Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Even if it wasn’t super rare and didn’t carry a champion’s pedigree, Steve DeMars’ 1970 Pontiac GTO “The Judge” convertible would still be ultra-cool.
It’s just hard not to be impressed with the immaculate “triple-black” ragtop and its perfect paint, perfect chrome and that ominous 366-horse, 400-cube Ram Air III engine living under the hood.
The fact that the car is nationally known and decorated and one the few ’70 GTO convertibles you’ll ever find with factory air-conditioning makes it the total package. And yes, it drives great, too.
DeMars has had to show some restraint in the 17 years he’s owned the car. He’s only put 4,000 miles on the GTO during that time — the odometer now shows 67,000-plus miles — but he didn’t buy the car with the intention of driving it much, anyway. The black Pontiac was simply one of those “Holy Grail” cars that a hard-core GTO enthusiast Demars couldn’t pass up when he had a chance to own it.
“This was a no-brainer. As soon as we knew that [the previous owner] wanted to get rid of it, it was get my semi there and get it picked up and get it back here,” said DeMars, a resident of tiny North Freedom, Wis. “It was in December. We have a movie of it coming down the road and a movie of it coming off the truck. There was snow on the ground and it couldn’t be driven up here, it had to be hauled.
“I bought it basically just to have it and because I knew it was very rare. I didn’t know how much I would really to drive it, and since then I haven’t really driven it much. It’s been shown more than anything, although it has been in a few weddings. It was in a wedding just recently up here this summer.”
The Starlight Black GTO has traveled full circle in its four-plus decades of life. It began as a bit of a show piece for a Tennessee car dealership, became transportation for many years for its first owner — a woman — and was eventually taken apart and put back together again as a near-perfect specimen. The car was originally delivered to Benton Pontiac-Buick in Cleveland, Tenn., with a fully loaded window sticker and an asking price of $4,955.98. The woman who bought it probably had no idea that she was buying an unusual muscle car when she signed her name on the title, but she apparently liked the car because she kept it until 1990.
“Her husband finally passed away and she was too elderly to really do anything with it, and a man named John Karnes knew it and John just kept talking to her about getting a hold of it so he could restore it,” DeMars said. “And when he did, he kept a log on it and the log has everything about what parts he sent where and what he did. Ninety percent of the parts on this car were taken off and restored and put right back on the car. Very few parts were purchased.
“It was a little rough. The lower back quarter had some rust and they had to pull that out and re-do that. At one time, for some reason they went and put a radio antenna on the car and that hadn’t come from the factory. John Karnes had taken that off and they had to weld that area shut. Mainly, the back quarter was the worst area on the car. They did a rotisserie (restoration) on the car and pretty much took everything off the frame and put everything on it. They had a person in Cleveland who did the motor. It was all done by friends of his, actually, down in Tennessee.”
The car made its first big splash on the national scene, oddly enough, when it was named “Best in Show” at the 1994 Corvette Nationals. By then, DeMars had already heard about the car and was keeping tabs on it.
“1991 was when I started knowing about the car, but 1994 was the first time I ever saw it,” he said. “I had a friend down in Cleveland, Tenn., who told me about it and I had another friend down in Knoxville, Tenn., who owned a lot of Corvettes … and this car, was shown at the Corvette Nationals in 1994, and it took Best of Show in the Nationals, against Corvettes, and also against a car that was a 1994 (winner) at the GTO Nationals. That car was a ’71, and it was shown against that ’71 and beat that ’71 there also.
“That’s how I got to know about the car. I belong to the GTO national club [GTO Association of America] and at that point I just kind of started following it around and watching at. Then the gentleman who owned the car, John Karnes, he decided that he wanted to adopt some children from overseas and he adopted two girls and he decided he needed the money and needed to get rid of the car, and that’s how I got it. He traded the kids for cars.
“I ended up going down and getting the car and having it shipped up here. Him and I have been friends and kept close all these years. I showed it at Nationals in 2001 and got silver with it in Minnesota, and in 2002 I re-showed it out in Denver, Col., and got a gold there. It was restored in 1990 and it’s won trophies all over the place.”
The car was apparently one of only five black convertibles with air conditioning, but just being a The Judge ragtop makes it scarce. Pontiac cranked out more than 40,149 GTOs for the 1970 model year, but only 168 of those were The Judge convertibles. The Ram Air III V-8 wasn’t exactly plentiful, either. Only 288 of the GTO ragtops — base GTOs and Judges combined — had that engine option. DeMars’ convertible has the Ram Air III hooked to a Turbo Hudra-Matic 400.
The Judge option package was once again available for the GTO two-door hardtop and the GTO convertible. It was officially called the code 332-WT1 accessory group and included the 400-cid/366-hp Ram Air V-8, Rally II wheels less bright trim rings, G70-14 black sidewall fiberglass-belted tires, a T-handle-shifted manual gearbox, a rear deck lid airfoil, specific body side stripes, “The Judge” body decals and stripes and a black-textured radiator grille.
The Judges were $300-$400 more than the regular GTOs, but they were still a relative bargain in the muscle car world. The 366-hp engine package added $337.02 to the price of the cars that it was ordered for, regardless of whether the car was a hardtop or a ragtop. That put the base price of a hardtop with “The Judge” equipment at about $3,604.02, although there may have been some mandatory options that added a little more to that. Prices on the convertible version started at about $3,829.02.
Buyers who wanted to get their GTO Judge with a more powerful Ram Air IV engine had to shell out $558.20 extra. In addition, Ram Air IV cars could only be built with either a three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission or a four-speed manual gear box.
The Judges could be ordered in all the regular GTO colors, or a special Orbit Orange that was made available at midyear. Depending on the base color, the special judge graphics were either trimmed in green, yellow and white striping; blue, orange and pink; or yellow, blue and red. Starlight Black cars like Demars’ got the yellow-blue-red treatment. There were some variations in the look of the rear spoilers. Some were body color, some were black and some had striping. Judge decals were found behind the front wheel openings and on the trunk lid.
The front end featured twin side-by-side headlights with rounded lenses set back from the protruding Endura rubber nose. In back, taillights were sunken into the wrap-around bumper.
Standard equipment included bucket seats, padded dash, heavy-duty clutch, deluxe steering wheel, dual exhausts, Rally II wheels, a three-speed manual transmission with a T-handle shifter and a new rear sway bar. Of course, the rear deck foil and special decals and “eyebrow” markings on the fenders were an important part of the package, too.
DeMars is a GTO buff — he also owns a 1971 Judge hardtop — has been showing his black convertible since he’s owned it, and he’s never seen another car like it. “There were only 168 convertibles made and of all the car shows, national shows, that I’ve been to, this is the only black one we’ve ever run into,” he said. “I know where there was one. It was in Ohio, I’m not sure if it’s still there, and at one time I had an opportunity to buy that one, but that was the same year that this one was going to get sold, so I held off on that one.
“Five of them were triple-black with air conditioning, but we haven’t found another one yet. People will say they know where one is, but we’ve never seen one… In Denver when they were judging it, the judge there said, ‘This is very, very rare. I’ve never seen anything like this, with air conditioning in a convertible.’ Then another judge came walking over and goes, ‘What’s up with this thing?’ and the first guy said, ‘This is about as rare as you’re ever going to see.’”
Other than keeping the car clean and show-ready, DeMars has done very little to The Judge. He’s tweaked a few things to make them “correct” in the eyes of show judges, but beyond that he’s mainly tried to preserve the Pontiac and avoid any mishaps. He knows that plenty of other Pontiac and muscle car buffs know about the car, and he doesn’t want to be the one to bang it up. “We try to be very careful with it,” Demars chuckled. “It’s really too expensive to drive much.
“It’s got a little history behind it… It’s not a car that people don’t know about.”
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