If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, then Pontiac's GTO proved to have numerous admirers. In 1963, John DeLorean, Pontiac's chief engineer, was instrumental in getting the 389-powered midsize vehicle into production, and its immediate success in '64 soon led to me-too examples from other GM Divisions, and Ford and Mopar. With the competitions' sights set on the GTO, it didn't take long for the newcomers to compete with Pontiac's performance flagship for the media spotlight.
Promoted to Pontiac General Manager in June 1965, DeLorean later recognized that the '69 GTO needed something sure to draw magazine and consumer attention back to the vehicle that initiated the market craze. He requested his Ad-Hoc committee, a special planning group comprised of the Division's departmental bests, to rejuvenate GTO coverage. It ultimately created the most highly coveted GTO of all time: The Judge.
"DeLorean approached his Ad-Hoc committee in the summer of 1968 and asked that it create a special model to breathe life into the GTO program," says Ben Harrison, founder of the Division's Product Planning Department. "Now that the newness of Pontiac's redesigned GTO for '68 had passed and most others had competitive models, the '69 GTO wasn't getting the media exposure DeLorean wanted. He asked for a unique GTO that would get on magazine covers and generate showroom traffic to bring attention back to Pontiac and the GTO."
The committee immediately went to work on implementing DeLorean's plan. Its intent was moving the GTO to supercar status with strong performance and distinct identification in a single package. By using equipment already available on the GTO, the vehicle could maintain a reasonable cost and reach production quickly. The group combined a Ram Air III 400 engine, a Hurst-shifted manual transmission, Rally wheels sans trim rings, up-level suspension, and side striping. It also added special ornamentation and a large wing that spanned the width of the decklid.
The committee felt the concept demonstrator that it would present to DeLorean needed a unique color that grabbed attention, so it settled on the eye-popping hue Carousel Red, which was a vibrant shade of orange. "We wanted a color with limited availability on other Pontiac model lines," says Harrison. "We chose an exciting exterior color and planned to paint the first 5,000 cars that way, which made the special GTO immediately recognizable by consumers. We wanted them to say, ‘Here comes that new Pontiac I've been reading about,' when they saw it coming down the street."
In the committee's proposal, Harrison suggested naming the concept E.T., which stood for Elapsed Time, inferring improved performance over a standard GTO. Other possible names tied to it were S.L. for Stop Light, and even Hustler was briefly considered, but the committee settled upon E.T. (Editor's note: Though Harrison's proposal uses the acronym E.T., there are other sources that called it E/T.) A GTO was pulled from Pontiac Engineering's fleet and prepared accordingly to create the E.T. prototype. It was repainted, accessorized appropriately, and E.T. decals were placed just below the GTO emblem found on each front fender. To the best of Harrison's recollection, the E.T. prototype wasn't equipped with the decorative side stripes, however. "They were planned as part of the package, but there simply wasn't enough time to have them designed and approved for the proposal viewing," he adds.
In late summer 1968, the GTO E.T. was parked in Pontiac's Engineering garage and the committee made arrangements for DeLorean to review the concept. "I recall the day very well," Harrison adds. "Most of the Ad-Hoc committee members were present. John [DeLorean] came through the door and slowly circled the car, looking it over with little emotion. After a few minutes of taking it in, he opened the door to walk out, turned back and said, ‘Looks great, guys. Call it The Judge.' And that was it."
It took the committee members a few minutes to digest naming the concept The Judge. "We were happy that John approved of the package but surprised at the name," says Harrison. "He didn't even acknowledge our suggestion. It was clear he had his mind made up on The Judge before he even walked in. In my opinion, he probably figured that if we didn't get it, we probably shouldn't be part of the Ad-Hoc committee."
DeLorean was revered as a hip socialite, and, in his true marketing genius, he capitalized on the catchphrase that was sweeping the nation with continual references on television and pop radio. Credit goes to Sammy Davis Jr. for initiating the craze. As a guest on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In in March 1968, he shuffled across the stage chanting, "Here comes the judge." It not only went on to be a semi-regular skit on the show, at least four different songs entitled "Here Comes The Judge" made Billboard's Hot 100 list in June 1968. Hedging on the overwhelming popularity of the phrase, DeLorean coyly gave America its Judge, and the timing couldn't have been better.