GTO enthusiasts gather in Monroeville to celebrate hot rod's 50th birthday
Nights of drag racing down Liberty Avenue are long behind Ed Sellers, but the rumble and jolt of a GTO hitting the open road hasn't changed, he said.
“This thing will put you back in your seat,” said Sellers, who parked his 1965 model at the Monroeville Convention Center last weekend. “There's no power steering and no power brakes, so you have to really drive this car.”
More than 70 muscle cars with big engines and dangerous reputations rolled through Monroeville last week, as part of the 2014 national GTO convention.
The event has been held annually for more than 30 years in cities throughout the U.S.
By Friday, the number of GTOs more than tripled at the convention center, where industry experts shared stories of the glory days and vendors talked shop with car enthusiasts.
The models on display spanned four decades with license plates from Texas to Massachusetts.
The event, hosted for the first time by the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the GTO Association of America, coincidentally fell on the 50th anniversary of the popular American hot rod.
The event took three years to organize, Greater Pittsburgh GTO Vice President John Owoc said.
“The national organization qualified us to take (the event) on, and the legal implications were unbelievable,” Owoc said.
It was the largest event Owoc had ever helped organize and the logistics were intense, he said.
“I'll never do it again,” Owoc said, laughing.
Sellers said the GTO is the same model he owned as a teenager, with all original parts and the same shade of blue paint.
He reminisced about his high school days when classmates would congregate at the Eat'n Park on Washington Boulevard to pop their hoods and rev their engines. They listened to rock ‘n' roll on their car radios and raced across the Bloomfield Bridge.
Screeching tires and dangerous speeds became a way to rebel against the conservative lifestyle of the early 1950s, said former Pontiac marketing manager Jim Wangers, known also as the “Godfather of the GTO.”
Wangers, 88, spoke at the convention about his efforts to convince General Motors executives that the GTO would sell, after the company recently had banned racing engines.
Times were changing in a post-World War II era, as young people who felt robbed of their childhood due to the war sought excitement in the form of a vehicle, Wangers said.
“Everyone at once agreed it was a time to sort of reward yourself, and consequently a car was one of the newest things you could get,” he said. “And with a muscle car, it was like, ‘holy smoke, this thing goes.' ”
Young people have found new ways to rebel, but a fascination with the GTO remains among the thousands of GTOAA members, which includes about 80 members in the Pittsburgh chapter.
Among the featured guests last week was 84-year-old drag racer Arnie “the farmer” Beswick, who greeted fans in a pair of sunglasses and a wide smile.
His GTO race car was built to travel 200 mph in a quarter-mile stretch.The Illinois farmer won his first national race in 1955 and has racked up dozens of prize-winning finishes since, but the exhilaration has come with consequences.
An equipment malfunction in 2003 sparked a fire in Beswick's car and put him in a coma for seven weeks. He was in his 70s, with four daughters and several grandchildren. Beswick said he thought about retirement, but the support of his fans willed him back to the race track.
“People at these kind of events and the races I go to did far more for my healing than any damn doctor did,” Beswick said. “I just love the environment and the personalities of car people.”
And while it may be hard for family members of “car people” to understand the time and money spent on engine parts and custom paint, the passion is undeniable.
“When people go crazy over their cars, it is a little hard for me to understand,” said Ed Seller's wife, Peggy. “He tends to go a little crazy when he's cleaning it. But it's what he loves, and it's what these people love.”
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.