With the previous model year being such a radical redesign, the'69 GTO bowed with only a mild makeover from'68, yet it would prove to be a defining year for the model and for the musclecar era. As the decade closed out, Pontiac added a new image-builder that really took America by storm.
The ’69 GTO’s new grille design replaced the horizontal grille bars with a chrome-trimmed
Since the GTO’s body was so completely reinterpreted the year before, Pontiac designers wisely stuck to refining some of the details. Up front, a new chrome-trimmed egg-crate grille design was added into the same Endura bumper cavity, and hidden headlamps again returned as an option. New rectangular turn signals were set into the lower valance and tiny round marker lamps were set into the leading edges of the lower front fenders. The rear marker lamps returned for'69, this time mimicking the elongated chevron shape of the familiar GTO fender badges.
The doors lost their familiar wing windows, as a result of the GTO’s new Astro Ventilation system. This change, while somewhat annoying to smokers, actually did a great job of cleaning up the look, giving the'69 edition a more modern appearance than the'68, where the small vent windows looked somewhat out of place.
The'68 GTO’s tail was also revised—a new decklid and rear bumper design moved the taillamps out of the bumper and placed them in nacelles cut into its top contour, with the decklid flowing down between them. The taillamps were substantially wider than'68, with a slotted contour moulded into the lenses.
Inside, the GTO’s basic dimension remained from the year before but new upholstery patterns and a new dash design were used. The new dash featured a textured plastic insert in the gauge cluster that matched the grain of the dash. The basic tri-element gauge cluster design was carried over from'68. The standard gauge cluster center housed the 120-mph speedometer, while the left pod housed the fuel gauge and warning lamps for oil pressure, voltage, and engine temperature. The right pod had a block-off plate.
The optional Rally Gauge cluster was very similar to the previous year. The left pod featured fuel, coolant temperature, and oil-pressure gauges, and a voltage-warning lamp. The right cluster housed the tachometer, unless the hood tach was ordered and then it was home to a rally timer/clock. The lower portion of the dash was trimmed with walnut. The HVAC controls were mounted horizontally, just above the radio.
One other change was the replacement of the Hurst Dual-Gate His and Her shifter for automatics with a GM-sourced Rally shifter. Though the two were very similar in operation, offering a full manual mode in addition to regular automatic operation, the newer shifter wasn’t as impressive-looking, but was quite a bit cheaper to manufacture.
Even without the in-your-face persona of The Judge, the base ’69 GTO was still a very aggr
While the powertrain offerings were, for the most part, an extension of the previous year’s offerings, some refinements and upgrades were made. The manual-transmission base 400 received the slightly hotter 068 cam, while the automatic version remained unchanged, as was the step-down-option 400/two-barrel, still available only with an automatic transmission.
The 400 H.O. of 1968 was upgraded with a Ram Air system and became the 366-horsepower Ram Air III, one of Pontiac’s best all-around street engines. Manual transmission versions received the hot 744 cam for part of the year, but a running change had the milder 068 cam substituted to increase driveability.
Transmission availability started with the M-13 Dearborn three-speed manual transmission, while Muncie M-20 wide-ratio and M-21 close-ratio four-speeds were available, as was the three-speed Turbo 400 automatic. Rearend ratios ran the gamut from 2.56-4.33, with Safe-T-Track limited slip available at an extra cost.
The Ram Air IV Debuts
The top engine offering for the'69 GTO was the new 400 cubic-inch Ram Air IV, and while it was a brutal performer, it was not the best street-performance engine that Pontiac ever offered. It was temperamental. It lacked the low-end torque that Pontiacs were known for and was only available with 3.90 and 4.33 gears. Gas mileage? Don’t ask—8 mpg was considered good. Nevertheless, the Ram Air IV was a blistering performance engine that offered at least as much acceleration as many of the competitions’ engines with a decided displacement advantage.
The engine came from a discussion Pontiac General Manager John Z. DeLorean had with Chief Motor Engineer Malcolm R. "Mac" McKellar. DeLorean asked what it would take to extend the operating range of the venerable 400 to 6,500 rpm. Knowing that moving the rpm range up that high would indeed yield considerably more horsepower than the 400 ever made, McKellar also knew that it was likely to cause some driveability problems not normally associated with the torque-happy Pontiac V-8. Charged with the task, McKellar and his team forged ahead.
A new rearend treatment was used for the ’69 GTO. The slotted taillamps were larger than b
Extending the rpm range to 6,500 rpm meant that the new 400 was going to require additional airflow. Taking the basic design of the'68½ Ram Air II engine, including the four-bolt block and forged pistons, McKellar redesigned the cylinder heads, adding a new taller intake port design while retaining the Ram Air II’s round exhaust port. While valve sizes stayed at 2.11 inches for the intakes and 1.77 inches for the exhausts, the new intake port design offered significantly more volume and offered a straighter shot at the valve.
The exhaust gases were routed through special streamlined exhaust manifolds, which were essentially a carryover from the Ram Air II. Though rated at 370 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, just 4 more hp than the Ram Air III, it was good for at least 50-60 hp more, with a wider power band than the Ram Air II. The engine was plagued with durability problems, mostly centered around the production cast connecting rod. The truth was, at 6,500 rpm, there was little, if any, safety margin, and one missed shift could mean a rod kicked through the oil pan or block. It has been reported by the late John Sawruk that one service-replacement engine was built for every Ram Air IV engine factory-installed in a Pontiac, which explains why parts were fairly easy to obtain right through the '70s.
The GTO returned for ’69 with a freshened exterior package, including a new grille design,
GM Design Center was interested in exploring the idea of a self-storing, retractable roof
The Aero II was based on a production GTO lower body and a more formal rear-roof section w
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.
The only two qualities retained in the production GTO Judge from the original Tempest E.T.
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.
Initially offered only in Carousel Red, The Judge was the perfect car for the person looki
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.
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 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.
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."
Optional rectangular cornering lamps were offered in addition to the small marker lamps on
The GTO was also available in an attractive convertible bodystyle. A total of 7,436 were b
The rear of the GTO Judge was highlighted by the large rear wing, which was affixed to the