By the late 1960s, most manufacturers had answered back to the GTO. While such premium models were often beyond the fiscal reach of youthful performance-car buyers, economy-minded performance models from Detroit's others, or "junior muscle cars" as the magazines of the era named them, were gaining in popularity. Typically entry-level models containing little else but sporty external packaging and small-cube performance engines, they delivered an acceptable combination of acceleration and fuel economy at an attractive price. Magazines loved them because it gave them another market segment to write about.
Automakers soon learned that the concept created another distinct market. Performance enthusiasts were willing to forego most of the standard and optional convenience amenities to simply go fast. That meant taking an entry-level Road Runner, for instance, and stuffing a large, powerful engine under the hood. These high-horsepower, no-frills competitors were stealing a portion of the market segment the GTO once owned, and many of Pontiac's in-house performance enthusiasts noticed, including Special Project Engineer Herb Adams.
Adams is a performance extremist. Always looking to extract the most performance and handling from vehicles, he spent much of his time at Pontiac tweaking packages to improve the Division's presence on the race track and street. To his credit, during the late-1960s he was key in the development of the Pontiac Firebird Sprint Turismo (PFST) and Trans Am package, the story of which is outlined in a three part series here at www.highperformancepontiac.com. But he also had a hand in a very special Tempest that likely laid the groundwork for what became the most special GTO package of all time.
Creating A Concept
"John Sawruk stopped by the Special Projects office one day and asked us about creating a low-cost GTO to compete with the Road Runner," recalls Herb, who about that time had convened his own team of four young enthusiastic engineers to evaluate ideas about performance, engine, and package names, and visual cues. "It took about an hour for us to go through the accessory list and pick the appropriate options to assemble a low-cost performance package."
Former Pontiac Engineer Dan Hardin was one of those in Herb's group. "I remember discussing this car and just how understated it should be," he adds. "The Road Runner was an option on a pretty stripped car, with minimal visual appointments in its first year—kind of a sleeper at the time. We debated adding Rally wheels and other discretionary items to our concept. They were constructed of stamped steel and likely didn't cost much more than a typical stamped-steel wheel, but [Pontiac] Marketing treated them as a premium wheel and charged accordingly. We figured if we didn't use trim rings, they would give the car a very sporty look and cost very little to manufacture."
Herb brought the idea to Assistant Chief Engineer Bill Collins and Administrative Engineer Tom Schreitmueller for consideration. "Both liked the idea of a low-cost performance car very much," Herb adds. "Since we were selecting from what was already available, there wasn't any development time involved. Tom's job was to consider costs, and he immediately jumped at it because it was a no-cost way to bring out a new Pontiac. Bill provided me with the necessary approval to build a demonstrator, which they could take to [John] DeLorean for consideration."
The demonstrator was built using the cheapest Tempest available, a two-door sedan. Adams kept its bench seat, chrome bumper with exposed headlights, and standard un-scooped hood, but added GTO suspension to make it handle well, and Rally II wheels sans trim rings to save cost and maintain a sporty appearance. It was powered by the new-for-1969 Ram Air III 400, which offered the best bang-for-the-buck performance.
"The R/A IV was more powerful, but more costly too. We figured buyers could order it if they wanted it. Along the way, someone suggested we use an empty hood tach shell as a cold-air scoop, so I tried it on the demo car. I installed an open scoop on the right side that matched the hood tach on the left. Flexible tubing connected the scoop to the air cleaner. We found...that it just couldn't provide a sufficient volume of air to improve performance, so the idea was ultimately scrapped."
To improve the low-cost GTO's appearance, Adams incorporated a unique exterior treatment. "I always liked stripes on a performance car, so I designed a white and black stripe for it. It started near the nose and extended back onto the door. I was proud of the stripe because it was like my signature. We never officially gave the car a name though, so there weren't ever any other emblems or decals," he adds.
According to Adams, the low-cost demonstrator performed better than a standard GTO by a slight margin, but was considerably cheaper. It seems Collins and Schreitmueller were interested in moving forward with the concept and brought the demonstrator to DeLorean, who happened to be looking for a way to re-elevate the market status of his GTO.
With his approval, DeLorean asked that the concept be taken to his Ad-Hoc committee, which Adams was a part of. There, each department could review it and add ideas to ensure the concept would be successful if it reached production...and successful it was. Many of Adams original performance-oriented cues are present in the package that went on to become The Judge, which propelled the GTO to supercar status upon its introduction in midyear 1969.
"One other good thing that came out of the committee I credit to Jim Wangers," Adams says. "He suggested the first 5,000 Judges all be painted Carousel Red."
Many auto journalists speculated that the Pontiac-issued press photos of a modified 1968 Tempest two-door sedan with an orange exterior finish and an accenting side stripe that appeared in a number of publications are of a small-cube, low-buck concept. Adams cannot confirm nor deny that the bright orange A-body in the photos was the demonstrator his team created for its proposal. "There were so many cars we dealt with back then, that I can't recall its exact color, but it certainly could have been orange, which was a special color for 1969." Based on his sharp recollection of equipment, few will argue that the car in the photograph certainly fits his concept description.
What seemingly confuses the matter is an October 31, 1968, press release that outlines a new low-buck performance model contented like a GTO but priced below it. When asked about the possibility of equipping his concept with a 350 H.O., Adams replies, "There's no way. We wanted the most performance possible for the cost in our proposal. I'm not sure where the 350-powered concept came from, but it looks like it stole some of my ideas from the low-cost GTO demo, which eventually carried over into The Judge package."
When considering how closely the unnamed model from the press release resembles Adams' demonstrator, it's certain that someone within Pontiac, but likely outside Delorean's Ad-Hoc committee, recognized the significance of its many details and incorporated a number of them into his own proposal with less cubes. Who was that person? The hobby many never know. And was the orange A-body Herb's original demonstrator or someone's unnamed small-cube interpretation of it? You be the judge!