When he got his glorious 1970 GTO Judge convertible back on the road five years ago, Lance Tarnutzer had to take a quick detour and visit somebody on the way home.
“I did stop off at the cemetery on the way home to say hi to my dad, so that was nice,” recalls Tarnutzer, a well-known car collector and enthusiast from Lake Mills, Wis. “He liked this car a lot. He had a lot of cars over the years, but this and his ’58 Edsel were his go-to cars in the summertime. It always ran good and always started. He could depend on it and he’d drive it to work in the summer, like I’m doing now [laughs].”
Lance’s father Dick was famous for his love of cars and his fabulous collection, which eventually morphed into the Dells Auto Museum — an attraction in the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells from 1977 until it closed in 2007. Lance shared his father’s affinity for cars and helped him manage his huge fleet, which he says at one time numbered over 400.
In 1999, however, a fire broke out in a storage facility that held a large number of cars from the collection, and scores of cars were damaged or destroyed. The fabulous green convertible Judge was in the building that day, but it survived enough to be salvageable, so Dick hung onto it and planned to have it restored.
“This was tops on his list to restore this car. It went to the restoration shop in 2001. And from 2001 to 2017 it got done, but it didn’t get done, if you know what I mean,” Lance says. “From ’01 to ’17, it sat under a car cover. It was in the body shop for 3 or 4 years, and then it came home and sat.”
Dick passed away from cancer in 2011, but his dream of having the 1970 Judge returned to its former glory didn’t pass with him. Lance eventually got the family’s restoration guy, Steve Hoeft, to get serious about finishing the lengthy rescue project. After all, he had been there in the beginning when Dick bought the car to begin with back in 1981.
“For some reason, I didn’t go along that time,” Lance says. “I don’t know why, but Steve is a big Pontiac guy and he went along with my dad to look at the car and verify everything.”
“It was advertised in [a Milwaukee newspaper], and the gentleman was trying to start a restaurant and he needed some money to put in the restaurant…so he sold the car to my father for $7,500. Now he calls me back trying to buy the car back because of course he misses it, which anybody would.”
More than 20 years after that purchase, Hoeft was tasked by Dick with trying to revive the GTO after the fire. It took 16 years, and Dick never got to see the car fully restored, but Lance knows it was worth the effort.
“I had tried for a number of years to get Steve to work on it for me, but he had a full-time job and was just busy. Then he retired and called me and said, ‘OK, I need something to keep me busy,’” Lance notes. “The car wasn’t totally burned up like a lot of the other cars, but it needed a total restoration. The tub and the quarters were OK. And the doors, they were OK. The front fenders, hood, trunk lid — they all had to be replaced. We bought two GTO parts cars just for that. And of course all the wiring in the dash. The dash was remade out in California. We sent it to them for that. It was a rust-free shell and I didn’t want to remove the data tag and put it in another shell, because that’s hard to do… But it was a rust-free car, and we were able to use the tub. And it’s still the original motor, transmission, rear end. All those parts were original to the car. But everything in the interior had to be replaced.”
The GTO Judge was already a full-blown muscle rock star by the time the second round of cars hit the streets for the 1970 model year. The GTO had been around since 1964 and was considered by many as the first and quintessential muscle car, but the Judge took things to another level at Pontiac when it launched for 1969. As Car Life magazine put it, “Pontiac inspired the supercar for this generation . . . and The Judge is one of the best.”
Pontiac Motor Division’s release of the “The Judge” option package was made on Dec. 19, 1968. At first, “The Judge” came only in bright orange with tri-color striping, but it was later made available in the full range of colors. Special standard features of the Judge package included a blacked-out radiator grille, Rally II wheels (minus bright trim rings), functional hood scoops and “The Judge” decals on the sides of the front fenders and “Ram Air” decals on the hood scoops. At the rear of the car there was a 60-inch-wide “floating” deck lid airfoil with a “The Judge” decal emblem on the upper right-hand surface.
GTO styling was shared with the LeMans with additional standard equipment features including a 400-cid/350-hp V-8, dual exhaust, 3.55:1 rear axle ratio, heavy-duty clutch, three-speed gearbox with floor shifter, Power-Flex cooling fan, sports-type springs and shock absorbers, redline wide-oval tires, carpeting, Deluxe steering wheel and choice of bucket or notchback seats. A cross-hatched grille insert with horizontal divider bars appeared and hidden headlights were standard. GTO lettering was seen on the left-hand grille, right-hand side of deck lid and behind the front wheel openings. Tail lamps were no longer completely surrounded by bumpers and carried lenses with bright metal trim moldings. Rear side marker lamps were of a shape inspired by the GTO shield instead of the triangular type used on Tempests.
The standard Judge engine was the Pontiac 400-cid/366-hp Ram Air III V-8. It came linked to a three-speed manual transmission with a floor-mounted Hurst T-handle shifter and a 3.55:1 rear axle. In the Judge’s rookie of season of 1969, a total of 8,491 GTOs and Judges were sold with this engine and only 362 of them were convertibles. The more powerful 400-cid/370-hp Ram Air IV engine was installed in 759 cars in the same two lines and 59 of these cars were convertibles.
There were some significant styling changes to the GTO for 1970, including smaller, split oval grilles, dual rectangular headlight housings (with round lenses) and creased body sides. The hood had twin air scoops and a GTO nameplate was seen on the left-hand grille. The rear end also sported flared fenders and the exhaust pipes exited through a valance panel below the rear bumper.
Standard hardware for the two GTOs included: front bucket seats, a padded dashboard, a functional air-scoop with a handle under the dash for manual control, a heavy-duty clutch, sports-type springs and shock absorbers, courtesy lights, a dual exhaust system, a 350-hp V-8, a heavy-duty three-speed transmission with floor-mounted gear shifter and G78-14 fiberglass-belted tires. The “Goat” featured a total Endura nosepiece without a metal bumper and had cleaner styling than other Tempests.
The 1970 GTO engines had several innovations, including special spherical-wedge cylinder heads and a computer-perfected camshaft design. Ram Air III engines with 366 hp were used in 1,302 hardtops and 114 convertibles with stick shifts and 3,054 hardtops and 174 convertibles with Turbo Hydra-Matics. Ram Air IV engines with 370 hp were used in 140 hardtops and 13 convertibles with stick shifts and 627 hardtops and 24 convertibles with Turbo Hydra-Matic. Also available in non-Judges was a 455-cid/360-hp V-8. This engine was installed in 2,227 stick-shift cars (241 ragtops) and 1,919 cars with Turbo Hydra-Matics (including 158 ragtops).
A 1970 GTO hardtop with the 400-cid/366-hp V-8 did 0-to-60 mph in 6 seconds flat and covered the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds. With a 455-cid/360-hp V-8 the same model was actually slower, requiring 6.6 seconds for the 0-to-60 run and 14.8 seconds to cover the quarter mile. Car and Driver tested a 455-cid GTO coupe in its January 1970 issue. The car had a four-speed manual gearbox and 3.31:1 rear axle. The chart accompanying the article showed a 6.6-second 0 to 60-mph time and a quarter-mile run in 15 seconds at 96.5 mph.
For 1970, the Code 332-WT1 Judge option cost an extra $337 over base model price. It included the 400-cid RAM AIR V-8; Rally II wheels less trim rings; G70-14 fiberglass blackwall tires; rear deck air foil; side stripes; Judge stripes and decals; black textured grilles; and T-handle shifters (on cars with manual gearboxes).
A total of 3,629 Judge hardtops left the Pontiac assembly lines for 1970, but only 168 convertible Judges were made, marking Tarnutzer’s Pepper Green ragtop as a very rare prize.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
If he didn’t know them earlier, Lance certainly now appreciates all the same things his dad probably appreciated about the ’70 GTO convertible when he picked up the car and started driving it back in ’81. Sure, it’s a convertible, and that’s always cool in the summertime. But there is a lot more to its appeal than the ragtop.
“The drivability of it is phenomenal,” he says. “You can go cruise 70 mph on the interstate all day, but you better have some money in your pocket for gas. But I just love the way it drives. It shifts so easily. It starts up every time you hit the key. It’s just a great car.”
“It’s actually a pretty plain car. It’s got power steering, power brakes, AM radio. No air conditioning. No power windows. It’s came with the four-speed and 400 of course, and it was a convertible, and they only made the 168 Judge convertibles. They didn’t make many. People weren’t looking for a convertible. There are a lot more Judge hardtops than convertibles.”
The 366 hp under the scooped hood is pretty fun, too, although Tarnutzer prefers to drive the Judge more like the senior citizen that it is. He says his dad probably wouldn’t be so kind to it.
“He was a 75-year-old 16-year old driving cars a lot of times, squealing tires,” he laughs. “For him, this was just a nice-driving car. He didn’t have to do anything to it. He was just a muscle car guy and just a general car guy and he was just looking for something to drive in the summer. I don’t think the fact that it was a Judge and it was really rare … that might have factored into it to some degree, but it was a 400 four-speed, and that tripped his trigger, and it could go fast and squeal the tires.”
These days, Lance shares the fun of his sizable collection with his own son and fellow car nut, also named Lance. Junior may wind up with a bunch of the old man’s cars someday, but maybe not the green Judge.
“They are all gonna be mine until I can’t drive them anymore,” he jokes. “But I think daughter No. 3 Kasey has her fingers on this one.”
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