29 June 2016

This ’67 GTO was the quickest way to dental school

Vince Margherita recalled nights sitting in his car, studying for dental school exams by the light of an overhead street lamp. That’s something he did a few times while holding a place in a gas-station line during the 1973 oil crisis. Despite his 1967 Pontiac GTO’s voracious appetite for high-test gas, he wouldn’t trade it in for a more economical model.

The GTO was two years old and had 23,000 miles when Margherita’s father bought it for him as a high school graduation gift in 1969. “I remember it cost exactly $2,275,” he said. His GTO has the 400-ci V-8 engine that was standard for 1967, rated at 335 horsepower. A 360-horse “H.O.” version was optional.

For the next four years, Margherita commuted in his GTO from North Haledon, N.J., to the Teaneck, N.J., campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. The commute was about 15 miles each way along Route 4, the congested two-lane road that ends at the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan.

He then took the GTO with him to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Today, Margherita is an orthodontist with offices in Hawthorne, N.J., where he helped organize a growing annual classic car show, and in Warwick, N.Y., about 35 miles to the northwest.

Pontiac made 81,711 GTOs for 1967, making it the best-selling Detroit muscle car that year, by far. About 80 percent of those were hardtop coupes like Margherita’s car. His car is equipped with the optional Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed automatic transmission, which had replaced a two-speed unit offered in 1964-1966 GTO models. The Hurst Dual Gate floor shifter, also new that year and nicknamed the “His/Hers” shifter, was a precursor to today’s manually shifted automatics. In 1967, though, muscle car drivers probably would have thought steering wheel paddle shifters were wimpy.

The console-mounted lever allowed manual selection of the transmission’s three speeds when pushed into the right-side gate (“His”), and normal automatic operation when placed in the left gate (“Hers”). A special latch mechanism in the manual gate prevented the driver from accidentally missing a gear, or hitting Neutral and possibly damaging the engine.

Once Margherita began his professional career, he drove the GTO daily until 1985. By then, the eight-cylinder Goat had accumulated more than 120,000 miles and was deteriorating.

“The back windows on all those GM coupes leaked,” Margherita said. “Water would get into the trunk and rust out the quarter panels behind the wheels. People would tell me that I should get a new car. But I loved the GTO. I never even thought about driving something else.”

He finally relented, buying a new Pontiac Grand Prix in 1985. A few years later, he found a restoration shop in Pennsylvania to refurbish the GTO. New metal was welded into the quarter panels, and the car was repainted in the original Signet Gold.

The engine still ran strongly and was left alone until a few years ago, when it was rebuilt. “I kept it in original stock condition, nothing was modified,” he said.

Margherita occasionally drives the GTO from his home in Franklin Lakes, N.J., to his Warwick office, a 30-mile drive through a part of the state known as the Highlands Region. Roads are scenic and twisty, and the GTO does just fine.

The paint, now some 25 years old, shows some scrapes and wear, but he’s opposed to respraying. “I want to drive it more, so I don’t want to worry about getting chips in the paint,” he said.

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