Following World War II Americans wanted more of everything: money, luxury, food, entertainment, and bigger and faster cars. And since metal was no longer a precious commodity and gasoline was inexpensive automobile manufacturers were happy to comply. Ford, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler, known as the "Big Three", led the way but American Motors and Studebaker were right behind. They started by making cars bigger with more and more options and then followed with engines that got progressively bigger to handle the weight. Then in the early 1950s they went backwards, putting big engines in smaller and smaller cars to improve speed and performance. It was the beginning of the Muscle Car Era and in 1964 the Pontiac GTO classic car was born.
General Motors established the Pontiac division in the 1920s to fill the gap between their least expensive line of Chevrolets and pricer Oldsmobiles. Pontiacs were never as popular as the other vehicles but they held their own and appealed to mature adults. Then in 1956 Semon Knudsen took over the Pontiac division and things began to change. Knudsen believed that "You can sell a young man's car to an old man, but you'll never sell an old man's car to a young man." and pushed for change. He made Elliot Estes the chief engineer, brought John DeLorean in from Packard to lead the advanced engineering group and Pontiacs began to appeal to a younger market. The AMA (American Manufacturers Association) did not allow factories to support racing teams at the time but Knudsen found ways to do it discretely and Pontiac's reputation for speed and winning races grew.
In 1957 Pontiac introduced "Tri-Power", a set of three two-barrel carburetors that when coupled with a 347 cubic inch V-8 produced about 317 horsepower. Then in 1959 they widened the wheelbase for cornering and by 1960 they were running 155 mph laps at Daytona.
When Estes took over for Knudsen in 1961 Pontiac was thought of as the race car of the GM fleet and they did it by putting bigger and bigger engines in big cars. However that did not sit well with those at GM who thought racing was the wrong way to go. While Pontiac was making cars bigger and faster for the race track others were putting big engines in smaller cars for the sports car enthusiasts. Cars like the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette and Plymouth Valiant were selling well and the bosses at GM wanted Estes to follow suit, which he reluctantly did with the Pontiac Tempest. The first models of the Tempest complied with the new GM policy but Estes and DeLorean did not want to give up their performance empire so they made Russell Gee responsible for the engine and Bill Collins in charge of the chassis with the mandate to prepare the car for an optional performance package, which was permitted by management. In 1964 the Pontiac Tempest LeMans came out with the "GTO option group", destined to become a true "classic car".
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The "GTO" stands for Grand Truismo Omologato. It was taken from the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO and was an instant winner with the public. It was a factory hot rod that featured a 325 horsepower engine linked to a three or four-speed manual transmission and a limited-slip differential. The suspension was beefed up for performance. The transmissions came with a Hurst shifter on the floor and the hood had a scoop to ram air down two four-barrel or three two-barrel carburetors. It was "fast, fun and affordable" and sales rose to 250,000 unites over the next ten years, until pollution control regulations from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) forced them to reduce the horsepower, bringing the Muscle Car Era to an end.
The classic Pontiac GTO was produced from 1964 until 1974 and from then on the GTO badge was used on a variety of American and foreign GM vehicles. GM changed the name to "Pontiac Can Am" from 1974 to 1998 and then revived the GTO in 2004 until the Pontiac division was closed in 2009.