The original Pontiac GTO was one of the first muscle cars created by Pontiac engineer Russell Gee, an engine specialist, and Pontiac chief engineer John De Lorean.  In early 1963, General Motors management barred divisions from participation in auto racing. At the time, Pontiac’s advertising and marketing approach was heavily based on performance, and racing was an important part of that tactic.

Jim Wangers planned a way to retain the performance image that the division had cultivated with a new focus on fast cars and street performance. It involved transforming the upcoming redesigned Tempest into a Super Tempest  with a larger 389 Pontiac V8 engine from the full-sized Pontiac Catalina and Bonneville in place of the standard 326 Tempest V8. By promoting the larger engine Tempest as a special high-performance model, they could produce muscle cars for sale to appeal to the speed-minded youth market who seemed to gravitate towards drag racing.

The GTO was officially a violation of GM policy limiting the A-body intermediate line to a maximum engine displacement of 5.4 L. Since the GTO was an option package and not standard equipment, it could be considered to fall into a loophole in the guidelines. Pontiac General Manager Elliot Estes approved the new model, although sales manager Frank Bridge, who did not believe it would find a market, insisted on limiting initial production to no more than 5,000 vehicles. If this new muscle car been a failure, Estes likely would have been reprimanded. As it turned out, it was a great success and the Pontiac GTO is often called the first true muscle car.