Cars and Guitars:1964 Pontiac GTO and The Beatles, "She Loves You"

Cars and Guitars:1964 Pontiac GTO and The Beatles, “She Loves You”

The perfect driving experience and the melding of music and machines is what Cars and Guitars are all about. So buckle up, drop it into reverse, and floor it back a thousand years when four British mop-top lads and Tin Indian muscle cars ruled the earth.

In the Beginning

If there were ever two 20th-century icons that changed America forever, it was The Beatles and the Pontiac GTO. Both debuted in 1964 on the heels of President Kennedy’s assassination and ushered in a new era of post-war America. The Beatles repackaged American rock and roll and led a British Invasion that rewrote the rules of the music industry. Pontiac took a plebian LeMans two-door, stuffed a big block V8 under the hood, borrowed an Italian name, and kicked off the ’60s muscle car revolution.

The name, GTO was “inspired” by Ferrari’s 250 GTO. It is an acronym for Gran Turismo Omologato (“grand tourer homologated”), meaning certification. Many purists were horrified, but buyers loved the new high-performance package.


Choosing the GTO was tough as both the Plymouth Barracuda and the Ford Mustang were introduced for the 1964 model year as well. We went with the GTO because it debuted in late 1963, and was more influential than the aforementioned pony cars as every Detroit OEM fielded competitors to the GTO across their divisions kicking off the golden era of muscle cars.

Changed Forever

Both The Beatles and the GTO were a cultural line drawn in the sand. On one side was a post-war America, with poodle skirts, tailfins, Elvis, and pompadours. On the other side were redlines, beatniks, miniskirts, bangs, and the Beatles. Sadly, both were not long for this world. By 1970, The Beatles broke up, and muscle cars were neutered by the insurance industry and Washington D.C. busybodies and their safety and emission standards.

To kick off this 17th installment of Cars and Guitars, let’s watch a clip of The Beatles as they exploded in America. Context is important here. Pop music in the early 1960s was dominated by teen idols and bubble gum hits written and produced by teams of record-label personnel. The self-penned music of The Beatles, their boyish good looks, and their long hair were a devastating combination and ignited a musical firestorm. Their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, broke open the gates and introduced the band to millions of listeners.  It was one of the most important pop culture milestones in modern history.

To younger ears, this live performance of “She Loves You” may seem like corny old rock and roll, but in 1964, it was revolutionary. The production, vocals, and guitar sounds were light years away from the music of the day. Be sure and check out the cool vintage guitars, matching suits, and Beatle boots. Ringo is rock solid here laying down a metronome-like 4/4 beat. “She Loves You” went on to number one on the charts and was the best-selling single of 1964.


A Troubled Feast

More than ever, a look back at the events of this period is crucial. President Kennedy had his head blown off in Dallas just before Thanksgiving 1963 and the country was reeling. In today’s troubled times, the news of a sitting president’s demise might throw us into civil war, and Kennedy’s assassination created an equal amount of hysteria and stoked fears at home and abroad.

The headlines continued throughout 1964 as well. Newly sworn-in President Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society were created. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The space race was budding as the Mariner IV probe flew by Mars, transmitting pictures of the planet’s surface back to Earth. Five years later, Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon. Heady days indeed.

Liverpool and the Mersey Beat

After World War II, Britain was a war-torn country and the opposite of hip. Yet the city of Liverpool, a bustling port city in North England, was a crossroads of creativity and cultural exchange. In the late 1950s, the city’s musical scene was percolating. Jazz and skiffle dominated the scene until a wave of American rock ‘n’ roll records and instruments landed on Liverpool’s docks. This infusion of new sounds changed the tempo of the city, setting the stage for something that would change the world.

Merseybeat, also called Beat Music or British Beat, emerged as a natural progression from the fading skiffle genre. The Quarrymen, a skiffle group formed by John Lennon in 1956, would later evolve into what we now know as The Beatles. The Merseybeat sound echoed rock and roll rhythms from across the Atlantic but added a uniquely British spin to the American musical concoction.

Formation and Early Years

The Beatles formed in Liverpool, England in 1960, comprising John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stuart Sutcliffe. Initially, they played in clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, gradually building their musical chops. In 1962, they signed a recording contract and replaced Sutcliffe with Ringo Starr as their drummer.

The Beatles achieved international fame with hits like “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Their music combined rock, pop, and innovative elements, mesmerizing audiences worldwide. Their popularity soared and the term “Beatlemania” entered the modern lexicon.

The Beatles just before they broke up in 1970

The band’s sound evolved with every release, with revolutionary albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album. They experimented with disparate genres, from folk to Indian music. Their last album, “Let It Be,” marked the end of live performances. By 1970, it was all over and The Beatles called it quits.

Big Hits And Big Money

The Beatles charted 64 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1964 and 1970, with 20 No. 1 hits—a record that still stands. Their influence on pop music and recording techniques with producer George Martin created the sound of modern rock. They remain the top-selling act in Hot 100’s history. The Beatles sold over 236 million albums worldwide, including 147 million in the United States, and 20 million in the United Kingdom. Their best-selling album, 1, alone sold over 32 million copies. Their impact on music and culture continues today, making them arguably, the biggest, most influential band of all time.

Pontiac In Transition

Back in America, Pontiac was transforming into a performance car company, but it wasn’t always that way. Until the mid-1950s, Pontiac made some of America’s most dowdy cars. They were solid and dependable, but staid and dull, even with their signature silver streak trim on the hood. By 1955, sales had dipped badly, and the Poncho division needed help if it was to keep above the waterline. Help arrived in July 1956 in the form of a new general manager, Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen.

Bunkie Knudsen had a long-standing connection with General Motors. His father, “Big Bill” Knudsen, headed Chevrolet from 1924 through 1937 and subsequently became president of GM. During the war. The Roosevelt administration recruited the elder Knudsen to manage the conversion of civilian industry to military production, aka “The Arsenal of Democracy.” Bunkie joined GM in 1939 as a junior engineer for Pontiac. He paid his dues, doing stints at the Allison and Detroit Diesel divisions before returning to head Pontiac in 1956. At the time, he became the youngest general manager in GM’s history.

Long before gullwing sports cars, supermodels, and cocaine, John Delorean was an automotive superstar. His connections to GM, Pontiac, and the GTO were the reason he was able to drum up money and persuade foreign governments to subsidize factories to build the famed DMC-12 sports car. Phot0 – Automotive News

Bringing in Top Talent

To help him resuscitate Pontiac, Bunkie persuaded corporate suits to let him hire E.M. (Pete) Estes, then the assistant chief engineer of Oldsmobile, as his chief engineer. Estes, in turn, hired an engineer named John DeLorean from the dying Studebaker-Packard. Like their new boss, Estes and DeLorean were young, energetic, and cocky.

Knudsen, Estes, and DeLorean set about transforming Pontiac’s frumpy image with a new focus on performance. Under Knudsen’s rule, Pontiac won its first NASCAR race in February 1957, a feat that flabbergasted onlookers accustomed to thinking of Pontiacs as cars for old geezers. In March of that year, Pontiac introduced its first high-performance “Tri-Power” triple-carburetor engine. This was followed by the Bonneville, a chrome-laden, limited-edition convertible featuring Rochester mechanical fuel injection, a real tech breakthrough at the time.

The Real Deal

Pontiac slowly adopted the “Wide Track” design ethos and by the early sixties, the styling cues spread across the division. The first Pontiac GTO rolled off the assembly line on September 3, 1963, as an option package for the Pontiac LeMans, available in coupé, hardtop, and convertible body styles. The $295 package (equivalent to $2,780 in 2022) included a big block 389cid V8 rated at 325 hp at 4,800 rpm. A single Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor, dual exhaust, and chromed engine accessories rounded out the setup. Standard equipment included a seven-blade clutch fan, a three-speed manual transmission with a Hurst shifter, stiffer springs, a larger diameter front sway bar, wider wheels with 7.50 × 14 redline tires, hood scoops, and GTO badges.

Optional equipment included a four-speed manual transmission, Super Turbine 300 two-speed automatic transmission, a more powerful engine with “Tri-Power” carburetion (three two-barrel Rochester 2G carburetors) rated at 348 bhp, metallic drum brake linings, limited-slip differential, heavy-duty cooling, ride, and a handling package. Loaded up with every available option, the GTO cost about $4,500 (equivalent to $42,460 in 2022) and weighed around 3,500 pounds.

Most road tests by the automotive press slagged the slow steering, and ancient drum brakes, which were identical to those of the normal Tempest. That didn’t deter buyers and the initial sales forecast of 5,000 units was shy of the mark.  GTO’s total sales that year totaled 32,450 units.


John Delorean was disgraced after he was busted for conspiracy to sell cocaine to save the Delorean Motor Car company. Bunkie Knuden went to Ford in 1968 and was the father of the 1971 Mustang, which turned out to be a sales dud. He was fired from Ford in 1969.

Pontiac imported LS-powered GTOs in the 2000s and though they were potent and made old Goats seem like apple carts, true Pontiac fans were underwhelmed by the Opel Senator in drag. The Pontiac division was euthanized by GM in 2010 and the storied Poncho brand was sent to the great crusher in the sky.

The Pontiac GTO remains a legend in the annals of American muscle cars, a symbol of power, speed, and rebellion. Its story matched its advertising slogan “We Build Excitement.” Although the Pontiac brand may have faded into history, the GTO’s rumbling exhaust still echoes on the open road.

Sadly, only half of The Beatles are still around today. Paul and Ringo are in their 80s and remain vital and healthy. John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment in 1980 by a deranged fan named Mark David Chapman.

George Harrison was stabbed over 40 times and suffered a punctured lung when Michael Abram broke into his home and attacked him in England in 1999. Abram was found not guilty because of insanity in 2000. Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001.

Today, with modern “music” consisting of obscenities spewed over drum loops, and new autos mimicking large-scale golf carts, I long for the days of great cars and music. I hereby declare to the universe that if there is ever a time machine invented, I will volunteer. Beam me away from the madness of today, back to the showroom floor of a Pontiac dealer in Anywhere, USA in 1964. I’ll buy a tri-power GTO and drive off into eternity with a symphony of burbling dual exhaust backed up by the rockin’ beat of the John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an editor at Power Automedia. He digs all flavors of automobiles, from classic cars to modern EVs. Dave loves music, design, tech, current events, and fitness.
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