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Long before the term applied to angular mid-engine European metal, the term “supercar” was coined to describe the original 1964 Pontiac GTO. The first GTO was essentially a 325-hp V-8 squeezed between the fenders of a Pontiac LeMans. The world-beating performance it offered inspired a generation.
Although the original GTO will always be credited with creating the muscle car genre, no car defines the muscle car era better than the 1968 Pontiac GTO, our 1968 Car of the Year.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look back at the ’68 GTO’s win as our editors being swayed by “supercar” performance over all else, but the truth is that the 1968 GTO’s virtues run much deeper than that.
“The finest commentary on the fallacies of modern technology has now been presented to the American automotive world by the 1968 GTO—a car that incorporates not only the best taste in GM’s ‘A’-body variations—and an excellent handling and performing supercar package—but also the most significant achievement in materials technology in contemporary automotive engineering,” we wrote in our February 1968 issue.
The GTO was an engineering marvel for its time. Ignoring its certainly underrated 350-hp 400-cubic-inch (6.6-liter) V-8 for a moment, we dedicated more than half of our essay to the “Endura” front bumper. Basically a piece of hard, painted foam resistant to impacts up to 4 mph, the bumper was so durable that we depicted a staffer swinging a hammer at the GTO and featured photos of the car running into a bollard, looking no worse for wear. The Endura bumper allowed Pontiac to revolutionize design, we said, by opening up new possibilities for front bumper shapes and colors not previously possible.
We were of course impressed by the performance, too. “Like the fabled tiger connected with GTO, it paws around corners flat and true, then leaps through short straights, ready to have another go at a seemingly hard turn,” we wrote. The Pontiac could obviously hustle in a straight line, too. Our four-speed automatic tester ran from 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds; our Hurst four-speed manual tester, equipped with a Ram-Air intake, could do it in 6.5.
Our Verdoro Green 1968 GTO, graciously loaned to us by the Original Parts Group of Seal Beach, California, feels every bit as healthy today as it did 51 years ago. That Pontiac was able to coax 350 hp out of this V-8 in the ’60s is impressive, especially considering muscle cars didn’t begin to crest 350 hp again until the early 2010s.
Freed of modern emissions equipment, the 400 breathes freely and deeply, and it still launches the GTO with the ferocity of a current muscle car. Dipping into the throttle and letting the V-8 trumpet produces the same sort of giggles a Tesla Model S P100D does when launched—it’s pure, silly, pointless fun.
If only the drum brakes, and steering were up to the task. The former are woefully inadequate for a car with 35 hp, let alone 350, and the latter is fingertip light with little in the way of feedback. How all you baby boomers survived the late ’60s and early ’70s driving these wild beasts is beyond me.
“We’ve owned several other new cars that wore thin after their newness wore off,” we concluded in our homage to the Pontiac. “That wasn’t the case here. Even when we’d clocked thousands of miles, the GTO still appealed to us as a ‘new’ car, with the thought of it becoming ‘old’ a nearly impossible happening.” Five decades later, I’m happy to report that those words still ring true.