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A compulsive con artist and his first lie: thus was born the sports car that anticipated the Mustang and Camaro

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Sports, especially football, coined a metaphor that defines the most radical successionism, with that of “the second is the first of the losers”, a look as unsympathetic as it is debatable. In other fields there are some examples that challenge the verisimilitude of the sentence, as in the automotive industry. Ford Motor Company was not the first to implement the assembly line for the manufacture of cars, but took an idea that Oldsmobile had already put into practice with the Curved Dash, perfected it and massed it with the Model T, no less, of which more than 15 million were sold. Four decades later, the Mustang appeared in 1964 as a realization of the American dream, a car with poise and sporting features that (like the T) was made available to a salaried middle class and, with almost 60 years of existence, it has already been 10 million units put on the street. But, in effect, it was not the first muscle car of the United States, but the second …

The first was born from the minds of a group of General Motors entrepreneurs who met on Saturdays to unleash ideas from their revolutionary minds. Those encounters called them What if, or the What if in the Spanish translation. They were young people as daring as they were creative, who, in this case, focused one of their ideas for Pontiac. The plan was to answer a question at a time when the market began to call for less bombastic and stately models to satisfy the demand of a generation, the Baby Boomers, who had aspirations of vertigo and freedom on top of a car: “What if we put a powerful engine in a compact car?”.

In his appearance, he was introduced as a rabid version of the Pontiac Tempest LeMans.  (GM)

The answer was channeled to two protagonists: the Pontiac Tempest and the 389-cubic-inch, or 6.5-liter, V8 impeller, who gave the mentor of that idea the tool he needed to boost both Pontiac and his own career: This is how the GTO was born, the acronym for Gran Turismo Omologato that was already recognized in large Italian sport models. The growth of the brand was exponential and directly proportional to the John DeLorean, the mastermind behind the new model, which must have been developed in secret because it was against GM rules at the time.

DeLorean did not go unnoticed in the automotive industry of the 20th century and the secret conception of the Pontiac GTO was just the first link in a dizzying career, because as fast as it went up was also the way in which it descended: that promising young GM star in the 1960s died in a public hospital in New York, the city where she lived with her fourth partner in a small one-room apartment.

A young DeLorean (right) on the rise in the hands of his first great car.  (GM)

Born in Detroit in 1925, the son of a Ford operator and a General Electric employee, DeLorean had his education interrupted by World War II (he served in the Army), but eventually earned a master’s degree in automotive engineering and later a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Michigan. Then he officially began his automotive career in 1952, joining the research and development team at Packard Motor Car Company. In no time, he became a rising figure in the industry.

In the mid-1950s, Pontiac hired Semon Knudsen as general manager to rejuvenate its range. To achieve this, he partnered with Pete Estes, the same one who years later would take credit for having dubbed the Camaro “the animal that eats Mustangs.” They brought in brilliant young engineers including DeLorean. With them, the Pontiac styling became slimmer and more powerful, with cars lower and wider. At the time, GM was the largest company in the world, but Pontiac, even with the changes, struggled to connect with America’s youth, a large consumer force driving America’s emerging automotive culture.

The brand took its new designs to the track, where it fought with other Detroit automakers. The transformation was going from strength to strength until GM bosses instituted an internal competition ban in January 1963, ending the successful game plan Pontiac had used to rank third in U.S. sales behind Ford and Chevrolet.

The solution came from those meetings of the What if. It was during one of those sessions that the elite engineering team put a 1964 Tempest LeMans coupe prototype on an elevator – it took less than half an hour to fit the 389 engine. Since the external dimensions of the Pontiac blocks were the same size, switching to the larger displacement impeller was relatively simple. The first to handle it was DeLorean, who in turn invited second-ranking executives from Pontiac and GM to live the experience, so that they could begin to convince their superiors about the convenience of introducing a vehicle of these characteristics to the market.. A true strategist, a snake charmer …

The 389-cubic-inch V8 engine that was secretly used by General Motors.  (GM)

It was said to be so fun to drive that DeLorean used to have a hard time getting the car back after borrowing it. At this point, the biggest hurdle he faced in putting the car into production was GM’s internal policy regarding large engines in small cars: in the case of the GTO, a corporate mandate that called for 10 pounds of vehicle weight per inch. cubic capacity of the engine. In other words, the vehicle had to be 1764 kilos (3,890 pounds) for the power-to-weight ratio to be approved by the parent company, which went against the original plans.

John DeLorean, in the early 80's, with his latest creation: the DMC-12.

The team cleverly discovered a shortcut in the regulation: the displacement limit only applied to basic engines; there was nothing written about optionals. So the Tempest LeMans with the GTO option package, which included the 389 V8, stuck to the rule because it was offered only as an option. DeLorean commissioned an ad campaign promoting the model for a new generation of young Americans and showing them the meaning of driving for fun: Pontiac dealers received 5,000 orders from LeMans before GM knew the car existed. There was no going back. And it was unveiled in September 1963 to go on sale the following year.

In addition to the coupe, it was also offered in a convertible version.  (GM)

Rather than selling the car as a standalone model, the larger engine would be offered as an optional package for $ 295 on the 1964 Tempest. GTO-equipped coupes started at $ 2,852; while the convertibles in a figure of u $ s 3,081. The GTO package was an instant hit: 32,450 units were sold in its first year. There were two power variants, 325 and 348 horsepower, which depended on the carburettors carried by the engines. The first Ford Mustang, introduced in April 1964, had the same 2.8-liter six-cylinder engine as the Falcon, and it was only in 1965 that the first version with a V8, the Shelby GT350, appeared with 306 horsepower. The Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Charger, meanwhile, arrived in 1966.

The deceptive strategy wasn’t just inside GM. Jim Wangers, the advertising mastermind DeLorean had tasked with promoting the car, used the complicity of a magazine, Car and Driver, which made a cover with a comparative test that was never actually done: the Pontiac GTO against the Ferrari 250 GTO, at that time reigned in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the article, the American model was praised, whose performance placed it very close to the Italian coupe. Two decades later, Car and Driver herself aired her blatant involvement in the ideas of DeLorean and Wangers.

"A machine to reduce time and distance" was one of the GTO

For the impact of the GTO, DeLorean was handsomely rewarded, as in 1965 he leapt ahead of several (promising) older engineers to become Pontiac’s youngest general manager at age 40. The life of the model was divided into two stages: the first four generations produced in the United States until 1974, when sales languished at just 7,000 units annually, and the fifth and last extended from 2004 to 2006 by Australia’s Holden, a subsidiary of General Motors in Oceania. Pontiac disappeared in 2010, after the bankruptcy of GM.

The GTO of the second generation, already with fastback body, one of the most recognized.  (GM)

John DeLorean had passed away five years earlier, in 2005, at the age of 80 and a life built between fables, dizzying ascents and thunderous falls.. In 1973 he left GM when he was a serious aspirant to run the entire corporation, and went to work on his own brand of cars. The DMC-12, which became popular as the time machine of the saga Back to the Future, it was the only model that produced, until in 1982, cornered by debts, and get the money that was going to save his own company. That was going to be his last big lie.


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