Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1964 Pontiac GTO – “Honest In Performance”?

Are there any truly honest vintage tests of a genuinely stock 1964 GTO? Pontiac was a notorious provider of “ringer” press cars, including the most famous one supplied to Car and Driver that did 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and the 1/4 mile in an absurd 13.1 sec.@115(!)mph. That turned out to have a 421 SD super-tuned within an inch of its life by Royal Pontiac.

Car Life tested a 348 hp Tri-Power version that “had been checked out by Pontiac Engineering before the car was released to the Car Life staff“. That should have been a tip-off, but then this GTO wasn’t a blatant cheater like the C&D Bobcat. Given its performance stats, more likely it was a “stock” 389 engine, but very well tuned by its maker. Or maybe not.

In any case, Car Life’s test focused on quite a bit more than just its acceleration numbers, as the GTO was seen as a genuine enthusiast’s car when it arrived, and not just a drag strip terror.

It’s easy to pigeon-hole the GTO as the first muscle car of a genre that was about to explode, but that was utterly unknown at the time. It was seen as a bold experiment by John Z. DeLorean to create a genuine enthusiast’s car, meaning one that would appeal as much or more to those buyers looking for something that could handle, steer and brake along with burning rubber; an affordable, family-friendly alternative to European sports cars and sporty coupes/sedans, as well as buyers of large American cars with top engine options.

Obviously, dropping a bigger displacement into a mid-size car was going to give more bang for the buck than buying a 421 Grand Prix. But the concept was hardly new or original.

The 1962 Plymouth and Dodge were almost dead ringers for the size of the 1964 GM A-Body intermediates, with a one inch longer (116″ vs 115′) wheelbase, but also one inches shorter overall (202″ vs. 203″). The Mopars were a couple of inches wider (76.5″ vs. 73.3″), and their base curb weights (2 door, six cylinder) were an identical 2930 lbs. The Plymouth and Dodge were available with a quite warm 330/335 hp 383 and several performance levels of the 413, up to the 405 hp “Max Wedge” ram-induction 413. (We did a CL test of the Dodge 413 here recently)

These Mopars also handled well, and quickly established themselves as the hot set up for street or strip. So why was the GTO a runaway success, unlike the hot Mopars? We all know the answer: DeLorean was a master of marketing and the GTO, right from its provocative name, was positioned to take advantage of an image of something truly new. Well, in regard to its marketing and image, it rightfully was. And Plymouth came out with its GTX in 1966, along with a raft of other imitations of the formula along with unique “names” and visual identifications. Obviously, Chrysler was heavy on engineers in 1962 and not in street-oriented marketing hype.

The Pontiac 389 had proven itself some years earlier on the tracks and strips, and its performance chops were quite real, thanks in substantial part to “the Mysterious Mr. McKellar”, whose camshaft designs were a significant part of the equation. The GTO’s 389 had a hydraulic cam, but its quick-bleed valve lifters allowed it to turn 6200 rpm, when so called upon. The base version had a single four barrel carb rated at 325 ho, and the Tri-Power was rated at 348 hp. The linkage was mechanical, and worked “exceptionally good” thanks to the ministrations of the Pontiac Engineering staff.

The 389 pulled well from idle, but “it really starts to wail above 4000 rpm“, up to its 6,000 optimum shift point. CL states: “The 348-bhp rating seems an understatement” . There you have it. Was it under-rated, or was it massaged?

CL’s testing yielded a 0-60 time of 6.6 seconds, which is credible enough, especially since these times tend to vary quite a bit due to the difficulty of getting a good launch from start. The 1/4 mile in 14.8 sec. @ 99 mph seems a bit quick and fast, given the ’62 413 Dodge’s 15.1 @92, the ’66 Hemi Satellite’s 14.5@95 and the ’65 427 Galaxie’s 14.9 @97. Trap speed is a better indicator of actual horsepower, and the smaller-engine GTO was faster in the traps than all of these with larger and higher-hp rated engines.

For what it’s worth, R& also tested a 348 hp GTO, quite likely the same car, and its times were even better, with a 5.7 sec. 0-60 and a 14.1 @ 104 mph 1/4 mile. That’s seriously fast.

A convertible with the 325 hp engine tested by M/T was slower, with a 7.7 0-60 and a 15.8 @ 93 in the 1/4 mile.

A factory-built ’62 Chevy II with the 340 hp 327 was very close to the GTO too, with a 6.8 sec. 0-60 and a 15.3 @97 1.4 mile.

It’s all in the far distant past now, but feel free to jump into this endless debate as to what a truly stock Goat would do.

The GTO’s exterior and interior design was generally praised, but the location and accuracy of the tach was not. The tested car did not have the optional console, so its tach was mounted in the dash in the far right opening, unlike this one with the console mounted one. Either way, it was difficult to read and it was quite inaccurate, reading 6600 rpm at an actual 6000 rpm.

Not surprisingly, the 750-14 red line tires could not cope with the 389’s power, given that only 44% of the weight was on them. It took a lot of finesse with the throttle and clutch to get the best start, and then again avoid excessive wheel spin on the 1-2 shift.

The GTO was of course one of the new GM A-Bodies in 1964, and that meant a change from a unibody to a perimeter frame and body. Keeping in mind that perimeter frames are designed primarily for their ability to reduce suspension inputs and sound from the passengers, it was a rather floppy base from which to create a “genuine enthusiast’s car“. The GTO package came with an uprated suspension, and there was a stiffer option available, which the tested car had, along with the optional metallic-lining drum brakes. Good thing, as the stock drums were deemed undersized for a car of the GTO’s weight and capabilities.

The optional suspension “seems to do wonders“, eliminating all the wallowing and pitching of these (non-GTO) cars.

Handling characteristics were less Ferrari GTO and more like the typical American car: “strong understeer, changing to predictably neutral steering in high speed cornering. The rear end will break loose into a spin-out if the car is pressed hard…we can’t actually say that the GTO is the best cornering American car we’ve ever driven, but it would have to be among the better ones”.  The slow (24:1) manual steering was not a help; there was a quicker (20:1) manual option available, bit CL suggests that the 17.5:1 power steering would likely be the best choice, even if there was a loss of road feel at higher speeds.

The optional metallic-lining drum brakes acquitted themselves well.


CL liked the look of the GTO except for the fake hood scoops, and suggest that swapping hoods with a Tempest could resolve that issue. Given how many Tempests have had GTO hoods swapped in, this is a bit ironic.

The bottom line: “It is honest in appearance and honest in performance—endearing qualities in any league.” But was its performance truly honest?

Related CC reading:

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1966 Plymouth Satellite 426 Hemi – King Kong Arrives, In A Blue Three Piece Suit

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1962 Dodge Dart 413 – The Max Wedge Legend Started Here

Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 XL 427 – This One Takes Olympic-Sized Muscles To Drive

Vintage Motor Trend Road Test: 1962 Chevy II With 340 HP 327 Corvette V8 – Factory Built; Dealer Option Coming Soon!