GTO vs. GTO Two Icons of the Past Face Off

Where were you in 1964? Dan Gurney whiled away the year racing a Formula 1 Brabham Coventry-Climax, winning both the French GP at Rouen and the Mexican GP in Mexico City; he spent his spare time in Southern California laying the founda­tion for his own All American Racers team. A Ferrari 158 carried John Surtees to the World Drivers’ Championship, and the prancing horse also romped through the Formula One Constructors’ Champion­ship and the Manufacturers’ Champion­ship for GT and Prototype cars. It was an anxious year for Pontiac: the 1961-63 “rope-drive” Tempests were a failure, rac­ing involvement was taboo by corporate mandate, and the division’s carefully nurtured performance image was going to be tough to uphold. Meanwhile, Car and Driver was exploding off its One Park Avenue launching pad with the most rabble-rousing diatribe ever to blister the pages of a car magazine. It was “Dan Gurney for Presi­dent!” one month and “King Kong Rides Again!” the next. Typewriters sizzled with fiery prose, and C/D readers hiked their eyebrows, wrote nasty letters to the editor, kicked in their sleep, and pawed the pages for more.

Twenty years ago was a golden age. De­troit got off the dime. Muscle cars were born. Pontiac discovered the Hurst shifter. America produced its best-ever race driv­ers and a few awesome race machines. Car and Driver invented the comparison test.

So return with us now to those glorious days of yesteryear when our forebears pit­ted a Pontiac against a Ferrari and declared the Pontiac the winner.

Car and Driver’s March 1964 cover depicted a hypothetical racetrack upset: a red Ferrari coupe led a green Pontiac by one car length through a downhill, right-hand kink. The headline read, “Tempest GTO: 0-to-100 in 11.8 sec.” Inside, the story was a bit different, but no less thrilling. The Ferrari was mentioned briefly rent rv dayton ohio but neither tested nor shown in a photograph. C/D staffers did drive a pair of Pontiac GTOs 3500 miles, including a New York-to­-Florida round trip. Acceleration runs were conducted at the Daytona speedway, where the pair of Pontiacs were also flogged around the steeply banked tri-oval and the infield road course. After the dust had set­tled, the C/D crew conceded that Ferrari’s fastest street-legal coupe might be able to beat the Pontiac on a closed circuit, but the Detroit iron would certainly prevail in a drag race.

Could this be true? What better time to find out? In celebration of the twentieth birthday of the comparison test, we bring you GTO versus GTO, the rematch. The contenders face off for real this time as we see whether a golden moment of history can withstand the harsh reality of modern test procedures.

Dan Gurney will serve as referee. He never made it as a presidential candidate, pulling in not quite as many votes as Barry Goldwater, but he did rack up seven vic­tories in Formula 1 and two seconds and a third in the Indy 500 during his thirteen-year driving career. Gurney hasn’t raced professionally since 1970, but we can as­sure you that he has not lost his touch. The man has but two racetrack speeds: off and flat out.

Signing Gurney for our comparo was much easier than drumming up a 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO and a Ferrari with the same call letters. After a lit­tle help from the Pontiac division and the Pontiac Oakland Club International, we ended up (on bended knee) at the doorstep of Carl Huboi, of Los Gatos, California. Carl was in high school in 1964, and he spent his spare time tooling around the bay-area suburbs in the shotgun seat of the same silver GTO convertible you see here. (In your mind’s eye, you may draw a smug look on the young Huboi’s face.) The local Pontiac dealer who owned the car had optioned it out as closely as possible to its namesake Ferrari—no power steering or brakes, most powerful engine available, four-speed transmission—then sent it to school with his son to troll for potential customers. Nine years later, Carl found his high-school ride wrecked and rotting be­hind a gas station; he bought it for $500 and restored the beast to its present pris­tine condition. As a devout Pontiac GTO enthusiast, Carl Huboi knew all about the 1964 C/D altercation, and when we called proposing a retest, he took up the gauntlet like a true gentleman.

Photo credit: AARON KILEY
Photo credit: AARON KILEY

Ferrari built only 39 250 GTOs, plus two prototypes, so the elimination process for the other half of the card was a breeze. (In comparison, Pontiac cranked out 32,450 GTOs in 1964, 8245 with the triple-two-­barrel engine.) After a few false starts, we found Bob Donner in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a former Pontiac GTO owner who currently has a stable of a dozen or so Ferraris, including the very last GTO ever made. (For the Ferraristi in the audience—we know you’re out there—that’s serial number 5575 GT.) It was with more than a little trepidation that this gen­erous sportsman tossed his prized posses­sion into the fray—one of only three 1964 models built, it is worth at least $300,000 on the open market—but we convinced him that the glory of Ferrari was at stake. Although Dormer’s machine is different in bodywork from the 1962-63 GTO on the old C/D cover, it is perfect for this rematch: it is in mint condition, Donner has raced it regularly in vintage events, and it is painted Rosso Cino (Chinese red), the one hue guaranteed to make car nuts paw the earth and bay at the moon.

Both GTOs were originally conceived for competition. Ferrari had legitimate GT racing in mind; Pontiac, in the face of GM’s new corporate ban on direct racing in­volvement, groomed its GTO for the stop­light grand prix. In 1963, Pontiac’s third-place rank in U.S. sales was due partly to victories on stock-car tracks, at drag strips, and in land-speed-record runs, and it was obvious that hanging on to that market po­sition was going to be tough without a racing program. The Pontiac Tempest, formerly the weak sister in the house because of persistent transaxle failures, had been redesigned with a conventional powertrain for the 1964 model year, and adman Jim Wangers proposed transferring the divi­sion’s hard-earned racing image from the track to the street by stuffing serious horsepower into the new body. General manag­er John De Lorean passed the idea on to engineer Bill Collins, who was already test­ing a prototype powered by Pontiac’s 389­cubic-inch “super duty” engine. The muscle car—a huge engine in the smallest-possible body—was born.

Photo credit: AARON KILEY
Photo credit: AARON KILEY

To slip the combination past the squinty eyes of GM’s engineering policy commit­tee (which had limited engine displacement for intermediate bodies to 330 cubic inches), the GTO package was played down as an equipment option. The com­mittee saw through this ruse and fought the very existence of the car, but De Lorean had already sold dealers on the idea and several orders had been placed with the factory. A small production run was reluc­tantly approved, the GTO’s opponents confident that the car would never sell. How wrong they were. The hot Pontiac took off—hyped by Ronny & the Daytonas’ hit song “GTO” and by smoking-tire maga­zine ads—and all naysayers hid their heads.

No such machinations were necessary at Ferrari. Enzo and his team needed a GT racer to defend their honor, so they put to­gether their best pieces: a chassis from the short-wheelbase 250GT Berlinetta; a three-liter Testa Rossa (“red head”) V-12 with single overhead dry cams, a dry sump, and six Weber carburetors; a reinforced five-speed transmission; Dunlop disc brakes; and a magnificent body designed at Ferrari and hammered out of 21-gauge aluminum by Scaglietti. FIA homologation for the GT class required a production run of at least 100 cars, but Ferrari had no intention of building so many: Il Commendatore main­tained that his racer was simply a 250GT Berlinetta (in production since 1959) with a few changes listed on the homologation papers. The competition, principally Jag­uar and Aston Martin, fought this stretching of the rules, but the FIA officials recog­nized the crowd-pulling potential of the new Ferrari and approved it for the 1962 GT class. This ritual is summarized by the three most famous letters ever worn by an automobile: “GTO” stands for “Gran Turismo Omologato,” which, loosely translated from the Italian, means homolo­gated (recognized for competition) grand-touring car.

Enzo could have christened his car “the ultimate,” and we wouldn’t quibble. The 250GTO was Ferrari’s last front-engined GT racer and one of the scuderia’s most suc­cessful machines, sweeping the Manufac­turers’ Championship three years running. Its Testa Rossa engine has been called one of the greatest powerplants of all time. The coachwork makes the Mona Lisa look like a Cinderella who missed her appointment with the fairy godmother. GTOs are highly concentrated doses of the Ferrari essence, the most coveted road machines ever to wear the prancing horse.

Lucky for the Pontiac half of the cheer­ing section, this is not a beauty contest. Alongside the kill-for-me-red Ferrari, the pewter Pontiac looks like the box it came in. Its windshield is brusquely upright. Its fenders are sharply creased. But the greater glory today will go to the GTO with the more remarkable lap times and the better test results. The green flag drops here.

Gurney takes the Ferrari out first to dust the track. “You can tell it’s a race car, something meant to be driven hard. It’s happy in that environment, particularly the engine. It will rev to eight [8000 rpm] with ease. It feels smooth as the dickens most of the time, but occasionally the carburetors aren’t really giving it what it wants.” After three or four laps, Gurney is down to 1:20.5 lap times (an 85-mph average) around the 1.9-mile Laguna Seca circuit, carburetors or no, which would put him in the front row of the small-block Cobra and Corvette vintage class.

Dan is notorious for his eagerness to fiddle with the machinery, and, true to form, he’s ready to tune the Ferrari for quicker lap times. “Cooling ducts would help the brakes a lot. The gearbox is nice, but sort of slow. The shift lever and its throws are way too long. Aerodynamically, the Ferrari bodywork is wrong. When you’re going fast and put on the brakes for a turn, you’ve got to get back on the gas to settle it down. There isn’t any understeer. A few minutes with some tin shears to make a bigger rear spoiler and I’d have that fixed!”

Donner is kind enough to let the C/D testers take a few hot laps, and we find the Ferrari to be a forthright and honest piece of machinery. The steering is light, direct, and devoid of kickback. The brakes require a heavy foot on the pedal, but they’re quite effective. The long, tall shifter glides through its gate like a magic wand: let the synchros do their duty, and it’s all sweet­ness and light. The rigidly mounted bucket seat ties you to the car with the efficiency of a trailer-hitch ball. Cornering dynamics are telegraphed from the chassis up through the blue-leather upholstery with an accura­cy that Western Union couldn’t match. The pedals are high enough and far enough to the left that one’s knee gets jammed beneath the steering wheel during heel-and-toe downshifts, but get it right and it feels as if you were fending off the big guys at Le Mans (where this little Ferrari came home fifth overall in 1964). Engine heat wafts up through gaps in the floor, and there’s a bouquet of hot oil vapor from the tank behind the passenger’s seat. The sound is mechanical music. Whining gears, whirring chains, and crackling exhaust tips beg for more throttle. Twelve unfiltered carburetor throats roar for air at 4000 rpm; by 6000, the “ripping canvas” shriek from the exhaust drowns out every other sound in the world.

As soon as we touch back down to earth, Dan Gurney takes the Pontiac out for hot laps. “It’s like an aircraft carrier. You start it turning, and this great big long polar-mo­ment deal takes over. It does everything all right; it’s just sort of pendulous and heavy. The progressive throttle linkage is something you have to dial into. I locked up the rear brakes cresting the hill before the Corkscrew, but otherwise the car’s all right. The brakes don’t fade much. You get di­aled into the slow steering, and it doesn’t matter unless you’ve over- or undercor­rected—then you get behind. Actually, if you get the tail out, you don’t move your hands any more than you would in the Ferrari; you hang the stern out and just wait for the corner. If you’ve timed it right, you’re in the proper attitude and no tug­boats are necessary. Of course, you’re cov­ering an enormous amount of ground while the car goes through these attitude changes, but it does it all right.”

The mighty Pontiac comes in after a few laps with a metallic knock in its engine and a radiator near the boiling point. Its best lap is 1:28.1 (a 78-mph average), 7.6 sec­onds slower than the Ferrari. (Our predecessors guessed that part right.) Carl Huboi finds a rocker arm gone awry and fixes it while the engine cools.

During our turn on the track, we’re sur­prised by the feeling of sheer fortitude in the Pontiac. It’s too big and heavy for this duty, but the car has guts. The Hurst shifter and the Muncie four-speed are pure magic. The chassis feels particularly unflappable, ready to soak up the massive torque from the engine, the firm pull of the brakes, and the impressive cornering forces generated by the Michelin XWXs. (For safety’s sake, and to equalize the tires’ contribution to performance, both cars are running on new 70-series radials for all our tests.)

The Pontiac does a respectable job of defending its honor on the skidpad as well, where it uses some bizarre wheel-camber angles to generate 0.77 g. The Ferrari wins again, however, setting a ten-percent mar­gin of superiority that is either held or bettered through all the tests we conduct.

While the Maranello machine eats up ev­erything we can throw its way, the Pontiac occasionally hiccups. With an incredible 6.5 turns lock-to-lock, it’s a handful in the slalom. The throttle linkage goes south at the Baylands Raceway drag strip. The en­gine is a tower of torque, but the rear sus­pension and the tires won’t put power to the pavement. There is so much first-gear torque multiplication that the rear axle hops wildly, stitching a dotted black line of burned rubber into the pavement like a Singer gone berserk. We resort to second-gear starts and measure 0 to 60 in 6.9 sec­onds and 0 to 100 in 16.3 seconds.

The careful reader will notice that this performance is a bit different from the twenty-year-old record. The Ferrari has won every test today. The Pontiac has been 4.5 seconds slow in reaching 100mph.

Several conclusions emerge from our re­sults: Ferraris are wonderful race cars. A twenty-year-old Pontiac with miles under its belt is not as fast as a new, blue­printed, and dyno-tuned factory ringer. Dan Gurney and a computerized fifth wheel do a better job of testing than a man­aging editor and his Timex.

But watch this space for even better results. Who knows? We may bounce back again in the year 2004 with Nelson Piquet and a NASA-grade laser tracking system to declare the Pontiac GTO the one true victor.

GTO vs. GTO, 1964

The hook on which we hung the magazine

• In 1964, as today, we loved automo­biles and the music of the English lan­guage. Tom Wolfe was just hitting his stride at the Herald Tribune’s New York magazine, and he influenced us powerfully. Rock-and-roll blared from the speakers of every test car, and we eagerly awaited each new Beatles album. A lot of car radios offered a reverb option in those days, which produced a cathe­dral-like echo effect, and I remember Steve Smith bursting into my office one day to announce that he’d just heard a new group on the Pontiac Grand Prix’s reverb sound system. “They sounded like the goddam Vienna Boys Choir.” he stammered. “They’re called the Beach Boys!” We were vaguely lib­eral—apolitical, really—and all we wanted to do was produce a car magaÂzine that would change the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a bigger deal, in our Minds, than Vietnam (which Jack Kennedy had always pronounced “Veet Nyaam”), and the looming importance of what we’d soon call Muscle Cars was bigger to us than either one.

We believed that cars were exciting, and fun, and controversial, and none of us could understand why magazines about cars shouldn’t be equally so. Sim­ilarly, we had the uncomfortable feeling that car magazines were being skunked by magazines like Esquire and Sports Illus­trated whenever they decided to cover automobiles or automobile racing. We figured we’d change all that.

The turning point, the moment when Car and Driver became a real grown-up magazine, was March 1964, when we published GTO versus GTO. Ironically enough, it wasn’t even our idea. It sprang from the fertile, twisted brain of Jim Wangers, who worked for Pontiac’s advertising agency, contributed enough good ideas to car magazines to have earned himself a place on one or all of our mastheads in those days, and—just incidentally—helped convert John Z. De Lorean from an earnest young engineering executive with a weak chin to a philosopher-prince and media star.

Wangers offered to deliver a Pontiac GTO to the racetrack of our choice, and suggested that we could make a great story of a confrontation between the Pontiac and the car from which it had pilfered its name, the Ferrari GTO. GTO stood for “Gran Turismo Omologato,” and what it described was a three-liter rules-beater, a racing car in homologated clothing. I accepted his offer on the spot, then launched a fruit­less search for a suitable Ferrari. What we found instead was Charlie Kolb, a reasonably proficient road racer who’d logged some racing miles in Ferraris—including the GTO—and was willing to meet us at Bill France’s Daytona speed way. To be scrupulously honest, the only time the Pontiac GTO ever ran head-to-head against the Ferrari GTO was on our March ’64 cover—that is, until this month.

GTO versus GTO finished John Je­rome at Car and Driver. John started at C/D the same day I did in 1962 and he’d been trying to quit ever since. He want­ed a vacation, and I suggested that he drive the Pontiac down to Daytona with wife and children aboard, then use it for vacation transport after the test was completed. Unfortunately, both the test Pontiac and its backup unit blew up be­fore the test was over—though not be­fore I’d run over John’s camera case with one or the other of them—and he was forced to holiday in Florida in my rented Ford convertible. It rained the entire week that he was down there, and the Ford’s zip-in rear window broke, leaving Jerome even more miserable than before. Shortly thereafter he tendered his resignation and made it stick, creating the opening that I filled with Brock Yates. Thus, Yates, in a way, owes his C/D career to GTO versus GTO. It’s an ill wind…

After that, Car and Driver was on its way. We grew and prospered, and quickly established ourselves as a new and outrageous personality in the com­munity of car magazines. We owe a great debt to Jim Wangers and his Pon­tiac GTO, and to Tom Wolfe, rock-and- roll, the English language, and the thousands of you who’ve shared our passion. —David E. Davis, Jr.

The Nameplate That Time Can’t Kill

The past was good to GTOs, but the fu­ture may be even better. Ferrari is prepar­ing a new model worthy of the badge, and Pontiac is at least thinking about resurrecting the much revered nameplate.

Within a few months, Ferrari will unveil its new 308-based GTO, a homologation special with the same mission in life as the 250GTO introduced in 1962. ‘Then and now, the Gran Turismo Omologato label signifies a limited-production road car that is competitive on the racetrack—or a “mass-produced” race car that is suitable for street use, depending on your point of view. To satisfy FIA Group B and Group C homologation, Ferrari will build 200 special 308s: 25 will be all-out fire breathers for the track, and 175 are destined for road use. (According to well-placed in­formants, Ferrari has suspended 308GTBi production while GTOs are under construction.)

In Europe, large sums of cash are all that will be necessary to buy into the pro­gram (the lira equivalent of $80,000 will probably do), but life will not be quite so easy for wealthy Americans who lust after Maranello’s newest supercar. To block the well-raveled gray-market paths into the U.S., the 308GTO’s certificate of origin will clearly state, “This vehicle has been manufactured for collection and racing purposes only,” or words to that effect. Ferrari North America does intend to import a handful of cars and offer them through four or five dealers, but only those with solid racing connections. The dealers will screen prospective customers to make sure they are either legitimate collectors or capable racers, and custom­ers must also pass muster with the im­porter. In short, Ferrari N.A. is doing ev­erything within its power—including collaborating with the feds—to ensure that none of the 308-based GTOs are ever put to use on American roads.

Ferrari N.A. would very much like to see the new GTO distinguish itself on American racetracks, though, so it has offered engineering support and ready access to the factory’s top-secret technical department to a few interested dealers. A huge budget will of course be necessary for success in competition, but neither the factory nor the importer has offered funds for racing. Instead, the dealers and their customers are expected to drum up their own sponsor’s.

While the factory hasn’t yet released a description of the new racer, a few details are known. Little more than the front half of the existing 308GTBi has been saved to make the new GTO. Instead of a trans­versely mounted powertrain, the new car will have a longitudinal layout in back, which in turn necessitates a slight in­crease in wheelbase.

The engine and the transaxle for the new Ferrari were first seen about thirteen months ago, at the unveiling in Italy of the Lancia-Martini LC2-83 Group C sports car. The Lancia factory cam­paigned this 214-mph, Ferrari-powered, ground-effects sports racer in the World Endurance Championship series last year; and although it saw little success against the indomitable Porsche 956, the effort did at least provide a year of race­track development for the new engine. The Lancia-Ferrari 268C powerplant, a twin-turbocharged, 2.6-liter V-8 rated at 620 horsepower (a 2.8-liter displacement has been discussed for the GTO applica­tion), is a pure-race engine with four cams, four valves per cylinder, KKK multistage turbochargers, Weber elec­tronic fuel injection, and dry-sump lubri­cation. In street-trim versions of the GTO, the power output should be ap­proximately 400 hp, matched to a 2200-pound curb weight. The five-speed Hewland VG200 transaxle used in the Lancia will likely carry over to the racing GTOs. Ferrari’s Fiorano tests of the new homologation special have been most promising, according to our unofficial sources; the new GTO is supposedly capa­ble of “destroying” a 512i Boxer’s lap times at tile factory track.

Pontiac, in the meantime, is doing a bit less to hold up its end of the legend. Scooped and striped Venturas last wore the badge in 1974 (they were mercifully killed off by the panic that struck Detroit during the first energy crisis), and the prospects for a future Pontiac GTO are slim. There are few kindred souls within GM’s “excitement” division who would love to develop a new car good enough to wear tile legendary letters, but another school of thought at Pontiac says, “Why look back?” They argue that future performance cars will have to carve out their own reputations without reference to past accomplishments.

Nevertheless, Pontiac’s advertising agency, D’Arcy-MacManus & Masius, has proposed that the GTO badge be affixed to the V-6-powered Fiero due this fall. For those of you who feel that six cylinders do not make the heart of a tiger, con­sider that at least one Pontiac engineer has proposed a new 3.6-liter, single-over­head-cam V-8 for the Fiero, to be “assent-bled” from the Brazilian-made 1.8-liter four that powers the 2000 Sunbird.

A pipe dream, you say? More than like­ly. Then again, remember that Pontiac is the same conservative organization that Surprised us all with its 348-horsepower pavement ripper twenty years ago. —DS

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