Pontiac GTO Judge

The Judge aka a Fire Breathing Muscle Car

The wildest piece of 60s pop art wasn’t a painting or a sculpture. It was a fire breathing, bright orange muscle car: the Judge. Muscle cars in the late 60s were outrageous and compared to the original muscle cars of just five years earlier, they were absolutely unbelievable. And car buyers couldn’t get enough of them. In those days, horsepower was almost unlimited and there was more on the horizon. Performance parts and even racing equipment were standard. Styling had taken a very non traditional turn. The muscle cars of the day were loud, proud and bad to the bone. They had to be. Subtlety might have been a virtue in 1964 with cars like the 409 Impala, but in 1969 it wouldn’t get you noticed on the streets.

The GTO Judge started out as an economy muscle car but by the time it hit the market, it was one of the most expensive road rockets anyone had ever made. Its job was to make the world sit up and take a new look at the old favorite: the GTO. It did that and a whole lot more. The Judge was only around for three years: 1969, 1970, and 1971. But during that time it created a whole new market segment, just like the predecessor the little GTO had done five years earlier. It also opened up a whole new palette of color possibilities for the graphic designer. And it made a funny little gag line a national catch phrase.

The History of the Pontiac Muscle Car

Pontiac had started this whole muscle car thing and they had stayed at the head of the pack for the past five years. Their dominance was due to two factors: their cars were fast and everybody knew they were fast. Explains Paul Zazarine: “Pontiac certainly had owned that segment of the market with the GTO and having such a head start on all the rest of the competition. One of the thing that began to happen in the 1967 model year was Pontiac began to give the GTO more sophistication. A lot of cars were being delivered to customers with as many options as the Grand Prix would have, which pushed the car up beyond the reach of a lot of younger owners.”

The first GTOs had established in everyone’s mind that the GTO was the fastest car on the street. And in muscle car marketing, image was as important as horsepower. But an interesting thing happens when you’re the leader of the pack. Everyone comes gunning for you. As soon as the auto industry noticed the success of the GTO, all the other car companies had to have their own muscle car. The parade of Super Sports, Gran Sports, RTs, GTs and all the rest offered not just performance but image. And as all muscle car lovers knew, it wasn’t enough just to be fast, you also had to look fast.

Stan Rarden of Pontiac Enthusiast Magazine talks about image: “This whole image thing was really kind of a big deal to the kids at the drive in. The cars with the rally wheels didn’t go any slower or faster than the ones that just had the hub caps. And the cars with the stripes ran the same speed as the ones that didn’t have them but you looked fast and that was a real big deal. It made the whole thing a lot more fun, too.” The problem facing the auto makers was how to get their muscle car to stand out among the dozens of fast, fun cars competing for attention in the marketplace. The first company to figure out how to do this was Plymouth.

The Road Runner

By 1968, big engines, white letter tires, and dual exhaust pipes were just the starting point for muscle car manufacturers. Now the cars had to have racing stripes, air scoops that worked, a spoiler or two, and most of all they needed a catchy name. There was the Dodge RT that stood for Road and Track. There was the Super Sport, which was self explanatory and the Super Bee which wasn’t. And the GSX and a dozen others. But in the middle of all these tough sounding names came a new car from Plymouth with a name that was just plain cute. It was called the Road Runner.

Observes Paul Zazarine: “The Road Runner, I won’t say it alarmed Pontiac management but it certainly was a wake up call for them and they recognized that they had lost a significant portion of the youth market.” The Road Runner offered exceptional good looks and plenty of power for under $3000. And it was an instant success. It was built precisely according to the muscle car formula: a light, attractive body, a big, powerful engine at an affordable price. To top it all off, it even went “Beep beep!” What more could you want?

The 1968 GTO

1968 was also a major restyling year at GM and the ’68 GTOs new look was a huge success. The GTO featured the first energy absorbing front bumper. Call the Endurabumper, it was also the first in the industry to be painted body color. With all these new innovations and the gorgeous new body, Pontiac sold some 90,000 GTOs in ’68. But Plymouth’s new Road Runner sold close to 45,000 cars that same year. Pontiac saw this as a challenge to its dominance in the muscle car marketplace.

The Judge vs. the Road Runner

Paul Zazarine goes on: “John Delorean, who was general manager of Pontiac put together what he called an ad hock community: an unofficial group of executives that would study the market and make decisions about future product.” Tom Shaw adds that “the rivalry between the Judge and the Road Runner was a natural because you had two competing manufacturers: Chrysler corporation doing great guns that hit a nerve with their populous Road Runner and the GTO Judge which was also based on a very popular car, the GTO. There were a lot of similarities between standard engines. Similar displacement. Both cars were aimed at delivering maximum bang for the buck.”

By now, it wasn’t hard to spend over $4000 on a nicely optioned GTO. It was one of the fanciest muscle cars on the street. If Pontiac brought out a low cost GTO it wouldn’t have a lot of nice things that people had come to expect. Paul Zazarine says that “out of the ad hoc committee came motivation to build a low priced GTO that would be stripped of a lot of options keeping the price down. Give it a pretty wild paint job. Some kind of pop art graphics and go head to head with the Road Runner in terms of price and image.”

Like the Road Runner, the design committee suggested offering only a front bench seat instead of bucket seats, limited interior and exterior color choices, no hood scoops and no chrome trim rings for the rally wheels. The car wouldn’t even have the Endurabumper that everyone loved. It would have the regular LeMans chrome bumper. Paul Zazarine goes on: “One of the ideas was to put 350 on it and take the hood tack and put a matching shell on the passenger side and that wasn’t going to be a little air intake. They brought the car to completion and presented it to Delorean and Delorean took one look at it and said, ‘Not as long as I’m general manager of Pontiac is there ever going to be a 350 engine in a GTO. The GTO’s a flagship car of this division and it’s always going to have at least a 400 cubic inch engine.” Delorean had just set the parameters for the new GTO. His order was – first make it go fast then figure out how to cut the price.

John Delorean liked the idea of a low cost muscle car but his orders were clear. Start with Pontiac’s best engine and build around that. What the designers came up with on their second try was quite a bit different. The first thing to go was the two door sedan body. This new GTO would be offered only in the two door hard top and the convertible. Next, the bench seat was out and the GTO’s plush bucket seats were back in. The design team went right down the line, putting back the elements that made a GTO like the Endura front bumper and the GTO hood with the scoops. By the time they were done, the only cost saving measure that remained from the original design was the absence of trim rings on the rally wheels. What had started out to be a low cost GTO turned out in the final design to be the most expensive GTO you could buy. Delorean’s command to get that 350 engine out of there was met with immediate and enthusiastic reaction. The designers didn’t just replace it with the 400 cubic inch engine, they went all the way and put in the two brawniest 400s in Pontiac’s inventory.

Remarks Tom Shaw: “Standard engine on the GTO Judge was a 400 cubic inch engine. And it was strong but it wasn’t as strong as the optional ram air 4, which was a really state of the art V8 at that time. Superior head design, superior exhaust manifolds and if you drove the car right you could really scream into the low 13s through the quarter mile.” Pontiac’s ram air engines had been developed from the early super duty and high output power plants. All GTO had sported hood scoops but the only ones that actually worked were the ram air scoops. Stan Rarden says: “The ram air system consisted of three major components. You had an upper pan which bolted to the bottom side of the hood, which contained flapper valves, which fit, actually, inside the hood scoops themselves, which opened and shut, actuated by a pull cable underneath the driver’s side dashboard and when the driver opened these hood scoops, it fed cold air directly from the scoops right down into a lower pan which fed over the carburetor and sealed to the bottom of the hood with a piece of foam rubber. It was a really catchy little device. It was worth 5 horsepower, maybe.”

The Ram Air

There were two versions of the ram air 400 available for the Judge in 1969: the Ram Air III, rated at 366 horsepower and the Ram Air IV rated at 370 horsepower. Car enthusiast Tim Rockwell of Adrian, Michigan talks about the Ram Air IV: “The Ram Air IV was equipped differently with engine components and it seems to run better than the Ram Air III.” The Ram Air IV cylinder heads were redesigned with large exhaust ports which improved exhaust flow. The Ram Air IV cam was wilder than the 3s and it made its peak horsepower at 5500 RPM vs. the 3′s 5100 RPM. Both engines were rated at 445 foot pounds of torque.

Stan Rarden points out: “You couldn’t really tell the difference between a Ram Air III and a Ram Air IV engine just by walking by and looking under the hood. It was a – they were absolutely identical, although the Ram Air IV heads had different casting numbers. If you knew where to look you could tell. But other than that, if you couldn’t tell the difference between the III and the IV you had to go behind the car and listen. The Ram Air IV had an idle that was the sexiest, most aggressive idle you’ve ever heard in your entire life. Every Pontiac owner loves to hear a Ram Air IV car.”

So now the new idea committee went back to Delorean with this redesigned version of the GTO ET, which no longer bore any resemblance to the Road Runner or any other cheap car for that matter. The ET was now GTO through and through and it was loaded down with the most expensive hardware as standard equipment. For a final touch, they chose an unforgettable color scheme. Paul Zazarine reflects: “One of the most exciting aspects of it visually was the paint, which was called Carousel Red, which was a Firebird color in 1969. It wasn’t offered on the GTO. So they chose that because it was a wild, bright paint scheme. They went through several different designs on the striping that went on the side.” Stan Rarden adds: “Well, as the story goes, this time when Delorean got to drive the car and saw the entire concept he was all smiles. He loved it. He said, ‘Yeah, this is exactly what we out to be doing here, but I’m not crazy about this ET nickname, though. I think what we oughtta do is call it the Judge. There’s this guy on TV that’s constantly saying here comes the Judge. Let’s give ‘em the Judge.” The final element was now in place. The catchy name.

The Ultimate GTO – The Judge

Thus was born the ultimate GTO. The Judge. The wildest muscle car anyone had ever seen. And just like the 1964 GTO, it had to prove itself to a skeptical automotive press core. December 8th, 1968 was a beautiful day at Riverside Raceway in southern California. The motoring press was all gathered at the invitation of Pontiac to witness the unveiling of two new cars for the 1969 season: a sporty road racer called the Trans Am and the latest outrageous mobile in the muscle car wars: the Judge. Their initial reaction was not what Pontiac was hoping for. Says Stan Rarden: “There’s a really great man in Pontiac history by the name of Jim Wangers and Jim was responsible for all of Pontiac’s advertising back in the wide track days and all of the really aggressive tiger commercials. He was actually on the committee to help build the Judge.

According to Jim, when they rolled out the Judge that day at Riverside he said he had never seen a more reaction from the automotive press core to a new car. It was really clear to him that the press didn’t have the slightest idea of what they were trying to do. They didn’t get the joke and it was not a happy day.” The press may have laughed at the Judge, with its loud colors and pop art graphics but muscle car buyers saw the car for what it was.

Stan Rarden goes on: “A few muscle car buyers ventured down to the Pontiac dealership and took a look at the Judge and took a test drive and the Ram Air III and the Ram Air IV motor especially got their attention. Pretty soon word was out on the street that this car was fast.” When the Judge hit the streets, Pontiac made sure that every one of them was equipped with all their go fast stuff. If you wanted a ’69 GTO with a Judge option package, the only engines you could get were the Ram Air III or IV 400s. The only transmission options were the heavy duty 4M automatic or the Muncie four speeds with Hurst shifters. The Judge option also included the ride and handling package, G70 by 14 wide oval tires on 14 by 6 rally wheels and the heavy duty safety track rear end. Judges were easy to spot in drag strips all over America and not just because of their bright paint jobs.

80% of all ’69 Judges were sold in that eye popping shade of orange. Carousel red, that is. Initially, this was the Judge’s only color but by mid ’69 the Judge would be available in any GTO color. The Judge did exactly what it was supposed to do for the GTO. It made people sit up and take notice. This powerful concept gave the ad man some wonderful opportunities. Stan Rarden explains: “When the Judge came out there was one particular ad that I remember that showed a guy in a racing jacket standing next to this bright orange ’69 Carousel Red judge with a line underneath it that said ‘The Judge can be bought.’ Jim Wangers tells the story that it wasn’t but a couple of weeks that Pontiac started getting letters from the American Bar Association. See, the lawyers sort of took offense at this. They knew people were watching.”

The automotive press took a little while to convince but the general public caught on a lot faster. As a method of drawing attention to the GTO, the Judge was a hit. And as a crowd pleaser with the car buying public, it was an over the top success. Some 6800 GTOs with a Judge option sold in 1969. Almost 10% of all GTO sales that year. The Judge did so well that it was continued for 1970: the most amazing year ever for the muscle car.

The 1970 GTO Judge

What had started at a one time only splash in the marketplace was now a fixture in the GTO’s option list. Very little changed in 1970 for the Judge except to redesign the sandwich board rear spoiler and add an engine option. Following the Dolorean dictum, it was a big engine. Stan Rarden recollects: “The 455 HO was basically a bored out Ram Air 400 car. It still had the round port intakes and all that. Those extra 55 cubics really helped.” 1970 also saw another big color splash for the Judge. This year’s special color was a brilliant shade of yellow called Orbit Orange. It became a Judge trademark. But an era was ending and the first indication that the muscle cars were dying might have been in the advertising. Stan Rarden remembers: “By 1970 you could pretty much see that Pontiac was getting tired of taking all the heat for building these really aggressive cars and their advertising reflected it. They had a couple aggressive ads like the old days but a lot of their marketing thrust was towards presenting it as a gentleman’s motoring car rather than the street sweeper that it used to be.”

Nonetheless, the Judge lived on to 1971 with a totally redesigned front end and performance that was downplayed in favor of image. In 1971, the compression ratio fell to 8.5 to 1 as the whole industry responded to the demand for lower horsepower and emissions control. Significantly, though, the ’71 455 HO actually outperformed the ’70 Ram Air IV engine. Originally, the Judge was to be a one year owner car. But today’s owners of ’70 and ’71 Judges are glad Pontiac continued to make them for two more years. The later Judges are even more collectible and just as much fun as those bright orange ones from 1969. -TF states that the “1971 Judge was truly an American muscle car work of art. It was big, it had rounded lines, it had a big fin on the back, it had an honest 448 pounds of torque and 335 horsepower on a dino.”

The GTO Judge - First of Its Kind

Just like the little GTO did in 1964, the Judge took it on the chin for being the first of its kind. But it finally earned the respect it deserved as a milestone among muscle cars. After its initial attempt at being a Road Runner imitator, the Judge went the other way and became the first of the high concept muscle cars. All the Superbirds and GSXs that followed its outrageous appearance and enhance performance owed their specialness in the muscle car era to the Judge. Tim Rockwell mourns its passing: “There’s not many of them left but if you can get one and restore it, it’s much better and helps the car enthusiasts of the muscle car era and as far as I’m concerned, these are much nicer than new cars. Once you get into it you have to go all the way through with it and once you get started you can’t stop. You just keep putting more together, more together, paint this, paint that, finding the parts for it. It’s actually a great hobby to get into.”


Stan Rarden adds: “When you do get it done and roll it out you get a chance to show it to people who remember what it was. They were there and they all have a personal relationship with the car, too. But not only that, when you show it to younger people, a lot of them look and see and wonder in their minds ‘Why aren’t we making cars like this today?’ There’s a lot of reasons why we’re not making cars like this today and today’s cars have some pretty fantastic pieces, but all of these cars had a personality that had a character of its own and when you can turn a young person onto that and they can respect that and they can get a little enjoyment out of it, too, it’s just icing on the cake.”

The GTO Judge was a big splash of color as the 60s came to a close. Sort of an exclamation point at the end of an incredible decade.

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