Great American Muscle Cars
The new trio running Pontiac developed the “Wide Track” image for their division’s cars and it translated into sales successes that got Knudsen promoted to run Chevrolet, GM’s largest and most important division. Now Estes was in charge at Pontiac and an eager DeLorean became chief engineer and… and suddenly GM decided that horsepower needed to be reigned in and big powerful V8 engines should go only into big heavy cars that really needed such motors.
But DeLorean and his team devised a way around the rules. They discovered that they could wedge the 325-horsepower, 389-cubic-inch V8 from the big Pontiac Bonneville into the LeMans’ engine bay. But getting the engine into the car was just the first step. Now they had to get it through the production process.
First, they discovered that GM’s rules-making bureaucracy likely would overlook their maneuver if the modifications they wanted to make to the cars – in addition to the engine, they’d insert a three-speed and floor-mounted shifter, tweaked the car’s suspension to carry the larger engine, enhanced the steering gear, upgraded the tires and bolted on a dual exhaust – were offered only as a customer’s option, not a separate model.
Then, to make sure the proverbial rug wouldn’t be pulled from beneath their masterpiece of cunning and deceit, they pre-sold 5000 such optioned out cars to Pontiac dealers, thus constructing a business case the bureaucrats couldn’t invalidate before production began.
Though this new and more powerful Pontiac wouldn’t be a separate model, they made sure car enthusiasts would notice. First, they added the GTO badges. GTO was short for Grand Turismo Oomologato, as in the name of the famous Ferrari racecar of an earlier era.
Next, Pontiac advertising wizard Gordon Wangers recruited a band, Ronny and the Daytonas, to record a song about the car. With a catchy tune and lyrics tweaked by Wangers himself, Ronny and his group sang out the words “turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO” and the record, Little GTO, sold more than a million copies and was played some seven million times on radio stations across the country.
It wasn’t too long before Pontiac promoted the GTO to a separate and distinct model and the other Detroit automakers rushed to pump up and pump out their own “muscle cars” – the Oldsmobile 4-4-2, the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, the Buick Gran Sport, the Ford Torino GT, the Mercury Cyclone, the Hemi-equipped Dodge Charger and Plymouth Barracuda and Road Runner.
Muscle cars may not have had the best brakes. Muscle cars may not have turned on a dime. But muscle cars were blistering fast in a straight line, and muscle cars made wonderful sounds and smoke and, yes, they were fun. Fun to drive. Fun to see. Remember those cartoon-graphic decals, aimed, says Jackson, at what he calls a “certain audience.”
And then – poof! -- it was over.
The muscle car era lasted only a decade. Very early in the 1970s, even more stringent pollution rules, increasing insurance premiums and the oil embargo each played a role in the end of the party.
“Actually,” Craig Jackson remembers, “Pontiac started it and Pontiac closed it out. First there was the 1964 GTO, and then it finished with the 1974 Trans-Am Super Duty.”
But as early as the mid-1980s, Craig Jackson was convinced that muscle cars would become as significant to future car collectors as the pre-war classics were to the World War II generation.
He spoke about his anticipation in an interview with a national car collector magazine, “and I got flack within our company,” he remembers two decades later.
“I grew up watching Tom Barrett selling all of those classics,” Jackson says. “There were a lot of people back then from the World War II generation.”
But Jackson recognized that there would be even more baby boomers who soon would be of the age and financial health to start collecting cars, and that they wouldn’t necessarily want the same cars that their fathers and uncles and grandfathers had pursued.
A generational shift was taking place in the collector car marketplace.
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