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John DeLorean and the Pontiac GTO

The Pontiac GTO is considered by many to be the car that started the muscle car revolution in the early 1960s. The GTO was the brainchild of Pontiac madmen John DeLorean, Russ Gee, and Bill Collins. Their premise was simple -- create a budget-friendly muscle car that would appeal to the younger, performance-oriented enthusiast. Their gamble paid off better than they ever imagined. The Pontiac GTO created a firestorm that set the standard for what a muscle car can and should be.

To fully understand what made the GTO great, you first have to get to know a little about its creator. John Zachary DeLorean was not your typical automotive executive. He joined General Motors in 1956 as a director and by 1961, had been promoted to division chief engineer. After helping thrust Pontiac to the number three sales position in the country, he was promoted to general manager. DeLorean had a reputation for being a maverick. He solidified his non-conformist attitude by dating famous models, smoozing with famous celebrities, and living the good life. His rebellious attitude also created friction with other top GM brass. Simply put, without his cavalier attitude, a car like the GTO may have never existed.

The story goes that Pontiac chief engineer John DeLorean, engineer Russ Gee, and engine specialist Bill Collins would get together once a week at the Milford Proving Grounds on Saturdays to brainstorm ideas. While at one of these huddles, the trio were examining a prototype 1964 LeMans. Collins mentioned to DeLorean that maybe they could try putting a 389 cubic-inch V8 under the hood of the LeMans. That got the wheels inside DeLorean’s head spinning. Since the engine would fit without any major modifications, the project was given a go and the seeds were planted for the creation of the GTO.

However, as soon as the project got off the ground, it was doomed for failure. General Motors had a self-imposed ban on placing engines larger than 330 cubic-inches in the A-body. However, by making the GTO an option package for the LeMans, DeLorean was able to bypass this restriction and slip the GTO in under the radar of the pesky GM bigwigs.

The pencil pushers at General Motors didn’t have much faith in the GTO. They didn’t believe the GTO would be a hit and insisted on a production run not to exceed 5,000 units. Their short-sided speculation totally missed the mark. By the end of the 1964 model year, Pontiac sold just over 32,000 GTOs.

The GTO was no stranger to controversy. The March 1964 issue of Car and Driver is a perfect example. The Pontiac GTO was to be pitted against the Ferrari GTO in a clash of the titans muscle car shootout. As it turns out, Pontiac supplied the magazine with a GTO that was equipped with a 370 horsepower Super Duty 421 engine tuned by Royal Pontiac. Royal was a well-known dealer in the Detroit area who specialized in tuning Pontiac engines. This engine had 45 more horses under the hood than the standard 389 cubic-inch powerplant normally found in the GTO. On inspection, both engines looked identical to each other. Pontiac and Car and Driver also did not disclose that the test car turned a bearing during testing and was unable to be driven any further. That did not stop Car and Driver editor David E. Davis, Jr. from writing the cover story. He, along with Pontiac marketing executive Jim Wangers, crafted the article using exaggerated performance numbers just so the article could be written. They also did not come clean that they were not able to acquire a Ferrari 250 GTO to test against the Pontiac GTO. It would be 20 later before the truth was actually revealed.

By the time DeLorean reached 40 years of age, he had the distinction of being the youngest division head at General Motors. Sales of the GTO were brisk and DeLorean’s future at Pontiac looked bright. Pontiac remained profitable under his watch and DeLorean’s reputation as a maverick alienated his peers at Pontiac. DeLorean was known for knocking off early on Thursday and not returning to work until Tuesday. It’s also been said that DeLorean was known for his taste in big-ticket watches and would use his personal GM expense account to acquire several.

The GTO’s advertising campaigns often landed it in hot water with Pontiac executives. One area of concern by the brass at the GM corporate office was Pontiac’s advertising that promoted unsafe or aggressive driving. One ad in particular created a firestorm of controversy with the suits. The ad depicted a driver in a 1968 GTO coupe stopped on the side of Woodward Avenue. Woodward Avenue was a street in Detroit that was known as a place used by the locals for street racing. The ad’s caption reads “The Great One by Pontiac. You know the rest of the story”. Shortly thereafter, the ad was shelved and a billboard in Detroit with the ad was taken down.

Another controversial ad was shown during the 1970 Super Bowl. It featured a driver in a 1970 GTO cruising through a local drive-in restaurant taunting other drivers with his new machine. He reaches down and pulls a switch labeled Exhaust Mode under the dash and, like magic, the car comes to life. Other drivers cower as he drives past, not accepting his unsaid challenge to take him on. General Motors’ upper management saw the commercial during the game and immediately cancelled the VOE option.  With the federal government imposing restrictions on emissions and noise levels, GM felt this would be a strike against them and had the option removed from the option list.

The GTO underwent a major transformation for the 1968 model year. Gone was the “Coke” bottle styling from the previous generation. It more closely resembled a fastback with rounder body contours and, for the first time, could be ordered with optional hidden headlamps. The GTO was now almost six inches shorter in length, a half-inch lower in height, and its wheelbase shrunk slightly.

The 1968 GTO garnered numerous awards from several major magazines. It got a “10 Best Test Cars of 1968” nod from Car Life magazine and Motor Trend presented it their “Car of the Year” award. In fact, Pontiac was the only manufacturer to win Motor Trend’s prestigious award on four separate occasions.

DeLorean’s personal life and career also went through several transformations. He divorced his first wife in 1969 and later married actress and model Kelly Harmon. In February 1969, he was promoted to manager of Chevrolet. In 1972, he took on the task of heading up GM’s North American car and truck operations. He left General Motors in April 1973.

John Zachary DeLorean passed away on March 19, 2005 from complications of a stroke. He was 80 years old. He was survived by his fourth wife, a son, and two daughters. John’s legacy in the auto industry is rivaled by few. He was an inventor, entrepreneur, and rogue. He went against the norm and broke the rules. He was also no strange to controversy. Thanks to his cavalier attitude and reckless regard for authority, the GTO may have never been created.

Photo credit: General Motors, influx.co.uk, pinterest

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