The GTO was one of the biggest success stories in automotive history. For the first time an inexpensive fast performance car was available to the masses, creating a whole new market segment called muscle cars. Within a few years just about every American auto brand had at least one muscle car available to the buying public.
For 1968 the GTO still remained the sales leader in the muscle car segment, however Pontiac noticed a new GTO competitor, the 1968 Plymouth Road Runner. Pontiac was watching the Road Runner carefully since it had a very low base price, which was lower than the GTO. Pontiac feared Plymouth was going to offer more bang for the buck, thereby taking sales away from the GTO. After all the GTO by 1968 had gone more upscale than the very basic "no frills" 1964 GTO which had an extremely low sticker price. Pontiac’s strategic response was to release a "no frills" budget GTO for 1969, which could keep the Road Runner from taking the GTO’s precious market share. After a lot of testing and work by Pontiac engineers, the budget GTO grew into an upscale GTO. Leading to this was the discovery during the testing and developmental phase that most new 1968 Road Runners sold were laden heavy with options which moved the Road Runner into the same price range as the GTO.
The end result of this saga was the "Judge" package for the 1969 GTO, which became known as the GTO Judge. The name was derived from the popular TV show "Laugh In" where the phrase "Here come de judge" was often recited to much applause. The GTO Judge had a wild rear spoiler and psychedelic exterior graphics, which even included wild Judge logos. Carousel red initially a 1968 Firebird color adorned the exterior of the first run of Judges from the factory. By year’s end the pricey Judge had been a sales success with 6,833 units (6,725 coupes/108 convertibles) sold.
For 1970 the GTO and Judge received slightly revised styling. The 1968 – 1969 GTO had been a sales success. Pontiac not wanting to rock the boat, kept the same basic shape of the 1968-1969 GTO but fine-tuned it with a new revised front-end which had four exposed round headlamps surrounded by a beautifully sculpted endura front bumper. Gone were the hidden headlamps of the two previous years. The taillights and rear were also all new. The two taillights were completely surrounded and wrapped around to the sides of big chrome rear bumper. However the real surprise were the new cutouts in the valance panel underneath the rear bumper for four chrome exhaust tips (two on each side). Another styling change was visible on all four fenders – creases above each wheel well. The creases first debuted on the 1969 Firebird, Pontiac was merely taking the successful design and applying it to the GTO. Put together all the styling changes for the 1970 GTO and Judge and the final result was what arguably many GTO fans will call the best looking GTO and Judge ever produced.
Though styling looked "oh so good" for 1970, the GTO and Judge unfortunately did not get the 1970 Firebird’s stylish new sporty body colored outside mirrors. Pontiac realized their mistake and offered them in 1971 on the GTO and Judge. Of course it’s no surprise that many owners who restore their 1970 GTOs and Judges install the sport mirrors (as seen in the pictures in this article).
Bigger than the previous year, on the Judge there was a standard rear wing spoiler in body color or (WT7 option) black, gloss black Ram Air hood inlets, and an optional black front-end chin spoiler. The icing on the cake was a wild decal package (even more outlandish than the 1969 Judge), which consisted of psychedelic stripes over each wheel well and Judge logos. For 1970, the Judge could be ordered in any 1970 GTO exterior color along with one non-GTO color. The color was a new Judge exclusive for 1970 called Orbit Orange. The only problem with owning an Orbit Orange Judge was with its wild graphics and bright exterior color it easily garners attention from your friendly law enforcement officer holding a radar gun.
In the 1971 cult-classic film Two Lane Blacktop one of the stars was an Orbit Orange 1970 GTO Judge coupe driven by the late great actor Warren Oates. Warren in the film summed it up best when he exclaimed "Just Color Me Gone Baby" as he rammed the accelerator towards the floor and the Judge moved down a long strip of highway like a fighter jet with the afterburners ignited.
Most Judges for 1970 came loaded with options. There were enough luxury and convenience options to make even a Grand Prix owner blush in delight. The interior was still GTO all the way. Though bench seats were standard, most Judges had bucket seats with headrests and a front center console. And as a gentle reminder there was also a big Judge badge on the glovebox door. Adding a really sport touch to the interior was a new for 1970 GTO and Judge option – the Pontiac "Formula" steering wheel which was also the standard steering wheel on the 1970 – 1981 Trans Am. And for the buyers that ordered a 4-speed manual transmission they received a beautiful machined Hurst T-handle shifter which over the last almost 40 years has taken on cult-like status in Pontiac muscle car circles. Another nice touch on the 1970 Judge was the hood tach, another relic from this era that has taken on cult-like status.
There were three different engine choices on the 1970 Judge. First was the 366 horsepower (430 lbs/ft of torque) Ram Air III, a high performance D-port Pontiac 400 CID V8. Next was a round-port high performance Ram Air IV 400 which was underrated by the factory at 370 horsepower (445 lbs/ft of torque). And for those that wanted a high performance V8 with enough torque to uproot a large tree, there was the Pontiac 455 CID V8 (introduced at the middle of the 1970 model year), which produced 360 horsepower and an amazing 500 lbs/ft of torque. The 455 Judge is the most rare of the three due to the fact that only 17 were produced. All three Judge engines came standard with a factory Ram Air setup, which delivered cool air to the engine via hood scoops and the air cleaner assembly. The Ram Air III 400 and the 455 both had "Ram Air" decals on the Judge’s hood scoops while the Ram Air IV had "Ram Air IV" decals in the same location.
Four transmissions were available on the Ram Air III Judge: the Muncie M13 (3-speed manual), Muncie M20 (wide ratio 4-speed manual), Muncie M21 (close ratio 4-speed manual), and the Turbo-Hydramatic 400 (TH400) 3-speed automatic. The most rare of these was the M13 option (only 124 Ram Air III Judges were ordered with the M13). The Ram Air IV Judge only had two transmission choices: the Muncie M21 4-speed manual and TH400 3-speed automatic. And all 17 of the 455 Judge’s were ordered with the TH400 automatic transmission.
All 1970 Judges had the GTO’s dual exhaust system, which had dual mufflers. One listen to this great sounding system there was no doubt this was a serious muscle car.
In the current classic car market, 1970 GTO Judges command very high prices, higher than most of its competition from 1970. However its sales during the 1970 model year were a little over half of the numbers of 1969 Judges sold, only 3,797 1970 Judges (3,629 coupes/168 convertibles) were built. Of course this was not the Judge’s fault. Muscle car sales were way down for every automaker in 1970. Skyrocketing insurance rates were strangling sales.
Pontiac with the 1970 GTO Judge proved again that the GTO was still the leader in the muscle car market it created. But the sad news was the Judge would only last one more model year. After 1971 the Judge was retired, and a few years after that even the GTO would be gone. However the 1970 GTO Judge will forever remain the pinnacle of the GTO, and that’s not a bad place to be in automotive history. Warren Oates would certainly agree.
Special Thanks goes out to:
Jim Napoletano who owns the beautiful 1970 Palomino Copper GTO Judge (tribute car) as seen in this article, and Greg Giacchi the talented photographer who shot all the above pictures for this article.
Written contents in this article – © 2009 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved