Memory Lane: 1974 Pontiac GTO
By Eric Peters

The original muscle car era lasted roughly a decade, from 1964 to 1974 -- the final year before the industry-wide adoption of catalytic converters and the inexorable trend toward cars that were designed to be ever more socially responsible -- and ever more civilized, too. A trend that continues to the present day.

Book-ending this era were two very different Pontiacs wearing the same legendary three-letter badge: GTO.

The 1974 -- and final -- classic-era GTO was not especially well-received at the time of its introduction. By then, the GTO had been on a downward slide that began in 1972, when GM cut compression ratios across the board and began to throttle back the wild-child engines that had made the early GTO's bones on the street and track. It was clear the peak had passed; each new model year seemed to bring yet more bad news for GTO fans.

When 1974 finally rolled around, the GTO had been completely transformed.

A major "downsizing" had taken place, for starters. Instead of being based on the mid-sized LeMans coupe (as had been the case the previous year), the new GTO was based on the compact Ventura -- the Pontiac version of the Chevy Nova -- in the buyer's choice of hatchback or standard coupe bodystyles.

This was the only year buyers could order a hatchback GTO.

It was also the first -- and only -- GTO to offer Pontiac's small-displacement 350 cubic inch V-8 as the standard (and only available) engine. The Ram Air and HO 400 and 455 V-8s of past years were gone for good -- and this would be the final year for a new GTO with a Pontiac-built engine of any kind at all.

The 5.7 liter 350, unlike previous GTO mills, was not really a performance engine in the sense of having a hot camshaft, high-flow heads or any internals that differed significantly from the bread-and-butter 350s used in non-GTO Venturas and other Pontiac models. It was basically a smaller-bore version of the 6.6 liter 400 cubic inch V-8 and other than true dual exhausts (which would disappear after '74, when catalytic converters appeared) it was just your basic small-displacement four-barrel V-8. The 350 had a mild cam, small-valve 6H heads and its compression ratio was just 7.6:1 -- which at least assured that detonation from burning low-lead unleaded gas would never be a problem.

Pontiac rated this engine at 200 horsepower at 4,000 RPM, net. The buyer had his choice of manual three or four-speed or three-speed automatic transmissions -- except in California, where the automatic was mandatory -- with either a 2.73 or somewhat more aggressive 3.08 ratio rear axle with limited slip differential.

Base price for the '74 coupe was $3,173. The hatchback was slightly pricier, with an MSRP of $3,313.

A multitude of colors were available, including Buccaneer Red, Admiralty Blue, Sunstorm Yellow and Carmel Beige. Buyers could select contrasting interior colors -- and a vinyl roof option was offered as well. By previous year GTO standards, the '74 was rather demure-looking. No wild graphics packages; just a few discretely placed "GTO" emblems and a pair of chrome-plated exhaust splitters clued you in to the car's other-than-Ventura status.

One interesting feature of the '74 GTO was its unique, rear-facing,Trans-Am style "shaker" hood scoop. While the Trans-Am's scoop had been boarded up and rendered purely decorative after 1972 -- some say to comply with federal drive-by noise regulations -- the '74 GTO's scoop was fully functional, using a vacuum-actuated flapper door to admit cooler outside air to the single Rochester 4-barrel carburetor when the driver floored it. This was the only year a shaker scoop was used on a GTO -- and the scoop is actually slightly different from the TA's and does not directly interchange.

During its brief production run -- which barely lasted a calendar year -- '74 GTOs were assembled at either GM's Van Nuys, CA plant (alongside the Camaro/Firebird) or Willow Run in Michigan. Though there are rumors Pontiac at least entertained the idea of continuing the GTO into 1975 (there are photos of prototype '75s that have appeared in buff books), the market for performance cars seemed to be tanking. Worse, a '75 GTO would have had to have catalytic converters -- and therefore, given budget constraints, a single exhaust system -- which would probably have lopped another 10-20 hp off the top and fatally undermined the car's claim to being anything other than a decal package disco machine.

And so the decision was made to retire the GTO rather than drag a great name through the mud.

That said, the perception that the last real-deal Goat ("real," because it was the last one to be equipped with a Pontiac-built engine) was a dog unworthy of the GTO crest is belied by the car's none-too-shaby performance. Its 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds was actually only slightly slower than the original '64 389 GTO's 0-60 clocking of 7.5 seconds. And the '74's quarter-mile time of 15.7 seconds was almost exactly the same as the '64s.

Even compared with the high water mark 1970 Ram Air III 400-equipped GTO, the '74 was not an embarrassment -- being only about a second and a half slower to 60 mph and needing another second to make it through the quarter-mile.

How was this possible with only 200 hp -- vs. the original's 325-hp 389 V-8 or the '70 model's 366-hp Ram Air III 400?

One reason was simply the '74 GTO's curb weight -- which had dropped by several hundred pounds. The trimmed-down '74 compensated for lower output by having less stamped steel to lug around. Also, the way advertised horsepower was measured had changed since the GTO's inception in 1964. The original Goat's 325-hp was arrived at by what would be considered cheating today -- with the engine on a stand and free of power-robbing accessories (including a full production exhaust system). The SAE "net" standards that replaced SAE "gross" ratings (beginning with the 1972 model year) were a much more realistic gauge of actual power output. The '74 GTO 350's 200-hp would probably have been rated 225-250-hp under the same standard used to measure and rate the original GTO's 325-hp V-8.

The rest was mostly dead weight -- and the cars were nearly even in terms of their on-the-road performance.

But the '74 was arguably a better-balanced car -- literally. While the GTOs of the mid-'60s were stunning cars to look at and often formidable performers in a straight line, their handling and braking were typical mid-'60s -- which is to say, not exactly SCCA material. Since Pontiac engineers had less and less leeway to develop high-horsepower engines (as a result of the new emissions regulations and pressure to build at least semi-economical cars), they spent more time on other aspects of performance for the last GTO. Lighter on its feet to begin with, the '74 featured Pontiac's innovative Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) system, which took advantage of the latest developments in tire technology and focused on decreasing body roll (via beefy front and rear anti-swaybars) instead of ultra-stiff leaf and coil springs. The result was a car with a very compliant ride that could take a turn at speed with much more confidence than some of the older Goats would dare to try. The '74s power disc/drum brakes and 15-inch Rally II wheels complemented the rest of the chassis and gave the driver a car that was more a GT coupe than an all-out muscle car.

More than 30 years have ticked by since the last GTO came and went -- and in hindsight, the car looks better and better all the time. Pontiac came up with a pretty decent package, considering the times and what it had to work with. The '74s are also the last of the classic-era GTOs that are still relatively affordable to buy, too.

That is, if you can find one.

Just 7,058 were produced in all -- the lowest production run of the GTO's history. Just 1,723 of these were hatchbacks -- making a '74 GTO hatchback among the rarest classic-era Goats ever made.