By launching a new generation of GTO 40 years after the original, Pontiac hoped to breathe sporting energy into a range that badly needed it. But times had changed.
Considered dying in 1956, the GM division would become a behemoth in the 1960s, endowed with a beautiful aura of sportiness, thanks in particular to models like the GTO. This one, launched in 1964, is the result of a stroke of genius by performance enthusiasts, Bill Collins, Russ Gee and John DeLorean, by installing a large block in an intermediate. The category of muscle cars was born. All other manufacturers will follow.
GTO sales will be strong until 1969. However, under the pressure of competition, pollution standards and insurance rates, they will drop until the disappearance of the model in 1974 (which had become that year a compact). Thanks to the sharp marketing of Jim Wangers, the GTO had passed into the collective unconscious. This is why Pontiac will play several times over the years with the idea of bringing it back into its range. The brand will exhibit, for example, a concept (not very successful) at the 1999 Detroit Motor Show.
In the early 2000s, we are far from the time when Pontiac’s American slogan was ” We build excitement (“It works Pontiac!” in Quebec). The manufacture of the Firebird and Trans Am at the Boisbriand plant was stopped at the end of 2002, the brand is more busy selling Sunfires or marketing the Aztek… with the result that we know. It is precisely the failed launch of this SUV that will lead Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, to offer Bob Lutz a position as head of product development.
This former Marine has worked at GM Europe, BMW, Ford and Chrysler. Typed as flamboyant in the conservative milieu of automobile executives, he has always professed that a car must speak as much, if not more, to the emotional than to the rational to win the act of purchase. In 2001, he was CEO of Exide, a battery manufacturer then caught in the middle of a fraud scandal (orchestrated before the arrival of Lutz in 1998). Wagoner’s offer couldn’t be better timed. He joined GM on September 1, 2001.
The internal situation is catastrophic. Lutz has to take over all the processes and stop the development of certain models (including one intended for the elderly where all the buttons were gone and which was entirely controlled by voice). Running such a liner will take years, but leaks must be plugged quickly. This is why it will also launch a few models a little in a hurry, we think in particular of the Saab 9-2X. He also needs to rekindle the flame of Pontiac. What if the solution was on the other side of the world?
The Australian industry
Holden entered GM’s portfolio in 1931. It would introduce the first Australian auto in 1948. From there, the brand would design models offering both European and American influence. In 1978, it unveiled the Commodore, directly derived from the European Opel Commodore but adapted to Australian road conditions and with a front subframe modified to accommodate a V8. While during the 80s/90s the American divisions switched to front-wheel drive and relied less on V8s, the Aussies stuck to big blocks and rear-wheel drive for their full-size models.
In 1997 Holden introduced the Commodore VT (Australians run by series type, not vintage), based on the chassis of the second generation Opel Omega (which we will know back home as the Cadillac Catera) but still with extra space to accommodate 5 or 5.7 liter V8s. The car exists as a sedan or wagon. At the 1998 Sydney Auto Show, Holden presented an in-house developed two-door concept based on the VT, simply dubbed the Coupe. But the public is starting to call it Monaro, a name as evocative in Australia as Camaro or Mustang at home, and demand that it be put into production.
The Monaro was introduced to the Australian market in 1968. Able to be equipped with American V8s, it appealed to performance enthusiasts, winning the magazine’s “1968 Car of the Year” title. Wheels and allows Holden to obtain its first victory in the Bathurst 500, a mythical race, the same year… as well as the following year. The second generation will arrive in 1971 and will last until 1977 (including in sedan form from 1973).
In 2000, the Commodore VT was restyled and became the VX. Holden takes the opportunity to add two bodies: the Ute (a utility combining a car front and a pick-up box, like the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero, hitherto based on the old 1995 VS series) and the Monaro Coupe in 2001. Just as Bob Lutz begins to travel to Australia…
The first GTO for 30 years
In 2000, the magazine Car and Driver explained that the Commodore SS was probably the best vehicle that GM offered… but that it was reserved for the Asia-Pacific region. Interested, Lutz wanted to drive a Monaro and found that it was indeed an excellent car: V8, propulsion, good handling, good interior finish. “Why not import it to North America? he asked. Especially since with a favorable exchange rate (about 0.51/0.52 US dollars for one Australian dollar in September/October 2001), it would be possible to sell it for around US$25,000, which which could be a good deal.
You have to understand that at the time, GM was not so much an integrated corporation as the assembly of several more or less autonomous regions. Then begins a back and forth between the Americas and Asia-Pacific regions to find out who will pay for the project. And then there is also the question of adapting to American standards, as well as to the tastes of American consumers.
What might look like a simple Monaro with a Pontiac grille actually required the design of 475 specific parts: in addition to the left-hand drive conversion, the fuel tank is moved from under the boot to the back of the bench seat for better impact resistance (significantly reducing the volume of the trunk), ABS and traction control are fitted as standard (no ESP, on the other hand), the air conditioning system and door seals are improved, the seats are redesigned and the dials match the bodywork.
The 2004 GTO was presented to the press at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January 2003 and will arrive in December 2003 in dealerships… American only, since it will not be offered in Canada. It offers a 350-hp 5.7-liter LS1 V8 mated to a 4-speed 4L60E automatic transmission, with the Tremec T56 6-speed manual being an option (over 60% of GTO buyers would have chosen it).
It is available in seven colors and comes standard with air conditioning, 200 watt Blaupunkt audio system with disc changer, dual outlet exhaust, limited slip differential, rear spoiler, trip computer and 245/45ZR-17 wheels ( no navigation system, even as an option). On the performance side, the 0 to 60 mph is achieved in 5.3 s, the quarter mile in 13.8 s (manual gearbox) and the car takes up to 0.86 g of lateral acceleration. Everything is there to seduce amateurs! Except that…
The more it changes…
The project took longer than expected and the exchange rate increased significantly (US$0.71 per Australian dollar in November 2003), raising the price to US$33,000, with the GTO then changing category. Then there’s the aesthetics… a little ordinary for a muscle car. Purists criticize it for not having an air intake on the hood and a rental car look. The capacity of the Elizabeth plant is 18,000 GTO per year but production will only reach 15,740 units for the 2004 vintage. And again, sales will be stimulated thanks to discounts applied just a few weeks after the introduction of the model. The last 794 examples are “40th anniversary” editions (code W40), all in Pulse red, with gray dials and anthracite seats.
For 2005, the GTO received significant changes: the LS1 was replaced by the 6-litre LS2 developing 400 horsepower, two air intakes were added to the bonnet (equipment that could be removed on request), the brakes were improved, the exhaust has an outlet on each side, the rear lights are revised and the range of colors is modified. The performances go up a notch: 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 s, the quarter mile in 13 s (automatic gearbox). Despite all this, production fell to 11,069 copies.
Logically, the 2006 vintage saw only limited changes, particularly in terms of colors. In February 2006, Pontiac announced that the import of GTOs would cease in September of the same year. This leads to a slight rebound in production: 13,948 copies. The last and 40,757th GTO left the Elizabeth plant, near Adelaide, on June 14, 2006, also signifying the end of Monaro assembly.
Failure? Not fail?
From the start, the GTO was to be produced for only three years. Indeed, a new Commodore, the VE, is scheduled for 2006. It is based on the Zeta platform, designed in Australia. We’ve known this model here as the Pontiac G8 (not to mention the Ute G8 Sport Truck we would have had if Pontiac hadn’t disappeared in 2010). But had the 2004-06 GTO found its way into the market, there is little doubt that a new generation Monaro/GTO could have been developed. Especially since Holden showed a coupe concept based on VE, the Coupe 60 (for the 60th anniversary of the first 100% in-house model), at the 2008 Melbourne Motor Show. of the GTO, it was the fifth generation of Camaro which was already in the boxes. And it will be based on the Zeta platform. The Australian sector was (still) holding up!
Aside: The ultimate GTO
At the 2004 Woodward Dream Cruise, Pontiac unveiled a concept created on a voluntary basis by a team of young, motivated engineers. Its name: GTO Ram Air 6, in homage to the Ram Air engines of the GTOs from the years 1967 to 1970.
Under the Orbit Orange dress, a nod to the 1970 GTO Judge, hides an LS2 V8 rebored to 389 hp (6.4 liters, the exact displacement of the GTOs from 1964 to 1966). It develops 575 horsepower and is mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. The fenders are widened to accommodate 20-inch wheels and receive functional air intakes at the rear to cool the brakes. Unfortunately, there will remain a prototype without follow-up…
In video: Tell me about your tank, the 1969 Pontiac GTO