Of all the muscle cars ever built, the 1964 Pontiac GTO ranks at or near the top of this popular class. The GTO is also acknowledged as the car that started the mid-size muscle craze, coming to market well before the competition.

Of all the muscle cars ever built, the 1964 Pontiac GTO ranks at or near the top of this popular class. The GTO is also acknowledged as the car that started the mid-size muscle craze, coming to market well before the competition.


The story of how the car really came to be is quite interesting.


In 1964, Pontiac's ad agency head and winning Pontiac drag racer Jim Wangers, who drove the Ace Wilson Royal Pontiac drag cars, approached Pete Estes, then Pontiac's general manager, about building a Pontiac LeMans with a huge 389 engine.


Since the General Motors front office had given a "no racing" edict in 1963 and shelved all NASCAR and NHRA programs, Estes felt Wangers had flipped his lid.


Wangers, however, persisted. He told Estes that since Pontiac wouldn't be racing officially, building a high-performance street machine instead of a racecar made sense. Wangers explained that a race car program and a fast street car were different beasts.


Wangers then had Estes call Pontiac's chief engineer at the time, none other than John DeLorean, who was already in on the GTO deal, and along with Russ Gee and Bill Collins, are the actual inventors of the GTO. When Estes called DeLorean, DeLorean said "no problem," and the GTO was born.


The car was an immediate hit.


The GTO option RPO382 was an add on to the base Tempest LeMans, featuring a 389-inch V8, GTO badges, three-speed manual, dual exhaust, heavy duty clutch, tweaked suspension and special tires for $295.90. Two 389 engines were available, one rated at 325 horses with a single four-barrel (standard) or, for $115 more, the 348 horse with the Tri-Power three two-barrel carbs. Add a four-speed gearbox for $188 and a nice $75 package that included limited slip differential, metallic brake linings and a heavy-duty radiator, and you were ready to cruise the boulevard or hit the quarter-mile.


When Car & Driver magazine wanted to road test the GTO, Wangers pulled a "fast one" and quickly oversaw installation of a 421-inch Super Duty V8 instead of the 389. (Both engines look identical to the eye.) Most enthusiasts don't know this fact, but Wangers tells all in his book titled "Glory Days" available at http://www.geetotiger.com/JimWangers.htm. (It's a great read.) When the March 1964 issue of Car & Driver came out, the magazine roared the praises of the fastest car in America, unbeknownst to the crew that a 421-incher was under the hood.


Pontiac hoped to sell 5,000 GTOs in 1964 but ended up selling 32,450. Production included 7,384 Sport Coupes (window post), 18,422 Hardtop Coupes (no post) and 6,644 convertibles all built on a 115-inch wheelbase.


More than half a million GTOs were produced during its initial 11-model-year run. Totals ranged from a high of 96,946 in 1966 to a low of 4,806 in 1973.


It was indeed a great time and today, Wangers is known as the “Godfather" of the GTO. He's still going strong, turning 85 on June 26.


Happy birthday, Jim!


Greg Zyla writes weekly for GateHouse Media and welcomes reader inquiries at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840, or at greg@gregzyla.com.