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Written by Double Dragon
Thursday, 27 December 2012 16:23

1971 1/2 PONTIAC GT-37-John Sawruck Family


Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

71 GT 37 Sawrich family logo

John Sawruk is a well known name in the Pontiac hobby. John was born Nov 23, 1946. After earning a mechanical engineering degree and MBA John enjoyed a long career at Pontiac Motor Division. During and after his career as a Pontiac engineer and official PMD historian, John contributed to fellow fans through his work with hobbyists at car shows and in magazines. This highly popular member of the Pontiac hobby held kidney cancer at bay with various treatments from 1997 until his death November 12, 2008 in his family home at White Lake, Michigan.

Living with such a fervent fan of Pontiacs, it's no surprise that John's family is still involved with the hobby. John's wife Marjorie and his kids John M. Sawruk, Jr., Jeffrey J. Sawruk and Jennifer M. Sawruk remain involved in Pontiac events. I met the family at their booth in the Dayton GTO co-vention. Despite the usual flurry of activity going on at these events, the friendly family members spared me time to discuss John's restored 1971 Pontiac GT-37 on display inside the Nutter Center.

71 GT 37 john sawrick family front

The tale of John's GT-37 takes some unusual turns and twists. To begin, John's choice of car was slightly off the beaten track. Plenty of Pontiac employees buy the top model absolutely loaded with options. John's new car order was not a typical one. He ordered the underdog GT-37 instead of a GTO. John also let the car get away only to recapture it years later, but that's getting ahead of our story.

The GT-37 is essentially a revival of the Pontiac E.T. concept car. Pontiac division head John DeLorean shot down the E.T. back in 1968 when Pontiac engineering created the E.T. as a low budget Tempest supercar. The name E.T. is short for 'Elapsed Time' a common phrase in performance car guy lingo. The E.T. was matched to the Plymouth Roadrunner in quarter mile performance and low price. The orange E.T. (Pontiac named the color Carousel Red) was a stripped Tempest packing a 330 HP 350 H.O. DeLorean rejected the car on the basis of the 350,

"This is a 400 cubic inch world!".

The E.T. Carousel Red concept car morphed into a top level GTO with a Ram Air III 400 engine as standard equipment. DeLorean renamed it 'The Judge' which proceeded to create a stir on the sales front drawing focus back to the GTO model. DeLorean was promoted to Chevrolet in 1970 and Pontiac was quick to implement some ideas that DeLorean forbade during his reign. First on the list was the addition of a rear anti sway bar on the GTO that DeLorean had always opposed.

DeLorean was a firm believer in positioning Pontiac above Chevrolet as an upscale and exciting performance oriented division. Soon after DeLorean was gone his carefully established hierarchy experienced a shakeup with the mid 1970 Pontiac budget entry named T-37 which was briefly one of the cheapest GM intermediates on the market. T stands for 'Tempest' which was the base intermediate Pontiac model of the time. 37 is the Pontiac internal code for 'hard-top'. Items were stripped out of the car to drop the price. The T-37 became the basis for the performance oriented GT-37.

The GT-37 was announced May 15, 1970. This was a good platform for the launch of a new budget supercar along the lines of the 'E.T.' Lacking the heavy Endura front end and sound deadener the T-37 was a lighter starting point than the plush GTO platform. The spartan new T-37 name was easy to play off. Add a G and you had the popular "GT" designation which resonates with the GTO name. The GT prefix has been affixed to almost every hot car in the 1960s or so it seemed. There was the Plymouth GTX and Sport Fury GT, Dodge Dart GTS, the Shelby Mustangs (GT-350 and GT-500), the muscle version of the Fairlane, and countless other applications over the years.

True to the 'E.T.' concept the 1970 1/2 GT-37 started off as a strippo 350 machine. Unlike the high compression 4 barrel 350 H.O. in the 'E.T' the base engine in the GT-37 was a regular 2 barrel 350. Pontiac did offer optional 400s. The majority of the package centered on appearance upgrades such as locking hood pins, and body striping lifted from the 1969 GTO Judge plus GT-37 identification added to front fenders and rear deck lid. The performance oriented options could also be termed appearance items. All were visible from the exterior except the transmission, but even here the Hurst shifter had built quite a visual image for itself.

The technical parts of the GT 37 option were G70-14 White-letter tires mounted on Rally II wheels, ride and handling package, dual exhaust routed through rear valence, and heavy-duty three-speed manual transmission with Hurst Floor shifter. If you stood pat with the 350- 2 barrel you were stuck at 255 gross HP which wouldn't back up the great appearance of the car particularly when stacked up against the insanely powerful big block supercars that owned the street in 1970. The 1970 1/2 GT-37 was a marginal seller and not very well known. Pontiac didn't have a full model year to sell within leaving sales at 1,419 by year end with the majority built with the 350 base engine.

The following year the 1971 GT-37 was much the same but lacked the standard ride and handling package and the base 350 was downrated to 250 gross HP. The stripes were switched to the two Judge 'eye brow' style accents and dual body colored sport mirrors were added. The big news for 1971 was that Pontiac created an opportunity that some guys spotted. You could order a 455 H.O. in the GT-37 which provided the same power as a top engine optioned GTO with less car weight. Now you were playing with the big block boys.

The GT-37 appeared at a time when the Junior Supercars of the 1960s were on the way out and being replaced with 'tape and stripe' cars. The 1960s small block alternatives to the big block supercars didn't sell well. Some hot cars like the Oldsmobile Ram Rod 350 and Dart Swinger 340 appeared at the end of the 1960s. The lower cost small blocks provided top performance from wild cams, 4 barrels and heavy duty suspension.

The tape and stripe cars began with the Buick California GS which had a passenger car engine and suspension coupled with the GS external appearance. The GT-37 adhered to this new formula with the regular engine and hot looks. But it had performance potential due to some good standard equipment and as a consequence of its low budget status it left financial room for optional engines. The bench seat, basic interior with rubber floor mats, minimal sound deadener and a regular front end (no Endura) not only saved expense but weight. Significantly, the GT-37 received revised stripes mid way through the model year. The new emphasis on stripes was indicative of the times. In 1971 the tape ans stripe cars started coming out of the woodwork

Pontiac had another tape and stripe car named the Ventura II Sprint option with a base 307- 2 barrel. In March, 1971 Chevrolet released a bargain version of the Chevelle SS 396 called a 'Heavy Chevy' that was similar in appearance to the GT-37. It had mag wheels, blacked out grille, hood pins and a 'Heavy Chevy' decal, but came standard with a mere 200 HP 307. Two 350s and a 402 were optionally available. Not available was the 454. The Heavy Chevy managed to pump out 6,000 sales, but that was still sparse when compared to SS 396 Golden Years.

Over at Chrysler a hot looking package on the Plymouth Duster called 'The Twister' and its equivalent Dodge Demon 'Sizzler' were restricted to the 318- 2 barrel single exhaust as the biggest engine. The Ford Maverick Grabber 302- 2 barrel and its cousin the Mercury Comet GT provided a 'tape and stripe' car with good power to weight ratio. Of all these 'appearance packages' only the 1971 GT-37 was created with the flexibility to install the most potent power plants available. Despite this 'loophole' potential, the GT-37 was off the radar of most buyers.

Pontiac Motor Division's Sep 16, 1970 press release promised that the 1971 Pontiac line-up would be in showrooms Sep 29, 1970. The GT-37 option was available on either the coupe (post) or hardtop two door models and was coded '33' in the VIN. This turned out to be a bit of a problem for orders because the standard GT-37 dual sport mirrors blocked vent windows from opening. This forced Pontiac to drop the coupe with its vent windows from being ordered with the GT-37 package. In a way it was ironic justice, since the "37" name is literally GM code for 'hard-top'.

The GT-37 was coded as option 334 and cost $236.97. Just like the 1970 model year, the 1971 version of the GT-37 was only available with two doors and a V8. Both years the base V8 engine was a 350-2 barrel. The GT 37 provided a heavy duty 3 speed manual transmission with floor shifter, dual exhaust with chrome extensions, G70x 14 white letter tires, Rally II wheels (less trim rings), dual hood locking pins, left and right hand body colored mirrors, Rally stripes and GT identification decals.

Many of the GT-37s were ordered with the base engine. The 350 did receive some help from the low restriction dual exhaust and steeper 3.23:1 axle that came standard with the GT-37 package.

By now the tape and stripe syndrome had usurped the truly potent 'Junior Supercars' which died out after 1970 when Oldsmobile didn't bring back the Rallye 350 and the Nova SS396 was cancelled. The 1971 Nova SS was still a good performer with its standard 350- 4 barrel and lightweight body but the real king of the Junior Musclecars was the Duster 340. The GT-37 needed the optional 400- 4 barrel to catch the Duster. This is exactly what the testers at HIGH PERFORMANCE CARS did. They knew the 350-2 barrel wasn't going to make it and ordered a 1971 GT-37 with 400-4 barrel and proceeded to pull quarter miles in the 14s.

71 GT 37 article cars mag page 1


John Sawruk ordered his GT-37 in similar fashion to the HIGH PERFORMANCE CARS crew with some extra personal touches added in. John Sawruk was working in Pontiac engineering in 1971 when he ordered his 1971 1/2 (so named for the late build date which used different stripes). John was privy to the birth of his car when he visited the Pontiac, Michigan final assembly plant. John witnessed part of the build process on his car but missed the very end. The GT-37s ended up in quarantine for an issue with the left hand side 'sword style' stripes which replaced the Judge style stripes used on earlier 1971 GT-37s. There were about 100 of the cars sitting inside a lot awaiting work. Due to this special circumstance John missed the final portion of his GT-37s build. The next time he saw the car was when it sat as delivered at the dealership.

71 GT37 john sawrick family side

The car that greeted John on the dealership floor was quite a stunner: Starlight Black with a Gold Bayonet reflective body length stripe. The 1971 1/2 cars feature a foil reflective stripe that runs the length of the car. A GT-37 built after March, 1971 with the full length stripe is referred to as a '1971 1/2' car much the way Mustangs built between April and the last day of July, 1964 are called 1964 1/2s despite being titled as 1965 model year cars. John Sawruk estimated that about 200 of the 1971 1/2 GT-37s were built with the new style reflective stripe.

John's 1971 1/2 didn't rely on the commonly encountered standard 350-2 barrel engine to hold up its image. John opted for a performance oriented option sheet to compliment the ready-made potential of the standard dual exhaust GT-37. John's GT-37 was equipped with the optional 400-4 barrel engine. The 400 had been the backbone of the GTO since 1968 and in its 1971 detuned state still pumped out 300 HP. 1971 was the first year for both gross and net HP ratings and the 400 managed 255 HP in net form. Of the 5,802 1971 GT-37s built only about 10% were ordered with the $221.17 optional 400-4 barrel.

John combined the 400 engine with the tough TH400 automatic, a 3.55 Safe-T-Track axle and the Ride and Handling Package. To back up the performance parts John also specified Heavy Duty Frame, Heavy Duty Radiator and Heavy Duty Battery. Anticipating Michigan's awful winters, the GT-37 also had heated rear window.

John used his GT-37 as a daily driver and as you can imagine, the salted winter roads of Michigan took their toll on the car. John sold the car before the end of the 1970s but was immediately struck with seller's remorse. It took some doing but several years later John was able to retrieve his original GT-37. The GT-37 had been in regular use since it left John's care and it was in need of a restoration.

Scott Tiemann's Supercar Restorations of Portland, Michigan have a well deserved reputation for excellence and were given the task of bringing John's GT-37 back to original factory condition. Despite health problems stemming from holding kidney cancer at bay, John remained active at Pontiac shows. John's involvement with the Pontiac hobby didn't end with his death. John's family shares John's GT-37 with fans by displaying it at shows and maintaining a booth with his Pontiac memorabilia.

Not only is the family preserving John's car, but his family has also demonstrated John Sawru's taste in their own cars. John's son Jeff Sawruk inherited John's genetics that is for sure. Jeff's first car at age 16 was a 1969 Pontiac Custom S. Just as John Sawruk chose the lesser known GT-37, his son Jeff also chose the lesser known version of the intermediate Pontiac. The Custom S was built only in 1969 as the middle step between base Tempest and the top level Le Mans. In keeping with the 'E.T.' concept's engine, Jeff's Custom S was factory ordered with the same 350 H.O. engine used in the prototype 'E.T'. Like his dad's GT-37, Jeff's car is used as a daily driver. Jeff also tinkers with it refining his times downwards at drag races.

John's family has carried on with his passion for the lesser known Pontiacs in many different ways. We can rest assured that John's black GT-37 will be kept in the family for a long time to come.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 27 September 2014 21:36 )