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Year, Make and Model – 1974 Pontiac GTO

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Photos by Jeff Koch.

[Editor’s Note: When we disabled comments on Finds of the Day, some readers were vocal about losing a forum to discuss past ownership experience with a particular automobile. To fix that, we’re introducing a new series entitled “Year, Make and Model,” where readers are free to discuss cars with as much enthusiasm as they’d like, as long as comments remain family-friendly, non-political an on topic. Year, Make and Model posts will be pulled from our back catalog of printed content, and will cover a broad range of vehicles. Enjoy, and let us know what you think of the idea. – Kurt]

The Ventura-based ’74 GTO embodied a number of firsts (most of them could be considered onlys, until the ’04 models arrived). The first GTO to ride a unit-body platform, and the only GTO to be considered a compact car. The first 5.7 liter GTO–and the first GTO since 1966 packing fewer than 400 cubic inches. The only GTO with a Shaker hood. The only hatchback GTO built for production (an option). It’s ironic to note that GM’s X-platform was a lot closer to something European in size than was the sprawling Grand Am, with its faux-pontoon fenders and double-wide cabin size, which was advertised as the most European American car ever.

Though the Ventura was considered a compact, it had a wheelbase just four inches shorter than the ’64 GTO (111 inches versus 115), and an overall length shorter by the same amount. Alas, it had chunked up to about 3,400 pounds. The engine itself was a special 200hp 350, with a bore of 3.8762 inches and a 3.75-inch stroke, two-bolt mains, heads with 89cc combustion chambers and 1.96/1.66 valves, and a mild 269/277 degree duration cam. A Q-jet carburetor fed the beast, and air came in from both the front of the car through a conventional air cleaner snorkel and through the Shaker scoop, which sucked in the high-density air mass that gathers at the base of the windshield. (Even the ’74 Trans Ams couldn’t have open Shakers, due to noise standards.) Compression was a shockingly low 7.6:1.

It would not be unrealistic to ask why the division couldn’t at least drop a 400 in there, much less a 455. Pontiac V-8 engines are dimensionally identical regardless of displacement–none of this big-block/small-block nonsense like Chevy had–so it wouldn’t be hard to swap in something a little hairier. And a lot of people did. As a bonus, the bigger mills were cleared for emissions-ready duty in Grand Prixs and Catalinas and such, which should have made the job easier still.

But the factory had to contend with a couple of things. First, outside of the Super Duty 455, the gruntiest V-8 Pontiac offered was rated at just 250hp. (The top engine had just 225hp.) An extra hundred cubic inches for just 50 net horsepower, when everyone had one eye on the sheiks turning off the oil spigots, didn’t seem the wisest compromise. (Alas, the 455’s 375 foot-pounds of torque, compared to the 350’s 295 foot-pounds, would doubtless have made for some formidable quarter-mile figures.)

1974 Pontiac GTO

The 1974 GTO was introduced onto the market at the same time as the first OPEC oil embargo. Gas lines, daily bad news out of the Middle East, and factories pumping out gas hogs in larger numbers than ever before were neither a pretty nor welcome sight. You might think that the ’74 GTO, then, was the right car at the right time–an interesting option for anyone interested in performance cars. Right?

Well…as it turns out, not so much. Sales actually did jump about 40 percent, up to 7,058 for the season, but Pontiac drew the legacy of a GTO to a quiet close.

But there’s another yardstick to measure against here: Mustang. Though the two were not direct competitors in the marketplace, they followed a similar career path for the first decade of their lives. Massive hype. Iconic stature. Diehard owners. A steady growth in both power and creature comforts. And, in 1974, a massive downsizing onto an existing smaller platform (in the Mustang’s case, the Pinto). Loyalists cried out in anguish. Yet only one was sent into a cryotank-induced slumber, not to re-emerge for 30 years. The other went on to sell about a million copies in its smaller, less powerful, not-what-it-once-was form that lasted until the summer of ’78. Did those dark ’70s years destroy the name and reputation? Ask the guy with a new 400+-hp Mustang GT in his driveway.

But the Mustang could be anything; the GTO was a very specific thing, pigeonholed as a muscle car in a time when muscle cars were considered more retrograde than ever. Take the muscle away and what’s left? The potential for a GTO to live well into the power-neutered ’70s was alive and well, but Pontiac walked away from the market it created–choosing instead to funnel its performance efforts into the Trans Am.

This article originally appeared in the January, 2013 issue of Hemmings Motor News.