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Muscle Car Madness - 1966 Pontiac GTO

Muscle Car Madness - 1966 Pontiac GTO


American car designs have always been the ideal barometer of the country's mood and in 1964, that taste was exemplified for something unconventional. As the Mustang rekindled the image for Ford by introducing the "pony car", the GTO injected Pontiac with a bottle full of anabolic steroids was something much more dramatic - the "muscle car". The GTOs from 1964 to 1967 defined automotive Botox - a powerful 389 V8 engine in a lightweight (based on American standards) construction. It was Armageddon in an aerosol can, and the rest of Detroit's car manufacturers had to suddenly catch up.

Gearheads should have a basement shrine dedicated to these two designers: Pete Estes and Pontiac's Chief Designer, John DeLorean, for it was their design of the GTO that started the muscle car revolution. Even the name, Pontiac GTO, was controversial. As brash as the man himself, DeLorean shamelessly named it after the Ferrari Gran Turismo Omologato. It may have been heresy to purists, but it was perfect marketing in generating free publicity and sales. Though the '66 GTO was criticized for its cumbersome turning prowess, dubious braking power, suspect aerodynamics, poor airflow and gas consumption, its appeal was its jaw-dropping acceleration, "Coca-Cola bottle" contours, streamline roofline, sexy "tunneled" tail lights featuring in a rare louvered cover, new Strato bucket seats, an original styled grille that incorporated plastic mesh-patterned inserts, and, of course, for its attractive price tag, braking all sales records for any GTO year. Though Pontiac portrayed the GTO in its advertising slogans as the "tiger," it was more commonly referred to as the "goat".

But that didn't stop Rick Cuellar from purchasing one in Wisconsin. "I had a 1964 GTO when I was 19 years old and loved it," he remembers. He managed to survive his tour during the Viet Nam war, but had to sacrifice his car. "After the service, I looked at the 1972 GTOs and 'Judges' being sold, but I wasn't in a position (newly married, full-time student) to buy the one I wanted. Instead, I bought a white 1972 Ford Econoline that would serve me through grad school and beyond. Once I was into my second professional job and my son was in his late teens, I began looking again." It wasn't until 2003 that Rick finally bought the "goat".

Though the odometer showed a scant 33,000 miles, the previous owner drove it in drag racing (no doubt on and off the track) for several years, so the mileage was probably closer to 133,000 miles. "It looked okay," recalls Rick, "but it turned out to be a 'bondo queen'. The 389 engine was replaced by a 400 from a 1975 full sized Pontiac and only seven out of the eight cylinders worked well." When Rick turns on the ignition, the engine is a beautiful soundtrack and I'm in a chopper flying open doors over small villages of Viet Nam. It's morning, and I can smell napalm.

Because there was so much rust, it took six years to restore the car with a full frame-on restoration. Practically everything was replaced or modified thanks to Ed Suhajda of Ed's Unique Vehicles, who worked on the body and paint; Ram Automotive Drivelines Inc (in Madison, Wisconsin), and Scott McGettigan from Turn Two Auto, who finished the tuning and front-end work. He changed the 4.20 rear end with Eaton 3.08 gears and pinion. It still has the 400 ci engine. The 1966 Pontiac GTO has resurfaced in numerous movies, but its most famous role was when it was modified by Dean Jeffries as the "Monkeemobile."

In the sunshine, Rick's GTO is dazzling, the colour of a polished silver bullet. "I had the car painted a titanium silver lacquer with a clear coat. The previous colour was a metallic green with gold trim and the original colour was burgundy." There isn't a bad angle to this car. "Driving this car brings me back to my youth, watching my uncle Frank restore classic cars, such as a Pierre Arrow and the like." We drive around the neighbourhood as men stop to gaze and nod in appreciation. "My cousin Ronnie," continues Rick, "was the epitome of the '50s tough guy, complete with a ducktail hairdo. He loved fast cars and modified his '56 Mercury with a Corvette engine, chopped and lowered. He did all the work and often worked with my uncle (who was his uncle, too). He helped tune up my '64 GTO to make it faster." Before we get out of the car to photograph it, Rick pauses: "My wife used to drive my '64 GTO, so she loves riding in this one as well. I took my son to college in the Old Goat, and he really liked being seen in it. He still loves it."

The wonderful thing about owning a classic car like this is the camaraderie that is developed with others who either had a similar car or knew someone who had one. "I remember getting stuck when the linkage jammed up," says Rick, "and having several people stop and offer help. They all had stories about their own GTO experiences." I ask Rick what other car he would like, if money was no object? "A 2000-2002 Firebird Firehawk.  There were few of them made and they had the latest GM engines that lasted longer and had better fuel mileage." Regardless, I'm sure Rick would agree that the 1966 Pontiac GTO is one of the most desirable muscle cars of all time - an original and a legend.