Car of the Week: 1965 Pontiac GTO - Old Cars Weekly

Car of the Week: 1965 Pontiac GTO

The story of how a 1965 GTO is living the high life again.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Don Salisbury put quite a bit of effort into finding a GTO for a friend and when the friend decided against it, wasting that effort wasn’t in the cards.

“I called Dave,” Salisbury recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, I found your car. It’s got 31,000 miles, it’s been in storage for years. From the pictures, it’s got the normal GM paint-fade on it and they brushed stuff on it. It’s an original car.’ So after I sent him the pictures, we discussed it on the phone and after 20 minutes, half-an-hour on the phone, he said, ‘No, I just don’t want it.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why am I talking you into this?’”

The Pontiac GTO was a 1965 coupe he’d found after more than a year of searching. He’d come across it while using his son’s computer during a visit to his Boston home and called the owner, who was in Alabama at the time and promised to send photos of the car as soon as he returned home to Michigan. Back at his own home in Owego, N.Y., Salisbury learned that the Pontiac had originally been in South Carolina, which explained the condition he saw in the photos.

Three body styles were offered on the first generation of GTO (1964-1967): a convertible, a hardtop and a coupe. This coupe represented the least expensive and lightest GTO.

Three body styles were offered on the first generation of GTO (1964-1967): a convertible, a hardtop and a coupe. This coupe represented the least expensive and lightest GTO.

“It was clean and basically 95-percent rust-free,” Salisbury explained, “exactly like he’d told me on the phone.”

He called the owner to say that he should consider the car sold, but when his friend declined, Salisbury began thinking about it. After pondering the financial component, he called the owner again.

“I said, ‘I’m going to buy it,’” he continued. “‘I have the money. How much do you want to hold it?’ He said, ‘$500’ll hold it. Just send me a money order for the $500 and it’ll work,’ so we sent that out. I said, ‘Michigan’s a pretty good haul. I’m not sure when I’ll be out to get it.’ He said, ‘No problem. It’s fine where it is until you can get out here to get it.’”

The final piece fell neatly into place when he heard from his son.

“He called,” Salisbury laughed, “and said, ‘Dad, do you want to go out and get that car that you got out in Michigan tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I guess. Why?’ He said, ‘I lost my job, so we can go anytime.’”

Pre-packaged fun

If that seems like a lot of effort to buy a GTO — even after the hunt — it was undoubtedly worthwhile. An early GTO is one of the muscle cars for which the word “iconic” can be used with a completely straight face. Pontiac less than 20 years earlier had been a manufacturer of quality cars whose performance might best be described as competent. Neither a 90-hp six nor a 103-hp eight was likely to set hearts racing in 1946, but Pontiac and its customers were happy with both of the division’s flatheads and the slightly updated 1942 bodies. Truly postwar cars began appearing in the spring of 1946 from Studebaker and were followed by those of Kaiser-Frazer before the “Big Three” gradually launched new designs.

A 1965 Pontiac GTO is easily one of the most recognized cars of its time. Even those whose automotive tastes lie elsewhere typically can identify it correctly.

A 1965 Pontiac GTO is easily one of the most recognized cars of its time. Even those whose automotive tastes lie elsewhere typically can identify it correctly.

Pontiac’s turn came in 1949 and although two other General Motors divisions — Cadillac and Oldsmobile — introduced modern V-8s that year, beneath Pontiac’s new body, not much had changed. The oversquare GM V-8s changed everything and by 1954, only Packard and Pontiac remained loyal to flathead straight-eights. Both gave in the following year and at Pontiac, that meant a 180-hp, 287-cid Strato-Streak overhead-valve V-8. The numbers went up on an annual basis as the horsepower race continued to unfold and by 1960, Pontiac offered a 348-hp 389.

That year saw another development, though, as GM, Ford and Chrysler unveiled their first compacts. At GM, Chevrolet’s Corvair got the early start and was followed in 1961 by Buick’s Special, Oldsmobile’s F-85 and Pontiac’s Tempest. Looking back from six decades later, it’s simple to detect the trend that was developing. At Pontiac, the 120-hp 194.5-cid four — half of the 389 — could be optioned for up to 155 hp or Buick’s 215-cid V-8 could be ordered with the same output. Like the 1936 Buick Century and the 1957 Rambler Rebel, it was a matter of dropping a bigger-than-necessary engine into a less-than-full-size chassis, the formula that would come to define muscle cars and kill off large performance models such as Chrysler’s 300 Letter Series.

The first-year GTO of 1964 had its headlamps positioned side-by-side so stacked headlamps were new to the GTO when they appeared on ’65s such as this one.

The first-year GTO of 1964 had its headlamps positioned side-by-side so stacked headlamps were new to the GTO when they appeared on ’65s such as this one.

For 1963, Pontiac offered its own 326 for the Tempest in place of the Buick V-8 and that provided 260 hp, but for many, 1964 is the year that matters as Pontiac debuted the well-timed GTO performance package that would become instantly famous. It was the car “for the man who wouldn’t mind riding a tiger if someone’d only put wheels on it” and “for kicking up the kind of storm that others just talk up.” With a 325-hp 389 as the base GTO engine, that was more than idle boasting and in 1965, advertising spoke of “a snarling 335-horsepower GTO or its 360-horsepower cousin.” Under “extra-cost performance equipment,” another ad listed the 360 version with its “3-2BBL,” which was much easier to overlook than “Tri-Power.”

They were all good reasons for Salisbury’s decision to buy the GTO shown here, but there was more.

A history saving forlorn GTOs

“When I first got introduced to GTOs,” he said, “I just became infatuated with them.”

That happened during his freshman year in college, when he had a Torino and went for a ride in a friend’s GTO. A year later, he spotted one like it among a group of cars on a lot in Quincy, Mass., but the occupant of what appeared to be the office told him it didn’t run and wasn’t for sale. Worse, Salisbury was told that the lot was holding cars to be crushed, so he had the predictable reaction and countered that it had a perfect interior and almost no rust. It didn’t work.

Calling the three-carburetor setup “Tri-Power” sounds so much better than the “3-2BBL” description used in the 1965 GTO ad.

Calling the three-carburetor setup “Tri-Power” sounds so much better than the “3-2BBL” description used in the 1965 GTO ad.

“So I went outside the building,” Salisbury continued, “and sat down on the steps. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to leave until you sell me that car.’ ‘You’re serious.’ I said, ‘I’m dead serious.’ ‘Well, I’ve got to go to the notary, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ ‘So what’s it going to cost?’ ‘I’ve got to have $150. I get $100 to crush them.’”

Even in 1974, that was a good deal, so he and a friend returned to the lot with money, a battery, gas, jumper cables and just in case, a tow chain, only to find out that the deal was a better one.

“It turned out,” he said, “that the Bendix had locked up on the flywheel. That’s what ceased the motor and we drove the car back to campus. That was my first GTO.”

The split grille was already a signature feature of Pontiac in 1965 and would evolve with styling through the division’s life.

The split grille was already a signature feature of Pontiac in 1965 and would evolve with styling through the division’s life.

Dozens of Pontiacs later, he and his son headed for Detroit to retrieve the feature car in 2011. It proved to be every bit as good as he’d expected, something that was confirmed by those who descended on it at every stop on the way home and asked whether it was for sale. Research proved that it was a factory 389 Tri-Power and four-speed car, but it now carried a 428 and an automatic and at some point in its life, it apparently had seen the track. Salisbury had most of what he needed to restore it and was able to trade for nearly everything else. The body, he said, was so solid and so nearly rust-free that he asked himself the obvious question.

“As I was getting into it,” he said, “I was thinking, ‘Wow, how come I’ve been working on New York State cars all my life when I could’ve been working on something from down south?’ ”

The project, though, was interrupted and set aside for several years and Salisbury admitted to becoming frustrated at the thought that the GTO might never be finished. Then he received a phone call from a friend’s son.

“He said, ‘it’s Dana,’” Salisbury recalled. “‘I’m home, sitting and thinking. You know, I’m going to come up and I’m going to help you.’ Just out of the blue. ‘I’m going to come up and help you work on some of your projects so that you can get them done.

“‘When can we start this?’ ”

Taillamps have sometimes stopped stylists dead in their tracks, almost as if the ideas had dried up by the time they reached the back of the car. The 1965 GTO, though, took an elegant – and successful – approach with thin lines of brightwork over simple lenses.

Taillamps have sometimes stopped stylists dead in their tracks, almost as if the ideas had dried up by the time they reached the back of the car. The 1965 GTO, though, took an elegant – and successful – approach with thin lines of brightwork over simple lenses.

Not surprisingly, Salisbury told him they could begin anytime. The bodywork was nearly complete, he already had an estimate on painting and the 389 was ready for reassembly. The idea had been to repaint it in its original Fontaine Blue, but that fell apart when Salisbury gradually learned that no one in his family thought that was a good color and the painter tactfully agreed.

Instead, it was shot in a later GM color, Dark Iris, the doors and fenders were hung at the body shop and he and Dana completed the engine. After they’d installed it in a friend’s garage where there was a lift, the car went back to the body shop and the hood was set on. The suspension had already been rebuilt, so the trim, glass and interior were installed and the GTO was finally back on the road in April 2019.

He said it’s now ready for any trip and added that he’d just driven it Syracuse, roughly 75 miles in each direction.

From the gauges to the floor-mounted shifter to the grab bar, everything about the 1965 GTO’s interior says “muscle car.”

From the gauges to the floor-mounted shifter to the grab bar, everything about the 1965 GTO’s interior says “muscle car.”

“It’s not like your modern-day rack-and-pinion cars,” he noted. “It’s way different. Even though it’s got a tight front end in it, you’re driving it. But it’s not a bad car to drive. It’s comfortable. I don’t mind taking a trip in it.”

He knows that it generally attracts fans at nearly any stop and guessed that about 75 percent of them can identify it as a GTO. It is, after all, iconic, but Salisbury likes it for a more basic reason.

“I just thoroughly enjoy driving it,” he said. “I do. I’m proud of it.”

He has no plans to sell it, but he did mention a plan of a different sort for one of his other Pontiacs.

“I told my wife, ‘I want to be buried in the ’64,’” he explained, “and she said, ‘I’ll just tell the next person not to dump the ashtray.’ She said it that quick and I didn’t have a response.

“Okay. Put a little sticker on it, ‘Do not open ashtray.’”

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