Perhaps the most interesting part of the Pontiac GTO is that it was never supposed to exist. A mandate came down from the highest levels of General Motors: No high performance cars. Nothing that implies racing or going fast was to be in the GM lineup.
In the '50s Pontiac had a old fashioned image as a manufacturer of conservative basic transportation and sales were suffering because of it. There were even plans to kill the division off entirely.
Pontiac's salvation was clear: build a performance image. They proceeded to do so, and by 1962, the desired results - increased sales - were a reality. For example, Hurst shifters were found on Pontiacs with floor mounted manual transmissions. The relationship was apparently successful, as every manual transmission GTO was controlled by the Hurst product.
Continuation of the success seemed doomed with the infamous January 24, 1963 memo from the top which banned all racing activities. The rule stated that all cars would have to weigh ten or more pounds per cubic inch of engine displacement. Even as the memo was being written, work was underway to put a 389 cubic inch motor in the Pontiac Tempest, which at ~3400 lbs., would be in clear violation of the edict. Leading the effort was Pontiac chief engineer John Z. DeLorean, who years later would start his own car company, only to end in failure.
The January 24 memo contained a loophole however. Although new models required corporate approval, decisions regarding options only needed a nod at the division level. The Pontiac GTO, as introduced in the 1964 model year, was actually an option on the Tempest LeMans. Credit for convincing GMs top brass to let the GTO exist, which may have met the letter of the law but not the spirit, goes to Pontiac General Manager Elliot "Pete" Estes.
What's In A Name, You Ask?Although the Pontiac GTO's existence was borne of original thinking, its name was not. The GTO moniker was "borrowed" from Ferrari, which had a short production run (40) of sports racing cars of the same name starting in 1962. GTO in that case stood for "Gran Turismo Omologato" the english translation of which is "Grand Touring Homologated", a fancy way of saying that it was approved for certain classes of international sports car racing. Controversy over the name theft continues today, with many insisting that the Pontiac owners deserved more original thinking. Jokesters of the time claimed that GTO stood for "Gas, Tires, Oil", all of which both the Pontiac and the Ferrari used in large quantities. Fans and owners of the Pontiac GTO proudly call their favorite car a "Goat" and label their meetings as a "Gathering of the Goats".
Not up for debate was the sales success of the Pontiac GTO. The marketing types predicted that about 10,000 GTOs would be sold; the final tally for 1964 was 32,450. In 1964 America was hungry for speed and the GTO was the only solution. Other manufacturers took note of the trend and would produce their own performance offerings, but the Pontiac was the first.