The cars we loved.
The ranks of the American muscle car club was fading fast as the ’70s evolved. Prominent players like the Javelin, Chevelle SS and Barracuda were in their final years by 1974. Many others had dropped off completely. The few pony and muscle cars that hung on like the Mustang and Torino had become mere shadows of their once tire smoking selves. One of the charter members of the muscle car class, the GTO was going threw its own growing (or shrinking) pains. Meanwhile, the Trans-Am became one of the last holdouts in the power race, as the SD455 of 1973 made the TA the last real powerful muscle car (or pony car actually). Other former muscle cars had maintained sporty pretensions, but engine size and power dropped considerably. The GTO was one of those cars making the most of the drastic changes.
With Pontiac’s new focus on the Grand-Am and its ‘European Styled” handling, displacement was starting to take a back seat to comfort and style. Pressures from the government and safety advocates begun to dictate the shape and style of cars as Detroit struggled to meet tough mandates. The GTO would not go through this crisis unscaved. Pontiac watched the Mustang shrink into an elongated Pinto and despite the downsizing, they marveled at how sales actually grew.
The abrupt downscaling that worked for Ford was not an immediate option for Pontiac. The 1973 GTO was a half step in the continued de-evolution of the once proud muscle car. Discouraged by its low sales and envious of the growing popularity of smaller, muscle-less cars, Pontiac decided to not wait on an all new architecture for the next GTO. Instead it would use Chevorlet’s Nova X-body platform which dated to the 60’s as the basis for the next GTO (and its lesser stable mate the Ventura). And why not, Chevy was moving healthy numbers of Nova SS to performance starved, cash strapped motorheads. This certainly was not the “My Little GTO” Ronnie and the Daytonas sang about, but it was considerably smaller than the 1964 car they referenced.
The front engine, rear wheel drive setup was the only thing the 74’ GTO had in common with the cars of just a few years ago. The GTO would have only one engine, a 350 four-barrel that produced a modest 200 hp. It was available with a four speed manual transmission. The Nova body’s compact dimensions did not resemble any other Pontiac. The chunky “C” pillar made for an ungraceful if not brute appearance. For this reason the designers sought to create a strong link to the Firebird with a shaker style hood and Rally II wheels. Not a lot distinguished the GTO’s interior from the run of the mill Ventura. For starters both had fake wood trim, but the GTO had optional bucket seats (as opposed to the standard bench). The shrunken tachometer was another sign that you were in a GTO, although racy details were kept to a minimum probably due to pressures from the insurance industry, as if the smaller less powerful V8 was not penalty enough.
The reduced power (along with weight) gave the GTO respectable performance. Old foes like the Mustang could easily be trounced, as it was not even offered with a V8 in the first year of the Mustang II body style in 1974. Other competitor’s like the Duster were bigger and had similar power figures. The bell curve for the performance class of 1974 was low. It got progressively lower in the next few years as cars like the Charger, Montegro and Cutlas Supreme became luxury sport float boats.
The 74 GTO may not have been the tire smoking car it once was, but it handled well and helped boost sales of Pontiac’s version of the X-body. Still, the GTO was not really the performance platform that Pontiac might have hoped. It’s new rising star the Trans-Am had come from relatively obscure sales numbers and was gradually becoming Pontaic’s star performance model. It certainly was the best looking. The GTO name was gone after the 1974 model year and would not appear again until the name was attached to the Australian made Holden Monaro coupe in 2004.