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The Evolution of the Pontiac Ram Air GTO Engine

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There are all kinds of stories about the development of muscle cars, pony cars and other stylish, sporty vehicles of the 1960s and 1970s. Cars like the Pontiac 428, the Chevy Camaro and the original pony car: the Ford Mustang.

The Pontiac GTO is the stuff of legends—especially the earliest models. Is it the “founding father” of the muscle car era? While car lovers enjoy debating which car was the original influence or the top muscle car for a whole generation of muscle cars, what can’t be debated is that Pontiac improved the top engines installed in their GTO year after year.

Throughout the 1960s, Pontiac made significant improvements to each Ram Air engine year in and year out. Other manufacturers just can’t say the same. Why did the GTO’s engine undergo so many improvements?

General Motors had released an edict limiting the production of midsize cars to engines with 400 or fewer cubic inches through 1969.

Even with these limitations, the GTO improved year after year. How did each model change and evolve? Let’s take a look.

The 1965 Air Scoop Package

Towards the end of the 1965 model year, Pontiac introduced a brand-new innovation: the “air scoop package,” which was a combination air scoop and air cleaner. This air scoop package was designed to take advantage of the hood scoop of the GTO. For all previous GTO models, this hood scoop was merely decorative, but this new addition helped maximize the performance of the 1965 GTO’s engine.

Only available over the counter for the Tri-Power 289, this package included an air scoop and gasket and a replacement hood ornament to boot.

The 1966 XS

In 1966, this air accessory kit was still available, but during this model year, Pontiac released their first true Ram Air Engine. This became known as the “XS” because of the engine code. This engine far exceeded past models thanks to the addition of a high-duration 744 camshaft, stronger valve springs with dampers and 4.33 gears.

According to Pontiac records, 190 XS engines were manufactured, but not all of these powerful engines were installed at the factory.

This package made considerable improvements over the standard package and would have made the 1966 Pontiac Ram Air GTO equipped with an XS engine a force to be reckoned with in a drag race.

The 1967 Ram Air

The 1967 GTO was released with a brand-new upgraded 400-cubic-inch engine. This engine was available in four states of tune. Tri-Power engines became a thing of the past for all models except the Corvette, but that didn’t mean that speed demons were out of luck when it came to Pontiac’s GTO. For Pontiacs, car buyers still could order a 360-horsepower 400 Ram Air throughout the entire model year.

Additionally, the inclusion of the 744 camshaft continued with the 1967 GTO. This engine also received streamlined exhaust manifolds, which it shared with the 400 HO.

The 1968 Ram Air

In 1968, the 360-horsepower 400 Ram Air engine didn’t undergo many changes, but it was installed in a brand-new GTO body that was curvier and sportier. And the 1968 Ram Air GTO won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award.

This car was the perfect combination of aesthetic unity, streamlined styling, lowered body vulnerability, increased impact absorption and responsive handling. It paired design and function.

Four-speed models continued with the 744 camshaft, and automatics used the 400 HO’s 067 camshaft.

Retroactively, this car and the 1967 model are now called the Ram Air I. Why? This has a lot to do with Pontiac’s next development:

The 1968½ Ram Air II

In 1968, Pontiac made waves with their brand-new 1968½ Ram Air II.

This car made for a huge change to the 400 Ram Air engine. What kinds of improvements did Pontiac include? Ninety-six round-port heads with better airflow, a 041 camshaft with better duration and better lift.

This car was only in production for less than five months, making it one of the rarest of all the Ram Air engines with only 246 produced. It also happens to be the fastest of all the GTOs.

This sought-after GTO model is well-loved, and many think that this model, not the previous 1968 Ram Air I, should have been the car to win Motor Trend’s Car of the Year.

The 1969-1970 Ram Air III

Following the success of the 1968 and 1968½, Pontiac was ready to build on its momentum and make continuous improvements.

This car officially was called the 400 Ram Air and came with a 366-horsepower engine. This model used the previous year’s 400 HO but switched to a 068 camshaft. This engine was available in the Pontiac GTO and also was found in the 1960 Firebird and the 1970 Pontiac Firebird Formula.

The 1969-1970 Ram Air IV

Following the Ram Air II and the Ram Air III, the Ram Air IV was released. This engine is considered the most powerful engine of all the GTOs. While it was supposed to have four air intakes, with two in the valance, this concept didn’t make it into production. This engine maintained the same horsepower rating but in truth? This car actually had a horsepower rating around 450, but this was downplayed for insurance and race qualifications.

The 1971-1972 455 HO

An upcoming government mandate meant changes for Pontiac GTO and its famous engine. General Motors redesigned its new engine a year ahead of government mandates to operate on unleaded gasoline with lower octane ratings.

This lowering of compression was a perfect opportunity for Pontiac. The division rose to the occasion and did what it did best: created a new engine, the 455 HO. This came with a 086 camshaft and a 355 gross horsepower engine. Air induction was mandatory, but overall? Much of the beloved Ram Air engine was the same.

The successor to this engine was the 1973-1974 Super Duty engine, which was planned but never installed in the GTO. But even so, it was yet another example of how the evolution of its top engine changed during this era.

The Roar of the Engine, the Security of Classic Auto Insurance

There’s nothing quite like the roar of the engine of a classic GTO equipped with a Ram Air engine, no matter which year it was created.

At Classic Auto Insurance, we’ll help you protect your piece of history with customized classic car insurance coverage.

No two cars are alike, just like no two engines are really alike, which is why our insurance coverage plans are tailored to meet the needs of your specific vehicle. Our plans are as individual as your favorite car so you can enjoy your Pontiac GTO with the right insurance and then pass on the legacy you’ve worked so hard to build.

If your collectible car is old or new, we have the insurance to protect it. We can tailor a policy to fit your needs. We offer affordable, Agreed Value coverage for a variety of collector, classic and custom vehicles. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff can answer your questions and give you a quote on the spot.

Call (888) 901-1338 or get an instant quote online, and see how we can help safeguard your dream car.


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