Did The 1964 Pontiac GTO Lead To GM’s Downfall?

Now before you all die from brain bubbles because one of the Greatest Symbols Of The American Way Of Life is a-gittin’ blasphemed, take a deep breath and hear me out. Cool as the ’64 Goat was, it poisoned GM.

We all know the story about how John DeLorean and his henchmen evaded the sclerotic, super-conservative General Motors bureaucracy long enough to sneak the GTO into production as a Tempest option package; by the time the old farts on the Fourteenth Floor knew what was happening, big profits were rolling in. Success!

But what was the GTO, really, aside from a successful evasion of GM’s “no huge engines in midsize cars” policy? It was a standard first-gen GM A Body with a Catalina engine, some hood scoops and special badging, and slightly beefier suspension bits… and brilliant advertising aimed like a libido-seeking missile straight at the just-entering-adulthood Baby Boomer generation. Prior to the GTO, nearly all of Detroit’s factory hot rods were either full-sized, strip-club-owner-grade behemoths with the craziest goddamn V8 in the stockpile (e.g., ’57 Chrysler 300C with the 390-horse Hemi) or full-on drag race monsters not intended for the general public (e.g., Ford Thunderbolt). These cars were expensive, but that was due to the expensive goodies you got when you bought one.

Not so with the GTO. The GTO only cost a few bucks more to build than the base Tempest (the GTO’s 389-cubic-inch engine was just a larger-bore version of the Tempest’s 326), but the hardtop listed for $2,963 versus $2,345 for the 98% similar Tempest two-door hardtop… and that was just the beginning of the free money for GM, what with all the options that GTO buyers tended to select. Jackpot! When your business battles for decades to scratch a few pennies of extra profit per unit with its bloodied fingernails and suddenly you manage to pull six hundred bucks- more than 25% extra- out of thin air, per car, simply for the cost of some chromium gingerbread and a few extra advertisements… well, it’s time to do a radical readjustment of your priorities!

Yeah, sure, we all knew about that stuff. But who cares that GM printed a bunch of money by riding a generational wave on a snazzy marketing surfboard? The muscle car was awesome! 200-proof Concentrated Essence Of America! Let those commie Yurpeans have their communal kitchens and Self-Criticism Cadres! Let the Japanese build legions of tedious road robots! Burnouts in the 7-11 parking lot, baby!

At this point I’m going to have to lay blame on give credit to (allegedly) retired automotive-journalism vet Jay Lamm for the following theory: The GTO taught GM management that American car buyers don’t give a shit about the cars themselves. Don’t waste billions on R&D (unless it’s for, say, a doomed-from-the-start Wankel engine project) on new product, the way you did with the small-block Chevrolet V8- just find the Next Big Thing and cash in on it as cheap as possible! In fact, GM management got it terribly wrong, but it took them decades- during which their idiotic schemes were abetted by well-intentioned Midwestern “Buy American No Matter How Crappy” patriotic enablers- to figure out that (A) it’s impossible to predict the Next Big Thing with any accuracy, and (B) Americans have way better bullshit detectors than marketing gurus and focus-group drones would have us believe.

When I was 17, I was able to score a not-far-from-running ’67 GTO, complete with Hurst dual-gate shifter and mixed bias-play and radial tires, for $113. I loved that car. It made me feel ten feet tall. Much as I hate to admit it, Mr. Lamm is correct: the GTO, and damn near all its competitors, sucked as a motor vehicle. Four-wheel drums, low-bidder suspension components, and 335 horsepower? GM had (and still has) some of the best engineering talent in the world, but why waste their brainpower on a genuine from-scratch redesign of the A Body when buyers didn’t care? Even by the standards of the time, these cars were a nightmare to drive, especially when your right foot felt like it was cast from pure depleted uranium from the moment you heard that mighty engine roar. Even in drag racing, most 1960s muscle cars were hard-pressed to crack the 14s in the quarter-mile as delivered from the factory; buyers had to perform all manner of tire, suspension, and (in most cases) engine upgrades to get their cars set up in a way that gave them a chance to keep up with the old-school hot-rodders in their Olds-engined ’40 Fords.

In fact, the 1960s factory muscle car did irreparable damage to the tradition of American hot-rodding. Before the GTO, some dude with the scent of Eau de 90 Weight behind his ears and a jones for power-crazed hoonage would build his own muscle car. He’d buy a two-year-old Falcon or Del Rey or whatever, sell the original engine to some square, and then stuff the hairiest land-yacht powerplant he could find in the engine compartment. After the GTO, why, you didn’t have to know how to wrench on cars at all!

So what do you think? Was the GTO the first step on The General’s long journey to disaster? If you’re seeing parallels to GM’s decision to drive fulll-throttle down the SUV Highway during the boom economy, you’re not alone.

Did the GTO lead General Motors on a path to doom?
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