Home Car Stories One Owner 1974 PONTIAC GTO- Don McKay
1974 PONTIAC GTO- Don McKay PDF Print E-mail
Written by Double Dragon
Saturday, 29 December 2012 21:54

1974 PONTIAC GTO- Don McKay

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Writing copyright D. S. Brown. Photography of GTO interior copyright D. S. Brown. All other photography courtesy and copyright Don McKay. Promotional photo of new 1974 GTO and the hatchback hutch option copyright Pontiac Motor Division.

Don McKay grew up in the Bridgeview area of Surrey, British Columbia 30 miles away from the Vancouver Downtown area. Surrey has plenty of rural country roads and is within easy distance of Mission Raceway. Don's father drove a 1958 Pathfinder Wagon (a Canadian built Pontiac) before acquiring the only new car he ever bought: a 1965 Acadian Beaumont Station Wagon (also a Canadian Pontiac exclusive).

74 gto don side

Don's elder siblings also contributed a Pontiac bias. Oldest of the pack was his sister who owned a 1962 Pontiac. Eldest of the brothers, Ray bucked the trend with a 1957 Chevrolet. Ray bought a 1964 Fairlane Sports Coupe and sold the Chevy to second eldest brother Stan.

74 gto don f

Stan is a welder and mechanic who worked for an auto wrecker. A 389 bought from his work was transplanted into the 1957 Chevy. Next, his 1932 Model A received a 389. Next up was a 1966 Chevrolet Impala 9 passenger station wagon with Buick vista panels welded into the roof. As you may have guessed, the 283 became a 389. Stan took it all the way up to an aluminum block 421 Pontiac engine. Jim Wangers would be proud! (See the article about Wangers transplanting Pontiac power into a Monte Carlo dubbed the 'Ponte Carlo'). Stan also owned a 1966 Canadian exclusive Pontiac Laurentian with factory 427 Tri-Power four speed packed in a plain dark green sleeper body. Young Don helped Stan work on cars and learned quite a bit.

74 gto don int

The defining day came when Stan arrived home from work driving a 1967 GTO. It ran great with the transistorized ignition 400 and looked cool with a console Hurst His/ Hers automatic shifter. The GTO had been hit on both sides and was a write off. Stan took Don for an unforgettable ride which cemented Don's Pontiac connection and ignited his GTO craving. The GTO ended up back to the wreckers, but it stuck in Don's mind.

Don's book keeping job in Steveston, BC required a car. Not making a lot of money, Don opted for cheap to buy and run transportation in the form of a 1971 Vega. The photo below was taken March 23, 1974 on the day his buddy was married. The night prior to this photo one of Don's lady friends put the Vega in the ditch. Don put a new windshield in before the car was decorated. The good side is shown in the picture. The other side had some damage although it wasn't too serious.

71 vega don

After paying $1,900.00 the famous litany of Vega disasters soon appeared: two weeks after purchase the thermostat went, then the clutch. Don blew up the 3 speed transmission twice and then rounded things out by losing his job. Once Don got in with BC Liquor his salary leaped from $450.00 to $685.00 monthly. Don's list of Vega woes continued when he managed to blow up the engine. Then he blew another transmission and switched to 4 speeds, going through two of those. When the ball joints fell out at 40,000 miles it was time to pack it in.

It was spring of 1974 in Surrey, BC and Don was now 20 years old with a good salary. No need to go low buck. He decided to act on his passion and buy a GTO. Don narrowed his choice to either a 1968 or 1969 GTO. He wasn't able to find any nice used ones on the dealership lots.

What he did see on the dealerships lots was the new 1974 GTO's. Constant exposure to the 1974s sparked Don's interest. He began to like the Ventura based cars, particularly the hatchback. Below is one of the early factory promo photographs from Don's personal collection.

74 gto factory pic

Pontiac made the switch from the General Motors 'A body' platform where the GTO had been established variously as an option or as its own line since the original 1964 GTO ignited the musclecar mania of the 1960s. The switch to the GM 'X body' and a small 350 engine was a desperate move to preserve some viable version of the GTO concept within the turbulent performance parameters of the times.

There are many who believe that the GTO was an intermediate car/ big engine hot rod and when this formula became skewed it ceased to be a GTO. This group is not open to variations on the big engine/ intermediate theme. Adherents of this viewpoint usually embrace the concept that 1970 was the cut off year for the musclecar. According to this perspective when the ferocious engines were tamed for unleaded fuel the musclecar was dead. The GTO was the instigator and 'face' of the musclecar era and hence after 1970 the GTO was considered dead in the water.

Over time the strict definitions have slackened somewhat and there are musclecar fans who believe that the new breed of musclecars are valid when assessed in the context of the times they were built.

74 gto official announcement

 

Because the 1960s straight line performance could not be duplicated with low compression lead free emissions laden engines the 1970s performance car market emphasized handling, braking and a tough image. Some performance was still available even without the juggernaut high performance engines. Economy performance cars posted some decent quarter mile times courtesy of the light bodies the engine was required to haul down the quarter mile. The 'econo racers' became popular by virtue of good performance and low initial cost of their small block engines which also escaped the insurance surcharges.

The 1973 Duster 340 sold many more units than the 1973 GTO. The Chevy Nova SS 350 sold similar numbers. Pontiac had their own version of the Nova platform 'X body' named the Ventura II. It seemed to make sense to use the ready made Pontiac X body and get into the new trend in performance. The decision to re-imagine the GTO as a Nova SS created the controversy. If the new musclecar had been named Ventura E.T. or Ventura H.O. the hardened muscle fans would probably have been willing to let the car exist in its new niche performance category.

It wasn't as if serious performance guys were completely opposed to the new trend of running under the insurance radar. Some performance guys embraced the Dart Sport and Duster and even went so far as to order 3 speed heavy duty manual floor shifts to slip past the insurance guys. The insurance company were looking for inflammatory items such as big blocks and 4 speeds. If your car didn't have these two items you were free of insane surcharges. Performance guys were playing this game in large numbers.

So the problem wasn't so much with the format of the new car but rather how it contradicted what had gone before. The powerfully established GTO image was just too strong to allow Pontiac to switch the concept and expect many of the old school guys to accept it. From the established gearhead perspective, the fact that the new 1974 GTO was supposed to be insurance friendly, gas friendly and capitalized on newly emerging utility trends was proof that this was not a GTO. All these pluses equaled a minus to guys who grew up with the mean GTO of old.

As it turned out the new GTO was insurable although its gas mileage wasn't what people hoped. The new GTO was also ahead of its time answering a growing trend towards vans. Chrysler was first to cater to the people who wanted to camp or do other outdoor activities. One of the coolest innovations Chrysler offered on the 1973 Duster was called the Space Duster Pak option. The rear seat folded flat to allow the trunk space to extend all the way to the back of the front seats. Dodge offered the package as the Convertriple on the Dart Sport.

74 gto don hutch ad

Pontiac's new 1974 GTO hatchback also offered this great versatility, too. In 1974 Chrysler offered a Dodge Dart Sport which combined the long bed storage with a sunroof. The so called 'Convertriple' concept was taken to its ultimate version as a custom van fighter named 'The Hang Ten' which is a popular surfer phrase. 'The Hang Ten' combined garish orange shag carpet and graphics with the 'Convertriple' concept. Surfers appreciated the utility of the vehicle. But many non surfers valued the fold down usable space this set up offered in a sporty body style. As utilitarian as the 'Hang Ten' was, the GTO trumped it in 1974 with an optional tent that attached to the rear hatchback area.

One ironic note here is that while the GTO was re invented as a compact with 350 engine it was possible to order a big block engine in a 1974 LeMans GT and thus create an approximation of the original GTO concept. But the reality of the LeMans by 1974 was that it was no longer able to match the original GTO in straight line performance.

The 1974 LeMans had swelled in size and weight. Constricting acceleration further was the dilemma of seemingly dead engines. Part of the problem was real due to tighter emissions standards and low compression but the situation was artificially exaggerated via perception due to the new net HP ratings which didn't directly compare to the old gross HP rating system. 400 and 455 engines rated in the net system appeared to be a shadow of the former monsters Pontiac produced a few years earlier. Even the truly potent 455 Super Duty SEEMED tame with a 290 HP net rating.

With the LeMans suffering from bloated weight, weaker engines, NET HP ratings and increased cost it was believed by many that Pontiac had left the GTO for dead while they pursued the Trans Am market. Evaluated on the basis of 1960s purist standards the GTO concept was already diluted and dispersed to the winds of change. Sales informed Pontiac that if the GTO had carried on with the LeMans line it would have probably petered out completely since less than 5,000 were sold in 1973 in this format. There is a legitimate argument to be made that if the GTO had received the Super Duty 455 as intended and had been able to keep the front nose given away to the Grand Am it might have kept its head above water in 1973.

But the fact is that Pontiac had abandoned the 1973 GTO and let it sink. The few buyers left who cared about the GTO concept matched to a LeMans body could cobble together a facsimile of the original by ordering a LeMans GT and then adding some optional engines. In light of this reality, the reconfigured GTO concept on a smaller less expensive platform could be perceived as a solution to the expense and weight issue as well as the lack of a Super Duty engine.

The big problem wasn't just the growth in size and initial cost, however. By 1974 the forces of insurance company premiums, gasoline prices and subsequent gas lineups combined with emissions and net HP rating systems caused an implosion within the musclecar new car market. Many guys were scouring lots like Don had tried to do for 4 or 5 year old high compression musclecars while others dropped out of the scene in favor of sporty small cars and suffered the consequences just as Don had done through his disastrous Vega odyssey.

Pontiac seemed to be trying to offer portions of the original magic formula in partial doses infused across the line. Pontiac had ponycar performance in the Trans Am and Formula which still had big engines. The T/A was a very young man's car because it had far less rear seat and trunk space than the old GTO. Pontiac had the official new 1974 GTO compact concept which was also a young man's car in the tradition of the Duster and Datsun 240Z niche market.

Pontiac retained a 'hidden' GTO concept available which would have appealed to their aging GTO buyers. What began as the 'A body' based GT-37 became the LeMans GT. The GT offered the old GTO scoops and Rally IIs, handling suspension, dual exhaust and floor shifter, an upscale interior as well as generous trunk and rear seat room. Although the standard engine was a 350 2 barrel, Pontiac continued to list large engines on the option list. The big problem here is that the 1973 redesign of the LeMans was controversial. Very few guys unearthed the 'hidden' GTO option.

Pontiac was not alone in this new world shakeup of established muscle machines. Other manufacturers were attempting to market 'tape and stripe' packages with smaller engines in similar fashion to what Pontiac was doing with the Lemans GT but without the possibility of the big engines that Pontiac kept on the option list. Chevy had the Heavy Chevy and the Nova 350s, Chrysler offered image cars like the 318 wild looking Twister as well as real performance cars like the Duster 340. Over at Ford the Boss 351 Mustang was a killer small block that vaporized when the Mustang was downsized. The Maverick Grabber was a neat car but the biggest available engine was a 302 2 barrel. Most of the tape packages did offer genuine performance items such as dual exhaust, floor shifted heavy duty 3 speed manual transmissions, fat tires, heavy duty suspension, front and rear sway bars and good brakes but fell short in the engine department.

Chrysler's Challenger Rallye was a small block car that didn't sell like the econo Duster 340. The Challenger R/T model with its big blocks was gone. No one seemed to see the point of a small block Challenger when the cheaper, lighter Duster small block was faster. Ford re invented the Mustang in 1974 as a compact car without an available V8 as a reaction to the bloating that had taken place during the early 1970s.

Amidst all this shake up Pontiac reasoned that the Ventura platform wasn't too far removed in size from the original GTO concept that started back in 1964 as an option on the 'A body' Tempest. The 1964 was 203 inches long while the 1974 was just under 200. Width in 1964 was 73.3 and 72.4 in 1974. A 1964 was actually heavier at 3,427 lbs versus the 1974 which was a light 3,278.

Because of government regulations GM like all the other car manufacturers had been providing slim owner manual sized Consumer Information booklets on real world passing and stopping capability of its cars for several years. Below are pages from the 1974 GTO fact book. All the times and distances seem hopeless pedestrian but these numbers were acquired with full passenger loads and all accessories draining away at the engine. Below the explanation of test conditions lists the conditions that rob the car of any advantages typically dialed in when prepared for performance magazine tests.

74 gto don ownerfact conditions of testing

Much like the Union Oil tests from the 1960s the passing figures are more applicable to real world scenarios than the enthusiast magazine results for quarter mile or 0-60 times because they represent what the car can really do without prep work or optimized launch techniques. This is what happens when you hit the gas to pass a truck on a two lane blacktop with a loaded car with wipers, lights and heater sucking energy out of the engine.

74 gto don ownerfact passes

Image played an even more important role than the actual deterioration in acceleration when we analyze the motives behind GTO faithful refusing to accept the 350 GTO for 1974. The benchmark figure for down rating gross HP to net ratings is usually around 20%. The original 1964 389 4 barrel rating of 325 gross HP is about 265 net HP versus the 1974's 350 which is rated 200 net HP. The last high compression standard GTO engine from 1970 was a base 400 rated at 350 gross HP which is about 280 net HP. Each year after 1964 the GTO gained weight while the standard engine only gained 25 gross HP.

Early 4 speed GTOs would run in the 14s in the quarter mile while the 1974 was mired in the 15s or even the 16s with the advantage of a 4 speed manual shifter. Head to head testing put the 4 speed 1974 around the same ET as an old 2 speed automatic GTO. A bit of tweaking could fix the 1974, but the perception of 'a step back' seems to be the most important consideration blocking the success of the 1974 GTO.

The GTO was always top dog with a big engine being the core of the image. As the representative of the original musclecar concept Pontiac wasn't allowed to tamper with this formula. The econo small block performance musclecars were a recent sub genre of cars that were trying to bypass the barriers of insurance premiums and soaring cost and weight that was killing the premium established musclecars. But the GTO was a premium musclecar, in fact 'THE" premium musclecar. By defecting into this 'new camp' of so called 'Junior Supercars' it seemed to GTO faithful as if the GTO were being devalued.

The new 1974 GTO concept was marketed as an overall performance car. Instead of straight line performance this time around all aspects of performance were being promoted as equal elements of a complete formula. The new performance ideal promoted decent acceleration coupled with good handling. The new GTO offered optional radial tuned suspension as well as disc brake options. The base 1974 GTO had the same size 9.5 inch drum brakes as the original 1964 GTO but the original GTO could only offer metallic linings as a 'fix' for the problem. The owner information book lists stopping distances below. The disc/ drum combination stops the GTO from 60 MPH in 197 feet when lightly loaded and 192 when at full load without locking the wheels.

74 gto don ownerfact brakes

Back in 1964 the exciting new Tempest GTO may have packed a powerful kick but it was also frequently delivered to dealers with soft springs and shocks, insanely inadequate drum brakes and slow steering. A guy in a hurry to own a GTO took what was available on the lot. Few of the early GTOs were optioned out with metallic brake linings and heavy duty suspension. Towards the end of the 1960s the GTO was becoming a well rounded performance machine with good handling and available disc brakes to augment the incredible power. Manufacturers promoting the all around performance of the slower but decent handling and stopping new musclecars were actually giving the public what the car magazines had been screaming for over the last decade but the 'tape image' cars simply didn't sell like the crazy fast under braked cars of yesterday.

In a sign of the times, mention was made of the 1974 GTO offering theoretically good gas mileage. Mentioning economy and GTO in the same sentence is akin to sacrilege in the minds of many faithful fans and stands as another strike against the new 1974 GTO, but in actual fact the first time the two concepts were merged was way back in 1967.

Yes, all the way back in 1967 Pontiac marketed an economy 2 barrel 400 mild cam low compression GTO option only available with an automatic transmission. The 'step down' GTO was clearly inspired by the 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Turnpike Cruiser which used a revised cam profile to optimize the super 'numerically low' rear axle coupled to the 2 barrel 400. The Turnpike Cruiser used the 442 heavy duty chassis for high speed stability. To see a story on the Turnpike Cruiser see the story in the GAS LOGS MPG section of this website.

The 1967 GTO 'step down' didn't take it as far as the Turnpike Cruiser. Pontiac felt that lower compression and a regular rear axle was sufficient to appease someone wishing for moderate economy while enjoying the GTO image. Pontiac was known for installing some of the lowest numerical axle ratios in the industry during the 1960s, so their reticence in doing so with the step down GTO is likely due to concern with preserving the GTO reputation even in 'step down' mode. The step down GTO ended after the 1969 model year.

Now 4 years later the issue of economy was being brought up again but in 1974 more people were listening due to gas lineups, doubling in price of gasoline and a perceived crisis in supply. Pontiac didn't offer super low numerical ratios for the 1974 GTO. The 3.08 was actually a pretty strong axle for this time period where 2.75 or lower was the norm. The general perception that a 350 would offer decent economy was rooted back in the era of higher compression. A 1970 350 indeed would have offered decent economy but by the time compression ratios were dropped and timing tinkered with, and emissions equipment added the smaller engines were no longer producing the expected good MPG figures.

Uncle Tom McCahill at MECHANIX ILLUSTRATED really liked the new Pontiac Ventura II when it came out in mid 1971 as a 1971 1/2 model but was disappointed in the MPG. He expected the small Chevrolet built 307 engine to be able to drive 'coast to coast on one bottle of Gramp's hair oil' but it just wasn't economical. The POPULAR MECHANICS March 1972 'Owner's Report' on the Pontiac Ventura II revealed that the 140 net HP 307 produced 14.3 MPG City average and 17.7 Highway which owners felt was too low for a small engine. The 350 Pontiac engine had just become available at this point so the PM people had no data on it yet.

When POPULAR MECHANICS revisited the X body with an Owner's Report on the Oldsmobile Omega version in the April 1973 issue the six cylinder Chevy 250 six cylinder engine had dropped further down in mileage from the 1972 possibly due to heavier 5 MPH bumpers and more restriction to engine function due to further tightening of emissions standards. The Oldsmobile built 350 produced 12.2 City MPG and 14.4 Highway MPG.

Similarly, the figures quoted for the Pontiac built 200 HP 350 in the 1974 GTO range from abysmal to acceptable. Even the best numbers don't really make it into the range that would make it a gas mileage champ as hoped by Pontiac when they chose to go with a 350.

So if the 1974 GTO wasn't the answer to the gas crisis then who bought one of these new breed of musclecar? Were they really as slow as we have been told? Don McKay emphatically states that the 1974 GTO wasn't slow. A lifetime of ownership has given him a lot of insight into the issues.

The first thing to note about Don and his GTO perspective is that he was 20 in 1974. Guys who were 20 in 1966 simply did not accept the new GTO. They had history with the original GTO concept. All the years of Tiger marketing combined with GTO ownership in the years of their formative youth behind the wheel of mid 1960s GTOs made this group of guys into fervent believers in what a GTO was and what it was not. Don was deeply impressed by the early GTOs. It was a 1967 model that sparked his desire for a GTO but he was also young enough to be open minded in his acceptance of new directions for current times.

Don is also a younger sibling. Psychiatrists have found that younger siblings tend to be more social and flexible. Elder children are fixed in their viewpoints. Don's older brother has refered to the 1974 GTO as a 'Ventura' as a jab against how the GTO concept had deviated from the original formula. Don took it in stride and corrected his brother in a good natured way,

"Its not a Ventura, its a GTO."

At the time Don was interested in the 1974 GTO guys were keen on the new Datsun 240Z which was basically a Japanese version of the Jaguar XK-E. The foreign sporty alternatives were gaining momentum as domestic quality control stalled and gas prices soared. In this environment Duster 340s and Nova SS 350s were actually 'large' muscelcars. To the eyes of a guy who was 20 in 1966 these were compact bottom rung cars. These conflicting experiences and opinions underlie the influences present as the GTO underwent changes and Don came of age.

All these market forces were background factors present when the decision to switch tactics from a used GTO to a new 1974 GTO was percolating in Don's mind. In the end it was a matter of a switch being pushed in Don's head.

One summer day at Country Pontiac Buick in Langley, Don saw a 1974 GTO being unloaded from the auto carrier.  See a story on Country Pontiac Buick in the DEALERSHIPS section of this website. The GTO unloaded that day was painted Gulf Mist Aqua with a White Vinyl roof. Looking closer Don noted that it was equipped with a 4 speed and the practical hatchback.

Right then and there Don wanted this car. Not one like it. This car. The GTO needed to go thru PDI. Don didn't know or really care what the acronym meant. It is dealership speak for Pre Delivery Inspection. Don dismissed that detail. This was HIS car. Country Pontiac Buick just didn't know it yet.

Don made two more trips to Country Pontiac Buick but 'his' GTO still hadn't gone through Pre Delivery Inspection. The third trip was the charm. There was Don's GTO sitting in the showroom. The Buccaneer Red 1974 Pontiac 455 Trans Am sitting beside the GTO piqued Don's interest, and it was only an extra $1,000.00. Tempting. But Don was still set on the GTO. In hindsight, Don is glad he had tunnel vision for the GTO. If he had gone off on a Trans Am tangent he suspects that he wouldn't have kept it for more than a few years. He is pleased with his low numbers GTO and OOCC is glad he chose the GTO, or we wouldn't be relating this ONE OWNER story right now!

Don and the salesman Reg Freebody took the GTO out for a test drive. The brand new tachometer dropped back to zero on the first shift. This left a negative cloud over Don's initial good impression of the car. Despite a less than perfect test ride, something about the car had grabbed Don and wouldn't let go. Don's dad had already refused to do it for the other kids, but Don approached his father as a potential co-signee for the payments just to see if he would go for it. No sale! This didn't stop Don. He managed to finagle his neighbor across the street to come down to Country Pontiac Buick.

74 gto don sales contract

After checking out the GTO, the neighbor cosigned the paperwork. It was June 28, 1974. Don was now the official owner of the GTO he first saw unloaded from the truck. The purchase agreement above has the final digits of the VIN of the Vega and GTO removed as well as Don's driver license number and signature otherwise it is complete. The receipt was issued July 9, 1974.

74 gto don receipt

$4,897.50 was quite a bit of money back in those days. When you read the option list it starts to make sense. In the 1950s the average car buyer might shell out for an optional heater and perhaps for a radio. By the 1960s automatic transmission, power brakes and steering were becoming commonly ordered options. Anyone who has ordered a GM Vintage Vehicles or Marti Report for a 1960s car gets a one page list of perhaps 5 to 10 options. By the 1970s many more convenience and performance options were appearing on cars and a two page report is commonplace. Don's Vintage Vehicles report spans two pages.

74 gto don vintage gm 1

The final digits of the VIN have been removed for internet privacy otherwise the Vintage Vehicles report appears just as it was mailed to Don

74 gto don vintage gm 2

Don's GTO had 20 miles on the odometer when he drove it away from the dealership. Most of those miles were logged by Don during his test drive before buying the car.

74 gto don protecto

Don peeled the original Country Pontiac Buick dealer sticker off the rear hatchback lid and attached it to the plastic bag containing the warranty book and other dealer provided books. Another ONE OWNER Bill Nawrot also peeled his dealer sticker off his 1972 GTO upon taking delivery. It reflects the perfectionist nature of the person who takes care of his belongings and hence winds up being a long term ONE OWNER. Below is a sign of the times. Along with the new warranty pamphlet that replaced the old Protect-O-Plate Pontiac issued a Consumer information pamphlet which is featured above (the passing times) and this emissions booklet.

74 gto don emissions

Don not only saved the paperwork that came with his car but he kept this explanatory tag the dealer attached to the 4 speed shifter.

74 gto don 4 spd tag

Country Pontiac Buick seems to have really cared about customer service. The card below encourages owners to ensure their car is properly sorted out by the dealership after delivery.

74 gto don breakin card dealer

Pontiac did come through on the promise of low insurance rates for the new 1974 GTO. Don's first insurance agreement from July 15, 1974 is reproduced below with the final digits of the VIN removed along with his signature. For one year the policy is a mere $109.00.

74 gto don ibcbc

Don's new 1974 GTO was immediately pressed into service in exactly the manner that you would predict a 20 year old would use it: street racing. By the start of 1975, in a mere six months Don managed to blow up two Saginaw 4 speeds. Don solved his transmission problems by putting a Muncie M21 in the car which is still there to this day.

Don notes that the number one Pontiac factory issue he dealt with was the clutches. Don had nothing but trouble with them. One was replaced at 6,700 miles after enduring numerous unsuccessful adjustments prior to replacement. He was getting very tired of the 25 mile drive from Surrey out to the Langley dealership every time an adjustment was required. Then Don had trouble with the replacement which was now past the warranty period. Aftermarket clutches didn't work much better. After Don stopped using heavy Weber and Hays clutches things smoothed out. With the heavy clutches he bent a clutch linkage and broke a ball stud.

Don had one inner valve spring in the 350 replaced under warranty. A sticky lifter was fixed under warranty, but it reared its head once more after the warranty had expired. The sticky lifter eventually flattened a lobe on the cam.

Below is a vintage back in the day picture of Don's GTO in 'Day Two' mode in approximately 1975 or 1976. Note the chrome aftermarket Cragar mags installed on the car which replaced the factory supplied Rally II wheels for a period of time in the life of the car. The Cragars had Semperit radials mounted on them.

74 gto don day 2

The stock rear axle gears on the GTO were 3.08:1 (except for automatic A/C cars which got 2.73:1). Stock tires were E70 14 Firestone Wide Oval Bias Plies mounted on 14"x 6" Rally II wheels. The page below from the owner information booklet provides some facts about the tires and their performance.

74 gto don ownerfact tires

Don didn't have the RTS (Radial Tuned Suspension) option but he ended up with radials pretty quickly. The tires were changed to radials after one trip to the Okanagan via Cache Creek. The interior of British Columbia has twisty hilly roads and gets plenty of snow and ice during winter. On his return trip, Don pulled into a gas station in Hope and managed to clip the gas island with the right front tire due to lack of adhesion. The Wide Oval tires distribute the vehicle weight over a larger contact area. Combined with less pressure on the contact area, the Wide Oval Bias Ply design just didn't offer any grip. Don replaced the factory tires with 205/70- 14 Semperit Radial Tires which were a vast improvement.

74 gto don tire warranty

The GTO surprisingly scored frequent wins street racing despite the less than stellar reputation of the 1974 GTO. Some readers may be a bit puzzled. Racing in the mid 1970s? Wasn't the musclecar era over? Wasn't the 1974 GTO just an image car without any go? These widely held beliefs have some validity but the legends aren't as black and white as you may think. Let's recap the first decade of the GTO examining the legend and the reality behind it.

The reputation of the Pontiac GTO polarized domestic and foreign fans during the 1964 model year introduction. Pontiac's choice of the GTO name made it only natural for CAR AND DRIVER to fan the flames with a favorable comparison to the Ferrari GTO. This outraged the sports car crowd and ignited a burning desire within every kid alive to own a tri-power four speed GTO. For the model years 1964 and 1965 a Tri Power four speed GTO was a lithe taut bodied image laden powerful performer. It was fast off the factory floor, but no one left it that way. Day Two work ensured most of these Tigers street racing were 14 second cars at the very least.

In 1966 the GTO coke bottle styling improved the looks but added weight. The tri-power image was intact. These cars weren't the absolute fastest cars out there but they could hold their own with home grown hotrods and most competitors once the typical Day Two adjustments were made.

The first big shift in GTO imagery occurred when GM took away the tri-power from all of its divisions (except the Vette). Pontiac scrambled to compensate with better heads in a larger 400 engine. HO and Ram Air engines kept the street credentials alive. The beautiful redesign for the GTO model year 1968 (Don's initial choice for a GTO) was plagued with emission control tuning hassles. The raw street racing reputation of the GTO took another small hit.

The GTO was also getting progressively heavier with inclusion of comfort, safety features and emission equipment. The proliferation of stripped mega cube competing musclecars and a softening of the GTO didn't hurt sales much but the GTO was definitely losing some ground in the supercar world it had launched back in 1964.

The RA IV engine kept the faithful focused on GTOs, but in 1969 you could order huge cube high performance engines in other musclecars that faded the GTO reputation another notch. All musclecars took a hit after 1970. The new net HP rating system knocked the numbers down. The 1971 weaker figures were partly due to perception based upon the new net HP rating system but there was also some reality lurking there, too. Detuned lower compression engines from GM genuinely had taken a horsepower hit.

In this negative atmosphere, no one noticed the fantastic 455 H.O. offered in the 1971 GTO. Pontiac found it to be the second fastest GTO they had ever tested. But popular wisdom states that no musclecar built after 1970 is fast. Now perception and reality didn't match.

The GTO retained the flowing lines first seen in 1968 for model year 1972. The general attitude that the GTO was dying received support from Pontiac themselves who relegated it to an option package instead of a model line. Pontiac offered the WW4 and the WW5 option packages on GTOs this year and those cars were terrific performance cars. They had power, handling and braking. But this is 1972 and now we're two years past the death of the musclecar so no one cared. Dedicated tinkering with a factory stock GTO could easily bring it back to 1970 standards straight line acceleration. The looks were intact with the same overall shape as before, but the expected GTO high end trim and interior had to be created from the option list now.

After declaring the 1973 GTO as car of the year in HIGH PERFORMANCE CARS, the 455 Super Duty was yanked off the GTO option list and suddenly you were left with a car that was bigger with controversial styling saddled by add-on giant 5 MPH impact 'log' style bumpers. Sales were low. Despite being one of the forgotten GTOs these cars had revised steering geometry which created much better handling than the previous year. The 1973 standard 400 and available 455 provided lively performance for regular driving which Day Two work could bring into competitive line with earlier GTOs.

Here's where the popular disdain for post 1970 musclecars doesn't jibe entirely with reality. Off the factory floor these cars required tweaking to release the potential. But for the average driver who wanted a quick image car, there wasn't much discernible seat of the pants difference between a pre and post 1970 car. Fractions of a second count with the street racers but they were tweaking their cars anyways. Raise your compression; get an earlier intake and carburetor and you were right back to the 1960s starting point. All these guys added cams, headers and ignition as a routine matter of course, so all you had to do was incorporate a few more steps to get into the 14s.

The 1974 GTO was a direct response to the diminished interest in a LeMans platform based GTO. And in fact, the 1974 GTO sales improved over the 1973 figures. Putting the GTO option package onto the Ventura platform was controversial. The GTO had previously been combined with a prestigious body and accordingly lush interiors and trim levels. Many Pontiac people viewed the Ventura as a thinly disguised Nova which showed its economy roots. It was easy enough to order buckets and console, three spoke steering wheel, Rally Gauge Cluster and tachometer to bring the interior up a notch or two but in base form the GTO faithful were not pleased to see a bench seat and strip speedometer.

Some people have pointed out that the 1974 GTO made a full circle back to the first car. Here was a squared off body on an easy to park intermediate sized car with a performance image. But the gaping hole in this comparison is the engine. No cubes, no 421 heads, no tri-power or high compression. The main point of outrage centered on a GTO with a 350 engine. John DeLorean famously killed the 'E.T.' GTO back in the 1960s because it was designed around a 350 H.O.,

"This is a 400 cubic inch world."

In 1974 which was no longer a 400 cubic inch world, acceleration was still King if you were a musclecar. No one cared about the good GTO standard F41 suspension and handling package, or the braking performance of the 1974 GTO which was praised in magazine tests. The verdict for the 200 horsepower 350-4 barrel was negative: 16 second E.T.s in the quarter and bad MPG. Many guys have relied on the fact that Pontiac exterior engine dimensions are identical from 326 right up to 455. It is very common to encounter 400 and 455 engine transplants in 1974 GTOs.

This in fact was the key to the 1964 GTO success story. Dropping in a 389 was easy for Pontiac to do since motor mounts and exhaust routing, starter etc were already worked out with the smaller cubic inch capacity engine that shared the exterior dimensions. The other GM divisions had to re engineer everything to make a big block fit.

With all these substituted larger engines routinely powering 1974 GTOs, it seems that the initial prejudice against the 1974 350 is somewhat warranted. Someone once said that if the 1974 GTO was named a Ventura Sprint it would have been widely accepted. Isn't it typical of Pontiac to create controversy? Just like 1964, once again people were getting pissed off by the car that Pontiac planted the GTO nameplate onto.

There are cases where an engine built on a good shift at the factory comes out just right. Don's seems to be one of these cases. Don's 1974 GTO actually got a good reputation for being fast with the local Surrey street crowd even before typical Day Two work was done to it. And yes, out in rural Surrey, BC the musclecar world was still burning up the roads. Street racing in 1974 was as common as it was in the 1960s. It seems the crackdown on the biggest street venues was happening in the urban areas like Detroit and New York.

Street action survived anywhere you have young kids and clear roads. Don was 20 and Surrey had plenty of lightly traveled roads and country routes back in 1974. Don took down many Novas and Dusters. Before everyone dismisses the Novas and Dusters that had their doors blown off by Don's GTO, remember that the Duster 340 was truly potent. The Duster is a genuine 14 second car right off the dealer lot and Don didn't match it, he beat it.

In drag races with a 1974 Nova or other 1974 GTO's Don was usually leading by two lengths when he reached third gear. This impressive performance was duplicated against 340 Dusters which were very fast cars. Don estimates that his 1974 GTO was a mid 14-15 quarter miler. He states,

"This car was FAST RIGHT OUT OF THE BOX."

At about 30,000 miles the 350 dropped a lifter. Since he had the engine opened up anyways, Don substituted a mild lump cam in place of the stock unit which helped it a little. Years later Don could tell just by seat of the pants method that his 1974 GTO driver (ex parts car) which had a 400 wasn't as fast as the 350. The 350 was quicker with the new cam, but he insists that it was a good runner even prior to that. Don relates an illustrative story involving one of the legends of the musclecar world: a 1966 Corvette.

Don's lifelong friend, John had a 1966 Vette 327 4 speed. Don and John raced late one night beside Queens Park. Don over revved and floated the valves but hit 2nd gear hard and the Goat leapt past the Vette. It was all over by then. Two weeks later John rebuilt his 327 but they never had a rematch.

Aside from the street race, Don's GTO has won the longevity race, too. In a standard scenario, John sold his Corvette to buy a house in Chilliwack, BC. Don's other buddy Paul sold his 1969 Dodge Swinger 340 4 speed bench seat white vinyl over Bronze to buy a house in Surrey, BC. Both men were later divorced (John remarried a second time) and no longer own the houses that their prized musclecars were sacrificed for. Paul bought a 2008 Mustang convertible and John drives a Nissan Murano.

Don nearly went the same route as his pals. Don thought he had found 'the one' but he and his girlfriend parted ways. Because of that failed romance, Don is the sole remaining friend of the three to still own his car. It's a nice connection to the days of their youth which his friends have lost.

Don recalls crossing paths with a Duster in front of the Dell shopping center. When the light turned green they both jumped on it. Don caught a half length on him out of the hole, banged second which left the Duster a bit further back. Don actually missed 3rd gear but it was all over by then already. Ironically the spot where the race ended was right in front of a Royal Bank which is now the local police station. Don also frequently raced up on 104th Ave and 148th St near Guildford which is now also the location of a new police station. They must have heard that Don and his GTO are back on the road!

A week after the race, Don ran into a pal, Harry Fontaine who owned a 1965 GTO 4 speed with a fast 389. Harry started relating a story about a race he witnessed. Harry described the 1974 GTO in the left lane that pulled a small wheelie and lifted again on the second gear shift. Don started laughing when he realized that Harry was describing his Duster encounter. Harry's story pleased Don but the story already rewrote history with Don making third gear, which he missed. This is how all legends begin. Don says he prefers Harry's story to the reality, and relates the story to demonstrate how surprisingly well his GTO ran back then.

No matter how good a day at the factory the GTO had, the basic engine can only be optimized so far. Based on Don's experience with his GTO the 350 4 barrel Pontiac put together for 1974 was pretty decent. An interesting little known point to bear in mind is that the true displacement of a Pontiac 350 is actually 354 cubic inches which gives it one more slight advantage over a Chrysler 340 or Chevrolet 350.

Don and friends took the GTO camping and skiing. The hatchback proved to be very versatile in these situations. Years later Don picked up a correct tent option for the GTO but back in the day he didn't have this particular option on the car.

74 gto don r pass

Looking at the photo above you can see the blue cut out within around the rear window within the vinyl top which defines the shape of the hatchback lift. When the hatchback was lifted up it created an open space from the inner lip of the bumper to the rear of the roofline. The hatchback opens to a height significantly higher than the top of the car's roof. A tent attached to the top of the open hatch creates quite a bit of living space. Looking at the photo below you can see how spacious the interior room is with that hatchback fully extended and a tent attached.

74 gto don r tent

The GTO was very good in the snow. One memorable trip through a white out snowstorm proved this. All the other cars were stuck on a hill, but the GTO made it over the top. Don and his friend John went skiing at Big White. In the Hope Princeton area they came around a corner into a complete whiteout with cars everywhere and a Dodge van in their path. Don told John,

"If the van stops we're dead in the water"

Right on cue, the van stopped. The van tried starting again and slid across the lane a few feet. Don knew it was now or never. He started out in 2nd gear, let out the clutch and slowly crept around the van giving him a toot on the horn to let them pass. At the top of the hill conditions were so bad that a snow plow was sitting there waiting out the storm! The driver was shaking his head as the GTO continued on into the blizzard. Don and John got to Big White and never had a car pass them once.

The GTO had a very high top end due to the highway friendly 3.08 axle ratio. The aftermarket cam probably helped some, too. One night Don was on the freeway coming back from Abbotsford, BC when he encountered a black Pontiac Trans Am with 455 and automatic. The two cars raced from 70 MPH until Don had his speedometer buried past the 120 MPH point. They stayed fender to fender until both backed down. After a thumbs up to each other the T/A was gone. That was the fastest Don drove the GTO.

Don drove his GTO until 1987 at which point he had logged 134,000 miles. The engine started to emit smoke. An engine tear down revealed the rear cam bearing in the pan. Don kept his GTO off the road while he commuted in a brand new Jeep Comanche Pickup. The GTO was only temporarily sidelined, or so he thought. With his eye on a restoration of the GTO, Don and his brother made a road trip to Calgary to look at a 1974 GTO parts car. The Calgary 3 speed hatchback was painted Regatta Blue. Don decided to buy it. He brought it back to Surrey, BC as his parts car. The car was a basket case but as these things happen, it morphed from parts car status to getting restored.

In one of the typical car guy twists of fate that restored Calgary 3 speed GTO became Don's primary driver for 15 years. Meanwhile without a parts car to work with, the four speed GTO was sidelined for a lot longer than originally intended. 

Don finally got things organized to deal with his four speed GTO. A friend's shop was slated to perform the restoration. In an unfortunately far too familiar story, half way through the job the friend's restoration business closed down. Don retrieved his partially completed GTO. It sat in storage limbo until Don could focus on it properly following his retirement in August, 2009.

A body shop completed the bodywork and painted it the original Gulf Mist Aqua color. Don re assembled the car himself at home. Lou's made a home visit to install a new white vinyl roof, the rear hatch window and some chrome trim. The 350 engine was bored 0.30 over, the crank was cut ten. The ignition was upgraded to an HEI unit. The exhaust was changed into a true dual exhaust. The original configuration relied on duals fed into a single cross flow muffler. White Rock Brake and Wheel redid the exhaust, a wheel alignment and fixed some leaks in the new stainless steel brake lines. Don was pleased with the caliber of their work and good prices. Don's GTO didn't experience the typical Pontiac problem of hot starting and burnt out starting motors. The original starter didn't fail until 2012 despite the fact that the original factory heat shield wasn't re installed after the car was restored.

Don intended to drive his freshly rebuilt GTO to the Portland Nationals but tinkering absorbed the time leading into the event. Once Don's freshly restored GTO was back on the road some bugs appeared. Mainland Transmission diagnosed a speedometer problem and some shifting issues. Don was pleased with how well they fixed the four speed at a decent price. Don no longer had time to log 500 miles of local break-in time prior to the show. Don hit the Portland Nationals anyways.

The GTO ran great and got 17 miles to the gallon on the trip (calculated using US gallons) which surprised Don since it was a fresh engine without break-in miles. This was actually the same mileage the car provided before the rebuild (measured in Canadian gallons). Don wound up doing the first post rebuild oil change at a fellow show-goer's house, Butch York. Butch owns three 1974 GTOs. The Portland Nationals presented Don with an Original Owner Award which hangs in the entry hall of his home.

Back in the days when the GTO was sidelined Don didn't realize how much he missed his original car. Don is making up for lost time now by entering his GTO at many local shows. He shows the GTO with a correct tent for the hatchback which was purchased some years ago for the Calgary Parts Car GTO.

In 2011 Don's GTO was on display at the Hot Nite in the City event in Kamloops, BC. Don wandered off to take pictures of other cars and left his friend Pete Stack (who owns a 1970 GTO Judge) to watch the cars. Pete noticed a blonde girl looking the GTO over. She mentioned that she used to date Don years ago when she lived in Surrey. She lives up in Kamloops now. Unfortunately by the time Don returned to the car she was gone. As you may have guessed, she is 'the one' that Don would have married. Would they have lived happily ever after? Or would they have divorced? No way to know. Don is just glad he still has his car!

Don stopped in on his old pal, John (the 1966 Vette owner) who was now living in Chilliwack. Don wanted to show him the restored GTO. John hadn't seen the car in years. John exclaimed,

"I still tell people about the Ski trip to Big White in this car"

Ironically, the parts car that became a driver is now due for a restoration. The Calgary Regatta Blue GTO has now been retrofitted with a Muncie M21 4 speed. Don simply doesn't get rid of things and because of this at three ONE OWNERS he may have the highest tally of one owner vehicles thus far on the site. Currently Don owns Two 1974 GTOs. The first is his ONE OWNER, the second is the parts car that transformed itself into a restoration. He has two Honda motorcycles, one of which was bought new in 1976 as part of a clearance sale. Don's ONE OWNER 1975 Honda CB360T is of course, blue. He has a 1977 Honda Odyssey dune buggy (bought used in 1978), and one 1987 Metallic Grey Jeep Comanche 4X4 Long Bed Pickup bought new. It now has 389,000 kilometers on it.

When you look at Don's track record, I start to doubt that he would really have dumped that 1974 Buccaneer Red Trans Am if he had made an impulse purchase back in 1974. If you look at the ski trips and other tough conditions he used the GTO in, Don may very well have needed to trade in the T/A for something else, but my gut tells me he would have parked it and kept it!

74 gto don r dock

 

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 30 July 2014 11:46 )