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Car of the Year that Wasn't

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from Hemmings Muscle Machines
October, 2011 - author: Joe Oldham


The Car of the Year that Wasn't

It was surely the most humiliating event of my career as an automotive journalist. Upon my recommendation, Hi-Performance Cars magazine announced its 1973 Car Of The Year Award, giving it to Pontiac's Super Duty 455 GTO--a car Pontiac never built. How could that have happened? Here's how.

At the time, I worked as a writer for Hi-Performance Cars, and the boss, Marty Schorr, assigned me to cover all the long-lead press previews for the 1973 models. This was in the summer of '72. Back in the day, the Detroit Four showed all their new models for the upcoming model year all at once, at their respective proving grounds in the Detroit area. Ford took two days: one for all Ford models, one for Lincolns and Mercurys. Chrysler also took two days: one day for all the Dodges, one for Chrysler and Plymouth. American Motors was a one-day affair, while GM had a four-day show. Monday was Chevy, Tuesday was Pontiac, Wednesday was Oldsmobile and Thursday was Buick. Cadillac never had a press preview; they were too snooty in those days to be bothered with car magazines.

At Pontiac's preview, engineers Herb Adams and Tom Nell stunned us with the news that they had developed a new engine to take the place of the already very potent 455 H.O. Stunned because this was right in the teeth of the death knell of performance in Detroit. Federal emission controls, safety laws, low compression ratios, unleaded gas, incredibly high insurance premiums, gas shortages and louder and louder calls for higher fuel economy all had combined to make "high performance" dirty words in the automobile industry of 1972-'73. But saying to hell with it all, Pontiac defied both industry trends and the federal government in introducing a brand-new high-performance engine: the Super Duty 455. That took balls of steel.

At the preview, Pontiac's vice president and general manager, Jim McDonald, announced that the engine would be available in the spring of 1973 as an option in both the Firebird Trans Am, and in the totally new '73 GTO built off the new "colonnade" hardtop body style. In fact, Pontiac had a SD-455 Trans Am there for us press guys to drive. Later, when the main press conference had ended, the engineers brought out a bronze SD-455 GTO development mule for a few of us to try.

I won't go into details of either the SD-455 engine or the colonnade hardtop body style here. You know about both. Suffice it to say, there was nothing comparable from any other carmaker for '73. Driving the SD-455 GTO sealed the deal for me, even though it was a rough-edged, incomplete car. I came back to the office raving about the new SD-455 GTO.

"Marty, this has got to be the 1973 Car Of The Year," I said. "I just drove all the '73s and there's nothing else that can touch it."

"Okay, Joe," Marty said. "If you feel that strongly about it, we'll go with it." With that, he started preparations for the April '73 Car Of The Year issue, which went on sale March 1 and which was completed and put on press by January 1.

He also notified Pontiac Motor Division of the award. Pontiac managers were delighted by the news, and set up a presentation date to take place at the New York International Auto Show in March. Cover art was commissioned, photos selected, layouts made and we rolled up the issue just before New Year's Eve.

A couple of days into the New Year, and right after our issue went to press, the wheels came off. It began with a shakeup of GM corporate management. Jim McDonald was out at Pontiac and in as head of Chevrolet. In the Pontiac seat was now Martin J. Caserio. Caserio, who passed on last year, had most recently headed up the GMC Truck and Coach Division, but spent most of his career as the head of AC Spark Plug Division.

Upon arriving at Pontiac, Caserio asked for a review of all projects by all department managers--a nice first step for the new guy on the job. When the Super Duty 455 engine was mentioned, Caserio reportedly asked what it was and why did we need it? He was told that it was a very special new engine that would differentiate Pontiac from all other carmakers and create a halo effect for the entire model lineup, not to mention building lots of buzz for Pontiac.

With his background in heavy-duty trucks, batteries and spark plugs, Caserio knew little about halos and buzz and couldn't care less.

"Gentlemen," Caserio reportedly intoned, "at this time, General Motors needs products with better fuel economy and greater safety, not higher performance. The days of the high-performance car are over. We have to move on--and I mean right now. The Super Duty engine program is cancelled--immediately."

And just like that, the 1973 SD-455 GTO was the Car Of The Year that wasn't.

Our issue was already on press. It was too late to do anything about it. And so, the magazine--and Marty and me--had to live with the humiliation for the next year. We received some solace when, weeks later, Caserio relented and allowed a few 1973 Trans Ams and Formulas to be built with the SD-455 engine--252 Trans Ams and 43 Formulas, to be exact. Needless to say, they are now among the most coveted of all muscle cars. As far as I know, only one '73 SD-455 GTO was built--the one I drove that day at the proving grounds. Here's a photo of it--one of none.

This article originally appeared in the October, 2011 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.


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