The start of the classic "muscle car" era is often dated as the moment the 1964 Pontiac GTO went on sale. Hey, it's as good a date as any, but it's not as if Pontiac's "Goat" was anything particularly original. The American love affair with V8 engines was already at least 32 years old (back to when the 1932 Ford, the first affordable V8, was introduced), and midsize V8-powered cars were available from every domestic manufacturer.
But what the GTO had was attitude — a bigger V8, hood scoops (phony ones), the rumble of dual exhausts, a Hurst shifter, racy trim and a name stolen from Ferrari. Not just any Ferrari name either, but that of what many consider the greatest Ferrari of them all, the 250 GTO. Those three vaunted letters stood for "Gran Turismo Omologato," which translated means "Grand Touring Homologation." In other words, the Ferrari GTO was produced only so that Ferrari could race in a "production" GT class, which the GTO dominated. Naturally, the Ferraristi were up in arms about an American carmaker giving a midsize coupe with no pedigree the same name as their legendary sports car. So the Pontiac GTO was arrogant, and it would remain so throughout its 11-year first life.
The 1969 GTO was a mildly restyled '68 with a new grille texture, deletion of the familiar GTO fender badge and some interior refinements. "Interiors show 'safety-mindedness,' meaning there's more padding on the dash and less wood trim on the GTO," Hot Rod reported. "Two Ram Air options are offered for GTOs. One is the conventional pre-'69 hood scoop-fed fresh air system, now called Ram Air III. The Ram Air IV option — new in '69 — has intakes in both the grille and hood. Hood inlets on Ram Air GTOs and Firebirds have a cable-operated valve to allow closing the outside feed in the event of bad weather. A new version of the GTO makes its debut and is aimed for the 'economy' supercar market, first entered in '68 by Plymouth. The new thin-pillar coupe has all the regular GTO suspension and performance equipment plus Ram Air in standard form. A wide horizontal rear deck spoiler sets the car off, and the first two thousand editions were painted "Carousel Red," which was GM-speak for a special orange color."
What Hot Rod didn't know at the time was that the "new version" of the GTO they described would eventually appear as "The Judge." Though originally intended as a budget machine to take on Plymouth's Road Runner, by the time it showed up in showrooms in January 1969, it was a more expensive and visually aggressive GTO. Named after Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Here Comes The Judge" skit on TV's Laugh-In, The Judge was a parody of the muscle car overdecorated with stripes, spoiler, blacked-out grille and goofy "The Judge" fender decals. At the time, it was often derided as cartoonish — but there were a lot of cartoonish muscle cars being made back then. And with the Ram Air III, 366-hp 400 V8 standard, at least there was some performance aboard to back up the visual silliness.
From a performance standpoint, the best news for '69 was that new "Ram Air IV" version of the 400. At 370 hp, the Ram Air IV had special heads with round exhaust ports, an aluminum intake manifold and a special cam. It was the most powerful engine yet put into a GTO and that makes it, by far, the most collectible of all '69 GTOs. Only 700 '69 GTO coupes were built with the Ram Air IV option, and only 297 Judge coupes were so equipped. For real rarity, look to the drop tops; a mere 59 GTO convertibles were lucky enough to carry the Ram Air IV option during the '69 model year, and just five (FIVE!) Ram Air IV Judge convertibles were built.
Though the Ram Air IV option was rare, the '69 GTO itself wasn't. A total of 72,287 '69 GTOs were built, with 58,126 of those being hardtops, 7,328 of them convertibles, 6,725 Judge hardtops and 108 Judge convertibles.The 1969 model did not have the side vent windows, underwent a slight grille and taillight revision, the ignition key was moved from the dashboard to the steering column (which locked the steering wheel when the key was removed, a Federal requirement installed one year ahead of schedule), and the gauge faces changed from steel blue to black. In addition, the rear quarter-panel mounted side marker lamps changed from a red lens shaped like the Pontiac "V" crest to one shaped like the broad GTO badge. Front outboard headrests were made standard equipment on all GTOs built after January 1, 1969.
The previous economy engine and standard 350 hp 400 CID V8 remained, while the 360 hp 400 HO was upgraded to the Ram Air III, rated at 366 hp at 5,100 rpm. The top option was the 370 hp Ram Air IV, which featured special header-like high-flow exhaust manifolds, high-flow cylinder heads, a specific high-rise aluminum intake manifold, larger Rochester QuadraJet four-barrel carburetor, high-lift/long-duration camshaft, plus various internal components capable of withstanding higher engine speeds and power output. Unlike the big-block Chevy and Hemi motors, the Ram Air IV utilized hydraulic lifters.
By this time, the gross power ratings of both Ram Air engines were highly suspect, bearing less relationship to developed power and more to an internal GM policy limiting all cars except the Corvette to no more than one advertised horsepower per 10 lb (4.5 kg) of curb weight. The higher-revving Ram Air IV's advertised power peak was actually listed at 5,000 rpm—100 rpm lower than the less-powerful Ram Air III.
The Ram Air V was introduced in 1969. It was a special 400 block with newly designed high compression tunnel port heads and a special high rise intake manifold. A prototype GTO so equipped could go 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds, and the quarter-mile time was 11.5 seconds at 123 mph. Ram Air Vs were not installed in GTOs at the factory; it was available only as an "over-the-counter" product, and most went to Pontiac racers of the time.
As originally conceived, the Judge was to be a low-cost GTO, stripped of some gimmicks to make it competitive with the Plymouth Road Runner. During its development, however, it was decided to make it the ultimate in street performance and image. The resulting package ended up being $337.02 more expensive than a standard GTO, and included the Ram Air III engine, Rally II wheels without trim rings, Hurst shifter (with a unique T-shaped handle), wider tires, various decals, and a rear spoiler. Pontiac claimed that the spoiler had some functional effect at higher speeds, producing a small but measurable down force, but it was of little value at legal speeds except for style.
The GTO was surpassed in sales both by the Chevrolet Chevelle SS396 and the Plymouth Road Runner, but 72,287 were sold during the 1969 model year, with 6,833 of them being The Judge.