Now this is really Forgotten Metal. This is a 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans, and it hasn’t been very well cared for at all. Sitting here, at this decrepit Trevose garage, the lonely old LeMans looks as if it hasn’t moved in decades. The tires are flat, the inside is a wreck, and there’s more rust on it than paint. Let’s not mince words: it’s a hunk of junk. But it’s a hunk of junk that singlehandedly launched a totally new genre of cars and got a whole lot of teenagers in a whole lot of trouble.
The name “LeMans” comes from a prestigious French endurance race which began in 1923. The Pontiac LeMans, on the other hand, is not prestigious, French, or really all that enduring, given the state of this one. It is, however, a very important car. In 1961, Pontiac offered a car called the Tempest, and it was quite lovely. Pontiac looked upon its creation and saw that it was good, so they decided to spice it up a bit by offering a special “sporty luxury” package called the LeMans.
People liked the LeMans so much that, in 1964, Pontiac made a new Tempest, and with it a new LeMans. You could get one with a 215 cubic inch inline six-cylinder or a 326 cubic inch V8, both of which were new. In addition, there were three other V8s and another inline six to choose from as well. And you could have four different transmissions. So, if you were in the market for a nicer Pontiac, you were spoiled for choice. But that isn’t what made the ’64 LeMans special.
What made the LeMans so important was, effectively, an available option. In 1964, when you were given the order form for your new Pontiac, there was an unassuming little checkbox added. Next to the checkbox were three seemingly meaningless letters: GTO. Today, those three letters carry quite a bit of weight in the automotive world, but in the mid 1960s, they were just an available option for an available option. GTO stands for “Gran Turismo Omologato,” which means Grand Tourer Homologation in Italian, a name which was lovingly ripped off from a very pricey classic Ferrari.
So why was the GTO so special? Well, it gave LeMans owners yet another engine to choose from, in the form of a 389 cubic inch V8, which developed 325 horsepower. The $300 package also got you a new manual transmission with a Hurst shifter, revised suspension and, crucially, redwall tires. This made the upgraded LeMans quite fast. It also was the beginning of a legend. You see, the GTO was more than just an optional package that gave your car fancy wheels. It was also the first muscle car.
That’s right: those loud, ostentatious two seaters that “the youngs” race around your development can all trace their origins back to this rustbucket. Cars like the Camaro, the Challenger, the Barracuda and the Roadrunner wouldn’t exist without those three little letters. What would people who walk away from explosions without looking at them drive if the GTO hadn’t come along? The world would’ve been a quieter, less silly place without the muscle car, and, personally, I think it would’ve been worse off. I love muscle cars. I love them in the same way I love 80s love songs and Bruce Willis movies. They’re ridiculous and unnecessary and they paint me as a bit unsophisticated, but I can’t help feeling that we could all stand to let our hair down a little and enjoy the simple, shallow pleasures every now and then. That is what this Pontiac started. This particular car isn’t a GTO, it’s just a humble LeMans, but it provided the template for one of the greatest American inventions, and for that I think we are all in it’s debt.
- The GTO eventually broke off and become its own car in 1966, instead of just a trim level.
- In 1961, the Pontiac Tempest won Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year Award.”