The story of the genesis of the Pontiac GTO is well known, and several of the players went on to become quite famous in their own right. The brainchild of Russell Gee, an engine specialist, Bill Collins, a chassis engineer, and Chief Engineer John Z. DeLorean, they basically figured out a way to keep a performance image for Pontiac despite the GM ban on factory supported racing. All the pieces were there – a great 389 V8 from the full-sized Catalina, a sporty Tempest platform, and permission from Pete Estes to proceed on a limited basis. Even the name screamed performance, a moniker boldly chosen by DeLorean himself. His team skirted the GM powertrain directives by making the GTO package merely an option for the Tempest, and the results speak for themselves. By 1966, Pontiac sold 96,946 GTOs, and Pontiac ruled the new muscle car segment.
1968 saw a major redesign of the A body platform, creating a more fastback profile and featuring the first of the unique Endura bumpers. With sales success by all of the GM divisions with muscle cars in ’68, Pontiac first began to plan a budget GTO muscle car for 1969. Fortunately for us, those plans changed to create “The Judge” as a full on street rocket. The name was inspired by the huge popularity of Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” television show, and the “Here comes the Judge” skit popularized by the popular song and dance entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. The Judge became the ultimate powerful street machine that fueled the new performance image for Pontiac. Jim Wanger’s innovative marketing appealed to a hip, young audience, and the GTO Judge was the king of the street and the strip.
In 1970, the styling of the Judge was cutting edge, with four rounded headlamps horizontally inset into the Endura bumper without bezels. Of the 40,149 GTO’s sold, 3,197 were Judge models, and just 168 of those were convertibles. The options list for The Judge continued to grow, but for 1970, rear anti-roll bars and variable ratio power steering became standard equipment. For the 1970 production year, the Ram Air III, 400 ci engines were the largest available, and with 366 bhp, the ’70 Ram Air III cars were every bit as fast as the 1971 455 ci powered cars. Today, the ’69 and ’70 Judges are far more desirable to collectors, due to GM’s lowering of the compression ratios on all their cars in 1971 in preparation for the unleaded fuels mandated in the US.
In many ways, the 1970 GTO Judge represents the last of the true muscle car era, while incorporating some of the luxury features that the buying public was obviously demanding. Soon, emission controls and the oil embargos would limit the demand for true performance cars, and as insurance companies began to surcharge the owners of performance cars, buyer demand shifted from brute power to a more luxurious style of vehicle. As quickly as it arrived, the muscle car era was on its way out.
GTOs are fast, powerful, and fun. In particular, the 4-speed convertible Judge models lead the way in value appreciation among all muscle cars. Their wild paint schemes and aggressive styling represent the best of the era, and owning a great Judge convertible should be on every car guy’s bucket list.