This hardtop was one of about 77,700 produced for the model year, with the other 10,000 being convertibles.  The pillared coupe, of which only about 7,000 were made in ’67, was discontinued for ’68.  Convertible sales were up by about 500 units, so based on the droptop’s static numbers year-over-year, the overall 7.3% increase in sales could reasonably be attributed to the new car’s popularity.

1968 Pontiac GTO. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/06/2016.

I had purchased a vintage 1968 new car buyer’s guide at a show at a local Flint mall when it was about twenty years old, and I remember it having much copy about the then-new GTO.  Sadly, I couldn’t keep from leafing through it a lot, and even though I kept it in its cellophane package I bought it in and tried to preserve it as best I could, it did eventually end up with Cheetos dust, a torn cover, and other such maladies things often suffer at the hands of adolescents.  I probably still have it in a box somewhere in storage.  I remember getting a sense that the ’68 GTO really was a big deal, and advanced in many ways compared to many cars of its time.

I may have to wait until the future (2021, very hopefully) before I can get back to the red bricks of Saginaw Street in downtown Flint, but in the meantime, I just might hunt down some strawberry soda on my next grocery shopping trip here in Chicago.  It may not compare with my beloved Faygo Redpop, but as with the next Back To The Bricks car show, getting to experience the real thing at a future date will be well worth the wait and something to really look forward to.

Downtown Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, August 6, 2016.