If you ask most automobile enthusiasts what the first true muscle car was, it is highly likely they will respond swiftly and authoritatively with three simple letters “GTO”
There are numerous examples of sedate, mid-sized cars with hot engines shoehorned in them that predate “The Goat,” but the exact formula for what a true muscle car is, was clearly established by the GTO Proof is, a host of other manufacturers rushed to package their own version of it, thus acknowledging there was a new automotive sector at hand upon the GTO’s release.
There were four distinct generations of the GTO, save for the Australian Holden Monaro-based car released in 2004. While aficionados all have their favorite body style and model year, there is little disagreement the second generation – and in particular, The Judge variant – represented the performance zenith of The Goat.
In 1971, the last year of Judge production, there were only 357 produced. Of those, only a mere 17 were convertibles, making the 1971 Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible a perfect car to review in this month’s edition of “Rare Rides!”
Before we get into the intricacies of the ’71 Judge ragtop, it behooves us to briefly explore the origins of the GTO that led up to The Judge’s development.
In the mid-1950s, Pontiac General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was given the charge to reinvigorate the then-struggling GM division and transform it from a “grandpa” brand to something more youth-oriented.
To do this, Knudsen brought in young, cutting-edge designers such as John DeLorean, Bill Collins, and Russ Gee. Under this new regime, Pontiac styling became leaner, and the cars lighter and more powerful. Successful NASCAR and NHRA campaigns completed the transformation.
That is until 1963, when GM instituted a ban on racing and set a policy that no midsized cars were to have engines larger than 330 cubic inches. This would put a serious dent in Pontiac’s resurrection as a performance brand.
However the solution came from a regular “what-if” session DeLorean, Collins, and Gee had one day. The designers were looking at a prototype 1964 Le Mans sitting on a lift. Legend has it Collins offhandedly said to DeLorean, “You know, John, it would take about 20 minutes to stick a 389 in here.” DeLorean agreed, “Let’s try it.”
And thus the GTO – a name swiped by DeLorean from the then-dominant Ferrari 250 Gran Turismo Omologato race car – was born. At the same time, so was the concept of the muscle car: a mid-sized automobile, sans frills, with a large, high-performance engine under the hood and suspension and brakes upgraded enough to make it handle.
De Lorean loaned their GTO – a LeMans coupe with a 389, topped off with a tri-power set up and a four speed – to a variety of executives at GM. It was so beloved that De Lorean often had trouble getting the car back. But, how would he get it into production with the cubic capacity limit in place?
The design team solved the problem by noting (and skirting) a loophole in the edict. The wording suggested it only applied to base engines, but no mention was made about optional powerplants.
With that, the GTO bomb was dropped on an unsuspecting America in September 1963 as an option package for the LeMans. The LeMans’ crisp styling, mated to a serious performance drivetrain was just what the public didn’t know they wanted. Within a year, nearly 32,500 cars were sold – an unqualified smash hit.
The GTO’s success was such that in 1966 Pontiac cleaved it from the LeMans and made it a standalone model in the lineup. The car received a refresh with a longer wheelbase, cutting-edge “Coke-bottle” styling and a plusher interior.
This generation continued on with mechanical and aesthetic upgrades until 1968, when a complete redesign was performed. Crisp lines and right angles gave way to curves, semi-fastback styling, and the overall dimensions and wheelbase were shortened.
Other design changes included a horizontal layout for the headlights (with concealed headlights an option, a la the Chevy Camaro), and a protruding nose section. Additionally, the “Endura” bumper, a body color closed-cell urethane foam fascia replaced a traditional chrome bumper. The public liked what it saw, and sales topped 87,600 units, which would end up being the second-best sales year for the GTO.
A significant standout of the second generation was a new model known as “The Judge.” A nod-of-the-head to a recurring comedy skit, “Here Come da Judge,” on the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In TV show. A $332 package introduced in 1969, The Judge came with Ram Air III induction, a 400 cubic-inch V8 churning out 366 horsepower, a Hurst shifter with T-handle, Rally II wheels with wider tires, a rear decklid spoiler and decals announcing this was “The Judge.”
The second generation carried on for 1969 and 1970 with interesting upgrades along the way including trim and styling changes, a 455ci high output V8 pushing 370 ponies. Other changes were suspension modifications, a dashboard operated vacuum-exhaust system, and a variety of new colors for The Judge, which had previously only been available in Carousel Red.
Despite all these changes, sales for the GTO and The Judge in particular, began to decline. To combat this, Pontiac gave the 1971 car an audacious facelift which included changes to the front fascia, a new hood and grille, and available 12-bolt open or Safe-T-Track posi-traction rear-end.
Sadly, these modifications were for naught in upping sales, as GM had instituted an edict reducing compression ratios in preparation for the coming unleaded gasoline and stricter EPA regulations. This reduced the output of the 455 HO to 335 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque. Sales plummeted, with only 10,500 GTOs moving off the assembly line, and only 357 Judge models sold.
But, Pontiac’s pain in 1971 is a modern enthusiast’s gain, as only 17 of those 357 Judge models were convertibles. This puts it on equal footing in the rarity stakes with such luminous and legendary muscle cars as the 1970-71 Hemi Cuda convertibles.
All Judge models came standard in ’71 with the Ram Air IV hood induction kit. Options on the 1971 Judge convertible included the Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 three-speed automatic transmission, a Ride and Handling Package, bold honeycomb patterned wheels, a hood-mounted tach, body-color sport mirrors, power brakes, and a “Formula” steering wheel. Interior amenities included a gauge package for the dashboard, air conditioning, power locks and windows, a floor console, AM radio, and an 8-track tape player.
A mean, green machine. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)Despite the compression-ratio reduction and the attendant drop in horsepower, Motor Trend nonetheless wrestled a 1971 Judge four-speed to a 6.1-second 0 to 60 time, and a quarter-mile acceleration time of 13.4 seconds at 102 mph. Still heady stuff for 1971.
Owing to its muscly looks, potent drivetrain and serious rarity, 1971 GTO Judge convertibles push multi-six-figure sums at auction. Sadly, most of the remaining ones rarely see the light of day outside of occasional car shows, as their value is too great to routinely drive. Thank goodness for Street Muscle Magazine, which brings you the likes of these cars in all their glory! See you next month.