1970 Pontiac GTO – When the GTO Still Had Character

December 21, 2010

70-gto-1-s.jpgThe Pontiac GTO is not just a muscle car, it is an icon. Pontiac started the muscle car craze with the 1964 GTO and its GTO led the pack with dignity from then through 1972. For 1973 Pontiac for lack of a better word – abandoned the GTO and proceeded forward with the Trans Am as its performance all-star. By 1975 the GTO was gone. The original GTO only lasted eleven model years but its legacy continues to this day. In fact the name was so revered that when Pontiac attempted to bring a little needed performance back into the division after the Trans Am was cancelled the name was revived and worn by a high performance rebadged (Australian built) 2-door Holden Monaro. Though Pontiac did its best to disguise the Holden by adding some last minute Pontiac exterior touches, the truth was as clear as day that the 2004-2006 GTO was a pretender. No matter how hard the Aussie based GTO tried, the “phony” label followed it around. To the GTO’s credit its 5.7 and 6.0 liter V8s produced respectively 350 and 400 horsepower (which was very impressive) and it handled like a true performance car. Even the GTO’s seats and interior were nicely done. However the perception was the GTO did not look the part; its exterior styling was closer to a 2-door Honda Civic of the same era than a modern muscle car. The end result was the GTO was a sales flop and only lasted three model years. During this time Ford released its all-new retro 2005 Mustang GT which was an instant sales success. The 2005 Mustang GT which had 300 horsepower was easily outgunned by the 400 horsepower 2005 GTO, but that did not matter. The Mustang GT looked like a muscle car – it looked the part. And even with the GTO priced right around a similarly equipped 2005 Mustang GT, GTOs hung around the dealer lots unsold while Mustang GTs were flying off the dealer lots in droves. Fortunately GM learned from this mistake and made sure that when the 2010 Camaro SS was released it looked the part hence it has been a runaway sales success (however this lesson was learned too late to save Pontiac).

Now rewind back to 1970 – a year which most auto historians will agree was the pinnacle of the muscle car golden era. For GM’s muscle cars it was the last year for muscle car era high compression motors (all 1971 GM divisions ran lower 70-gto-1-6.jpgcompression motors one year ahead of schedule to meet the 1972 model year Federal unleaded fuel requirement). The competition may have been fierce with a large supply of muscle cars from just about every American auto brand available. It was the equivalent of the 2000 Internet and 2006 housing bubbles. When traditionally stodgy AMC was fielding more than one muscle car – it could only have been a bubble. These were also good times for the GTO; it still was on top of the heap in 1970. It had enough performance from its wide list of available motors to keep the competition in check along with the looks to keep the customers very happy. 1970 was also good because it was the first year GM officially removed the 400 CID restriction on all GM B-body intermediates – translation – Pontiac could now offer its 455 CID V8 as a GTO option. However the dark clouds were forming fast on multiple fronts in 1970. The bureaucrats and politicians in Washington had a whole new set of regulations in the works that would in the coming years be implemented – slamming hard performance cars during the Disco decade. On another front the youthful buyers who made up a majority of muscle car buyers had begun by 1970 to shy away from buying muscle cars due to the skyrocketing costs of insuring a muscle car.

Pontiac from 1964-1972 made sure that the GTO’s styling never was stale, each of these years the GTO represented some of the best and most attractive styling automakers offered. 1968 marked the first year for the endura front bumper which would later be copied by other automakers. The endura front end allowed the GTO to have flexible bumper area made out of a space age plastic material that was painted to match the body color. With the endura bumper the GTO no longer needed a chrome bumper however Pontiac did still make one available on the option list for the 1968 GTO in case GTO buyers did like the new endura front end. Of course most loved it and very few buyers in 1968 bought chrome front bumper GTOs. The endura bumper allowed the GTO to look more ahead of its time along with giving it a beautiful sculpted front appearance that never would have been possible with a chrome bumper. By the 1970s the evolution of the endura had made its way to other Pontiacs and some of its competitors. This bumper is what gave the 1970-1981 Trans Am its very elegant and sculpted front end. Pontiac updated the GTO’s endura front end for the 1970 model year to what subjectively has to be one of the best GTO front end designs. The endura’s lines gave the GTO a muscular beak which incorporated mean looking blacked out twin grilles. The quad round headlights and headlight bezels were completely surround by the endura front end piece. 

The full length chrome bumper out back with integrated taillamps also gave the GTO a clean and modern look. Pontiac engineers had originally planned on painting the rear bumper body color but before production this idea was axed.  And over all four wheel wells the fenders were creased – a styling design borrowed from the 1969 Pontiac Firebird that helped the GTO’s muscular appearance. Compared to its 1970 competitors (most of which still had front chrome bumpers) the GTO was elegantly styled and more modern.

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There were two basic GTO configurations for 1970 – coupe or the convertible. Buyers also for the second year in a row had an upscale GTO called the “Judge” available. For 1970 the GTO Judge received a wild rear wing spoiler as standard along with a wild decal package that could only be described as psychedelic. The Judge was the ultimate GTO for the lucky buyer with deep pockets. The Judge was available in a wide variety of GTO colors however it had its own color – Orbit Orange – a bright orange color that could easily be seen several miles away. It was an Orbit Orange 1970 GTO Judge coupe that became a star in the cult classic movie Two Lane Blacktop. Unfortunately this color was a one year only Judge color and never made an appearance on any other Pontiacs which is a shame considering it would have looked great on the 1971-1972 GTO along with any second generation (1970-1981) Trans Am.

Continuing the GTO performance legacy for 1970, a nice selection of hot motors was available under the hood. All high-performance 400 CID V8s were carryovers from the 1969 model year. The base engine for the 1970 GTO was the same mighty 70-gto-1-3.jpg350 horsepower 4 bbl 400 CID V8 that was standard on the 1969 GTO. The GTO coupe started at just $3,267 which even in 1970 dollars was a lot of bang for the buck. Moving up the performance scale, optional was the Ram Air III 4 bbl 400 V8 which Pontiac rated in the GTO at 366 horsepower. The Ram Air III just like the GTO’s base 400 had D-port heads. The top dog in the GTO’s engine arsenal was the Ram Air IV 400, unlike all the other 400 V8s in Pontiac’s engine lineup, it had round port heads. The Ram Air IV was rated at a 370 horsepower only 4 horsepower more than the Ram Air III. To most observers in the know these ratings were a joke. The Ram Air III made more than the advertised 366 (gross) horsepower and same was true with the Ram Air IV’s 370 (gross) horsepower rating. Most Pontiac engine experts put the real figure for the Ram Air IV at a little over 400 horsepower. And as mentioned earlier, 1970 was the freshman year of the 455 CID V8 option for the GTO. The D-port 455 V8 which was offered mid-year as a GTO engine option augmented very well the three powerful 400 CID V8s on the GTO’s option list. The 455 V8 may have been ripped right out of the Pontiac’s big car lineup however with 360 horsepower and a whopping 500 lb-ft of torque – it was as serious as a street brawl with Chuck Liddell. It proved to be a great choice for 1970 GTO buyers who wanted plenty of horsepower but also wanted tons of low-end torque for cruising around town. Pontiac had a 370 horsepower version of the 455 – called the “455 H.O.” – unfortunately this engine was only available in the full-size Pontiacs and the Grand Prix for 1970. Even though the 455 was a welcome addition to the GTO, the Ram Air IV 400 was the star in the 1970 lineup. With only a few hundred GTOs getting this engine, it’s no surprise they are currently in high demand on the collectors market with some pristine examples even yielding six digit prices. Both the 1970 GTO Judge coupe and convertible could be equipped with any GTO engine except the base 400 – the Judge’s base motor was instead the Ram Air III.

The Ram Air IV could be equipped with either a 4-speed manual or a (TH400) 3-speed automatic transmission both of which were backed by either a 3.90 or 4.33 rear axle ratio. A 4-speed Ram Air IV equipped GTO with a 4.33 rear could easily break into high-13 second 1/4 mile territory. The 455 also was available with either a 4-speed manual or (TH400) 3-speed automatic transmission. For some reason there weren’t any 4-speed 455 Judges produced for 1970, only 17 – 455 V8 equipped 1970 Judges were produced – all of which had the automatic transmission. The reason is more than likely due to there weren’t any Judge buyers who ordered the 455/4-speed combo. It was the base and Ram Air III 400 V8s that had the choice of the following three different transmissions: 3-speed manual, 4-speed manual, and (TH400) 3-speed automatic. And to make things even more confusing on the some of the GTO’s 1970 engines 4-speed manual buyers could pick between a close or wide ratio 4-speed.

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Like all the serious muscle cars of the golden era, the GTO came standard with a dual exhaust system. The GTO took this one step further by having two chrome exhaust tips off of each main pipe for a total of four exhaust tips. The GTO’s exhaust system provided enough of a growl and rumble to give drivers of its competitors the cold sweats. However Pontiac took the performance dual exhaust system to the next level with a Vacuum Operated Exhaust (VOE) option which was an exhaust system that allowed a driver to pull a dash lever to open and close the main chamber via a solenoid mounted on each of the GTO’s two mufflers. When the main chamber was open the sound was closer to a NASCAR race car than a street legal muscle car. When the chamber was closed the exhaust sound was identical to the standard 1970 GTO exhaust system. Even with the VOE option showcased on a primetime TV commercial back in early 1970 now known as the GTO Humbler commercial, it was a sales flop so it never made it to the 1971 GTO option list and was never offered on any other Pontiac for that matter.

By 1970, the GTO was showing a preview of Pontiac’s future handling hegemony that the Trans Am would be the pallbearer (until of course Chevrolet released the 1984 Corvette). The GTO by 1970 standards was a great handling car even with 14 inch wheels which at the time was a muscle car standard (the 1971 GTO would finally get a 15 inch wheel option). Though the 1970 GTO could be ordered with poverty caps or grandpa style hubcaps, it was the Rally II wheels that most GTO buyers opted for. These wheels not only looked great but they looked the part, giving the GTO a serious road look.
 
Many 1970 GTO buyers checked off a good number of factory options on the factory order sheet. None of these options helped the GTO look the part more than the very attractive hood tachometer. It was in the interior where many GTO buyers loaded up on 70-gto-1-4.jpgthe options. A lot had changed since 1964 where the original GTO was closer to a bare bones Pontiac Tempest, by 1970 the average GTO was closer to a luxury oriented Pontiac Grand Prix. Pontiac understood this and for 1971 offered all the GTO engine options on a new “T37” which was essentially a barebones performance LeMans. The GTO interior when equipped with the optional bucket seats and center console was par excellence. The trim and accents gave the interior a very classy look. However it was when the (new for 1970) formula steering wheel was ordered, the icing was added to the cake. The formula steering wheel was so special that even when the GTO was long gone it served as the standard steering wheel in the 1970-1981 Trans Am and the optional steering wheel in countless other 1970-1981 Firebirds. And for those who wanted an optional steering wheel and the mostly black colored formula steering wheel was not their cup of tea, the optional wooden steering wheel was still available as a GTO option.    

Pontiac would continue to keep the GTO a leader in the areas of performance and styling through 1972. For 1973 the GTO received the GM A-body’s new Colonnade styling but Pontiac instead gave the GTO’s Colonnade brother the new 1973 Grand Am the flashy endura front end the GTO should have had. The 1973 was the first GTO since 1967 to get a mandatory front chrome bumper (no endura front end was available). And if this was not bad enough, the GTO could not be equipped with Pontiac’s hottest motor for 1973 – the Super Duty 455 CID V8 which was only available in the Trans Am and Firebird Formula. Pontiac had for all intents and purposes thrown the GTO under the bus – the 1974 GTO which was moved to the Chevrolet Nova’s X-body platform and was only equipped with a Pontiac (4 bbl) 350 CID V8. Pontiac at least had the good sense to pull the plug on the GTO before it did further damage to the “GTO” name when the 1974 model year production ended.

As great as the GTO was for 1970, the total GTO sales figure of 40,149 units (includes both GTO and GTO Judge production) did not reflect it. As a comparison total 1969 GTO production was 72,287 and the best year of GTO sales – 1966 was 96,946. It was not the GTO’s fault the muscle car bubble had burst by 1970 and the GTO was taking it on the cheek like most muscle cars that year. Sales would continue to spiral with GTO sales hitting its absolute lowest point in 1973 with a paltry production total of only 4,312 units. Among GTO fans today 1970 is one of the more popular years, and the cost of obtaining a good conditioned example is fairly pricey – the era of obtaining one of these for a reasonable price has long since passed. 1970 was the zenith for the GTO model line; it had the performance, the looks, and character. Unfortunately character is what the 2004-2006 GTO lacked and the same can be said about Pontiac in recent years – so it comes as no surprise the two are no longer around.

 

Written contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved 

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