Cars

Pontiac spirit endures

You be the judge: Do you think the GTO Judge was a popular muscle car? This row of Judges, seemingly waiting to be fed some of their competitors, underscored what an impact the car had on devoted Pontiac fans.
You be the judge: Do you think the GTO Judge was a popular muscle car? This row of Judges, seemingly waiting to be fed some of their competitors, underscored what an impact the car had on devoted Pontiac fans. The Wichita Eagle

Pontiac may be gone, but it's far from dead, judging by the hundreds of performance car lovers who flocked to Wichita last week for the 31st International Meet of the GTO Association of America.

"There were 739 attendees, about 39 locals, so 700 out-of-town guests brought in 200 cars," said Gary Gibbs, co-chairman of the event. "After the awards ceremony the buzz was that it was the 'best ever' GTOAA National Convention," he said.

That despite the fact the much-anticipated Saturday night drag races at Kansas International Dragway were washed out by rain. No problem — a planned parking lot party at the race track was moved inside the Century II display hall and the Convention Center, where all the cars were set up.

Tech sessions and round table discussions were held during the four-day event at the host hotel's Hyatt ballroom and featured a lively session where legendary drag racers Arnie "the Farmer" Beswick and Jess Tyree traded anecdotes about the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. At one point the two old foes were actually passing notes back and forth while other speakers shared their memories with the crowd.

Tyree described how up to a dozen factory-backed Pontiac race cars were hauled to a California used car lot and sold for $2,500 or less when General Motors ordered an end to support for racing teams.

"It's such a sad, sad, sad day what we have to face today, with Pontiac being out of business," said Beswick, who urged the gathering of GTO lovers to make sure that GM gets the message, loud and clear.

The show floors in both buildings were filled with just about every variant of GTO ever built, from slick first-generation convertibles, hardtops and even a few two-door sedans, to the bright orange, red and green Judges of the late 1960s and early '70s, many in concours show form.

Art Peterson, who began his love affair with the GTO as a car show guy, but now campaigns a SS/JA '69 GTO on the drag strips of southern California, told showgoers about running into Bill Porter, the retired Pontiac engineer who sculpted the body shape of the curvy 1968 GTO.

"He said, 'I designed this car, but I can barely afford to buy one today,' " Peterson recounted, referring to the high collectibility of the cars.

In response to a question about a possible Pontiac comeback, Jim Wangers, another speaker, told the crowd, "The honest, ugly reality is with the way the economy is today... there really isn't much chance we will ever see the Pontiac nameplate again." In fact, he predicted that in two years, Buick will also be gone, leaving GM a "two-car company, Chevrolet and Cadillac."

"It's up to these guys now to keep our hobby going," said Wangers, who had worked hand-in-hand with John DeLorean and key Pontiac executives to re-establish Pontiac's performance credentials during the muscle car era. But he has no doubt that the die-hard fans of the now-defunct GM brand are up to the task.

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