Archive for Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pontiac’s gone but lives on in pop culture

May 7, 2009

Little GTO, you’re really lookin’ fine.

Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389.

Listen to her tachin’ up now, listen to her whine.

C’mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO.

— “GTO,” by Ronny & the Daytonas, 1964

Alas, not only shall the brave little GTO pass into history, but the whole Pontiac kit and caboodle.

General Motors, with its back to the wall, decided last week the pledge of “Total Confidence” that is the centerpiece of its current marketing campaign would not extend to its Pontiac division after the end of 2010.

If not the first, the GTO was one of the first of a series of what came to be known as “muscle cars,” usually nondescript sedans into which wild-eyed engineers would cram bigger and bigger V-8 engines.

The GTO was hatched under the tutelage of then-Pontiac chief engineer John Z. DeLorean – he who gathered later fame as the designer of his own marqué and then the defendant in a spectacular drug mistrial when the whole enterprise went south. Just to place this in perspective, DeLorean and his crew developed the GTO about the time Lee Iacocca was birthing the Mustang over at Ford.

After DeLorean’s engineers noticed that the engine compartment of the Tempest – a granny car if ever there was one – was big enough to accommodate the larger engines of Pontiac’s larger cars, they set about to tinkering. The corporate rules of the day meant that, as long as the GTO could be offered as an option rather than a separate model, the Pontiac rebels didn’t have to get corporate permission. The GTO made its debut as a $296 option.

So, they built a prototype and did their own late-night market research on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, a scene then favored by the local street racers. They capped it off with a name stolen from the Ferrari Gran Turismo Omologato, which was winning racing victories across Europe at the time. Sports car purists fumed, but Pontiac lost no sleep over that.

And so was born a legend. Later, Pontiac again seized youthful imaginations with the Firebird and the Trans-Am.

When Burt Reynolds needed a car to run rings around Jackie Gleason’s oafish Sheriff Buford T. Justice in “Smokey and the Bandit” in 1977, he chose a black Trans Am. When he needed a car to crash through burning buildings in “Hooper,” it was a red version of the same model.

James Garner drove a Pontiac Firebird in TV’s “The Rockford Files” and David Hasselhoff almost had to settle for second billing as his talking Pontiac became the star of “Knight Rider.”

Thanks to cars like the GTO and the Trans Am, Pontiac came to symbolize performance for two generations of Americans. Then, take your pick: either the public’s priorities changed or Pontiac lost its way.

In the end, we’ll be left with the song and a few of the old cars that sell for sometimes unbelievable prices at classic auto auctions.

John Wilkin, who wrote the song in 1964, told the Associated Press he heard “GTO” on the radio the other day. “It made me happy and sad at the same time,” he said. “I was happy to hear the song but at the same time it was like it was being played at a funeral.”

— John Beal is the retired editor of The Explorer’s sister publications, The Shawnee Dispatch and Bonner Springs Chieftain.

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