In 1964, Pontiac broke one of the rules at General Motors in offering a high-performance V8 package in the newly mid-sized Pontiac Tempest. At the time, big engines went into the largest cars, mid-sized engines in mid-sized cars and small displacement engines in small cars (the rule of thumb was one CID for every 10 lbs of vehicle weight). What Pontiac did was a heresy that sparked a revolution.
The revolution, of course, the Muscle Car era, that the GTO kicked off and where nearly every major brand offered a big V8 and performance upgrades in a smaller car.
The package was named after a highly successful Ferrari racing coupe, and two years later (1966) it became its own model in the Pontiac lineup. And it wasn’t the only muscle car to be introduced that year, though most others didn’t have quite the muscle of the “Goat”. The top engine in the 1964 Chevrolet Malibu SS was a 283 CID 220 HP small block V8, while the most potent engine in Ford’s mid-sized competitor, the Fairlane was a 289 CID V8 that developed 271 HP. The 348 HP Tri-Power GTO blew them all away.
Background Story: There Would Be No GTO Without John DeLorean
While John DeLorean’s name is better connected with a stainless steel sports car that bears his name and a drug scandal from which he was acquitted, the man himself was a talented engineer and product visionary. When he joined Pontiac in 1956, the GM division had no real clear brand identity (being one of six automobile divisions) and wasn’t connecting with the new generation of car buyers.
Pontiac’s leadership then set a course to become the performance brand with General Motors, and Chief Engineer DeLorean found a loophole in GM policy that would allow the big-engine GTO to go forward.
GM brass had set a displacement limit for the new A-body intermediate cars, the Pontiac Tempest, at 330 CID. That would have meant Pontiac was limited to using its 326 V8, a reasonable but not too exciting choice as output was 260 HP.
The loophole was that the GM corporate displacement limit related to the base engine in each trim. DeLorean, Bill Collins, and Russ Gee developed the GTO package and offered it as an option package. Pontiac General Manager Elliot “Pete” Estes green-lighted the GTO package. However, his sales manager Frank Bridge wasn’t convinced and limited initial production to 5,000 cars. By the end of 1964 model year production, 32,450 GTOs had been sold.
The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO Package Was A Game Changer
While from 1966 on, the GTO would be a separate model within the Pontiac system, in 1964 and 1965, it was an option package on the Tempest model and Le Mans trim level. The GTO package was available in two-door coupe, hardtop, and convertible configurations.
The base engine was the 325 HP, 389 CID Pontiac V8 commonly installed in full-size cars like the Bonneville and the Catalina. The GTO upgrade cost $295.90 ($2660 in today’s dollars – still a smashing deal). Included in the GTO package were the 389 CID V8 topped with a four-barrel Carter AFB carburetor, dual exhaust, a Hurst shifter-equipped three-speed manual, stiffer springs and front sway bar, and wider wheels and tires. On the appearance side, non-functional hood scoops and GTO badging were added.
Pontiac offered a wide array of optional components, including power steering and power brakes and performance upgrades like a four-speed transmission (buyers’ choice of a Muncie M20 wide-ratio or M21 close ratio) or a two-speed ST-300 automatic, metallic brake linings, and a heavy-duty fan. The option most enthusiasts concentrated on was the more powerful engine that boasted triple carburetors.
The Tri-Power 389 V8 Is Another Reason To Love The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO
The Pontiac V8 engine was introduced for the 1955 model year, the same year as Chevrolet launched their legendary small-block engine. Both were 90-degree V8s with two valves per cylinder operated by a central camshaft, but had little else in common. While Chevrolet (and other brands) had both small block and big block V8s, Pontiac had a single block. To allow enlarging the engine in the future, the Pontiac V8 had greater bore spacing than the SB Chevy, increasing its length and weight. New for 1959, the 389 CID version was equipped with performance upgrades, including four-bolt main bearings and a windage tray in the crankcase. The 389 was made to order for a performance car.
The Tri-Power carburetor set-up had been available on larger Pontiac models for several years, and its advantages were well known. The set-up consisted of three two-barrel carbs arranged longitudinally across the top of the engine. In regular operation, the car ran off the main center carburetor. The two other carburetors would open when the accelerator was depressed more aggressively. This setup provided a significant performance improvement for two reasons – one is that the total volume of air that the three two-barrel carbs could feed to the engine was greater than a single four-barrel carburetor was capable of. The second is that the three carbs are better aligned with the intake runners of the cylinders, so intake airflow is improved, and a more balanced mixture of fuel and air is delivered to the engine.
As efficient as the Tri-Power option was, GM banned using multiple carburetors on their midsize muscle cars midway through the 1966 model year. Of course, the Corvette continued to offer multiple carburetion.
The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO Today
Although 32,450 total GTOs were produced in 1964, it was really just a drop in the bucket when it came to GM production. That year, GM produced over two million vehicles. Even the Chevy Malibu SS outsold the GTO, with 76,860 produced. It goes without saying the GTO was a somewhat rare car, even in 1964, and as only about 25% of 1964 GTOs (8,245) came equipped with the Tri-Power setup, it’s clear that a three-carb 1964 GTO is even rarer. Combine the limited production with the GTO’s legendary status, and you get some high values for the car today.
Values are so high that it’s worth the time and expense to restore an early GTO from a condition that would otherwise go to the crusher.
Today, a 1964 Tri-Power equipped GTO is valued at over $65,000 in good condition, with prices up 25% recently. Concours condition, low mileage cars with original equipment Tri-Power and four-speeds can soar into the six-figure range. The rarest body style is the convertible, with the hardtop second. Most were built as a two-door coupe (with framed door glass and a B-pillar).
That should not discourage buyers seeking a muscle car experience. 1964s with a four-barrel carb and/or an automatic transmission go for much less. And surprisingly, cars that have been updated with a manual four-speed and a Tri-Power carb set-up aren’t that much more expensive than a current year midsize SUV.