Curbside Classic: 1969 Pontiac GTO The Judge: Here Come Da Judge!

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The phrase “Here come da judge” is a good indicator of a person’s age.  If this phrase means nothing to you, then you are likely under the age of fifty.  If you are over fifty, then you probably remember laughing out loud to the several black comedians who did this comedy bit on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  Or maybe you even heard the phrase as done by its originator, Pigmeat Markham, who is sometimes credited with creating the first rap record (decades before anybody knew what a rap record was). In any case, you probably remember this car from the time when it was just one of many hot American performance cars available at a dealership near you.

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The Pontiac GTO is as much an automotive icon as there is.  A while back, I found a 1966 GTO (here) and in its CC we covered a bit of the Goat’s famous background. While I had some doubts as to whether that particular car was genuine, I finally concluded that probably it is. In this case there are no doubts, for reasons we’ll explore later.

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Though GTO sales topped out in 1966, many muscle car fans probably consider 1969 to be “Peak GTO” in terms of the car itself.  For 1968, the GM A-body was all-new for the first time in four years, and it was a tremendous success in both style and sales volume.  The General did indeed set styling trends in those days, and the ’68 A-bodies (especially the two- doors) suddenly made everyone else’s 1968 offerings look a bit stale–and few would disagree that Pontiac took that A-body package and came up with the prettiest version of them all.  Even the lowest-trim model (like the 1969 Tempest featured here) had that special something that seemed to be in great abundance in Pontiac’s styling studios in the 1960s.

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In 1969, there was no such thing as a slow GTO.  Every one came off the line packing 400 cubic inches of V8 goodness.  Just how much of that goodness you got depended on which version you chose.  The basic engine was rated at 350 horsepower (SAE gross), while the higher output Ram Air III was advertised at 366.  It you really wanted to fly, you could opt for the Ram Air IV, which was advertised at 370 ponies.  Gee, you might say–that’s not much of a spread in power output.   Recall, however, the General’s Fourteenth-Floor decree that Thou Shalt Not Equip a Car (at least one not named “Corvette”) with an Engine Putting out More than One Advertised Horsepower for every Ten Pounds of Curb Weight.  The consensus out across the interwebs seems to indicate that the Ram Air III would put out close to 400 horsepower,  and perhaps 420 ponies for a Ram Air IV.

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One area where Pontiac got caught flat-footed was low-buck performance.  The 1968 Plymouth Road Runner (and similar Dodge Super Bee) introduced the concept of maximum power for minimum dollars.  That may not be the greatest formula for high profit, but it did sell a lot of cars for Mopar dealers, and the 1969 GTO Judge was Pontiac’s reaction.  Priced roughly $300 above a base GTO, the Judge’s many standard HiPo features included the Ram Air III engine.

The Judge got a lot of promotion and carried quite a bit of street cred, but did not really sell that well, moving fewer than 7,000 units.  A true Road Runner analogue would have been a Ram Air Tempest with a bench seat, but building a car like that was simply not in John DeLorean’s makeup.   Every GTO would look like a GTO, right down to the Endura front bumper.  You want a GTO?  You’re gonna hafta pay for a GTO.

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I was out running an errand late last Friday afternoon.  Truth be told, I had missed lunch (I should learn to listen to the inner voice that says “Don’t take this telephone call just now”), and was in an irritable mood.  It was nearing 3 o’clock, and I decided to pull into a drive-up for a quick burger to eat on the run.  I saw the orange GTO and immediately started to grumble.  I was hungry, dammit, and once you’ve seen one orange GTO, haven’t you really seen them all?  Probably just another miserable LeMans after cosmetic surgery.  Tribute cars – Bah!

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But that same little voice that I had ignored when the telephone rang came back into my head, telling me to pull around and snap some pictures.  I have caught a couple of GTOs in the wild, but never one of this generation.  At least that was the voice of my rationalization.  Well, the little voice was right.

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What you see here is an original car.  Original paint, original stone rash on the lower fenders, original rust peeking out of the molding on the lower edge of the deck lid.  I was fairly well under this car’s spell, when about halfway through my photo snapping the owner and his young grandson came out of the restaurant.  Only then did I get the truly fascinating story behind this car.

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The owner (I am embarrassed to admit that I neglected to ask his name) was a very nice guy. He told me he’d bought this car in 1971, when he was a high school student, and has owned it ever since.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real deal.  The Genuine Article.  So, you ask, just how does a high school kid with a Ram Air GTO keep it this nice through the “ordinary used car” years (let alone the “stupid high school kid” years)–and especially in salty Indiana?  Simple: All you have to do is blow the engine up while doing the kind of things a high school boy will do with a car like this.  After which an unusual decision was made–the GTO got parked, a disposable Chevy was bought, and life moved on.

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Quite a few years later, the owner decided that the time had come to bring the old Goat out of storage.  The engine was either replaced or rebuilt (I forgot to ask), and here we are.  I have to say that I admire the owner of this car a lot.  Not only did he make the unusual decision to park and keep the car all those years ago, but also the equally uncommon decision  leave this rare old car alone.  How hard must it be to avoid the temptation to get the perfect paint job and turn this car into a mega-dollar Barrett-Jackson-mobile that glitters under the overhead lights and can only be touched with cotton gloves?  Perhaps he has listened to a little voice in his head too.  If that’s the case, it has advised him well.

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For my money (and of course, when it comes to this car, none of it is my money) this car, just as it sits, may be the rarest and most valuable GTO on the planet, not necessarily in monetary terms, but just for what it is.  A car is only original once, and this one still is.  How many other GTO owners can say that?  Even its one concession to youthful customization–the wheels–are vintage and super cool.

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Most of you know that a well-preserved original is my very favorite kind of car, no matter what it may be.  We lovers of automotive time capsules are used to a certain number of trade-offs–unpopular colors, low option levels and things like column shifters and generic wheel covers are the kinds of things we get used to accepting as part of “the package”.  But there are no trade-off’s with this GTO.  It is the rare “Judge” package, one of 6,725 hardtops sold, according to Myclassicgarage.com.

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It has Ram Air.  And it is even orange.  I mean ORANGE!  Or Carousel Red (with Parchment Morrokide), if you are a purist.  OK, so it lacks air conditioning and has an automatic and is not one of the 108 convertibles built, but how else to tell that I didn’t really dream this car instead of seeing it in person and chatting with its owner?  Ferkryinoutloud, it is just like the car featured in the ad campaign–how much better could it really be?  I mean, doesn’t everybody want the car featured in the advertising and the brochures?  Well, this guy has it!

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The brief encounter finished with me standing on the grass as the owner fired up his old friend. Even if nothing else about this chance meeting had yet improved my mood, the delightful sounds coming from this car did.  There is nothing else quite like the sound of an old, carbureted, high-performance V8 that lets you know that it would rather be doing almost anything other than idling in a parking lot.  As the car moved out onto the side street and its throttle plates opened up just a bit, that little voice came back:  “Here come da judge, here come da judge; Lookout, everybody, here come da judge!”

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