Even at idle, the bruising nature of this 389-cubic-inch V-8 makes itself evident and suggests that the 120-mph speedometer is overmatched, that the conservative number was part of a ruse. The only reason Pontiac‘s engineers – with John De Lorean as ringleader – got away with this GTO shenanigan at a time when corporate policy said cubic-inches-times-ten shouldn’t exceed the car’s weight, is because it wasn’t technically a new model, just an optional version of the Le Mans. Hee-hee! No corporate engineering committee approval required! There’s a way around every edict.
We rotate the ignition key in the upper left corner of the instrument panel, and the whole car quivers. One rear tire asks to be blindfolded, the other requests a last cigarette. The slender, two-spoke steering wheel seems likely to disintegrate in our grasp. Based on the engagement effort that’s required, though, the clutch pronounces itself well-fortified against the coming onslaught. The heavy-duty brakes feel up to it, too. We caress the white cue-ball knob of the Hurst shifter and slot the Muncie four-speed into first. Even looking beyond the elementary controls, the GTO is purposeful. The athletic stance, graceful roofline, and sleek creases tauten our “silvermist gray” example, aiming it at the vanishing point, which for us is a cul-de-sac in an industrial park where we’re permitted to drive this GM-owned car. No mayhem is forthcoming from us. But that’s fine; the car unambiguously announces itself and its capabilities. We know what it’s for and what it will do. And this is true despite the only phoniness going on here: “simulated” hood scoops. The reported 0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and quarter mile in 14.8 seconds are wholly believable.
The GTO responded to the factory dragsters that were coming out of Dearborn and Highland Park in the years immediately preceding 1964. But this car is far more refined. While the engine is powerful, making 348 hp at 4900 rpm and 428 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm, and is surmounted by the Tri-Power setup of three two-barrel Rochester carbs, it’s surprisingly tractable, with no alarums and excursions related to a radical camshaft profile. Although modestly trimmed, there are in fact a few pretensions to style. The dash-panel insert, for example, is engined-turned sheetmetal. The hubcaps’ finned look recalls a turbine’s vanes. Emblems and badges ensure that no one mistakes the car for a Le Mans.
Like the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, the GTO was celebrated in popular culture. But the sneaky stuff that was done to get it into showrooms also hewed to the law of unintended consequences. The engineering committee soon was on the divisions like butter on bread. But the genie had been let out of the bottle. The muscle car era had dawned, and anyone with $3000 could get their ya-ya’s out.