Pontiac GTO & Co. – Between tail fin and oil crisis

Pontiac GTO

Buying a car depends on many factors. In the end, reason is the deciding factor in most cases. But what is true today was quite different in the 1950s and 1960s in the USA. The Pontiac GTO, the Cadillac Fleetwood and the Lincoln Continental could not be too expansive and opulent.

Lack of parking space, fuel consumption, a small turning circle and high practicality: what moved or drove motorists today and in this country to drive a particular car was not always on the list of desired capabilities of an automobile, especially in the USA. For the average motorist in a European city, it may sound highly unreasonable to accept dimensions of a vehicle beyond the compact class and fuel consumption in the mid double-digit range.

However, US cars with their opulent dimensions, curved tail fins and thirsty V8 engines continue to enjoy great popularity. After all, it is also a special style and a certain attitude to life that resonates when you let yourself fall into the soft upholstery of a Pontiac GTO, for example.

The body designs of the 1950s were much more ornate and playful, but the 1960s are in a way the final decade of automotive hedonism. Certainly, powerful, lavish muscle cars were also built in the following eras, but the oil crisis of the 1970s at least brought about a moment of reflection and downsizing.


Road cruiser, muscle car, movie star – the Pontiac GTO was somehow all in one. Preserver of the road cruiser image and pioneer of a new era of powerful road cars. Behind the car was the then Pontiac chief engineer John DeLorean, who later made his own name famous with a brand that did not bring him lasting success.

With Pontiac, however, the road to success was much simpler. Take a fairly ordinary mid-size model like the Tempest and plant a mighty 6.4-litre V8 in the body, and the dream of semi-strong boys and dynamic family men is complete. In 1964, this was simply called the GTO package, which could still be booked as an equipment variant in the Tempest, but from 1965 onwards it grew into an independent model – the Pontiac GTO.

Under the bonnet remained an engine with 6.4 litres or 389 cubic inches of displacement, which transported far more than 300 hp to the rear wheels. Pontiac advertised that the power-to-weight ratio could rival that of a Ferrari. It was probably no coincidence that the magic letters GTO, which in Italian stand for Gran Turismo Omologato, were intended to convey Italian roots.

But the Pontiac GTO has nothing in common with the taut sportiness of an Italian sports car. Power-to-weight ratio is one thing, the rocking chassis, the rather mediocre handling and inadequate brakes another. But the Pontiac GTO was also used for sprinting on the quarter mile rather than for hillclimbing on winding serpentines.

In sprint races it did well and cut a very good figure. From 1966 onwards, the engine capacity and power went up again. At the latest with the late model series from 1968 onwards, the Pontiac GTO gave even more clearly in the direction of a muscle car, until the oil crisis in 1974 put an end to it.

Compared to other models, the Pontiac GTO was granted only a very short automotive life. But at least it knew how to make impressive use of it. Its impact was also fuelled by numerous appearances in films and television series.


Even though the presidential appearances gave the Lincoln a reputation, the majority of potential buyers opted for a Cadillac. General Motors’ premium brand was better able to attract the majority of solvent prospective buyers from the upscale middle class.

For those observers who have not followed the US car market so closely in recent decades, the model names sometimes seem like Bohemian villages. Names alternate between model series and equipment variants, and in the end one no longer knows at which time which name stood for a model or only for an equipment line.

This can be illustrated by the Eldorado, for example. A car with this name was first launched in 1953. It was initially positioned as a special model of the Series 62. Even at this early stage, however, it had its own characteristics in terms of bodywork that distinguished it from a standard Series 62. In 1959 it was finally taken out of this series. Curiously, it lost stylistic distinction from other models because it shared bodywork with standard models.


1967 marked the beginning of a new era for the Eldorado. To finally make it completely independent, it was launched on the market as the Fleetwood Eldorado and for the first time with front-wheel drive. It was technically closely related to its sister model, the Oldsmobile Toronado, which had also been launched with front-wheel drive a year earlier. Exclusively as a coupé, GM’s design team around chief designer Bill Mitchell constructed a new car.

Clear, straight lines with sharp angles were later to coin the term “Razor Edge Design” for this type of car design. In the first two years, the headlights were hidden behind covers that appeared to widen the radiator grille when closed. From 1969, this fashion was over again and the headlights were visible. Under the bonnet, proven US power from V8 engines. According to the motto “a lot helps a lot”, units between 7 and 8.2 litres displacement were available with performance data between 340 and 400 SAE gross horsepower.

The fact that the chassis and the three-speed Hydra automatic were not able to bring the engine power to the road and that sporty driving was not really possible was not a problem.
Thus the new Fleetwood Eldorado enjoyed great popularity with a comparatively large number of buyers. Among them was Elvis Presley himself.

His affection was once put to the test. Legend has it that his ’67 Eldorado wouldn’t start one morning and he angrily shot the wing with a pistol. Whether it helped the car start is not known. But the existence of the bullet hole can be verified with the original example for sale at ChromeCars.


In the 1960s, the full-size models of the manufacturers were still far removed from downsizing. Especially the premium brands Lincoln, which belonged to the Ford group, and Cadillac (GM) were usually not stingy with space and luxury. But in 1961, for example, the fourth generation of the Lincoln Continental introduced a new design language. Elwood Engel, a proven opponent of tail fins and functionless flourishes, was responsible for the design.

And so he put clear and flowing lines in the foreground and gave the whole brand a new face. A face that was honoured at the start by representatives of the design guild: The Continental was the first car to receive the “Industrial Design Award”.


Engel had already submitted a design with a similar design language for the Ford Thunderbird in 1958, but it was rejected. For the Lincoln Continental, however, it was simply revised three years later, the wheelbase extended and the body fitted with four doors instead of two. Technically, however, the two models shared many parts.

As was usual with American cars, the appearance and technology were modified almost annually. Partly due to new legal regulations, partly simply due to changing aesthetic needs. But the basic appearance of the Continental was already so advanced in 1961 that updates were made in small doses. Sometimes it was the light units, sometimes the radiator grille. In 1966, for example, Lincoln gave the Continental an extended radiator grille that anticipated the “Knudsen nose” often used later.

Actually, the ’60 Continental doesn’t quite fit into the listing of road cruisers. Compared to its opulent predecessor from the 50s, the new one lost 30 centimetres in length and dispensed with chrome, fins and bling bling. But on the other hand, it was still a handsome specimen of a full-size car. In terms of equipment, workmanship and reputation, the Lincoln was above the other brands anyway, comparable to European premium brands.

The rear-hinged rear doors alone, the suicide doors, were something special. Especially in the four-door convertible, which was truly exceptional at the time. With this presidential appearance, it is not surprising that even the leaders of the free world resorted to Lincoln’s services. Besides the glamorous appearances, however, what remains most memorable about the Continental is the tragic episode of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

The pictures of how he was hit by the shots in the open Continental, built in 1961, went around the world.

Text Paolo Ollig Photos ChromeCars

Author: Lennart Klein

Lennart Klein ist Redakteur beim Classic Trader Magazin. Seine Begeisterung gilt zwei- und vierrädrigen Klassikern gleichermaßen. Traum-Klassiker: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior & Mercedes-Benz 600.

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