11 November 2013

American GT

American carmakers adopted the GT badge from Europe. Did their cars earn it?

The “GT” badge has adorned the fenders and trunk lids of a wide variety of American cars over the past 50 years. Certainly, a number of cars wore the badge with honor, considering its roots in semi-exotic European sports models. Others used it merely as a cosmetic appellation.

The initials “GT” stand for “grand touring,” or, perhaps more accurately, the Italian version, gran turismo. The term was typically used to describe coupe versions of high-performance sports cars that offered more long-distance comfort and luggage space than their open counterparts.

While big Euro cars like the original Bentley Continental R could be called “grand tourers,” Ferrari was likely the first to designate a model “GT,” with the 250 GT series that started in 1955.

When did America get its first GT? Studebaker fans: Raise your hands.

The 1962-1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk, perhaps one of the most underappreciated classic American coupes, emerged from a desperate bid to reverse the company’s decline. While industrial designer Raymond Loewy came in to guide the design of a new model that would become the Avanti, Brooks Stevens got the job to revive the Hawk coupe, which had debuted as the 1953 Starlight and Starliner under Loewy’s design supervision.

By shaving off the Hawk’s gaudy fins and chrome and adding a Thunderbird-like squared-off roofline, Stevens gave the old girl a sophisticated, international flavor. A bucket seat interior, center console and full gauge instrumentation gave the car a GT feel. With later models offering the 240hp and supercharged 289hp V-8s used in the Avanti, along with chassis tweaks, the GT Hawk offered pleasing road manners. The Avanti was a breakthrough American GT, but Studebaker didn’t use that badge on it.

Also for 1962, but at the other end of the spectrum, Dodge spiffed up its competent Lancer compact, putting the GT badge on a two-door hardtop model with upgraded trim. The 225-cube “Slant Six” came standard. Though not a real gran turismo, it was a worthy effort to bring sportiness to a segment known for dowdy cars, making it a trend starter. It was a minor hit, too, with about 17,000 sold.

Dodge continued the formula when it replaced the Lancer with the Dart for 1963. A two-door hardtop or convertible, the Dart GT found success, with 34,000 sold that year. For 1964, a quarter of the 50,000 Dart GTs sold had the newly optional 273 cubic-inch V-8.

Was it a real GT? The 1966 model, with the new high-performance 273, moved closer to the concept. The 1968 GT Sport (GTS) with the 340 high-performance V-8 probably nailed it, though most would consider it a junior muscle car.

Ford had meanwhile been calling its sportiest Mustangs “GT,” a thoroughly appropriate move given the car’s all-around performance competence when equipped with a powerful V-8 and the upgraded suspension and interior. The Shelby versions were even more GT badge-worthy.

Ford earned its “GT cred” when its stunning GT-40 race cars conquered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69, humiliating the Ferraris. But the company dropped the GT package from the Mustang after 1969, focusing its efforts on the striped-and-scooped Mach 1 and Boss models.

Ford also used “GT” for the 390-powered 1966 Fairlane and its twin, the Mercury Cyclone. When the Fairlane morphed into the Torino, there was a GT model. Mercury retired the Cyclone name after 1971 but kept the GT badge for a sporty but obscure 1972-1973 Montego fastback model. With the 351 Cleveland 4-barrel, it was a fairly decent effort.

Sometimes “GT” had a third letter accompaniment. Pontiac famously borrowed the GTO (“gran turismo omologato”) from Ferrari, spurring Plymouth to go with GTX for its 1967 muscle car. Mercury, aiming for a European image, fielded a Cougar GT in 1968 and offered a rare GT-E package with a 390-horse 427 (and later, the 428 CJ).

Could a big car qualify as a GT? The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was a move in that direction. In 1970, Olds offered a subtle GT upgrade with a 400hp engine. About 5,300 had the package.

More obscure was the 1970-1971 Plymouth Fury GT. With its high-performance 440 V-8, beefed-up suspension and bucket seat interior, the Fury GT was a credible effort, but few were sold.

In 1971, things took a wrong turn when Chevrolet stuck the GT badge on a tarted-up Vega. It was a Vega. No more needs to be said.

The Vega platform, though, spawned the stylish 1975 Chevy Monza and its Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Startfire clones, all sharing a roofline cribbed from the 1971 Ferrari 365 GTC/4. Maybe that justified Olds in using “GT” on its higher-trim model. A 120-horse Buick V-6 provided the pep.

Ford dusted off the GT badge when it revived a real performance Mustang for 1982. This time, the name stuck. Today’s Mustang GT is a bona fide muscle car. Yet, with its all-around performance and admirable comfort, it’s also a modern American gran turismo.

What about the 2004-2006 Ford GT, the homage to the GT-40 race car? It was really a super car rather than a gran turismo. But a 200-mph piece of art like that can take any name it wants.

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