The 1964 Pontiac GTO was not only the world’s first muscle car—it was a four-speed, triple carbed coupe that sounded mean, went fast, and looked faster. In short, it was a quintessentially American machine that the buying public went nuts over.
Forty years later, GM imported an IRS-equipped Australian Monaro to America, made it both U.S. legal and more bland looking, and called it the 2004 GTO. Many GTO purists promptly became furious. There were a couple reasons: first, the hallowed GTO name was being used for a car that one motoring press member described as a “phone company fleet car.” Secondly, car enthusiasts love ‘Murican-made iron, and the new Goat was just about as far from being “American” as it could be. In short, the buying public did not go nuts over it.
So how the hell did we get it, and who the hell got it? Pent-up demand and globalization, with a huge assist from legendary auto exec Bob Lutz.
Ever since the mighty GTO left with a whimper in the 1970s, Pontiac aficionados have dreamed about a rebirth. Pontiac itself alternately stoked and stifled those dreams, depending on how sweet or God-awful its concept cars were. (Looking at you, 1999 Detroit show concept.)
In the early aughts, the Firebird was dying and “Maximum Bob” Lutz was searching for a rear-drive performance car to plug into Pontiac’s portfolio. And when he saw what GM’s Australian arm, Holden, was up to, he was impressed. Holden’s Commodore line had been a huge success, so the Aussie automaker’s next step was to create the 2001 Monaro. This rear-drive performer had a solid foundation, nimble suspension, and a 302-horse, 5.7-liter LS1 that made for 14-second quarter miles.
Interestingly, the Monaro’s foundation was really old: GM Europe subsidiary Opel built the Omega midsize sedan on it in the 1980s—we knew this chassis from the 1990s Cadillac Catera. Now, the Catera may have been awesomely bad, but the chassis was okay. In fact, Holden further refined this platform in the late 1980s, and built the Commodore and Monaro on it.
Pontiac knew that this platform’s age and styling was long in the tooth. However, as GM wasn’t about to spend millions to completely design a new GTO from scratch, turning the Monaro into the GTO was the next best thing. So in the span of around 17 months, Monaros were converted to US-spec GTOs. They switched to left-hand drive, moved the fuel tank into the now-tiny trunk to handle US crash requirements, and made other structural modifications for safety’s sake.
However, while the safety gear would pass American muster, the styling would not. Compared to the fairly aggressive Monaro, the new GTO’s styling was too sleek, too simple. American buyers need in-your-face exhausts and moar hood scoops; the flat hood and one-sided exhaust exit turned some buyers off.
But once in the hands of owners, the furor died down: Turns out, the new Goat was in many ways a world-class vehicle. The chassis and suspension were hella beefy to handle rough Aussie roads, and owners used to C4 and F-body shakes and rattles experienced BMW-like stiffness. The front strut/rear semi-trailing arms with adjustable toe-in link suspension, despite being paired with smallish 245/45/17 BFGs, provided surprising balance and roadholding chops; the 3,800-pound beast could push nearly .90g when prodded. And the 350-horse, 365 lb-ft LS1, while slightly underpowered, created 14-flat quarter miles at 102 mph, and perfect, rumbling exhaust notes. Best of all, the interior was flat-out the nicest GM cabin in decades. Ultra-comfortable and supportive, the eight-way power seats were considered the best seats in a GM vehicle ever. Classy, well-lit gauges were encircled by silver bezels and wore colored faces. The steering wheel and shift boot were leather wrapped, and accent stitched. Outside of strange window control locations and a manual shifter that was like “stirring a jar of peanut butter with a stick,” this $33,000 GM’s interior felt like the cabin of a $70,000 luxury vehicle.
The 2004 GTO was a mixed bag, and 15,740 were sold that year. While the 2005-06 models benefited from the 400-horse LS2 engine, hood scoops, dual-exit exhaust, and a host of other enhancements, they couldn’t outsell the 2004 model. Years later, Lutz himself pointed at the sales culprits during the three-year run: stale styling, overpricing, and poor distribution. And why not throw in a train wreck, too. So it’s easy to realize that we were damn lucky to get three years of the GTO at all!
But as imperfect as it was, the 2004 GTO was a change agent to GM, and a godsend to GM buyers. Before the new GTO, the General’s non-Corvette models had been built with the “good enough” mentality left over from the bad old days. Those of us who lived with the NVH nightmares and shoddy build quality of the ’90s and ’00s vehicles were amazed by the Goat’s refinement. And those inside GM North America knew that this European/Aussie machine was the future of vehicle manufacturing.
So whether you love it or hate it, the 2004 GTO left a lasting influence on GM that’s still felt today. GM is building vehicles that have much stronger chassis, better, more sophisticated independent rear suspensions, and more comfortable interiors. The 2004-06 GTO says, “You’re welcome.”
Legacy: 2014 Chevy SS
It’s early 2014, and the next chapter of EFI GM performance, the Chevy SS, is now in showrooms. With today’s resurgent GM selling fantastic Chevys, Cadillacs, and Corvettes, it’s easy to take this 415-horsepower, IRS-equipped, rear-wheel-drive sport sedan for granted.
But think about this: if the ’84 GN had never embraced new technology and used sequential fuel injection with a powerful ECM, would GM’s engines have developed into the high-tech, high-powered, fuel-injected wonders that they are today?
If the ’04 GTO hadn’t made the trip from Australia, would American GM execs and enthusiasts have ever experienced world-class power, handling, rigidity, and comfort from a GM performance car not named Corvette?
And if bold vehicles like Jon Moss’ prototype and production Impala SS hadn’t shaken GM out of its slumbering mediocrity, would collectable, high-powered niche vehicles like the fixed roof coupe Corvette, TrailBlazer SS, G8 GXP, or Chevy SS even exist?
It’s very possible that the answer to those questions is a resounding “no.” And so the high-tech 1984 Grand National, the fiercely unique 1994 Impala SS, and the trailblazing 2004 GTO gave enthusiasts more than just a few fun cars to play with. They pushed the limits, broke the rules, and helped usher in today’s golden age of refined EFI GM performance.