1965 Pontiac GTO – Keith Seymore’s Lightweight Royal GTO is a heavyweight in feathery fabric
Back home, where it all began in Royal Oak. Posed in front of the former Royal Pontiac service garage in 2011.
The Lightweight GTO – a Rare Piece of Pontiac History
Royal Pontiac, in Royal Oak, MI, was a big time national player in the upper ranks of B/Stock, B/Modified Production A/Stock and FX drag racing in the 1960s. Perhaps the best known driver running a car for Royal was none other than Jim Wangers. An ad executive promoting Pontiacs during the week, Jim raced Pontiacs from coast to coast on the weekends. Royal also sponsored other independent campaigners on the drag strips of the upper Midwest. One of those stealthy, but none-the-less, talented racers running below the radar was Van Seymore.
Van spent his entire working career in the employ of GM, first for Chevrolet Pressed Metal in Flint, MI, and later at the Pontiac Engineering facility in Pontiac, MI. for GM’s C-P-C Advanced Manufacturing group. However, Van did not drive his whole racing career for GM, as he began by racing Fords in the late ’50s. By 1960, Van was campaigning a Ford Galaxie convertible equipped with a 352 cubic inch, 360 hp, 4 bbl emboldened by a Paxton supercharger.
Van’s extraordinary mechanical aptitude soon enabled him to sort out problems with Ford’s new for ’61, 3×2 Holley induction system; problems that Ford’s own engineering experts couldn’t resolve. With a correctly running 3×2 setup installed on his Galaxie, Van was making a name for himself, both inside Ford engineering and on the local drag venues.
As Van’s racing career progressed, he found himself on the “ignore” list at Ford, so he played his cards in a developing game at Royal Pontiac. Royal recognized his talents, both driving and mechanical, and signed him on as a “sleeper” driver.
Royal had Wangers’ official team of lettered, high profile cars running the national circuits. They also had a small cadre of sleeper drivers whose cars were factory-supplied with full sponsorship and technical support. However, these cars displayed no visible indication to the casual observer, other than a set of Royal license plate frames, that they were connected to the high-powered dealership from the northern suburbs of Motown. In this capacity, Van drove for Royal from late 1962 to late ’63 in a lightweight, aluminum front end, 421 Super Duty Catalina.
Royal ultimately and rather unexpectedly repossessed this car late in the ’63 race season. As a replacement, Van was given an early ’64 LeMans GTO. With this new car more success followed, until it in turn, was mistakenly sold, in full race trim, by an overeager Royal salesman late in that ’64 season.
After this second sudden separation, Dick Jesse, Van’s performance contact at Royal, had to come up with something special to replace the 64 Goat. Jesse had something special in mind. He showed Van a group of specially built, lightweight, pilot-run 1965 GTOs, ready to be delivered to top-name Pontiac race teams around the country. These five pre-production cars were all painted white and specially-built with thinner sheet metal than the regular production vehicles would receive. Van was offered one of these cars, but his first impression was that they looked like taxicabs; he wanted a sixth GTO constructed with the same thin-gauge metal and painted in black.
As it was said, so it was done. Enough of the special die-test sheet metal material was left in the Pontiac Fisher Body plant to weld together a new body and stamp out fenders, hood and rear deck lid; only the doors are standard items. The car also received a lightweight front bumper in the process. The bantamweight goat was rushed through assembly in time to escape the Pontiac factory, just days before the UAW strike of September 1964.
Not only did the car come through with thin-gauge skin, it was also ordered with all the typical Royal Pontiac performance parts, plus a trunk-mounted battery and a hood cut open for a prototype Ram Air pan also delivered in the trunk.
Before long, Van had performed all of his race-prep “secrets” on the little GTO. For most of the season Van held and lost the B/Stock record, swapping back and forth with Mopar driver Art Noey of Shaker Engineering. The ’65 GTO was just as quick as his previous record-holding ’64 GTO, but the competition had by then caught up to the scrappy Seymore/Royal team.
After a season of racing, Van decided to retain ownership of the ’65, this time making sure that he had possession of the registration and title. He didn’t particularly care for the new ’66 A-bodies, but Royal provided him with a ’66 LeMans Sprint to campaign for the season. This was an overhead cam, in-line six-cylinder, four barrel, 4-speed configuration. With his traditional modifications and a homemade tri-power induction system, this LeMans eventually sprinted into the 12s as well. At the end of the season, that car was returned to Royal where it was sold as a factory demonstrator.
In 1967, the black ’65 GTO was returned to track duty, this time in B/Modified Production class. With less restrictions to entertain, Van was able to mount up the slightly larger ’66 tri-power system, better ’67 400 heads and larger slicks. In this configuration the car earned its best ever time slip of 12.23 @ 118 mph.
The GTO was independently campaigned by Van from 1969 through 1974 when it was unceremoniously retired. It would not again see the light of day until the mid 1980s, when Van and son Keith awoke the Goat from its well earned slumber for one more outing on the drag strip. With a borrowed set of slicks, fresh front tires, and a careful tune-up, Keith, an experienced racer in his own right, drove the car to an easy 12.40 pass.
By the late ’90s, Keith, citing security concerns, was able to convince his father to move the car from Van’s overexposed front garage to Keith’s secluded back yard barn. It was also at this time that the Seymores were beginning to feel pressure from family and friends to get the black GTO out and start participating in less strenuous activities like local shows and parades. Van finally agreed, and the by now amazingly preserved, low-mileage, lightweight, factory racer was prepared for its new debut.
The May 2003, Michigan Widetrackers Spring Dustoff (Van was a lifetime member of this Pontiac Oakland Club International chapter) was the chosen event for the coming out. By shear coincidence, freelance writer, Jeff Koch was also in attendance at this show. He noticed a small write-up describing some of the car’s history and details that Keith had attached to the GTO’s window for this event’s display. The Seymore family was delighted to give permission to Jeff to prepare a magazine story for submission. Arrangements were made, and photos were taken later that same day. By February 2004, part one of a two-part story was published in High Performance Pontiac magazine.
On November 12, 2005, Van Seymore passed away; he was 70 years old. Van Seymore’s racing legacy continues on, as the ’65 GTO remains in the loving care of son Keith.
Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Koch, the car has been reproduced in 1/63rd scale glory by the Johnny Lightning brand of Playing Mantis. It has also appeared in several more publications including the excellent coffee table book entitled, “Pontiac’s Great One – GTO” written by Darwin Holmstrom with photography by David Newhardt.
One particularly impressive showing took place at the Chicago area’s 1st annual Muscle Car & Corvette Nationals. At this invitation-only event, the black GTO shared the limelight with the legendary likes of: Tenney Fairchild’s Grenadier Red, 1964 Car and Driver, 421 GTO; Colin Comer’s Hurst Gold 1965 Hurst “Count the Tigers” contest give-away GTO; and Bill & Rita Schultz’s Crystal Turquoise, Royal Bobcat, Ram Air V-equipped 1969 GTO. Truly the best of the best in important GTOs from Pontiac’s glory days.
*Eric White passed away at 59 in 2016. This article was originally written in 2011 for a defunct organization – Wild About Cars, LLC. When this organization expired, Eric asked me to “Publish this again somewhere, when the opportunity arrives.” Here it is, Eric.