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Written by Double Dragon
Monday, 18 August 2014 14:11

1971 1/2 PONTIAC GT-37- Don Fitch


Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

Don Fitch missed out on a 1970 Plum Crazy Challenger and bought this GT-37 instead. He was offered three times what he paid for it the first day he bought it. He had no intentions of selling it then or now. After 35 happy years of enjoyment Don is glad the way things worked out.


When Don was out searching for a hot musclecar back in 1977 he ended up with a different car than planned through fortuitous circumstances. Don originally had his eye on a 1970 Plum Crazy Challenger packing a 383. When that sale fell through Don stumbled upon this rare GT-37. He wasn't looking for a GT-37 but the accident of discovering the car turned out to be a lucky day for Don.

Even back in the 1970s you didn't encounter very many of these cars. Not only was it rare but it was in excellent condition. Below is the original bill of sale with the final digits of the VIN removed as well as the seller's street address and zip code.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch bill of sale

A deal was made for $1,500.00. Immediately after purchasing the car Don was offered $4,500.00 right on the spot. Don didn't want to sell his new GT-37 but that encounter reinforced his satisfaction with the Pontiac and erased any lingering regret for missing out on the Challenger.

No one will dispute the fact that a Plum Crazy Challenger is an incredible car. As the Pontiac came from the factory, the Challenger would have run rings around it. The Challenger also had a no holds barred full on musclecar image. The Challenger was the final refinement of the 1960s ponycar concept combined with a Hemi sized engine compartment. The Challenger's uncompromising but impractical style was a bit more flamboyant than the Pontiac which could serve duty as practical transportation.

The GT-37 that Don bought was factory equipped with the base 350- 2 barrel. Pontiac's option list made it possible to ascend the horsepower ladder right up to a 455 HO, but to appease insurance agents and to provide a low buck/ image car, the basic GT-37 came with the low powered 350 engine as standard equipment. 1971 was the beginning of the 'tape and stripe' cars that eventually replaced the old 1960s musclecars.

The hint of what was to come originated in the 1960s with 'Junior Supercars'. These low cost versions of popular musclecars usually provided 4 barrel carburetors, high compression and wild camshafts to achieve comparable performance to the big blocks  Cars such as the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ram Rod 350 or Rallye 350, Pontiac Tempest 350 H,O, Chevy Corvette LT-1 and 1970 Z28, Dodge Dart Swinger 340 all performed within supercar range but at lower cost. The king of this category of cars was the Plymouth Roadrunner. Significantly, the Roadrunner combined low cost and a stripped body with a large engine. A musclecar without a big block just couldn't make a sales dent in the 1960s. The Junior Supercars that relied on small blocks remained out of sight and soon became 'mystery cars' to be rediscovered during the musclecar collecting renaissance.

The first true 'tape and stripe' car is likely the Buick GS California which combined the external appearance of the GS with a standard passenger car engine and suspension. In 1971 this concept was pumped out of the factories in a variety of models sporting hot exterior looks and regular passenger car drive trains.

The base regular passenger car 350 in the GT-37 outgunned most of the new crop of 'tape and stripe' cars. such as the base 307-2 barrel 200 HP engine standard in both the 1971 Chevrolet 'Heavy Chevy' and the 1971 Pontiac Ventura II Sprint. The Plymouth Duster Twister and Dodge Demon Sizzler were restricted to a 318-2 barrel and single exhaust. The Ford Maverick Grabber and Mercury Comet GT were also running smaller 2 barrel engines, but the 302 in these cars accomplished a bit more with the light weight of these compact cars. By 1974 there would be cars such as the Dodge Dart Sport Rallye which actually bragged about a wide ratio Hurst 4 speed transmission and 2.94:1 axle ratio right in the bold print of the ad. The Rallye only had a 318 but great looks with stripes and Tuff steering wheel, Rallye suspension and mags shod with E70 x 14 white letter tires.

The Consumer Information booklet provides a sobering account of how a typical 1971 2 barrel small block accelerated and stopped in real life conditions loaded down with weight and supporting the electrical drain of accessories.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info cover

The figures in these booklets are always far below the numbers obtained in enthusiast magazine tests where the top drivetrain options were selected and treated to optimal tuning and ideal test conditions along with light loads.

Pontiac is careful to point out in the introduction that better stopping distances can be obtained with higher than the 150 pound pedal pressure limit used in these tests, which many drivers are capable of exceeding. The amount of weight the car carries is excessive when compared to magazine road tests, but probably representative of the average user. Pontiac also explains that all the cars listed can achieve the figure given and some may be better which is certainly possible since front disc brakes were an option on these cars and they usually outperform drums.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info pag 1

The Pontiac intermediates can stop from 60 MPH in about 245 feet (224 with full load) if equipped with power brakes that are not locked. With the power system de activated the distance nearly doubles, but the testers were restricted to 150 pounds pedal pressure for the test. This raises some interesting questions about the GT-37 which came standard with 4 wheel drum brakes lacking power assist. Most drivers can exert more than 150 pounds pedal force so the excessive non power distances are probably not typical for the average muscle car driver with non power drums.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info pag 2

The diagrams below illustrate the two passing situations tested using base 250 six cylinder engines and the base 350 V8. The GT-37 uses the base 350-2 barrel but this engine is allowed to breathe properly through the GT-37s standard dual exhaust with low restriction mufflers. The GT-37 gains another acceleration advantage because it runs through a steeper 3.23:1 axle ratio. It is certain that the base GT-37 can out accelerate the 350-2 single exhaust 2.73:1 car used in this test. The first pass shown below ranges from 20 to 35 MPH while passing a large truck going 20 MPH.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info pag 3

The high speed pass involves the same 55 foot long truck and starts at 50 MPH and ends at 80 MPH or less depending on whether the car is capable of accelerating up to 80 MPH during the pass.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info pag 4

The base 250 six cylinder took 10.3 seconds and the V8 took 9.5 seconds to make the low speed pass. These times exceed the 0-60 times achieved from a standing start in magazine tests. Rolling starts can create slower times simply because the engine can't be revved up and then set loose as they are in standing starts for magazine tests. Throw in the maximum load the cars are carrying and running all power draining accessories and the figures represent the worst possible times the cars will produce.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info pag 5

1971 was the first year of lowered compression engines at General Motors and it did have an effect on performance. The high speed pass took 17.7 seconds in a 250 six cylinder and 15.9 seconds in a V8.

The table below explains how much reserve the tires offer when properly inflated with the car at maximum load. The GT-37 came standard with G70 x 14 which offer 8.2 percent reserve.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch consumer info pag 6

The Dodge Challenger that Don missed out on was the 'just right but too late' move Chrysler made to create the ultimate pony musclecar. Within a year of the Challenger's release, the musclecar market had evaporated and the Challenger was left with no where to go. Chrysler released a 'tape stripe' package on the Challenger named the Ralllye which used a 318 and finely tuned suspension to create a rewarding 'balanced' driving experience in a car that was no longer a straight line screamer.

In contemporary road tests the GT-37 was actually a decent performer with the optional engines, but in base form it would not be up to the 1970 Challenger 383 numbers. Where the Pontiac trumped the Challenger was in daily usability. Three can sit up front on the bench if need be. The back seat in the GT-37 isn't huge but it is possible for adults to sit back there. The trunk is actually quite roomy. Don had a hot looking car that could be made to perform and a car that he would never outgrow. Don didn't know much about the car at the time, but came to really appreciate the performance, looks and 'just right' size of the car. Most people weren't really aware of the GT-37 which has remained a bit of an 'undercover' car all these years due to low sales numbers.

The GT-37 owes its existence to Division Manager John DeLorean's departure from Pontiac in 1970. DeLorean's arrival at Chevrolet signaled a change of approach for both Pontiac and Chevrolet. Soon after his arrival at Chevrolet DeLorean expanded the list of standard features on the Corvette which in turn raised the base price on this car. Because the Vette always sold year after year DeLorean provided Chevrolet with a larger profit off those guaranteed Corvette sales. DeLorean preferred cars that provide a bit 'more' and an 'image' at a price. He didn't want to delve into high volume/ low profit areas when he was at the helm of Pontiac and he wasn't keen on the idea even over at bargain basement Chevrolet.

Back in 1968 at Pontiac DeLorean blocked attempts by underlings to release a Roadrunner fighter named the 'E.T.' which was essentially a GTO stripped down with Spartan appointments and a 350-4 barrel HO engine. When DeLorean finished with the 'E.T.' concept it morphed into a top level 1969 GTO named the Judge. No vestige of the E.T. remained save for stripped Rally II wheels and the Carousel Orange paint job. The Judge was packing a Ram Air III 400, spoiler and many upgrades over the standard GTO.

DeLorean believed in image and perceived value for money instead of a bare bones sticker price. This approach worked at Pontiac and to some degree at Chevrolet. Those that didn't want a fully loaded Corvette or a sumptuously laid out GTO could buy something else. In 1970 the 'something else' was a Plymouth Duster.

Pontiac management watched Plymouth crank out a bazillion Dusters and since John DeLorean was over at Chevrolet there was no one to stop them from bringing out a stripped version of the Tempest/ LeMans. Pontiac named their entry into the econo car market the T-37. Partway through the year it occurred to Pontiac that the Duster 340 was scooping up musclecar guys who would otherwise be unable to afford or insure the typical big block intermediate GTO style musclecar. The GTO had suffered a sales slide due to these factors. Time for a Pontiac version of the Duster 340. The old E.T. concept was revived by adding a 'G' in front of the T-37 for an inspired name choice. The GT-37 name resonated with the name GTO and tied into the existing econo platform name. Pontiac announced the new GT-37 on May 15, 1970.

In base form, the GT-37 carried almost identical equipment to the Duster but was no match for the Duster 340 in straight line performance despite the Pontiac's extra cubes. The 350-2 barrel was a passenger car engine while the 340 was engineered from scratch as a performer fitted with a 4 barrel carburetor. The GT-37 also weighed more than a Duster. But if someone was to check off an optional 400- 4 engine in a GT-37 it landed right in Duster territory.The 1970 1/2 GT-37 had just about all the expected items included on the base platform. Base GT-37s came with the ride and handling package, floor mounted 3 speed heavy duty shfter, Rally II wheels, low profile fat tires, dual exhaust iwth rear splitters,hood pins, stripes and name identification.

In 1971 the GT-37 carried over much the same except the ride and handling package was no longer a standard feature. Otherwise the car was mildly tweaked with new stripes and dual racing mirrors. For 1971 Pontiac got it together with the fabulous 455 H.O. which would take the street freaks up the ladder to the top of the pile if they had the money for this optional powerhouse engine.

71 GT 37 don promo pic factory owner manual.

The GT-37 never caught on and sold few copies. Clearly Pontiac liked the car because despite slow sales they brought it back for 1971. They even used the black and white illustration shown above as the introduction page for the 1971 LeMans owner[s manual.

71 Gt 37 don rally II

The base GT-37 was a great starting place. Everything else was already on the car: heavy duty 3 speed floor mounted Hurst shifter, low restriction dual exhaust with chrome splitters, G70 x14 raised white letter tires on Rally II wheels (like the Judge they came without the chrome 'beauty rings'), ride and handling package, hood pins and stripes. The hood pins came with cables that attached to the front of the car through the front grille. Note that the grille doesn't have the PONTIAC lettering. The T-37 saved money by deleting the identification plate from the grille. Look close and you can see the two mounting holes.

71 GT-37 don grille

Sharp eyed readers will note the 400 cubic inch engine sticker in the shot below of the hood pin. The sticker is a reproduction sourced when the original base GT-37 350 engine was replaced with a 400.

71 GT-37 don hood pin

The so called 1971 1/2 is a 1971 model year car for registration purposes. The term was coined by car collectors to refer to the 1971 GT-37s built carrying a new full length stripe which Pontiac introduced about half way through the model run. Don's GT-37 is one of the '1971 1/2' cars built after the new stripe was released. Don's GT-37 was scheduled for build March 29, 1971 at the Fremont, California final assembly plant according to the build sheet found under the back seat. Pontiac Historical Services pegs date of execution as March 30, 1971. The cowl tag backs this up with the date code 03E which is code for the final week of March. The tag also confirms the 26 code blue paint listed on the build sheet.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch pontiac color guide book

The interior is also blue. The 1971 Pontiac Motor Company color guide used the blue cloth seat insert material as the illustration for the cover which matches the fabric in Don's front bench seat.

The Fremont plant built GT-37 VIN reads 233371Zxxxxxx:

2= Pontiac

33= T-37

37= 2 Door hardtop (This GM internal code is the basis of the T-37 name)

1= 1971 Model year

Z= Fremont, California final assembly plant

The final sequence of the VIN is left out for privacy.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch build sheet

The build sheet is composed primarily of the GT optional goodies:

B94= Body emblem

D98= Tape stripe (this is the '1971 1/2' full length reflective foil stripe brought out mid year)

N96= Rally II wheels

PK5= G70 x 14 White letter tires

QS= Outside rear view mirror

The WU2 code GT Option went beyond the appearance items listed above. It also loaded on some decent hardware. A lot of gearheads abhorred the manual 3 speed back in the thick of the 1960s musclecar era but quickly adjusted their thinking in the 1970s once insurance agents began surcharging for 4 speeds. Many a Duster 340 slipped under the insurance radar with a 3 speed manual. Pontiac also used this approach by equipping the GT-37 with the M13 Heavy duty manual 3 speed floor mounted shifter.

Another GT-37 performance item listed on the build sheet is the GU5 3.23:1 rear axle. The L30 350- 2 barrel engine that served as the base GT-37 engine was nothing special in the context of the era but the GT option did add code N10 dual exhaust with splitters. The axle ratio and duals helped the engine make the most of its 250 gross HP rating.

The build sheet for Don's GT-37 lists a few appearance and comfort items, too:

B30= Floor carpet

C24= Recessed Wipers

C56= Upper vent

U63= AM Radio

The GT-37 was a real looker when it rolled off the assembly line. It's only after you get past the first impression of hood pins, stripes, mags, fat tires and chrome dual exhaust splitters that it sinks in that this is actually a budget musclecar. The base GT-37 provided rubber mats and a bench seat. Don's GT-37 went up the food chain slightly by adding optional carpet but it lacks power steering or power brakes which were almost universally ordered on most V8s built in the early 1970s. Note lack of chrome dress up trim on the pedals.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch pedals

The base T-37 dash provided nothing beyond a speedometer and fuel gauge, but Pontiac still gave you a 140 MPH speedometer in keeping with the divisions's performance image. Note that Don added a factory tachometer to the formerly blank right instrument pod. Mileage as of 2009 is 119,000 miles.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch 140 MPH speedometer

The GT-37 cut corners in other subtle ways. The roof drip rail is body colored and lacks the chrome accent strip found on the LeMans. The chrome accent strip that runs along the bottom of the LeMans is also absent on the GT-37.

Inside de-contenting includes a bench seat with 2 spoke steering wheel and goes so far as to delete one of the plastic coat hooks. Hidden from view minimal sound insulation was provided in the T-37 model. Don's car has been upgraded to the optional 3 spoke custom steering wheel and 4 speed shifter. Otherwise the interior is in factory configuration.

71 GT 37 Don Fitch int

Don's GT-37 was sent to Zone 15 Dealer 429 which was Kielty Motors in Grand Forks, North Dakota. See a story on Kielty in the DEALERSHIPS section of this website filed under NORTH DAKOTA. The first owner didn't change a thing on the car. Luckily the car didn't stay up north in the salt belt for long. Grand Forks is just below Winnipeg, Manitoba which has been deservedly nicknamed 'Winterpeg'. Some cars remain within a few miles of the original selling point, but this GT-37 made its way 1,300 miles south-west to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Don bought the car out of Albuquerque, New Mexico and registered it Feb 23, 1977. The registration below has Don's signature, address and the final sequence of the VIN deleted for privacy, otherwise it is exactly as it appeared all those years ago.

71 Gt 37 don title

When Don bought the car he was 19 going on 20 so the car didn't just ferry him to and from college; it was also run hard in street racing and cruising. Every single night Don went out cruising to south Albuquerque where everyone congregated at the McDonald's parking lot on Eubank. Once the cops kicked everyone out in the middle of the night they headed to South Eubank which was a well known all night racing venue. Street racing was continuous in this area from the 1970s until the early 1980s when it was shut down.

After a year of college Don started commuting to a job. The GT-37 ran well except sometimes it would act up in wet rainy weather and start to 'sputter'. Don received about 12 to 13 MPG in daily driving. It never used oil.

The only major problem with the GT-37 came about from the extreme use inflicted upon it during constant racing. The heavy duty 3 speed shifter and gears held up well, except the clutches blew out 3 times. Don went to a heavy duty clutch to solve the clutch problem. The heavy duty clutch however uncovered the next weak link in the drivetrain. Racing with the heavy duty clutch led to a ripped Z arm. After the second Z arm failed a machine shop crafted a solid steel replacement which has lasted without further incident.

The tough running eventually necessitated a new engine and transmission. Since Don was replacing them anyways he upgraded the engine to a 400- 4 barrel and the transmission to a 4 speed. The GT-37 did well in the late night races although Don remembers losing one race to a Chevelle that was well set up. Don's GT-37 is now representative of what a GT-37 would have been like back in the day if ordered two steps up from the base model 350- 2 barrel plus some 'Day 2' tweaks. Don's car has a 4 speed, modern radial tires and some additional performance equipment.

HIGH PERFORMANCE CARS actually ordered a GT-37 set up with bench seat and 400-4 barrel. CARS also added the Formula steering wheel and honeycombs. The tests were very favorable despite the lowered compression ratios instituted across teh board at General Motors. If we just go by the Consumer Guide passing and braking results the picture looks dim. But CARS achieved high performance on a par with most of the mid pack of 1960s high compression cars from their GT-37. To read the whole article from HIGH PERFORMANCE CARS see the story in this section on the John Sarwick family 1971 GT-37.



Don's GT-37 has the expected 'Day 2' modifications typically encountered on daily driver street racers. Don installed Hooker headers, a mild cam, MSD ignition, chrome valve covers and underdash aftermarket gauges. At 113,000 miles Don refurbished most of the car although he had been keeping up with it along the way so it wasn't a full scale restoration. For the most part his approach was to retain the 'Day 2' look with the car appearing mostly stock. He found a MSD system that is disguised under a stock appearing distributor cap and still runs the original charcoal canister and other emission items that were correct for this year.

The GT-37 has led a mostly charmed life. The only accident occurred when someone hit the driver's front fender in a parking lot. The fender was fixed without needing patching. Matching up the stripe was tricky however. The car still has all original metal thanks to spending the majority of its life in New Mexico's dry warm climate. The rear tail lights are original as are the factory exhaust splitters.

The GT-37 has a new alternator but still packs the original master cylinder. The lack of power brakes and the accompanying booster may have extended the life of the master.

The interior held up well although the sun and extreme hear in New Mexico did create a few cracks in the original dash and the top of the driver's door panel. The carpet was replaced and the original bench seat was reupholstered using the correct material sourced from SMS Fabrics in Portland, Oregon.

Don refinished the Rally II wheels and mounted modern B.F. Goodrich tires. Don's GT-37 is taken to car shows and still driven for enjoyment. The GT-37 now shows 119,000 miles.




Last Updated ( Tuesday, 28 October 2014 20:35 )