Warren Oates as “GTO”, an otherwise unnamed former TV producer
Arizona through Tennessee, Fall 1970
Film: Two-Lane Blacktop
Release Date: July 7, 1971
Director: Monte Hellman
Costume Designer: Richard Bruno
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
A race for pink slips between a ’55 Chevy and a GTO across a long-gone America when the road was much more than a shopping aisle. Three road hogs and an underage girl riding in back with the tools. The nights are warm and the roads are straight. This one’s built from scratch, and, as Warren Oates says, “Those satisfactions are permanent.” — Tom Waits
“Because there was once a god who walked the earth named Warren Oates,” Richard Linklater included among the sixteen reasons why he loves Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s low-buedget 1971 road movie that has become a cult classic.
One of my favorite actors, Oates was born 94 years ago today on July 5, 1928 in Depoy, an unincorporated community in western Kentucky. His craggy features suited him well to early roles as cowboys and criminals, though he rose to more prominent stardom through the ’70s beginning with his co-starring role as the garrulous, tragi-comic motorist who impulsively bets his showroom-bought Pontiac GTO in a cross-country race against James Taylor and Dennis Wilson’s “homegrown” ’55 Chevy in Two-Lane Blacktop.
Best known as musicians, neither Taylor nor Wilson had ever acted on screen—nor would they after—bringing a uniquely raw presence that was complemented by the inexperienced Laurie Bird as “The Girl” who shakes up the duo’s dynamic… as well as their ultimate rivalry with the man they know only as “GTO”. Along with his friend Harry Dean Stanton—who cameos as a hitchhiking cowboy whose advances are swiftly rejected by GTO—Oates contrasts the inexperience of the actors occupying the primer-gray Chevy as “an actor and a half,” as marveled by Michael Goodwin on his October 1970 chronicle of the movie’s production for Rolling Stone.
Released two days after Oates’ 43rd birthday, Two-Lane Blacktop was filmed in chronological order and on location, capturing the waning pre-interstate days of Route 66 as our drivers’ journey snaked across the southern United States from California into Tennessee. Its existential themes of nihilism and alienation against the open road with a contemporary rock soundtrack recall its road-themed predecessors like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. “It was the perfect brutal reflection of a smug self-satisfied year when the shit of the peace and love era was really hitting the fan,” writes Adam Webb of the movie.
The more we see of GTO, the clearer he emerges as a tragic dreamer: one of those guys who will invest far too much money into his pursuits without investing any actual skills, all to hopelessly override the emptiness of his supercharged mid-life crisis. He may be truly self-deluded, believing some part of the false biography he invents anew with each hitchhiker who climbs into his brightly painted Detroit muscle.
“This nameless driver has bought the James Bond ideal of the well-rounded man, but he prefigures Woody Allen’s Zelig in the desperate speed with which he adapts himself to every new situation and passenger,” details Kent Jones in his essay “Slow Ride” for the movie’s 2007 Criterion Collection release. “Warren Oates’ GTO (as he’s credited) is every pontificating drunk, every reformed junkie or born-again proselytizer, every guy who moves to a town to begin again.”
With a couple of aggressive honks outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, GTO interrupts the nomadic peace of the taciturn twosome powering their ’55 Chevy across the country, eventually catching up at a Tucumcari service station where—due to his persona du jour—GTO can’t help but to taunt the laconic, long-haired Driver (Taylor).
GTO: I don’t like being crowded by a couple of punk road-hogs clear across two states. I don’t.
The Driver: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you… ‘course there’s lots of cars on the road like yours. They all get to look the same. They perform about the same.
GTO: If I wanted to bother, I could suck you right up my tailpipe.
The Driver: Sure you could.
GTO continues to press, but the Driver gets his kicks from doing, not from talking. After GTO suggests the race he’s been pushing for all along, the Driver ups the stakes by suggesting they compete for “pinks”, with the loser ceding possession of the auto upon reaching their destination… which he allows to GTO to determine: “in that case, smart-ass, Washington, D.C.”
The spirit of competition initially paints the lines of a bitter feud between the GTO and those in the ’55 Chevy, though the latter recognize their clear advantage and begin finding an uneasy alliance with GTO, offering tips, helping to rebuild his leaking carburetor, and even serving as his relief driver during long, drowsy stretches of the blue highways stretching from the southwest to the nation’s capitol.
What’d He Wear?
When director Richard Linklater outlined the sixteen reasons he loved Two-Lane Blacktop, reason #10 was “because Warren Oates has a different cashmere sweater for every occasion.”
Oates contrasts Taylor and Wilson’s road-worn denim by rotating through a colorful selection of V-neck sweaters—including some that indeed appear to be made from the soft wool of the cashmere goat. It wasn’t until I had seen Two-Lane Blacktop several times (and particularly watching with a more sartorial eye than usual) that I noticed that, like the boys in the Chevy, Oates seems to always wear the same shirt, trousers, and shoes. Befitting his shapeshifting sycophancy, all GTO need do is change his sweater—as frequently as he changes his personality and backstory—though it’s just a mutable layer over an unchanging and ultimately unexciting foundation.
GTO wears a white oxford-cloth cotton long-sleeved shirt with a tall button-down collar, much larger than usual on classic Ivy OCBDs through the height—while also fashionable for the early ’70s—also neatly contains his colorful silk scarves. The buttons fastening the collar to the body of the shirt also contain the dramatic collar relatively within the necklines of his sweaters.
The first and last time we see GTO on screen, he wears a baby-blue sweater in a soft wool suggesting cashmere, with a deep V-neck that’s ribbed along the neckline to match the long cuffs, which he wears neatly rolled back over each wrist. We first see the sweater outside Flagstaff, as a honking GTO pulls alongside the Chevy with a William S. Burroughs-lookalike hitchhiker beside him.
The sweater disappears until GTO’s final scene at the end of Two-Lane Blacktop, picking up two Army privates looking to spend their ten-day leave in New York City. As he begins telling them the fictionalized circumstances of how he acquired his GTO, we understand the significance of the scene as a virtual “reboot” for GTO’s melancholic journey in search of purpose; still reliant on banal boasts and blatant lies, he has learned nothing.
The second time we see GTO, he’s wearing a bright canary-yellow cashmere sweater, also with a deep V-neck. Like the baby-blue sweater, we never see GTO wearing this yellow sweater outside of his car, though it does make two appearances: once when passing the Chevy again prior to their actually meeting and racing, and again after crossing into Arkansas and picking up a nihilist hippie hitchhiker.
When GTO finally meets the ’55 Chevy’s occupants at a service station outside Tucumcari, New Mexico, he wears a sage-green sweater similarly styled to his others with its deep, ribbed V-neck and folded-back ribbed cuffs, though the finish of the cloth reminds me more of a softly knit acrylic than cashmere.
Unlike the red silk cravats with the blue duo-tone print that he had worn with the previous two sweaters, his neck-scarf is geometrically printed in teal, red, and gold.
Once the race is on, GTO drives hard through a Texas rain to John Hammond’s cover of “Maybellene”, picks up the lonely, denim-clad Harry Dean Stanton, and forms his uneasy truce with the Chevy that results in the boys rebuilding his carburetor while he sleeps one off from the wet bar in his trunk.
Through this chaotic leg of the race, GTO wears a bright royal-blue V-neck sweater and the earlier-seen red-and-blue printed silk scarf knotted under his shirt.
Shortly after GTO crosses from Oklahoma and Arkansas, he spies the familiar primer-gray ’55 Chevy parked outside a roadhouse and turns around to join them. He’s now dressed in a bright cherry red V-neck sweater, echoed by the grounding color of the red and duo-toned blue printed silk scarf around his neck.
The rain again falls as GTO makes his most distressing pickup, offering a ride to an old woman and her granddaughter, who had just lost both of her parents in an accident. Befitting their sad story and the gloomy weather, GTO appropriately wears his most somber sweater, made from a dark navy blue cloth and seemingly with a less dramatic V-neck than many of his earlier sweaters.
GTO arrives at the Lakeland International Raceway in Memphis, where the Driver seeks out a race to earn some extra cash. He wins the bread… but loses The Girl, who has climbed in alongside the driver of the GTO. He pontificates about their shared future as he drives the drowsy teenager to a diner near Deals Gap at the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, where the Driver and Mechanic ultimately catch up with them.
Through his overnight adventure, GTO wears a mustard-brown cashmere sweater that also seems to have a shallower V-neck. As with the green sweater, he wears the more colorful teal, red, and gold-printed silk scarf.
GTO always wears dark gray wool flat front trousers styled with then-fashionable “frogmouth”-style open-top front pockets, jetted back pockets (with a button through the left), and plain-hemmed bottoms. His sweaters typically cover the waistband, but he appears to wear the trousers sans belt.
The plain gray trousers are an important part of GTO’s chameleon-like ability—or desire, more accurately—to blend in to situations. In the early ’70s, blue jeans like those worn by his eight-cylinder adversaries were still more widely associated with counterculture before gaining their relative acceptance in American culture. A short-haired guy in wool trousers would have an easier time convincing an Arkansas reactionary that the two denim-clad longhairs at his table were certainly not hippies but “hometown boys” and that he, in his button-down shirt and slacks, is their manager.
Amidst the widening acceptance of less-formal footwear throughout the 20th century, Aldo Gucci pioneered a distinctive moc-toe loafer ornamented with a gold metal piece similar to a horse’s snaffle bit attached to the vamp. Having first appeared in 1966, the comfortable horsebit loafer (or “Gucci loafer”, as even non-Gucci models were shorthanded) emerged as a favorite shoe over the following decade whether hustling in a conference room or on a disco floor.
GTO wears brown leather horsebit loafers with hard dark brown leather soles, rather than the bumped rubber dotted-sole variant that emerged later in the ’70s as a “driving moccasin”. Though he appears not to change his shirts or trousers, GTO thankfully changes his socks, rotating between beige hosiery (as seen with his navy sweater) and a darker brown (as seen with his sage-green and royal-blue sweaters).
Knowing the importance of looking the part, GTO outfits himself with a pair of black leather driving gloves, detailed with open knuckles and holes punched through the fingers and palms for additional ventilation. Proper gloves can indeed improve a driver’s grip on the steering wheel and gearshift—though the GTO’s automatic transmission voids the latter purpose—though GTO’s reasoning likely falls closer to vanity than practicality.
On the inside of his left wrist, GTO wears a stainless steel watch on a Rally-style metal racing strap characterized by large holes that, like driving gloves, originated to ventilate the wearer’s wrist.
There’s no coming away from watching Two-Lane Blacktop without knowing that GTO drives, well, a GTO. More specifically, the two-door muscle coupe driven by Warren Oates’ character is a then-new 1970 Pontiac GTO in the bright “Orbit Orange”, an appropriate color scheme given his own comment that “if I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.”
The Mechanic: You’d have yourself a real sweet-sweeper here if you put a little work into it.
GTO: I go fast enough.
The Driver: You can never go fast enough.
In contrast to the Driver and Mechanic, who have totally customized and souped up their ’55 Chevy, GTO relies solely on the car as sold to him—no doubt with considerable ease—by some GM in an L.A. showroom. Without the first-hand knowledge and hard-earned pride of the boys who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into that tough Chevy, GTO can only recite marketing brochures among his biographical fictions when touting the car’s merits.
“She’s got a hard pull, doesn’t she? 0-60 in 7.5,” he tells a string-tied hitchhiker pulled in from a New Mexico highway. “She’ll do a quarter-mile in 13.40. Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about,” he concludes, and we all know how he values image when he unnecessary adds that “I bought her in Bakersfield, California… I was testin’ jets at the time.”
From there, he bores the man with a twice-recited and still inaccurate spiel about “when the 455 came out with the Mark IV Ram Air and a beefed blower end and a Carter high-rise setup, I was on line. 390 horsepower, 500 foot-pounds of torque… whatever that is. It’s all in the folder right there in the glove compartment if you wanna take a look at it. Oh, she’s a real road king, alright!”
Given his personality, it would be easy to judge Oates’ character’s taste in cars… if he was driving almost anything but a Pontiac GTO!
Upon its 1964 introduction as an option package for the Pontiac Tempest and Lemans, the GTO was almost immediately immortalized in song by the surf rock group Ronny & the Daytonas, whom Two-Lane Blacktop star Dennis Wilson may have considered competition for the Beach Boys if not for his own band’s far more enormous success. Some have credited the GTO with accelerating the muscle car craze that swept Detroit automakers for nearly ten years, before emissions standards and rising gas prices put a swift end to the Big Three’s performance wars.
“To create the GTO, Pontiac sidestepped GM’s prohibition on intermediate cars having engines over 330 cid,” explained the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide in Kings of the Street: American Muscle Cars. “Pontiac hoped to sell 5,000 ’64 GTOs; it sold 32,450. The Goat, as it was affectionately dubbed, generated a cult following and sent rivals scrambling to come up with similar machines.
While Ford, Chrysler, and even its own GM stablemates continued pushing out high-horse muscle that have come to define an automotive era, Pontiac proved that it never fell asleep at the wheel when the 1970 GTO rolled out of Detroit. Added late in the model year was the impressive Ram Air IV package that would so tempt our unnamed driver… though the poor guy doesn’t seem to realize the difference between the 400 cubic-inch Ram Air engine and the somewhat less powerful air-inducted 455 cubic-inch “High Output” V-8. (The lack of decals reinforces that Oates does not drive a GTO enhanced with “The Judge” package.)
1970 Pontiac GTO
Body Style: 2-door sports coupe
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 400 cubic inch (6.6 L) “Ram Air IV” OHV V8 with Rochester 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 370 hp (276 kW; 375 PS) @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 445 lb·ft (603 N·m) @ 3900 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed Turbo Hydra-matic automatic
Wheelbase: 112 inches (2845 mm)
Length: 202.9 inches (5154 mm)
Width: 76.7 inches (1948 mm)
Height: 52.3 inches (1328 mm)
Oates’ character both over- and under-sells his GTO’s performance, confusingly suggesting that it boasts both a 455 cubic-inch engine as well as the Ram Air IV package, though Ram Air was only mated with 400 cubic-inch engines. Nor would the GTO still have “a Carter high-rise setup,” as even the Driver’s dialogue includes him requesting a rebuild kit for a “1970 GM QuadraJet.” Power ratings were notably inaccurate, so we’ll give him some leeway in giving himself an extra 20 horsepower and 55 foot-pounds of torque (which, in short, measures the force applied to the drive shaft.) According to Automobile Catalog, a GTO built to Two-Lane Blacktop specs would actually hit 0-60 in 5.8 seconds, nearly two seconds less than Oates boasts.
The standard transmission for the ’70 GTO was a four-speed manual Muncie “rock crusher”, though shots of Oates’ interior show that his GTO has an automatic transmission, which would have been GM’s three-speed Turbo Hydra-matic.
You can read more about the Two-Lane Blacktop production and its memorable cars in Thomas A. DeMauro’s 2008 interview with director Monte Hellman for Motor Trend, which confirms that Pontiac provided two GTOs that remained to-spec on screen, aside from its aftermarket Keystone Klassic wheels.
What to Imbibe
During the brief “truce” just over the Oklahoma state line, GTO responds to The Mechanic offering him a hard-boiled egg by showing off the stocked bar in the Pontiac’s trunk with the assurance that “I’ve got other items, depending on which way you wanna go: up, down, or sideways,” before toasting “here’s to your destruction,” and taking a pull from whatever he poured from his flask into a tin cup.
GTO’s bar includes Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, from which GTO refills his flask the next morning… and promptly falls asleep in a service station garage after enjoying far too much of it far too early in the morning.
Jack Daniel’s needs little introduction even to the world of non-drinkers, as this Tennessee-distilled spirit remains the best-selling American whiskey in the world as of 2021. GTO pours from one of the brand’s distinctively square bottles with the black “Old No. 7” label, which would have been a hard-hitting 90 proof before the alcohol by volume was lowered in 1987 and then further in 2002 to its current 80 proof standard.
How to Get the Look
While potential companions or acquaintances in your travels may appreciate a fresh shirt once in a while, Warren Oates’ GTO illustrates the power of a colorful top layer by merely rotating his vivid sweaters over a neutral foundation of a white OCBD shirt, gray trousers, and horsebit loafers that would be comfortable for hours behind the wheel, adding a dandyish dash with coordinated silk scarves.
- White oxford cotton shirt with large button-down collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Red and duo-toned blue printed silk neck-scarf
- Cashmere V-neck sweater with set-in sleeves and ribbed cuffs
- Dark gray wool flat front beltless trousers with frogmouth-style front pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Brown leather moc-toe horsebit loafers
- Brown socks
- Black leather driving gloves
- Stainless steel watch on steel Rally-style racing bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
This is competition, man. I got no time.