Here Comes The Judge

The Plymouth Roadrunner’s debut in 1968 sent some shockwaves through Detroit, and for the first time in the GTO’s history, Pontiac found itself in a reactive position rather than a proactive one. The Roadrunner bit into the GTO’s market share with its unique blend of performance and value. True, it was little more than a two-door taxicab with a big engine and a funny horn, but it represented a way into musclecar ownership for many performance enthusiasts.

Pontiac already had the basic ingredients for an insurance-friendly, budget-performance car in the 350 H.O.-powered Tempest, but it never did much to market it. By taking the lightweight Tempest pillared-coupe bodystyle with the free-revving 350 H.O. (which was essentially a smaller-bore version of the 400 Ram Air III), Pontiac built a prototype for management, the Tempest E/T for Elapsed Time. It featured Carousel Red paint, Rally II wheels sans trim rings, and a pair of hood-tach housings mounted on the hood; the one on the driver’s side routed cold air to the air cleaner.

The car had everything needed to compete in the lower end of the musclecar market, but General Manager John Z. DeLorean didn’t like it. He was concerned that a smaller-engine, de-contented car like the E/T would hurt the GTO’s image. DeLorean’s plan was to instead attack the upper end of the musclecar market and build a version of the GTO that would compete with cars like the Hurst Olds and top-of-the-line Mopars. About all that was taken from the Tempest E/T was the color and the lack of trim rings on the Rally IIs. Pirating a catch phrase, "Here Come Da Judge," used in a recurring skit on the popular TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, DeLorean named the new GTO—The Judge.

The new GTO was anything but subtle. With its wild tri-color graphics package; a 60-inch-wide, trunk-mounted rear wing; and loud Carousel Red paint, The Judge made a very bold statement. After February 1969, Judges could be ordered in any available GTO color. The cost of the option was $332.07.

The Judge had the muscle to back up its image. The standard engine was the 366-horse Ram Air III engine hooked to the Dearborn three-speed manual transmission. Options included either of the Muncie four-speeds, the Turbo 400 automatic, and, of course, the Ram Air IV engine.

Promotion

The'69 GTOs, and The Judge in particular, were heavily promoted, both in print and on television. The print ads were bold and colorful, with such taglines as "The Judge Can Be Bought," "All Rise for The Judge," and "Born Great," usually spread over two pages. The most memorable TV commercial devoted to the'69 Judge could arguably be considered one of the first concept-rock music videos. It was a 60- second commercial featuring the popular'60s rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders in full Revolutionary War-era garb singing the praises of the new GTO Judge. While it might seem a bit hokey by today’s standards, the spot has proved to be an historically significant advertisement. It is available for viewing on YouTube, along with other vintage Pontiac and GTO ads.

Performance

As in years past, the magazine performance tests of'69 GTOs ran the gamut from mediocre to mind-blowing. On the lower side of the spectrum was Motor Trend’s test of a 350-horse 400 GTO. With a four-speed and 3.55 Safe-T-Track rearend, it ran a 0-60 of 7.2 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 98.3 mph. Hot Rod’s Ram Air III four-speed Judge with 3.90 Safe-T-Track fared a bit better, running a 14.41 at 99.55 mph.

Popular Hot Rodding took on a'69 Ram Air III Judge with a three-speed and 3.55 gears and turned it into a four-issue project car. As originally delivered, The Judge ran an impressive 14.05 at 100.6 mph. By the time they were done with it, The Judge housed a Ram Air IV and a four-speed with 4.33 gears, and was expertly prepped by Royal Pontiac. To no one’s surprise, this Judge turned into a dragstrip stormer, running a best of 12.25 at 110.7 mph, with slicks, airbags, a line-lock, and a host of other drag-oriented modifications. The editors claimed the car was still very streetable, though we bet the 4.33s would have been rather uncomfortable on the highway.

Production Figures

Production numbers for the GTO continued to slide, owing to increased market-segment competition, rising insurance rates, and higher prices. Pontiac built a total of 72,287 GTOs, including 64,851 coupes and 7,436 convertibles. Judge production is included in those totals—a total of 6,833 Judges were built, including 6,725 coupes and just 108 convertibles.

Pontiac had more tricks for upcoming model years, but the writing was on the wall—muscle cars were on borrowed time. The party was winding down.

The Stripes

For the true story on The Judge’s pop-art stripes, HPP contributor Scott R. McGuire interviewed Pontiac Styling Chief William Porter:

"While I was studio chief in Advanced 1 studio, just prior to my stint as studio chief in Pontiac Studio, I [met] and had lunch with Peter Max. He was a friend of my assistant, Dick Finegan, who was also a poster designer. Max was an interesting guy. At the time he was eating only lettuce for a week to get his psyche in tune with the ‘lettuceness of lettuce.’"

"He did not have anything to do with any of the striping—psychedelic or otherwise—on any Pontiac, I can assure you. Adhesive company 3M came up with the colorful reflective materials and I worked directly with them in creating the designs for The Judge stripes and logo."