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Raasch: Death of the GTO age

Maker of GTO that muscled its way into Americans’ heart atrophies, dies

A 1969 Pontiac GTO "Judge" muscle car

A 1969 Pontiac GTO "Judge" muscle car

Gonna save all my money and buy a GTO.

Got a helmet and a roll bar and I’ll be ready to go.

Take it out to Pomona and let ‘em know.

That I’m the coolest thing around.

Little buddy, gonna shut you down.

When I turn it on, wind it up blow it out GTO.

Ronny and the Daytonas

Pontiac’s GTO was memorialized in this ’64 song. The company’s demise, announced by its clinging-to-life parent General Motors this week, is far more than the end of a classic American brand. It is another demarcation between the era of power and possibility and the age of limits.

Anyone under 45 won’t understand. Pontiac was not always an old man’s car. It built quintessential ’60s and ’70s muscle cars – the GTO, introduced in 1964, and later, the Firebird – that powered a youth culture.

Along with such American classics as Ford’s Thunderbird and Chevy’s Corvette, they were icons of the age of expansion, an age revved by big engines and bigger ambitions. Fuel was cheap, power was idealized in its rawest forms, and Detroit fed the rebellious ambitions of youth with status cars like the GTO.

True, Los Angeles was getting familiar with smog alerts. Americans were beginning their addiction to foreign oil, but it didn’t seem to matter.

A freedom to risk bigger and faster and to go where no one had gone marked the age. It was no coincidence that the astronauts drove muscle cars while literally shooting for the moon. In 1969, the year Neil Armstrong set foot on the Sea of Tranquility, 72,287 GTOs were unleashed on America’s highways.

Since the 1950s, California had been the place to be, even on Jan and Dean’s “Deadman’s Curve.” Dying young was the price you paid for living fast. James Dean raced cars when he wasn’t acting and he got a speeding ticket on the day he died in his souped-up Porsche.

The muscle built the music. An entire genre came off the line: The Beach Boys’ “409″ glorified Chevy’s power engine. Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” grew gardenias by day but by night drove “real fast and . . . real hard” in her “brand-new, shiny red Super Stock Dodge.”

The GTO personified a wind-it-up-blow-it-out risk-taking freedom.

Today, a rein-it-in caution dictates.

The Smart Car might fit in GTO’s engine compartment. Hybrids signify living smaller and smarter. California is broke. The Prius is Hollywood’s status car. Detroit is fighting for its automaking life.

On the day GM ended the Pontiac brand, people all over the world were wearing masks and avoiding crowds and listening to the 24-hour news recycle about a looming flu pandemic.

The Hong Kong Flu, the last deadly flu pandemic, hit in 1968. About 34,000 Americans and an estimated 750,000 around the globe died from it.

1968 also was the second-best sales year of Pontiac’s 10-year run. Pontiac moved 87,684 GTOs that year.

For an exorbitant sum, you can still buy a classic ’68 GTO on the Internet. You’d be buying much more than rubber and steel.

For those too young to understand, you can find Ronny and the Daytonas’ “GTO” on YouTube.

Before revving up your keyboard, however, wash your hands and don your face mask. You never know what danger lurks around the curve.

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: craasch@gns.gannett.com.

The distinctive grille of the 1967 Pontiac GTO

The distinctive grille of the 1967 Pontiac GTO


Raasch’s blog

Get more behind-the-scenes reports, context and analysis about politicians and the political process in Raasch’s Furthermore blog. Look for it here.

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