One of the benefits of living in the metro Detroit area is access to automotive museums and collections. While taking a class in material culture as a PhD student a number of years ago, one of the assignments was to write an object biography. As I was researching muscle cars at the time, I chose the 1965 Pontiac GTO on display at the Henry Ford as the subject of my essay. What follows is the result of my investigation, which I attribute to successful detective work and a lot of luck. [As this was written in 2010, the Henry Ford exhibit is no longer as described here].
On any given day at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a small crowd, most often male, can be found gathered around a 1965 white, two-door Pontiac GTO on display. Part of the museum’s The Automobile in American Life exhibit, which opened in November 1987, the GTO commands attention through its considerable size and sleek design, privileged position on the exhibition floor, and as a representative of a particular era in American car and cultural history. The GTO, over 17 feet in length of gleaming sheet metal, stands slightly apart from the main exhibit, in a section described in Henry Ford literature as The Automobile as American Symbol (Hyde, 1989, p. 108). The hanging sign overhead that reads simply “power” , the console mounted high-performance Hurst shift lever controls and four-speed manual transmission found within the interior, and the polished V-8, 389 cubic inch, tri-power engine visible under the propped-up hood leave little doubt as to what the GTO was, in fact, built to symbolize. Produced during the height of America’s dominance in the automobile industry, the Pontiac GTO was manufactured to reflect the power of a nation, a car company, and by association, that of the man who drove it.
The text that accompanies the GTO display consists of a short paragraph that places the automobile in a cultural context as a “symbol of 1960s youth culture” (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). A 1965 black and white print advertisement – which compares the GTO to a prowling tiger– is situated next to it. The label adhered to the base on which the GTO stands offers little background to the car’s origin. While it provides information as to the automobile’s manufacture – General Motors Corporation, Pontiac Motor Division – the life history of the 1965 GTO, as a product, generational icon, as well as personal transportation for a particular individual, is notably absent (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Yet upon observation of those who stop to stare at the 45-year-old automobile – aging baby boomer men, young male professionals, middle-aged blue-collar workers, and gangly teenage boys – it becomes evident that the GTO contains meanings that extend well beyond its role as a means of transportation.
In creating the exhibit, the Henry Ford was certainly aware of how particular characteristics would resonate with visitors. As Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest, curators are instinctively attracted to objects through “their aesthetic qualities, their cultural resonances,” as well as what is known “about the drama of their individual histories” (p. 145). Therefore, in order to better understand the importance of the 1965 GTO to the Automobile and American Life exhibit and its visitors, it is helpful to construct what Wehner and Sear define as an object biography. Such a process will not only examine the automobile’s history as both product and symbol, but will also attempt to uncover the route of the Henry Ford GTO – Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) 237275P339452 – from the assembly line to the museum floor (Benson Ford, 87.70.1).
The 1964 Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omolgato) is often credited for being the first “muscle car.” It was the brainchild of John DeLorean, who became chief engineer of Pontiac, a division of General Motors, in 1961. Searching for a way to address the flagging sales of the Tempest, Pontiac’s disappointing entry into the mid-size automotive market, DeLorean found inspiration for the GTO on the streets of Detroit. During his daily drive down Woodward Avenue from his Bloomfield Hills home to the General Motors downtown offices, DeLorean couldn’t help but notice the increasing proliferation of teenage boys engaged in illegal street racing. This untapped growing consumer market – male baby boomers of driving age – suggested to DeLorean there was money to be made by appealing to the large number of young men “with money in their pockets looking for excitement” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177). Reexamining the dimensions of the Tempest, DeLorean realized that a 389-cubic-engine V-8 engine had the same external size as the current Tempest option, a 322-cubic-inch V-8. Calling upon the California hot-rod philosophy of the 1950s – light weight plus big engine equals fast car – DeLorean found he was able to deliver sixty-seven more horsepower in the Tempest simply by placing the more powerful engine under the hood. And in removing all the luxury frills from the Tempest – i.e. air conditioning, power windows and FM radio – DeLorean produced a crazy-fast car for a price ($3200) street-racing teenage boys could afford.
However, DeLorean was faced with one minor problem. In 1963, General Motors made a ruling that forbade the use of engines larger than 330 cubic inches in their intermediate sized automobiles. Realizing that it would be impossible to receive permission to install the larger engine before the 1964 product introduction, DeLorean devised – and got away with – a scheme to offer the 389 as part of an option package. An extra $296 not only provided the buyer with a more powerful engine, but also included pseudo hood scoops, chrome air cleaner and valve covers, four-speed manual transmission with floor-mounted Hurst shifter, heavy-duty clutch and suspension, B.F. Goodrich Red Line nylon tires, and chrome GTO nameplates on all four sides (Zavitz, 1989, p. 19). As Mark Foster (2003) writes, “DeLorean and his men found themselves playing with a very hot set of wheels, which was fun to drive” (p. 75). The immediate success of the Pontiac GTO inspired other American automakers to follow suit; the streets of Detroit were soon rumbling with an assortment of muscle cars that included the Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, and Chevrolet Chevelle. Auto journalists also got on the muscle car bandwagon, and wrote about them in glowing – albeit masculine – terms. John Campisano (1995), former editor-in-chief of Muscle Cars magazine, remarked, “Muscle cars are about screaming big blocks revving to the redline. They’re about full-throttle power-shifts at the drags. […] They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone” (p. 8). Automobile magazine founder David E. Davis depicted the muscle car driving experience as “losing your virginity, going into combat and tasting your first beer all in about seven seconds” (Mueller, 1997, p. 17). As an important component of urban male teenage culture from the mid 1960s to early 1970s, it can easily be argued that the Detroit muscle car – of which the 1964 GTO was the acknowledged forerunner – was the automotive product most strongly associated with masculinity. As a “dominant icon in car culture America” (Heitmann, 2009, p. 177), the GTO offered its young male drivers – literally and figuratively – possibilities of unlimited power.
The information gleaned from an investigation of the 1965 GTO on display at the Henry Ford often parallels that of the product’s own storied history. The object folder provided by the Benson Ford Research Center provides clues to the automobile’s personal 45-year trajectory. The automobile’s VIN – located on the left front door hinge pillar and noted in the museum object report – not only indicates the color, model, and body style of the car, but also reveals that the GTO was manufactured at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Pontiac, Michigan. As the Florida license plate suggests and the original bill of sale confirms, after production, the GTO made its way from Pontiac, Michigan to the Colonial Pontiac dealership in Miami, Florida. Auto dealer B. Green sold the car to Otis Wegley on July 20, 1965 (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). The Guardian Maintenance Coupon Book, included with the car’s purchase, indicates that the GTO’s scheduled maintenance was never performed. Perhaps this was because Wegley only drove the car for seven months and 4220 miles before transferring ownership on February 24, 1966 to Anthony Vassilakakis (Tony Vass) of Hollywood, Florida. As the documents in the museum folder show, the GTO eventually wound up in the hands of Jeffrey D. Burch of Fort Lauderdale, who sold the car to the Henry Ford in 1987. With this transaction, the cycle was complete; the GTO returned to the state of its origin for a long and comfortable retirement.
Items within the object folder hint at the negotiations that took place between Burch and Edison Institute (renamed the Henry Ford) transportation curator Randy Mason on the transfer of the GTO. Burch sent Mason fourteen color photographs of the car, accompanied by handwritten descriptions on the back of each, to confirm its condition and authenticity. In the memo dated March 26, 1987 included with the photographs, Burch suggests that the museum’s offering price for the GTO does not reflect its true value (Benson Ford, 87.70.1). Perhaps the argument that the car would be preserved for posterity in a museum convinced Burch to accept a reduced payment. While the object folder provided information on the car’s ownership, there was nothing to indicate when, why, and from whom Burch purchased the GTO. Using the information at hand, a little detective work was performed to uncover more of the car’s personal history.
After compiling a list of questions, an attempt was made to contact Burch by phone and email to fill in the blanks of the 1965 GTO’s biography. However, although current contact information was available on the Internet, both the number and the address provided were no longer valid. However, a chance “Googling” of “Burch GTO” produced an August 26, 1987 article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that, surprisingly and miraculously, answered almost all of the proposed questions. “Classic Auto Drives Into Place in History,” reported by Pat Curry, tells the story of Burch’s acquisition of the GTO as well the circumstances that led to the car’s journey back to Michigan. As Curry discovered, Florida native Burch had a personal history with the GTO. In 1967, recently graduated from Stranahan High School, 18-year-old Burch purchased a red, four-on-the-floor Pontiac GTO through the classifieds. However, in just one year’s time, an excessive number of speeding tickets – inspired by the tiger under the hood, no doubt – forced Burch to sell the car. However, Burch never forgot his teenage experience with the GTO; as Curry remarked, “the memories hung on like the squealing tires on quiet Broward County back roads.”
Almost twenty years later, after settling down and raising a family, Burch got the urge to once more drive the car of his youth. A chance encounter with an exterminator working in the neighborhood led Burch to Tony Vass, who had owned, but rarely driven, the white 1965 GTO. Once Burch saw the automobile, memories of his past experience, and his teenage years, were impossible to ignore. As Curry (1987) wrote, “There he was with the guys, […] hanging out and bragging about his car. He was sitting behind the wheel of his old GTO, a hot red monster of a car just made to go faster than the law allowed.” Burch talked Vass into selling him the car, and spent the next two-and-a-half years restoring it, taking it to car shows, and coming home with first place prizes. It was at one of these shows – the Antique Automobile Club of America regional – that Randy Mason came across the GTO, and convinced Burch to sell it to the Henry Ford. Within Florida, with its warm climate and absence of salt on the roads, Mason hoped he would find just the right car for the new exhibit opening in the completely redesigned Henry Ford. Once the transaction between Burch and Mason was completed, the museum sent a semi-truck to Burch’s home to pick up the car; upon arrival it was installed into The Automobile and American Life exhibit where it has remained ever since.
The comments made by the original owners Vass and Burch, included in the article written over 20 years ago by Pat Curry, provide insight into the attraction of the 1965 Pontiac GTO to today’s visitors to the Henry Ford. Of his experience driving the car, Vass remarked, “It had a certain feel to it. When you shifted, you were in full command.” This sentiment is reflected in the ad that accompanies the Henry Ford display, as it informs the reader the GTO “Snarls when you prod it” (Frumkin, 2002, p. 127). More recent literature describes the GTO, and all muscle cars, in this manner: “They’re about power that pins you to your seat. They’re about cruising on a warm summer night with your buddies or special someone. They are about a bygone era that changed America (and the automobile industry) forever” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8). What these quotes suggest is that the meanings ascribed to the GTO by its owners, drivers, and admirers haven’t significantly changed since the automobile’s introduction. Yet what was once experiential meaning is now often encased in nostalgia for a “more innocent age […] when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled, so much so that next to no one worried about the implications of the unlimited sale of raw horsepower” (Mueller, 2004, p. 18).
Wehner and Sear (2010) suggest that museum objects most attractive to visitors and curators alike are those with strong personal stories and provenance that link the object to a person’s life (p. 145). The commonality of experience and meaning shared by past owners and current admirers of the GTO serves to link them to the automobile and to each other. Mimi Sheller and John Urry (2000) suggest the automobile, as a container of meaning, is deeply entrenched in the ways individuals inhabit the world. As they argue, the car “not only appeals to an apparently ‘instinctual’ aesthetic and kinaesthetic sense, but it transforms the way we sense the world and the capacities of human bodies to interact with that world through the visual, aural, olfactory, interoceptive and proprioceptive senses. We not only feel the car, but we feel through the car and with the car” (p. 228). For a particular group of individuals, the 1965 GTO not only recalls a past driving experience, but also represents how they once envisioned themselves in the world.
The GTO, to those who remember it and those who long after it, contains meanings that extend far beyond its function as a means of transportation. It represents an era in which the USA ruled the auto industry, when America was positioned as a “leader, not a follower” (Campisano, 1995, p. 8), and a time when teenage boys proved their manhood behind the wheel of a fast and powerful automobile.
Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Object folder: Pontiac GTO, 1965. Acc. 87.70.1.
Campisano, J. (1995). American muscle cars. New York: MetroBooks.
Curry, P. (1987). Classic auto drives into place in history. SunSentinel.com, 26 Aug 1987. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-08-26/news/8703090934_1_car-symbol-henry-ford-museum
Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: the automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.
Frumkin, M.J. (2002). Classic muscle car advertising: The art of selling horsepower. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
Heitmann, J. (2009). The automobile and American life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Hyde, C. (1989). The automobile in American life: An exhibit at Henry Ford museum. Technology and Culture. 30.1,105-111.
Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.
Sheller, M. and J. Urry. (2000). The city and the car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24.4, 737-757.
Wehner, K. and M. Sear. (2010) Engaging in the material world: Object knowledge and ‘Australian Journeys’. Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. S. Dudley, ed. London: Routledge.
Zavitz, R.P. (1989). Post war scripts: When the GTO got going. Old Cars Weekly. 31 Aug 1989, 19-20.