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Nineteen sixty-four was undeniably a turning point in almost every respect. Still recovering from the shock of the Kennedy assassination, America witnessed drastic changes in world affairs, youth and, of course, cars. In 1963, half a million kids graduated from high school. In 1964 that figure tripled. The first wave of the post-World War 2 baby boomers had reached 17 and 18 years of age - ready for driving and, for men, the draft. For most, the draft meant Vietnam, only most didn't know it yet, because Nam wasn't front page news. The sudden increase in the teenage and young adult population meant drastic changes in the culture. The Beatles arrived and, with them, a new sound and a new look. Overnight, "Beatlemania" conquered America. The group members' long hair would go on to be a symbol of rebellion for males all over the world for over a decade.

The swelling youth population also meant new profit opportunities for manufacturers of just about everything. For carmakers, this meant meeting demands for power, style and image. Detroit was quick to respond. America's appetite for cars seemed unaffected by such things as a federal indictment against eight U. S. steel firms for price fixing, or a UAW strike against GM late in the year. No car enthusiast will need any reminding that 1964 was a turning point in the evolution of the high performance passenger car in America. That was the year, of course, when Pontiac introduced the GTO. And Oldsmobile seconded the motion just a few months later with a quick, throw-together copy called the 4-4-2. Big Chevrolet couldn't move quite so fast. But by the winter of '64 to '65 they managed to hand-build 200 Chevelles with a hi-po version of the new Mark IV big-block that they sold to selected VIP customers under a Z16 option code.

Those three cars started a vast merchandising move that brought race car performance to the man in the street – which made literally billions of dollars in profits for the Detroit carmakers. The era was stopped in the early 1970s by tightening safety and exhaust emission standards, and by skyrocketing insurance rates for young drivers in these high performance cars. But for the eight years or so after early 1964, there was more performance action on American streets and highways than at any time before. It was another world.

The definitive car from 1964 is the "GTO " - as contrasted from the big-block Super Stocks that were seen in the early 1960s. Essentially, the GTO was nothing more than an intermediate-size body with a big engine. The differences were that the early SS cars used full-size bodies, and their engines were basically detuned race engines. They were built in only limited numbers and were intended more for the drag strips and circle tracks than the street. The GTO was a fully equipped, practical everyday street machine. Its engine was hopped up mildly with a special hydraulic camshaft, high compression and a good dual exhaust system. But it was no detuned race engine. The GTO's performance came from a combination of light weight, strong mid-range torque, optimum gearing and tuned heavy duty suspension and steering that gave better-than-average handling. Some of the magazine writers at the time called it a poor man's Ferrari, which is where the GTO designation came from: Gran Turismo Omologato.

Such features had never been offered in an inexpensive American car before, believe it or not. But more importantly, this car carried with it a new street image, and anyone who owned one had a new image as well. And it was magic. If you were a Mopar fan in '64, you could get a glimpse of Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge iron in action in the hilarious big screen hit It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Though not thought of as a car movie, it's one of the better ones ever made, with a list of actors and actresses that reads like a who's who of Hollywood. The Pink Panther, with Peter Sellers, was another silver screen comedy hit. Though westerns, such as "Bonanza," were still popular with TV audiences, situation comedies were also among the favorites. "Bewitched" made Salem witchcraft a funny subject, while "Gomer Pyle, USMC" used a military backdrop for laughs.

Of course, Gomer Pyle never saw action in Vietnam, where the U.S. would have an expanded role that year. North Vietnamese PT boats attacked three U.S. destroyers in separate incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin. None of the ships a sustained serious damage, but since they had been cruising in international waters, the U.S. a responded saying, "It is a mean, frustrating and difficult struggle, but we think it can be won." President Johnson, as if to assure Americans that they were in safe hands, announced that the U.S. had a plane capable of flying at 2,000 mph in its arsenal. Meanwhile, the Communist Chinese tested their first nuclear bomb, and the Americans sent into orbit a satellite to pinpoint targets for ICBMs.

The power race in Detroit was also going great guns, with new hardware appearing onrace tracks destined to find its way onto the streets. But actually, the market in new performance cars in 1964 was really very limited. Ford, for instance, was concentrating on the hi-riser 427 engine, which was really an out-and-out competition motor. The raised intake ports and the manifold required a high bubble in the hood to clear the carbs, and there wasn't sufficient forward visibility to make a safe street car. The company never offered the engine in a viable street job. Its 1964 big-block offerings were a few Galaxies with early '63 dual quad 427s. Chrysler, like Ford, was occupied with a new competition engine in 1964: the famous 426 Hemi. This was not offered for the street that year either - only in lightweight drag cars and steel-body NASCAR cars. They did build a handful of 426 Max Wedge Dodges and Plymouths, but mostly to use up parts left over from the '62 to '63 race programs. The new Hemi was all the rage in 1964. But Chrysler wasn't going "street" engineering.

Chevrolet? The GM front office edict in early 1963 had put a stop to their racing programs. After that they built a limited number of dual quad 409s, but the steam was out of the program. Everybody was looking forward to a rumored "porcupine" head engine scheduled for '65. In fact, Chevy sold more detuned 409s with hydraulic cams than all-out solid lifter jobs in 1964. So this left Pontiac's new GTO with just about an open field in early 1964. And that's the way it was. Street fans flocked to the Pontiac showrooms. Even some loyal Ford and Mopar followers were curious. Pontine officials had only intended to build about 5,000 GTOs in 1904, as the car was really a maverick combination in the eyes of the GM front office. The top brass had decreed that big V8s should not be used in intermediate A-body cars, like the Chevelle and Tempest. The GTO was a sneaker that got past the "14th floor." But once the thing hit the streets, Pontiac couldn't keep up with demand. By March, GTOs were back-ordered several months, and final production hit 32,000 units the first year! When the GM brass started counting profits, all was forgiven.

Good news for street performance enthusiasts in '64 was the introduction of brand-new, heavy duty manual 4-speed transmissions by each of the Big Three to replace the delicate Warner T-10 that just couldn't be trusted in extended use in heavier cars. All these new designs—the GM Muncie, Ford Toploader and Chrysler A-833—were two or three times stronger than a T-10, as well as being easier and quicker to shift, easier to repair, quieter and really not that much heavier. The Chrysler A-833 was the heaviest, at 105 pounds. But they were all worlds better. It goes without saying that a large portion of the early GTOs were ordered with the new close-ratio Muncie 4-speed, not to mention optional Tri-Power carburetion and 3.91 Posi rear end. They were bought strictly with street racing in mind. And they were definitely the cars to beat that year, unless you had one of the older Super Stocks in good shape (409 Chevy, etc.]. A well-tuned '64 389 GTO typically equipped as above could turn quarters in the mid-14s at 95 to 98 mph, running up to 5800 rpm or so in the gears with adjusted rocker studs. Seems like there were a million of the things on the favorite stoplight streets (like Detroit's Woodward Avenue and Southern California's Van Nuys Boulevard) back in those days. Pontiac definitely scooped the industry with the 1964 GTO.

Speaking of strength, power and success, there were plenty of heavy hitters in the news in 1964. President Johnson defeated Republican Barry Goldwater to keep his job, and the FBI arrested 21 in the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. In the sporting world, Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammed Ali, took the boxing heavyweight title away from Sonny Liston, and the St. Louis Cardinals downed the New York Yankees for the World Series. Auto racing lost a heavy hitter when Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, 37, died in July - of injuries sustained in a crash in a 600-mile stock car race the previous May in Charlotte, North Carolina. A major earthquake rocked Anchorage, Alaska, and the U.S. sent an unmanned Gemini space capsule into orbit, moving the American space program into a new phase. The Beatles had certainly moved music into a new phase with such hits as "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," but the Beach Boys proved once again that cars were a popular topic by putting "I Get Around" on the charts. The Kingsmen also scored a hit with their classic rocker "Louie Louie."

Just as the British Invasion brought a host of groups trying to share the Beatles' success, the GTO imitators were also quick to appear. Within six months after the GTO hit the streets, in the spring of '64, Oldsmobile had a crude copy available—the new 4-4-2 optionpackage for the F85 coupes. To get one, you checked off the B09 box on the order blank, which was the F85 Police Apprehender package - and Olds added a few emblems and special trim to give you your GTO-fighter. The B09 package cost only $285 extra. It included heavy duty suspension (including a rear anti-roll bar), wide wheel rims and dual exhaust, plus the Olds small-block 3 30-cubic-inch engine was hopped up with a special high-lift cam, high compression, 4-barrel carb and a big dual-snorkel air cleaner. It was rated at 310 gross hp at 5200 rpm. The wide-ratio Muncie 4-speed was a mandatory option.

That first 330-cube 4-4-2 was a pretty decent performer, considering the displacement. It could turn quarters in the mid-15s at 88 to 90 mph. No match for a good GTO Tri-Power, but not bad for a quick and dirty answer to a new market segment that was exploding. It got the 4-4-2 name established, anyway. Some Mopar fans don't realize that Chrysler put out a pretty healthy street engine option for Dodges and Plymouths in 1964. This was the new 426-S engine—the S was for Sport option. It was essentially a standard 426 4-barrel engine, but with a hot 268-degree camshaft, a low-restriction air cleaner and a dual exhaust system. Gross rating was 365 hp at 4800 rpm. When run in a light Dodge or Plymouth coupe with 3.54 or 3.90 gears, you could easily turn quarters in the low 15s at 90 mph. This could stay pretty close to a standard 4-barrel GTO, but not a Tri-Power.

The GTO owed its success not just to its performance, but also to its appeal as an image machine. The same has been true of many performance cars ever since—they get driven out of the showroom simply because their buyers want to say, "Hey, look at me!" with a big four-wheeled toy. Which brings us to the all-new Mustang sport coupe that Ford unveiled in the spring of 1964. It truly kicked off the big "Look at me" market segment. It's well-known now how the Mustang caught on big and made millions in profits for Ford even that first year. As far as brute performance was concerned, though, the Mustang wasn't really in the chase, simply because the chassis was too small and light to house a big-block V8 engine. That was a crippling disadvantage among the stoplight crowd, and it wasn't corrected until the first major redesign in 1967.

But it hardly mattered. The car had universal appeal, for both men and women. By building a car that had the look of a two-seater with the practicality of four seats, Ford had one of the biggest winners in automotive history. A light, nimble '64 Mustang with Ford's optional 289-cubic-inch small-block high performance V8 was one of the sweetest street fun packages you could buy that year. The car itself weighed only 3000 pounds at the curb. Sure, the engine was small, but its extreme light weight of only 460 pounds contributed to the nice balance of the Mustang. And since you automatically got heavy duty suspension and brakes when you ordered the HP 289 engine, the handling was outstanding.

The engine was no slouch, either. The HP package included a bigger 4-barrel carb, 11.6:1 compression, 306-degree solid-lifter cam and beefed-up bottom end, plus spe-^ cial streamlined exhaust manifolds to dual mufflers. The gross rating of 271 hp at 6000 rpm was only a hint of things to come. Out on the street, the HP 289 engine would rev happily to 6500 rpm, and even to 7000 on a missed shift without breaking. With Ford's Toploader 4-speed and optional 3.89 gears, the net power could get a quarter in maybe mid-to high 15s at 85 mph. No threat to the big-block musclecars, but fun, fun, fun. These Hi-Po 289 Mustangs were quite popular with the fringe street crowd in 1964.

So there you have the best of the 1964 performance crop. If we had to list them in the order of their performance potential, they might go something like this: 1. Pontiac GTO Tri-Power 2. Pontiac GTO Standard 4-barrel 3. Dodge/Plymouth 426-S 4. Oldsmobile 4-4-2 5. Ford Mustang HP 289

The 1964 NHRA record-holding lightweight 427 Ford Golaxie 500.

But as we said before, you still had to watch out for those older Chevy 409s, Ford 406s and 427s, and Max Wedge Mopars. And by the mid-' 60s, there were a lot of modified '56 and '57 Chevys on the streets. They could embarrass a new GTO real bad. "

1964 will always be remembered as a pivotal year of that decade. It was really just the beginning for many things, some very good and some very bad. Bob Dylan sang "The Times They Are A-Changin' " with a conviction that was haunting. His words only hinted at what was to come. mf3

Formula One Championship:

John Surtees (Britain) / Ferrari

Wimbledon Women:

Maria Bueno d. M. Smith (6-4 7-9 6-3)

Wimbledon Men:

Roy Emerson d. F. Stolle (6-4 12-10 4-6 6-3)

The Movies:

  • Red Desert
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • My Fair Lady
  • Mary Poppins
  • Zorba the Greek
  • Becket

Academy Awards:

  • Best Picture - My Fair Lady
  • Best Actor - Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady)
  • Best Actress - Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins)

The Charts:

  1. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," - Beatles
  2. "She Loves You," - Beatles
  3. "Hello, Dolly!" - Louis Armstrong
  4. "Oh, Pretty Woman," - Roy Orbison
  5. "I Get Around," - Beach Boys
  6. "My Guy," - Mary Wells
  7. "Everybody Loves Somebody," - Dean Martin
  8. "Where Did Our Love Go," - Supremes
  9. "Love Me Do," - Beatles
  10. "People," - Barbra Streisand
  11. "Java," - A1 Hirt
  12. "A Hard Day's Night," - Beatles
  13. "Glad All Over," - Dave Clark Five
  14. "Under the Boardwalk," - Drifters
  15. "Love Me With All Your Heart," - Ray Charles Singers


  • Herbert Clark Hoover (Former US President)
  • Douglas MacArthur (WWII General)
  • Harpo Marx (Comedian)
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