Gonna save all my money and buy a GTO
Get a helmet and a roll bar and I’ll be ready to go
Take it out to Pomona and let ’em know, yeah-yeah
That I’m the coolest thing around
Little buddy, gonna shut you down
When I turn it on, wind it up, blow it out, GTO
Yeah-yeah, Little GTO
—Ronnie & the Daytonas, 1964
Before GM’s engineers settled on the exhaust system they would make standard on their new-generation muscle car, the 2004 Pontiac GTO, they carefully listened to and analyzed the rumble of a 1967 Firebird. Then they put their scopes on a stable of huffing Corvettes, and next an original 1964 GTO. The techies wound up computer-modeling some 50 sound patterns and narrowing them down to five favorites. Then they chose one.
It’s throaty enough to send a shimmer through the floorboards and raise the hair on your neck, but contained enough to not get in the way of the 200-watt Blaupunkt sound system when cruising at 80 mph. At any rpm, the message pouring forth from the dual pipes is an unmistakable invitation to punch the pedal to the metal and hold on tight.
But could they believe that the drivers in GTO’s new target market — baby boomers raised among the legendary muscle machines of the ’60s — are so damn shallow that we could be persuaded to buy one of these fire-breathing gas-suckers by the mere purr of the pipes?
Of course not. Not for the tuned exhaust alone. Only when I saw the prototype GTO back in December 2002 at the L.A. Car Show, and learned that its heart was to be a thumping Generation III V-8 LS1 — a modified version of the Vette’s all-aluminum power plant, an engine that delivers a full 350 horsepower and a flattening 365 pound-feet of torque, all squeezed into a smallish Sunbird-like frame that could be thrust from zero to 60 in just over five seconds — was the deal sealed.
After a 30-year hiatus, the legendary Pontiac “Goat” was coming back, and I wanted one. Wanted it real bad. And an interminable 14 months later, I took delivery on a black-on-black coupe, and the pipes sounded just as cool as the online GM mp3 had made them sound over the previous year. As a teenager, I briefly owned a new GTO back in 1967, silver with a black landau top and a Verba-Phonic rear speaker. I reluctantly gave it up the next year when gasoline prices topped a quarter a gallon. Twenty years later, I bought an all-red ’68 with hidden headlights, the trademark outboard tachometer mounted on the hood, and rubber contour bumpers. I kept it for five years, then sold it off to a former Reagan speechwriter to make room for a family car.
The siren call of the Goat continued to haunt me. And today the thrill of piloting one remains as intense as the first time I got behind the wheel of my ’67, when I popped the clutch and punched it out of the dealership on La Brea, and was literally stunned by the whooshing intake of air, the roar of the engine, the ear-piercing squeal of the red-lined U.S. Royal tires on the back axle, and the diabolic and pungent black cloud belched up by the burning rubber. Then there’s the off-the-line launch that only a torque-loaded V-8 can uncork, the startling acceleration that throws you back and the indescribable sensation that it has no end, that the velocity will only build until or unless a piston rod gets thrown through the block.
I’m a consumer, not an engineer. But torque is not just the power; it’s the depth and endurance of the power. Rice-rocket Hondas and Isuzus can also peel off the line, but you know almost instantaneously that the limit is near. The same principle applies to bikes. Ask an expert Harley owner and he — or she — can discourse for hours on what a difference torque makes: the world of difference between a two-stroke Kawasaki that screams down the track like a supercharged sewing machine and a four-cycle American-made torqued-out hog that roars like an earthquake.
Back in the early ’60s, GM’s then–chief engineer, John DeLorean, perhaps already stoked on coke, figured out the dead-simple formula of muscle magic. DeLorean and a small group of innovative engineers who liked to experiment at the company’s Milford, Michigan, proving track made what would become a culture-bending discovery: that the monster-size, 389-cubic-inch (or 6.5-liter if you’re a Euro-weenie) V-8 that fueled the mastodon-size Bonneville would snap right into the motor mounts of the small-framed, otherwise puny-powered Tempest/LeMans. The results were explosive.
In October 1963, what was called the GTO option (Gran Turismo Omologato) was made available on the 1964 LeMans for a mere $295. Consisting of a 325-horsepower 389, a Carter four-barrel carb, a tweaked camshaft, a Hurst shifter, a heavy-duty clutch, a hot rear-axle gear ration, dual hood scoops, modified suspension and distinctive body emblems, it was an overwhelming hit. Within a few months, Pontiac introduced a tri-power version with three two-barrel carbs that cranked 348 horses.
In its first year the GTO sold five times more than the anticipated 5,000 units and two years later peaked at nearly 100,000. For the first time, a kid could buy a full-out hot rod right off the assembly line, complete with a 36,000-mile warranty.
The timing, of course, couldn’t have been more propitious. Notions of freedom raged in pandemic proportions. Some young Americans found its expression in Freedom Summer or in weed, mescaline and the Beatles. Others, in the Beach Boys and high-octane machines and drive-ins. Some tried it all. The success of the GTO (Ronnie & the Daytonas’ “Little GTO” single sold a million copies) set off a furious muscle-car competition in Detroit. Along came the Barracudas, Challengers, Roadrunners, 442s and ever-hotter takes on the Mustang.
It was a raucous, wonderful ride for a solid decade until zooming gas prices and stricter environmental standards killed off the Goat. Its final version, in 1974, limped off the line with an embarrassing, feeble 200 horses.
Well, now we’re back and, in case you ask or care, completely guilt-free. No lectures, please, on more “practical” or more environmentally sustainable cars. Driving in L.A. is boring enough. And nothing is more boring than a boring car — be it a low-end Hyundai or an overpriced Beemer or Lexus. I recently drove a friend’s Prius, and when I floored it to get up a hill, it felt like I had thrust my foot into a bucket of slop.
My GTO ekes out about 16 mpg in the city and just about 20 mpg on the road. While that’s twice as much as my more primitive ’67 clocked and about double the mileage of many SUVs, I still had to pay a $1,001 federal gas-guzzler tax. SUVs are classified as trucks and are exempt from federal standards. We who drive new GTOs, along with owners of the monster-powered Dodge Vipers, are the only folks who pay that tax on an American passenger car.
I do so happily, by the way. I readily concede that the internal-combustion engine is evil. Indeed, I am convinced it could still become, actually is very likely to become, the one machine that eventually kills off human civilization. I also know that what cars we buy and drive is all about our identity and self-image. There is no such thing as an environmentally friendly automobile. Hybrids run as much as 93 percent cleaner than the average gas-powered passenger car, but they are still low-grade poisonous polluters. Greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, still chug out of their tailpipes. Yet, self-satisfied drivers of hybrids putter around with one eye cast on their in-dash LCD readouts, smugly reminding themselves how Green and Good they think they are. I offer myself no such congratulations. And the only readout I monitor is my radar detector.