Racing to the Streets

Cars and racing, racing and cars. Ever since the very first auto engine revved, we've been scheming about how to make cars go faster, and then pitting their ever-increasing horsepowers against each other. But cars and racing aren't their own closed circuit. There's a third component to the story, and that, of course, is sales.

It didn't take long for automobile manufacturers to figure out that faster cars sell better. The very first auto races in the late 19th century were put on by local newspapers in France and Illinois as promotional events, and the engineers of the world took note. By the mid-20th century, they were operating under the "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" mantra, with the consuming public as the happy recipient of their ceaseless drive to improve on their own designs.

The cars in our Important Summer Auction each tell their own chapter of this story. The 1980 MGB LE Convertible comes from the family of the "Magic Midget," which shattered international speed records in Europe in the mid-20th century and was the last foreign car to compete in NASCAR for decades until Toyota entered in the early 2000s. The 2005 Ford Saleen S281-3V Mustang Convertible is of course the brainchild of the racing legend Steve Saleen, who turned his combined driving and business expertise to producing his own models of high performance cars.

But it is the 1971 Pontiac GTO 455 H.O.in the Important Summer Auction that most clearly underlines how racing drove the evolution of the consumer vehicle. In the mid-1950's, Pontiac was seen as a fairly staid car - a mid-market choice for a conservative driver. It was, as Car and Driver described it "Quiet, conservative, and exquisitely dull. It was the kind of car your rich uncle (by marriage, twice removed) drove, to keep his bank's depositors from getting edgy about the way he handled their funds; the kind of car the younger set regarded as largely, and mercifully, invisible."

But it was the post-WWII era: the world was giddy with the possibilities of applying wartime manufacturing capability to the consumer sphere. The horsepower of street cars was on a tear, and the racing world was at the wheel. Car manufacturers were investing heavily in the research and development of racing models that would carry their reputations onto the sales floor, and sponsoring races so that their street models could pace the racecars. Speed, as always, was king.

General Motors, Pontiac's parent company, wanted the brand back in the game. To that end, they invested in a project whose sole mandate was to improve Pontiac's performance in stock car racing, and hired a series of hotshot young engineers, including famously, John Delorean, to give their salesroom models a corresponding makeover. By the early 1960's, Pontiac's transformation was complete.
altA 1957 Pontiac advertisement

Enter the United States Government. In 1961, John F. Kennedy won the presidency on a platform that included breaking up the country's biggest corporations. Once in office, he and his brother went after behemoths like General Mills, General Electric and AT&T with anti-trust litigation. General Motors was in their cross hairs. At the same time, the American auto industry was pumping the brakes on the full tilt development of faster and faster cars as several dramatic racing accidents provoked concerns about safety. And so, in January 1963, in order to divert the government's anti-trust attentions, GM pulled the plug on all their racing affiliations, theoretically hoping that divesting themselves of that portion of their business would be enough to appease the Kennedys.

What was a power-obsessed engineering team to do? Pushing hard on racing results and street performance had been the Pontiac team's golden ticket. Thankfully for vintage car enthusiasts everywhere, Delorean and his colleagues were only concerned with the letter of the law. They cleverly realized that GM's new guidelines, while they restricted the size of the engine that could be in a car by weight ratio, they didn't stipulate anything about option packages. And so, with a factory optional 389-cubic-inch V-8 engine, the 1963 Pontiac LeMans Tempest became the "GTO", after the European racing gem, the Ferrari Grand Tourismo Omologato (whose name conveniently wasn't trademarked the US). With some sleight of hand, and a little help from a foreign language, the American muscle car was born tethered securely to world of racing. Regulations that could have been the death knoll of cool in the American auto industry instead became only a slight speed bump in the origin story of an entire class of faster, more powerful cars.

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In this day and age we are used to corporations affiliating their products with all aspects of our leisure, from insurance company-sponsored sports stadiums to product placements in beloved TV shows. But the automobile industry and the world of auto racing grew up together, with the common purpose of stoking our desire to see just how fast we can go. And we now have generations of thrill-inducing cars as testimony of their shared history.

Automobiles in The Important Summer Auction

Content created by the Leland Little editorial team