Home Cars Hits and Misses: The Best and Worst Pontiac GTOs Ever Made

Hits and Misses: The Best and Worst Pontiac GTOs Ever Made

Vukasin Herbez March 14, 2023

Even though the Pontiac brand is just a distant memory in the automotive industry, the legacy of the famous brand is kept alive through its cars. Most notable among those are its iconic GTOs. The GTO was the first proper muscle car, singlehandedly establishing a whole new and popular class of vehicles. The car’s combination of great design, solid underpinnings, and power brought power to the masses and created the most significant muscle car legend.

However, despite being such an influential and fantastic machine, the GTO had its share of cars that carried that infamous nameplate but never deserved it. So today, we’ll make an interesting parallel between the five best GTOs and the five worst cars under that name. Check out the GTOs that made those three letters so iconic and those that almost ruined it right here.

Foto Credit: Auto WP

1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO (Best)

In the early 1960s, Pontiac had a ton of success on drag strips across America. That performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool since a new generation of buyers wanted fast cars. Pontiac understandably wanted to capitalize on its success. But the company was reluctant to invest in a sports car built from scratch. All of their production models were big, heavy vehicles. However, a young engineer named John DeLorean thought of a genius idea. Install a big and powerful 396 V8 into a light, intermediate Tempest two-door body to quickly (and cheaply) create an actual performance machine (via Car and Driver).

Foto Credit: Auto WP

The result was the Tempest GTO, an option on the intermediate Tempest model. For just $295, buyers would get a high-performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in standard trim or 348 HP in the famous Tri Power form. Manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals, and dual exhaust were all part of the package. Since the car was light, the Tempest GTO had a convincing performance. Even the Corvette owners weren’t safe from the Tempest GTOs lurking at stoplights across the country. Pontiac’s sales manager wasn’t particularly fond of the model and thought that the GTO package didn’t have perspective. His estimate of a maximum of 5000 examples per year was drastically surpassed by official sales figures of over 32,000 copies. It was clear that the GTO was a hit amongst younger buyers and that a star had been born.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1966 Pontiac GTO (Best)

The biggest news for 1966 was the fact that the GTO was now a separate model in Pontiac’s lineup. This meant that Pontiac as a brand and General Motors as a company recognized the car’s potential. They gave the GTO a shot at establishing its performance legacy. The car got a new design with vertically stacked headlights, a new grille, and a rear end (via Old Cars Weekly).

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Under the hood, the engine’s power output remained the same, although Pontiac introduced a legendary option that became popular in later models – the Ram Air. The Ram Air was essentially just about working hood scoops that directed air straight to the carburetors. It helped the engine deliver more power, but the factory-rated Ram Air models at 360 HP are the same as the Tri-Power versions. Only 35 Ram Air GTOs left the Pontiac factory and around 300 dealer-installed examples, all of which are highly sought after today.

Foto Credit: Hagerty

1969 Pontiac GTO Judge (Best)

Muscle cars started as affordable performance machines with lots of power and reasonable prices. However, due to high demand, some models started to get more expensive. Soon, there was a need for a budget-friendly muscle car aimed at the youth market. Or for the young buyers who wanted a fast car but couldn’t pay that much. The Plymouth Roadrunner was a perfect example of such a model. It was cheap, fun, and fast. Pontiac wanted a similar car. So in 1969, the company presented the GTO Judge (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: W Super Cars

The Judge became a legend in its own right, first because it took the name from the popular TV show and second because it was a bright red muscle car with a big spoiler and funky “The Judge” graphics all over it. The GTO Judge wasn’t slow either, with 366 HP on the four-speed transmission. Available from 1969 to 1971, the Judge always represented a top-of-the-line model, making it very desirable today.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1970 Pontiac GTO (Best)

1970 was an important year for Pontiac GTO that brought some significant changes to the lineup. First, the car received a design refresh with a new front end and rear bumper, and several new options were also on the list. The most significant improvement was under the hood. Finally, GTO and all other General Motors muscle cars received massive big blocks after the company lifted the ban on engine size in intermediate cars (via Net Car Show).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The GTO got a mighty 455 big block while the standard 400 V8 remained an entry-level motor. The base model got 350 HP, and the 400 Ram Air III got 360 HP, and the 455 also had 360 HP. Some car historians claim that the actual power figure was closer to 400 HP, however. The most significant advantage of the new motor was the torque – 500 lb.-ft of it propelled the GTO to respectable 0 to 60 mph and quarter mile times. Sales were declining, primarily due to tough competition since 1970 was the prime year for muscle cars. Pontiac managed to sell 40,000 examples, 3,797 of which were Judge models.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1971 Pontiac GTO (Best)

Continuing on the same platform, the 1971 GTO received a modest facelift with a different grille and headlights. However, the end was in sight for all muscle cars, including the GTO. And in 1971, all engines received a downgrade in compression ratings and horsepower (via Hagerty).

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The 400 was again the base model, but it was now rated at 255 HP. The 455, as an optional engine, had 260 HP. The top-of-the-line engine option was 455 High Output which delivered 310 HP and retained a performance level that GTO owners were accustomed to. However, as the muscle car segment started to decline, so were the GTO sales, and in 1971, Pontiac managed to move just over 10,000 cars which was very low compared to just a few years prior.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1972-73 Pontiac Le Mans GTO (Worst)

The GTO was no longer a separate model but only an option on mid-size Le Mans, sharing the same body style with sporty details and a few exterior features. For the 1973 model year, the GTO was redesigned and appeared closer to a regular Le Mans coupe (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: Mecum

The power was down, and the base 400 and 455 had both 250 HP for 1972, although the 455 had much more torque and better performance. In 1972, a very rare engine option was the 455 H.O. with 300 HP, which could be called an actual muscle car. However, in 1973, the High Output version was gone and the 400 V8 had just 230 HP while the 455 had 250 HP.

Photo Credit: Hemmings

1974 Pontiac Ventura GTO (Worst)

The once-mighty Pontiac GTO got downsized from a separate model to only a trim line option for the 1974 Pontiac Ventura. The Ventura was the smallest and cheapest Pontiac at the moment, and it was basically a Chevrolet Nova sister model. It was sad to see the once glorious muscle car being downgraded to just a trim level and some decals on an economy model with a 5.7-liter V8 engine pumping out only 200 HP (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Hemmings

Pontiac experienced slow sales for the GTO line for multiple years. Despite the relative success of the smaller Trans Am/Firebird line, the GTO just wasn’t that popular to justify investing in a separate model. The 1974 GTO was considered a pathetic attempt to recapture the former glory of the GTO. But the market didn’t fall for that trick. This was also the final year for the classic GTO nameplate. After 7,000 examples left the factory, the GTO quietly left the scene.

Photo Credits: GM

2004-2006 Pontiac GTO (Worst)

Pontiac got the message with the success of the GTO Concept in 1999. But the biggest problem was the fact that Firebird/Trans Am was to be discontinued. There was no appropriate platform or design on which the GTO could be based on. GM’s Australian branch Holden produced a rear-wheel drive muscle car called the Monaro. It sat on modern chassis with an independent rear suspension and disc brakes. It was produced with a sleek two-door body, just like the original GTO. GM’s plan was simple. Import the Monaro to the USA, and rebadge it as GTO to sell it to performance-hungry American customers. On paper, it was the perfect setup, but in reality, things didn’t work out as planned (via Edmunds).

Photo Credit: GM

The first year for the modern GTO was 2004. And the car met universal praise from the buyers and the car press. Under the hood was LS1 5.7-liter V8 with 350 HP. It had enough performance to be one of the hottest American cars for the 2004 model year. The target sales figure was 18,000, and Pontiac sold almost 14,000, which could be considered a success. But in 2005, sales started to decline to 11,000. For 2006, the final model year, the GTO sold just 14,000 examples. So, what was the problem with the 2004 to 2006 GTO? Well, its design was restrained, not particularly aggressive, and pretty pale. The car was fast, and the performance was convincing. But the new GTO wasn’t so appealing to new customers as an overall package. This was the main reason for its early demise and market failure.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1967 Pontiac GTO Base Economy (Worst)

In 1967 the GTO got a new 400 engine which brought even more power to the customers. However, despite the enormous popularity, GM was afraid that the sales would go down since all other brands introduced similar muscle cars. Not just cars from Ford or Dodge but from other GM brands as well. So Pontiac’s marketing experts envisioned an Economy model (via Hagerty).

Photo Credit: Mecum

For customers who want the looks and the name but cannot afford the high-output engines and other go-fast options, there was a GTO economy. Which featured the same 400 V8 but with a smaller, 2-bbl carburetor that produced 255 HP and matted to a manual transmission. Even though this GTO looks like GTO, it doesn’t have the same performance so it’s featured in this part of our list.

Photo Credit: Hemmings

1970-71 Pontiac GT-37 (Worst)

One of the rarest and forgotten muscle cars is Pontiac’s GT-37. It was not a model of its own but an option package on the 1970 and 1971 Tempest. This was essentially a GTO but without the name. The car was intended for younger buyers with a limited budget who wanted performance. Roadrunner proved to be a strong seller and a very influential model since all companies started thinking about cheap models which would attract younger customers. For some reason, Pontiac waited until 1970 to introduce such a model in the form of the GT-37. Behind this strange name was a regular Tempest with a few performance options and engine choices from the much more popular GTO model. This meant that buyers who had $3,000 to spend could get a car from 255 HP up to 345 HP (via Auto Evolution).

Photo Credit: Mecum

Pontiac advertised the GT-37 as a “GTO lite.” But the car lacked exterior features like the famous Endura bumper and rear spoiler. In 1971, the famous 455 V8 was on the options list, but it went in only a handful of cars. The GT-37 had the performance and the hardware. But it didn’t have GTO’s appeal and image, which resulted in poor sales. Pontiac made only around 2000 of these misunderstood muscle cars in two years. Of course, the GT-37 was soon forgotten even by Pontiac enthusiasts, and today it is a scarce sight.

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