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Mastering GTO Restorations: How to Select a Project

When it comes to the restoration of any car, Pontiac GTO or other­wise, the proper selection of a candi­date differs for different people, but always boils down to making a realis­tic evaluation of your intentions and your means of achieving it.

With the selection of the proper project car, you must find your own comfort zone that individual bal­ance of condition, price, and origi­nality that is unique to you. Keep your own skill level in mind, as well as your restoration facility, tools, and the amount of money needed to properly restore the vehicle. Obvi­ously, everyone’s tastes, financial situation, skill set, and intended uses are going to be unique, so the idea here is to find the car that is going to suit your intended purposes without getting in too far over your head. 


This tech tip is from the full book, HOW TO RESTORE YOUR PONTIAC GTO: 1964-1974.

For a comprehensive guide on this entire subject you can visit this link: LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK HERE

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As a family of vehicles, 1964– 1972 Pontiac GTOs are especially good choices for a restoration proj­ect. They are fast, good-looking machines with a level of brand iden­tity that has elevated them to legend­ary status. They remain very popular nearly 50 years after their introduc­tion. There is a tremendous amount of aftermarket support for them, and they tend to hold their value better than other vehicles in the collectible muscle car market.

One of the reasons that Pontiacs in general, and GTOs in particular, hold their value so well is the avail­ability of original factory and bill­ing information from PHS, formerly known as Pontiac Historic Services. PHS President Jim Mattison is the owner and holder of Pontiac’s origi­nal billing information, going back to the 1961 model year. By supplying the vehicle identification number (VIN), PHS can provide a copy of the original shipping manifest, showing the options for that car. 


 A properly restored Pontiac GTO is a thing of beauty. This one-of-a-kind 1969 Ram Air IV GTO convertible is painted Carousel Red, but it’s not a Judge—it’s a special-order “factory freak.” This particular GTO has been professionally restored, and for good reason—it’s one rare Goat. Pontiac only made 549 Ram Air IV GTOs for the 1969 model year, and only 14 automatic convertibles were made. A car with this pedigree and market value demands the best profes­sional restoration possible, and therefore, a novice restorer should not attempt to restore a GTO with similar lineage. A car that has some collector value, such as the 1970 GTO 400, is a reasonable candidate for a first restoration job because you should select a car that’s not prohibitively expensive. In other words, an art historian’s first job shouldn’t be restoring the Mona Lisa, or any­thing close to it. Select a GTO that doesn’t require an extraordinary amount of work and within your budget and skill range.


In the course of 40-plus years, many GTOs have been down a drag strip at one point or another, or have been driven aggressively on the street. Keep an eye out for signs of abuse or racing. If you crawl under the car and examine the frame rails and motor mounts, a heavily abused car shows cracks around these components because the chassis has twisted many times during launches. Other tell-tale signs include doors that don’t open and shut easily and “tweaked” roofs because the frame has been bent over time.


Is your 1970 GTO an original Ram Air IV Judge or is it a 350 LeMans in disguise? PHS is able to prove how it was built. For a fee, PHS provides that information and a reproduction of the original window sticker. It is money well spent, and many enthu­siasts have used it to decide whether to purchase a particular car or move on to another one.

Having that level of accountabil­ity for the authenticity of a real GTO goes a long way toward stabilizing the values of GTOs and weeding out the clones, so a potential buyer can be sure that the car he is looking at is an original GTO and not a tarted-up Tempest or LeMans.

GTOs from the later two years of production are tougher cars to restore, mostly from the standpoint of parts availability. While there are some reproduction items available for the 1974, they are mostly by way of its cousin, the Chevrolet Nova. In terms of availability, it is nothing like that of the 1964–1972 versions. Floorpans, quarter panels, and other sheet metal are available, as are stripe kits, but when it comes to GTO-specific items such as grilles or turn signal lamps, you need to search for NOS (new old stock) or used parts. 

The 1973 GTOs are unique, they were a one-year option package on the 1973–1977 A-Body LeMans plat­form, they had the fewest number built, and they have virtually noth­ing reproduced. If parts are needed, it will be an intensive search for NOS or serviceable used parts. Body pan­els are becoming particularly diffi­cult to find, as these vehicles tended to rust fairly quickly and the supply of usable NOS or rust-free Western metal is dwindling. NOS wheel open­ing moldings? It’s doable, but it’s not nearly as cost-effective. I touch upon both of these model years in this book, as the process to restore them is the same as for their older siblings. The main focus, however, is on the earlier models.


What Are Your Goals?

Setting realistic goals for your project is paramount to the success of the project. Will this car be a daily driver, local show competitor, and cruise night participant, or a con­cours-level trailer queen built to cap­ture national awards?

If you are looking to take the gold at a GTO Association of Amer­ica (GTOAA) or Pontiac-Oakland Club International (POCI) conven­tion, chances are you won’t be using this book to restore your vehicle. You will more likely be hiring the job out to someone with that level of experience and skills, such as Scott Tiemann, of Supercar Special­ties, in Portland, Michigan, who has graciously supplied photos from some of his restoration projects. The processes that these photos illustrate are the state of the art, the “right way” to handle a particular task. Your job as a home restorer is to come as close to that level as you can with your own project.


When choosing the right GTO to restore, carefully evaluate each possible candidate and use common sense. When a prospective GTO requires exten­sive work causing the restoration to be too expensive, a novice restorer should find another car. In the case of this very rough 1969 GTO coupe with such an advanced level of rust, you need to walk away. In this case, maybe you should run. A car such as this needs new quarters, floor, fenders, trunk, and more. It also needs the frame rails replaced, and that’s the domain of a skilled weldor and fabricator, something most first-time restorers are not. This car is at best a parts car, and maybe not even that. In addition, the original driveline is long gone and more parts are missing than are present.


 This 1965 GTO history card provides detailed data on the equipment package for a particular car that went through production. The earlier manifest is actually a keypunch card, an early analog form of computer data entry. Although high-tech for the day, it’s a time capsule of data management, but the actual information is invaluable. If a seller has this information, it definitely boosts the value of the car because the original equipment package can be authenticated. All Pontiacs since 1961 can have the original Pontiac billing information retrieved and decoded by PHS.


The build sheet for a particular car is another key and valuable piece of documentation. This highly optioned GTO convertible carries power steering and brakes, con­sole, air conditioning, Turbo 400 automatic transmission, disc brakes, Rally II wheels, Soft-Ray tinted glass, power antenna, and many other options.


Level of Restoration

My first words of advice? Restore the car for yourself, not for the “next guy.” If you pigeon-hole yourself into restoring a car with an eye toward resale value, chances are you won’t enjoy the car as much as if you did it the way you wanted. While there is merit in restoring a vehicle to its as-delivered configuration, if there are things you really don’t like about it, you’re not as likely to enjoy it.

If the car came from the factory with a green interior and you hate green interiors, there is nothing wrong with changing it to a color that suits your tastes, especially if it needs replacing anyway. If the brown exterior doesn’t suit you, why not change it to something you like better? After all, it’s your car; restore it as you see fit. But keep in mind, then it won’t be a factory-original restoration.

Adding factory options is also a possibility and if you wish to mod­ify the car a bit for better handling, safety, or performance. I recommend that modifications be kept mild enough that they aren’t visible or can be easily returned to stock.


Rarity, Condition and Originality

How important is condition? Is rarity more important than condi­tion? For the scope of this book, con­dition is the most important factor in choosing a car to restore. A relatively clean, complete, unabused, base-engine GTO is a more desirable candi­date for restoration than a thrashed, rusted, and stripped Ram Air or HO car. Why? Because the later types of cars are best left to those with the experience and means to bring them back—but when restored, the owners will have too much money invested in them to be practical drivers or weekend cruisers.

Originality is important, but it falls short of condition. While it is important that the GTO you are restoring is actually a GTO, or the Judge you just spent your hard-earned money on is really a Judge, the idea that only a numbers-matching origi­nal car is worth saving is a bit silly. How many GTOs had their original engines blown up after a few months and replaced with a service replace­ment (SR) engine under warranty? A lot of them, especially Ram Air IVs, which the factory ended up building at least one SR block for every one installed in a car. That is why replace­ment Ram Air IV parts were so plenti­ful into the early 1980s.

It is likely that at least half of the GTOs for sale have a non-original engine under the hood. Perhaps the 2-speed automatic transmission in that clean 1966 was replaced with a Turbo 350 at some time in its history. Body, frame, and suspension integ­rity is far more important than the possibility that there’s a late 1970s 400 smog engine where that 389 Tri- Power originally sat. You can find correct engine parts a lot easier than you can find rust-free restoration candidates.


NOS, Used or Reproduction Parts

In the quest for replacement parts for your GTO, the question always arises: Is it acceptable to use reproduction parts? Some purists say it is never okay and only NOS parts should be used any time a compo­nent needs replacement. I disagree. Reproduction parts are the market’s response to the scarcity of original replacements. If enough people are willing to spend 10 or 20 times the original list price for an original item, there exists a market for a reproduc­tion equivalent period. The market also tends to weed out the substan­dard replacements, resulting in high-quality, reasonably priced items.

More specifically, the restoration industry is old enough that most of the junk parts have already been weeded out. Several parts suppliers started out as NOS dealers in the late 1970s and early 1980s and had to start developing and offering repro­ductions in order to keep their inven­tories at acceptable levels. These businesses have survived because of that evolution.

As with all goods and services, it is true that in the restoration parts market, some pieces are bet­ter than others. For the most part, if you are ordering reproduction sheet metal, exterior trim, interior parts, or engine parts for your GTO from one of the established parts suppli­ers, such as Ames Performance Engi­neering, Original Parts Group, Year One, and Performance Years, you’re going to be fine. In fact, some items have been licensed by GM and some pieces have even been made using original tooling, so technically, they are “continuations.” Best of all, if you do have a problem with a partic­ular item, the top parts suppliers will do everything in their power to keep you as a happy customer.


Evaluating a Project Car

Buying a restoration project is generally the same process as buy­ing any other collector car, but with some distinct differences. The main difference is that since it’s not a fin­ished project, you must evaluate the candidate based on its current condi­tion and the amount of work you’re willing to do. In addition, consider your personal abilities, resources, and of course, finances. It also helps to be able to distinguish a relatively minor flaw from a major one and to see beyond the bad paint, greasy engine bay, and threadbare interior to envision what that particular vehicle could look like as a com­pleted project.

Rust damage is the main enemy of a restoration project. In the case of GM A-Bodies, the main area of cor­rosion usually starts with rain pen­etrating the seal of the windshield and backlight. Water often collects in those areas, causing corrosion. As the breach around the sealed glass becomes larger, water can more eas­ily get into the cowl and trunk areas, causing those areas to corrode. By the time the paint starts to bubble, big problems are already brewing. If the car in question has a vinyl top, the moisture is prevented from evap­orating. Soon, the vinyl is covering holes in the roof.

Meanwhile, moisture and salt attack from the bottom and eat away at rocker panels, quarters, floor­boards, and most importantly, frame rails. Many times, frame rot can start on the inside and work its way out, so frame rails must be thoroughly examined. Getting the car on a lift often reveals a lot of what is really going on with the entire car.


 These 1972 GTO coupes are in better shape than the 1969 model on page 8, but are still not quite suitable candidates for a first-time project. These cars are mostly complete, but both require extensive body work, and body work is one of the difficult aspects of restoration. While these cars are not as extensively rusted as the 1969 GTO coupe, the restorer must repair or replace most of the body panels. However, these cars are relatively solid undernreath and don’t require frame replacement. Though rough, they are feasible to the right person.


 This is an ideal car for a first-timer to restore. It’s a solid, complete, and run­ning example that is not a complete rust-out. While some surprises are no doubt hidden for the restorer to discover and repair, a beginner will not get in over his or her head with this restoration project. This particular car has the added bonus of being a real 455 HO car, making it rare and hence more valu­able than a run-of-the-mill 400. Thus, the restorer should make sure to take the time and invest the money to restore this car correctly. Ultimately, the value of the car reflects the investment in it. While more expensive to get into initially, the total tab and the final results make this one a winner.


 Select your restoration candidate carefully because many of the body panels are not offered as reproduction parts. At present, you can buy quarter panel skins and lower quarter patch panels for 1966–1967 GTOs, but you cannot buy reproduction full quarter panels with sail panels, so this adds another level of complexity. If you need to install quarter-panel patches to an existing panel, the required welding and body work may go beyond your current skill level. Therefore, if you find a GTO that requires full quarter-panel replacement or other serious body work, you may be wise to pass on the car.

When you wander the aisles at swap meets looking for parts, you may come across some NOS (new old stock) parts, but you need to determine if the condition or type of part is the best option for your particular restoration project. A reproduction part may fit better and require less prep work than an NOS part. This NOS 1970–1972 right rear quarter panel has quite a bit of “shelf wear.” There is a decent amount of surface rust and pitting, as well as some dents and creases, all adding time and cost to the restora­tion. So this part requires a chemical strip or media blasting to remove the surface rust and then any defects or damage needs to be remedied with body filler. Considering all these aspects, a reproduction quarter is a very viable substitute, and in this case, a preferable alternative.


Find out whether there is more rust than can be effectively repaired. If the damage is limited to bolt-on sheet metal such as fenders, doors, and hood, it is a fairly simple pro­cedure to replace them, and there is enough in the way of replacement panels, both used and reproduction, to meet your needs.

If the corrosion damage extends into welded sheet-metal panels, but does not rise to the level of major structural damage, there is a good chance the vehicle is a viable candi­date for restoration. There is a wealth of reproduction sheet metal available to repair most problem areas. For example, if a trunk floor is rusted, but the frame rails are still solid, a repro­duction floorpan can be installed, and the overall integrity of the body can be restored.

The idea is to use these panels to repair problems “here and there” and to avoid cars that need every single panel replaced. If the GTO in question needs quarters, rockers, and floorpans from firewall to tail panel, the skill and financial requirements often go beyond what a first-time restoration project can provide. This also applies to cars that need frame repair or replacement. Thus, a first-time restorer should search for a car that doesn’t require extensive body work and frame repair because it’s beyond what the novice can do. I think we’ve all known friends or acquaintances who have taken on a project that simply requires too much. These overly ambitious resto­ration projects typically end in frus­tration the car sits in the garage for years and never gets completed.

What to Avoid

Above all else, avoid the urge to restore a rusted-out parts car. A parts car is defined as a car whose condi­tion has deteriorated to such an extent that it cannot realistically be restored and is good only as a donor of parts to other projects.

Unless the car in question has an immense amount of sentimen­tal value as with a car owned by a beloved family member or one in which you were conceived, born, or brought home from the hospital, or one that you’ve had since high school resist the urge. Don’t invest money in sweat equity in a car that really doesn’t deserve it. If a car has gotten to that point, it’s better to move on, or buy it as a parts car.

The majority of parts-car resto­ration projects end badly. In fact, they hardly ever work out. They are often marriage-wrecking, will-tapping, wallet-drainers, and far too often, the end result is not at all impressive. Restoring a car that should be parted out will have you out of the hobby and collecting Batman comic books faster than you can say, “Holy rusted frame rails!” 

Here’s an example: If the car you’re trying to restore is a stripped, completely rusted-out mess but a genuine factory Ram Air IV Judge that is missing the original drive­train and everything else that made it special, do yourself and your fam­ily a favor and put it on eBay and be done with it. Why? Some people say things like, “Reproduction sheet metal, interiors, paint, and labor cost the same for a base-engine car or a Judge convertible.”


Unlike many other cars to roll out of Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s, the GM A-Body cars, including the GTO, carried a full perimeter frame. Other cars of the era, such as the Mustang and first-generation Nova, were indeed uni­body cars, a collection of stamped-steel panels that supported the front and rear suspensions. The full-perimeter frame provided far greater chassis rigidity than many other cars and therefore the GTOs were an excellent platform for big-inch, high-horsepower engines. If a frame has rusted out, and repair or res­toration is impractical or simply not possible, you can buy entire replacement frames. In this case, you’re looking at a frame with front and rear suspension for a 1970 GTO. Replacement frames are becoming more common in restora­tion projects.


In some cases, a frame has rusted beyond repair, but most of the body is in good shape. Thus, you need a replacement frame, and it may be a cost-effective alternative to take the frame from another car. This particular frame is from a 1970 GTO and features rebuilt front and rear suspension systems. It is also a heavy-duty frame, which is boxed and is correct for convertibles, as well as HD frame-equipped coupes. It is a stout frame and a prime candidate for a resto­ration job, and in particular, it’s a good foundation for a high-horsepower build.


This is absolutely true, but it is misleading because being able to find everything needed to put that car back into correct (forget about numbers-matching) condition is what puts you over the top. Have you checked the prices for original Ram Air IV carbs, distributors, or cylinder heads? They are incredibly expensive. Additionally, if you can find it all, you still need to know if the date codes are in the range of your build date.

It’s a vicious cycle and a game successfully played only by the most experienced and wealthiest members of the hobby. These are not cars for a first timer, but if you try one as a first-timer, chances are the project will fail. And out of the frustration, it will be your last project.



The PHS shows it is a real GTO, but can it still be a fake? Yes, it can, though it is unlikely when dealing with unrestored examples. Problems arise when the car has had its VIN and cowl tags removed and installed on another car in better condition. The restoration is performed on that car and the end product is repre­sented as the original car.

Every so often, one of these vehicles comes through an auction. It looks beautiful and correct, but a quick check of the hidden VINs on the body and frame shows it is actu­ally a retagged vehicle a forgery. While this isn’t prevalent, it does happen and continues to do so, and therefore you must be careful to not get stuck with a “clone” car that’s worth a fraction of its portrayed value. Very often, the person sell­ing the car is unaware of the switch because it happened two or three owners before and was bought in good faith as an original car. Legal battles quickly arise, lawsuits are filed, and in the end, no one wins.

By the way, taking the VIN tag off one car and putting it on another is a federal crime and the penalties just aren’t worth the jail time. Stay away from such temptation.


Club Benefits

Join a club! Though I cannot be considered an impartial observer in this area (I have been editor-in-chief of the Pontiac-Oakland Club Inter­national’s monthly magazine Smoke Signals since 2006), the benefits of joining a car club are worth far more to a restorer than the monthly dues. Even if you are not a “joiner” and don’t want to get involved with a local chapter, just having access to the club Web sites, the magazines, and most importantly, the classified ads is a huge benefit when searching for a project car.

One of the other advantages of a club membership is access to the tech­nical advisors. If you have a question about how something is supposed to go together or some detail not cov­ered anywhere else, the chances are very high that the tech advisors are either able to provide the informa­tion or point you to someone who can. As a tech advisor for the POCI, I can attest that the amount of time and effort that can be saved is huge. Collectively, the POCI tech advisors have assisted thousands of members over the years and they do it on a volunteer basis.

Whether it is the POCI, GTO Association of America, Antique Automobile Club of America, or a local independent club, join up and reap the benefits of membership. 

Use the Internet to Your Advantage

If you are one of those people who “doesn’t do computers,” do yourself a huge favor push through your fears and get online. The amount of information, cars, parts, message forums, and experience from other enthusiasts is just too much to ignore. There are some really great online Pontiac forums, and the num­ber of connections you can make for parts, expertise, and general cama­raderie make it a no-brainer. If your computer skills are lacking, chances are there is a continuing education class you can take at your local high school or library that will quickly get you up to speed. Or, you can always find a middle- or high-school student to help you. 

Some Friendly Advice

The best advice I can give is this: If you’re coming into this hobby looking for a first-time project, you’ll be far happier finding the car in the best overall condition, with origi­nality and rarity falling behind in importance. After more than 20 years in this hobby, seeing the messes that people have gotten themselves into by choosing the wrong car (and hav­ing done so myself as a youngster), I can attest that anything you can do to increase the odds of a successful outcome is a wise choice.


 The question of whether to restore a GTO to factory stock or modified is up to you. While you can build a pro-touring GTO, the purpose of this book is to restore a GTO to its factory-original condition while offering some common-sense modern upgrades to improve performance, drivability, and safety. This 1969 Ram Air III Judge is still with the original owner and features some modi­fications that were common in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including air shocks, slotted mag wheels, and some bolt-on engine upgrades. Cars of this type are now referred to as “day-two cars,” referring to the day after they were brought home and mods began. They feature period-correct aftermarket modi­fications, yet can be returned to factory original-condition without a lot of work.


The process of restoring a car is a huge educational experience. You will learn as much about yourself as you do about the car and how it originally went together. You’ll learn about the guys who designed and engineered them and wonder about the workers on the line the day it was built. At the completion of a GTO restoration project, you will have learned from what went right as well as what went wrong. There will be things you would do differently in future projects and things you would do exactly the same. You’ll also find out who your friends really are.


Written by Donald Keefe and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks




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