1964 – The Rest Of The Story…Birth Of An Era

 When General Motors banned Factory based racing starting with January 1964, they set into motion what would become the most exciting era for performance enthusiasts.  It would become the “Muscle Car Era”.

With the mission of making a more unified midlevel model line for GM vehicles the decision was made to make each divisions midsize models more uniform in size and equipment.  This was basically a cost saving move and viewed as a way for buyers to be able to compare models as being more equal to their competitors.

The up and coming younger executives at the Pontiac Division saw this as a way to draw more heavily on the “Youth” market by showing that they were more tuned to the performance end of the scale.  John DeLorean with the help of fellow engineers Bill Collins and Russ Gee basically took the 398 engine that was in the full size Catalina and Bonneville and dropped it into the newly enlarged Tempest LeMans to create the Tempest LeMans GTO.  There were other changes as well made to the vehicle to beef up suspension pieces and such, but the basic premise was to put the biggest engine possible into a lighter car and then sell it to the general public.

There were several rules in place to prevent overzealous executives from having the factory build and sell cars that were too powerful and thus unsafe.  Just like the “limited” production factory race cars made before them using loopholes in the rules, the GTO also used a loophole in the rules.  This one involved labeling the vehicle as an option package not a regular model.  In fact the GTO was an option of an option being first a Tempest with the upgraded LeMans package then adding the GTO package to that.  Options included either a 4 barrel carburetor and the top engine was a tri-power setup with 3 two barrel carburetors.  Frank Bridge was Sales Manager at the time and estimated the model would not be a big seller so he tried to limit production to 5000 units.  The GTO actually sold 10,000 before the start of the 1964 calendar year and ended its first year run at 32,450 units.

The success of the GTO had the other GM Divisions rushing to come up with their own models for the segment.  Chevrolet took the 327 from the Corvette and dropped it into the Chevelle Malibu and called it the Super Sport or SS as commonly called.  While it did not carry the horsepower rating from the Corvette, only minor changes were made to the engine to detune it for the Chevelle.

The pictures shown here show the Pontiac GTO 389 with a 4 barrel carburetor setup, then the GTO interior with its bucket seat interior and now the Chevelle Malibu 327 Super Sport.

As with the GTO the “option” loophole was used to put the SS model into production, since Chevrolet wanted no midsize model being competitive with the Corvette.

The Oldsmobile division also came up with a version of a Muscle Car.  They took the F-85 Cutlass and created the 442 option for it.  This involved putting their Rocket 330 into it from the larger “88” model.  Again it was an option for an option of an existing model.  Loophole exploited.  The Buick Division was the holdout for the 1964 year.  They offered a 300 CID engine in the Skylark but did not create a special package vehicle for the model year.

Ford was also looking at the sales success of the GTO and got into the Muscle Car game.  They had the Ford Fairlane with a 289 HO and then since General Motors had pulled out of the Factory Race Game they had only Chrysler as direct competitors in Drag Racing.  They fired the shot heard “round the world” with the Fairlane Thunderbolt.

This was a factory Drag Race car with its newly developed 427 cubic inch big block and fiberglass front end, doors and totally stripped of unneeded weight like sound insulation and seam filler and such.  The inboard headlights were removed as that was the intake hoses to feed fresh air into the engine.  Record keeping was not a strong suit and exact count for how many were made is in debate as to whether it was 111 or 127 but there were also 50 Mercury Cyclones produced by that division as well and some were modified to look like the Thunderbolt by either the factory or dealers.  Even the windshield was a custom lightweight piece to save weight and so were the window roll down mechanisms as they were eliminated altogether.

As you can see the Thunderbolt left very little room under the hood for anything but the massive engine and those huge air intake hoses to the dual carburetors.

As the Fairlane with its 289 did not translate into the Street Wars that were starting to take shape, Ford was counting on its new Mustang model to appeal to the market.  While it was technically a 1965 model the early models are considered 1964 1/2 since they had the 260 engine and generators instead of the 289 engine and alternator used for vehicles made when the true 1965 model production began.  While the Mustang is credited with the creation of the Pony Car segment; hence the name Pony Car; it was actually beat to market by its competitor over at Plymouth by 2 weeks.

The Plymouth Barracuda was introduced on April 1, 1964 while the Mustang came out on April 17.  Somehow I do not think the nickname of “Fish Coupes” would have endured as well as the term “Pony Cars”.  The Barracuda had the 273 CID engine and at the time had the largest rear window ever made, when measured as square inches of glass area.

Well, this ties up the “Factory” models for 1964….although there were so many behind the scenes prototypes being tried and developed, I have probably left someone out of the mix here.  If anyone knows about any let me know.  Maybe I can amend this in future blogs.

Later all,

Davey Boy


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7 Responses to “1964 – The Rest Of The Story…Birth Of An Era”

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