This ’69 Pontiac GTO isn’t just the judge, it’s the jury and executioner too.
The Pontiac GTO is the godfather of all muscle cars, the one that started the big engine in medium body trend.
The initials that make up its name stand for Gran Turismo Omologato, but more commonly the car is known as ‘the great one’.
From when production began in 1964 until the last GTO rolled off the production line in 1974, no fewer than 514,793 GTOs were sold. And that doesn’t even include the late-model Holden Monaros that were rebadged and sold as GTOs.
Pontiac engineer Russell Gee and chief engineer John DeLorean had the brainwave to create the GTO in 1963, after General Motors had banned the company’s divisions from becoming involved in motorsport.
At the time, Pontiac’s image was largely built around high-performance vehicles, and the key marketing plan was to win races on Sunday to help sell cars on Monday. Chances are if it were not for these engineers who went against GM’s non-competition policy, the Pontiac name would have disappeared long before it did.
The idea was to fit the 389ci engine from the big Pontiac Catalina into the upcoming small Pontiac Tempest. Originally the project was referred to as a Super Tempest, but due to DeLorean’s love of the Ferrari 250GTO, the GTO name was soon assigned ” and the muscle car was born.
A loophole in company policy allowed the car, with its big motor, to slip into sale as an option package rather than standard equipment.
Although Pontiac general manager Elliot Estes approved the model, sales manager Frank Bridge didn’t think the car would sell, and limited production to 5000 vehicles. Perhaps this limited production run of the first GTO was part of its pull, contributing to its status as a motoring icon.
Over the following years, sales of the GTO surpassed everyone’s expectations, and soon other companies were following suit to build small cars with big-capacity motors.
In 1969, a low-cost, lightweight GTO was planned. It was named The Judge after a comedy act seen on an American TV show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
The Judge was conceived to compete with the Plymouth RoadRunner. However, by the time it hit production, the Judge was higher specced and more expensive than the base GTO.
The Judge ended up with the formidable Ram Air III engine, Rally II wheels without trim rings, a Hurst shifter, wider tyres and a rear spoiler, not to mention cartoonish ‘The Judge’ graphics on the front fenders and spoiler.
After the first 2000 Judges rolled off the production line, a Judge decal was also placed on the glovebox.
The Judge was only produced between January ’69 and January ’71, making it one of the most highly sought-after muscle cars ever made. The convertibles were the most desirable of all, with just 108 built, all in 1969.
The only Carousel Red GTO Judge we are aware of in New Zealand belongs to Otorohanga’s Phil Collins. While Phil isn’t a rock star, since being restored back to showroom condition, his Judge certainly is. Phil is a vehicle restorer by trade, and owns and operates Classic Restorations (classicrestorations.co.nz), so he was in a good position to build the muscle car of his dreams.
He purchased it as a rolling body without a motor. “I wanted something different, something that no one else had,” he says. That’s is exactly what he’s got.
The build took two years, with most of it done after hours, or while Phil was not working on customers’ cars. A photo mounted in the boot shows how it looked when it was purchased, and acts as a pleasant reminder of Phil’s achievements.
Every square centimetre of the vehicle has been touched in some way, shape or form. If a part didn’t require metalwork it would have still been stripped, sanded and painted, all by Phil himself.
With as many new parts purchased for the body as possible, and everything else restored or repaired, the GTO’s exterior is as good as new, if not better.
Carousel Red was the only colour choice, partly because that was the only hue in which the original was offered, and partly because that was the colour of this particular car when it was stock.
Under the hood, however, things aren’t quite so stock. Because the Judge didn’t have its original motor when Phil bought it, he went about sourcing another genuine Judge 400ci to become the basis of the build. And since Phil didn’t have to worry about matching numbers and the likes, the new engine could be worked for a bit more performance than the car’s original 366hp.
Phil’s cousin, John Collins of Matamata Automotive, was responsible for screwing the engine together with a plethora of aftermarket parts such as an Ohio forged crank, H-beam rods, Keith Black pistons and ARP studs.
Atop all the forged goodness are an Edelbrock Performer manifold and heads filled with an Edelbrock valve train, including lifters, springs, stainless steel valves and more.
With a lumpy Edelbrock cam and a 750cfm carb, the motor makes around 525hp and creates a very impressive note that is heard through Magna-flow headers and a 2.5-inch stainless exhaust.
John Ryan from Auto Electricks in Otorohanga performed the wiring duties, and did a fantastic job of making the Judge look and run the way an iconic vehicle should.
Entering The Chamber
You could be forgiven for thinking the interior was dead stock, completely as it came from the showroom ” until you spot the Lanzar DVD player, that is. While it’s not what you would necessarily expect in a restored vehicle such as this, Phil has installed a custom stereo setup complete with 15-inch subwoofer and neon lighting.
Booming audio system aside, the interior is completely restored, thanks in part to a retrim kit that provided new seat coverings, along with new carpet and plenty of hours of hard work by Shane at CH Allen Upholstery.
Besides that, a Grant steering wheel is the only other sign the car isn’t quite as stock as you might at first think.
Since getting the car on the road, Phil and his family have racked up many miles cruising. The trip up to Whangamata’s Beach Hop has been the longest so far. With Bilstein shocks all-round and Bilstein springs up-front, the car took the winding Coromandel hills without fuss. The 275mm-wide BF Goodrich tyres wrapped around the Torque Thrust rims no doubt also help in that department too.
Just 6833 Judges were bought in 1969, out of a total 72,287 GTOs sold that year. With so many GTOs, it’s a wonder that you don’t see more of them on the road today. Chances are that many of them met their demise when fuel prices rocketed, and the bottom fell out of the muscle car market.
Phil’s GTO managed to escape that fate, and is now no doubt one of the better restored examples anywhere in the world.
Lucky for us, it’s living out its golden years here in New Zealand.
1969 Pontiac GTO Judge – Specifications
Engine: 400ci (6555cc) Pontiac big block, Ohio forged steel crank, H-beam rods, Keith Black pistons, ARP studs, Edelbrock cam, Edelbrock valve springs, Edelbrock lifters, stainless steel valves, hardened valve seats, bronze valve guides, Edelbrock 750 carb, Edelbrock Performer manifold, MSD distributor, Bosch leads, 2.5-inch stainless steel exhaust, Magnaflow mufflers, Hooker headers, Gilmore belt drive
Driveline: Turbo 350 transmission, 2000rpm stall converter, Pontiac 10-bolt diff, custom driveshaft
Suspension: Bilstein shocks, Bilstein springs
Brakes: Stock disc/drum
Wheels/tyres: 15-inch Torque Thrust wheels, 275/60R15 and 275/65R15 BF Goodrich tyres
Exterior: Rear bumper modified to fit NZ plate, Carousel Red paint
Interior: Retrim kit, Grant steering wheel, Lanzar DVD player, 15-inch subwoofer, Lanzar speakers, Lanzar amp
Performance: 525hp (391kW)
Phil Collins – Owner Profile
Occupation: Vehicle restorer
Previously owned cars: SLR5000 Torana, GTR XU1 Torana, ’79 Monaro, ’61 Studebaker Lark
Dream car: This one
Why the Judge: “I wanted something different to what is available in New Zealand. It definitely had to be a classic American muscle car and I love the style of the Pontiac brand”
Build time: Two years
Length of ownership: Two years
Phil thanks: John Collins and the boys at Matamata Automotive (07 888 8103), John Ryan at Auto Electricks Otorohanga (07 873 7373), Shane Ward at CH Allen Upholstery (07 871 6199),
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Adam Croy