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Three Deuces and a Four-Speed: The Rise and Fall of the Pontiac GTO

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Three Deuces and a Four-Speed: The Rise and Fall of the Pontiac GTO

As many of our readers are probably aware, General Motors announced at the end of April 2009 that its venerable Pontiac division will become extinct in late 2010. This week, we take a look at the rise and fall of the car that many consider the definitive Pontiac: the original GTO.

Author's Note: Special thanks goes out to Jim Wangers, who graciously offered numerous corrections and additions to this article.


As we have previously discussed, until the mid-1950s, Pontiac made some of America's least-distinguished cars. They were solid, dependable, and not unattractive, but they were staid and dull to the point of invisibility. By 1955, sales were slumping badly, and the division needed help if it was to survive.

That help arrived in July 1956 in the form of a new general manager, one Semon E. Knudsen. "Bunkie" Knudsen, as he was known, had a long family history with General Motors. His father, "Big Bill" Knudsen, had headed Chevrolet from 1924 through 1937, and subsequently became president of GM; during the war, the Roosevelt administration recruited him to manage the conversion of civilian industry to military production. Bunkie joined the corporation in 1939 as a junior engineer for Pontiac. He rose through the ranks, doing stints at the Allison and Detroit Diesel divisions before returning to Pontiac in '56. At the time, Bunkie, then only 43, was the youngest general manager in GM's history.

To aid him in resuscitating Pontiac, Bunkie persuaded corporate management to let him hire E.M. (Pete) Estes, then the assistant chief engineer of Oldsmobile, as his chief engineer. Estes, in turn, hired John Z. DeLorean from the dying Packard Motor Company. Like their new boss, Estes and DeLorean were young, energetic, and supremely confident.

Knudsen, Estes, and De Lorean set about transforming Pontiac's moribund image with a new focus on performance and sport. Under Knudsen's auspices, Pontiac won its first NASCAR race in February 1957. It was a feat that so stunned the crowd, Knudsen said, that he and his wife heard a spectator cry out, "Look what's happened to Grandma!" In March of that year, Pontiac introduced its first high-performance "Tri-Power" triple-carburetor engine. (Pontiac's setup was very similar to Oldsmobile's 1957 J-2 engine, whose top-secret development Pete Estes had related to Knudsen after arriving at Pontiac.) This was followed by the Bonneville, a pricey, limited-edition convertible featuring Rochester mechanical fuel injection, a real novelty at the time.

In Pontiac parlance, "Tri-Power" meant three Rochester two-barrel carburetors with a vacuum-operated linkage (which buyers frequently replaced with a progressive mechanical linkage). In 1964, the GTO's optional Tri-Power engine was rated at 348 gross horsepower (260 kW), 23 hp (17 kW) more than the base GTO engine. In 1965 and 1966, new cylinder heads increased its rated output to 360 hp (269 kW). A GM policy decision forced the cancellation of the triple-carburetor setup after 1966.

In June 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) voted to prohibit manufacturer participation in competition. The AMA ban was essentially a gentleman's agreement calling for automakers to withdraw from active support of racing (which most did, at least officially) and to cease promoting performance or speed (which most did not). Although the ban became GM corporate policy, Knudsen was not dissuaded, and Pontiac cars and engines -- officially run by private teams, but with considerable factory support -- remained extremely active in American motorsport. Pontiacs swept the first six places in their class at the Daytona Beach Pure Oil Performance Trials in 1958, and were very active in NASCAR. While Pontiac won only one NASCAR Grand National race in 1959, they scored six victories in 1960, 32 in 1961, and 21 in 1962.



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