The cars we loved.
Don’t mess with muscle cars, or at least their legacies. Bob Lutz, the once chairman of North American GM found that out the hard way. After reading a glowing 2000 review of Holden’s Commodore in Car and Driver magazine, he decided that some version of it would do well in America. The Trans-Am had just ended it run for Pontiac in 2002, leaving a big performance hole at Pontiac. What better way to bring back a storied name and fill a gap at the same time? What could possibly go wrong?
The choice of the third generation Holden Monaural as the next GTO seemed like good timing for Pontiac. Captive imports masquerading as Pontiac were not without precedent. In the 80’s the Lemans name was done a disservice by a small under powered Opel based hatchback. Other GM divisions like Buick (70’s various Opel) and Cadillac (90’s Catera) have used some variation of Opel car over the years. Pontiac was determined not to screw up a storied name with its latest transplant. On paper a rear wheel drive V8 powered coupe sounded like the perfect recipe for a GTO revival. Unfortunately, the ideal of an Australian built car posing as a GTO angered Pontiac brand loyalists, even with a Kentucky made Corvette engine under the hood! In truth, Australia and American muscle car fanatics had a lot in common. The ideal of “no replacement for displacement” was as common a theme in Melbourne as it was in Montgomery during the late 60’s and early 70’s. Australia was one of the few places on earth that had a muscle car era similar to America’s, so the choice of Holden was not as far-fetched as pundits would have you believe. Mr. Lutz had persuaded the GM board that it was worth it, but never figured on resistance from some of the Pontiac faithful.
In staying as true to the GTO legacy as possible for a car built in Elizabeth, South Australia, the Monaro underwent extensive exhaust tuning to get that “classic 1964 GTO sound”. In addition to the exhaust, other changes made at the factory included the addition of a new fascia, Pontiac badges and stitched-in GTO badges in the seats. The GTO’s overall restrained appearance resembled the Monaro a bit too much for some.
Because most Pontiacs of the period were saddled with questionable styling embellishments like fins, gills and vents, the GTO looked decidedly sophisticated by comparison. Pontiac would hastily add hood scoops as an appearance package in 2004, but the car’s demeanor never matched up with the brawny looks of some of the golden era GTO’s from 1968-1970, or the tackiness of its domestic products. This was a more grown up GTO. The refined looks was nowhere more noticeable than in the interior. Simple, but sophisticated, it put most GM interiors to shame. In fact, it was by far the best interior GM North America had up to that time. The Holden and European divisions would gradually influence other American GM interiors thanks to less regional autonomy between global divisions. Sadly it took a near bankruptcy to bring all of this about.
While the exterior had its distractors the 5.7 L LS1 V8 from the Corvette silenced many critics. Its 350 hp made a few buyers forget about the departed Trans-Am. It was certainly a more comfortable and practical car. Transmission choices included a 6-speed manual or a 4 speed automatic. 5.3 second 0 to 60 times was in keeping with cars like the Dodge Charger RT or Mustang GT. Unfortunately, the GTO cost about $10,000 more than GM had hoped due to unfavorable currency exchange rates. Still, for $34k you got Corvette like power, a relatively comfortable ride with the utility of a real trunk and back seat.
Small changes occurred in the car’s planned three year run. The most significant was the arrival of the LS2 in 2005. Now at 400 hp, the GTO was faster than ever with a 0 to 60 time dipping in the 4 second range. While no real special edition GTO’s were made, the closest thing may have been the 2006 models equipped with a W40 performance package. The W40 cars were Pulse Red with special gauge clusters and red GTO text stitched on the seats. Over 40,000 GTO’s were sold in the three year run. While critics complained of the car’s weight, its point of origin and conservative looks, it did restore some honor at Pontiac.
Towards the final run of the GTO, Pontiac answered its critics with the empty gesture of building a specially prepared one off GTO for the annual Woodward Drive Cruise event. The 500 hp Woodward car featured aggressive body work complete with all the Pontiac visual cues US critics had complained about. Big 19 in wheels and even less restrictive exhaust made this the ultimate GTO. While it never made it to production, some of its body work features surfaced as third party aero kits for those wanting to make their
Monaro GTO’s more Pontiac like.
The last third generation Holden Monaro to roll off the assembly line was said to actually be a GTO. About four years later, Pontiac would go back to Holden for a closely related version of the VE Commodore as the G8 sedan. Now with no Pontiac, GM muscle car fanatics have to make due with the Chevy Camaro or the upcoming SS sedan.