LAST EDITED ON Apr-05-19 AT 11:12 PM (EDT)
Actually, before I can tell you about my Tempest, I have to tell you about another car, and before I can do either one, a little history lesson is in order.
In the early 1960s, a team of engineers under Lee Iacocca (at that time general manager of Ford Motor Company's eponymous Ford Division) developed a sports car based on the chassis of the Falcon, Ford's compact passenger car of the era ("compact" being a relative term in the 1960s). This vehicle, which was ultimately christened the Mustang and launched midway through the 1964 model year, was a rampaging runaway success and immediately became one of the iconic mid-century American automobiles.
Meanwhile, over at General Motors, the Pontiac Motor Division had an image problem. In GM's original tiered-branding concept, Pontiacs were for people who wanted something a little nicer than a Chevrolet, but couldn't afford an Oldsmobile (which were for people who wanted a nice car, but couldn't afford a Buick, which were for people who wanted a luxury car, but couldn't afford a Cadillac). As it turned out, five gradations were really more than was needed, and Pontiac had become a sort of orphan marque with an unappealing image to the younger demographic that all the car companies were eyeing—they were basically seen as cheap cars for old people.
Enter a young engineer-cum-executive by the name of John DeLorean, of whom you may have heard in connection with his later adventures in unsuccessful sports car manufacturing and cocaine distribution. DeLorean was one of the rising stars of GM circa 1960, where he'd been working for Pontiac since 1956. He wanted to reposition Pontiac as GM's fun, sporty division, to tap into that same youth same market Ford was eyeing with the Mustang, and the idea he had for doing so was broadly similar: produce a high-performance variant of one of Pontiac's existing cars.
Unlike the Mustang, though, the car resulting from DeLorean's idea wasn't a whole new model. Instead, when the GTO debuted (also in 1964), it was an option package for the Pontiac Tempest, the division's mid-size passenger car. Basically, the Tempest GTO was a Tempest with a big ol' high-horsepower truck motor in it and no other modifications (apart from cosmetics). This became a standard pattern for muscle cars in the mid-'60s, and often produced fairly terrifying cars, since they had the same suspension, brakes, steering gear etc. as normal everyday sedans and anywhere from twice to four times as much horsepower.
Mind you, the '64 Tempest GTO was fairly tame by the standards of what would follow. The most powerful one you could get that year was rated to have 380 horsepower, which was pocket change by the standards of a few years later.
Anyway, the funniest thing about the GTO to those familiar with the car is that its name has no meaning. DeLorean named it after the Ferrari 250 GTO, which was a famous and successful race car in Europe. In that car's name, "GTO" stands for Gran Turismo Omologato, which sounds exotic and exciting but really just means the car was homologated (i.e., certified by the Fédération International de l'Automobile, which sanctions most European motorsports) for racing in the Grand Touring category. The Pontiac was neither a Grand Touring car nor homologated by any organization for any purpose, but they called it the GTO anyway.
It so happens that the GTO, in its mid- and especially late-decade guises, is one of my father's favorite muscle cars from the era (although not his absolute favorite; that would be the Chevrolet Chevelle SS396 from 1968, if you're curious). This would come into play one day in around 1988, when Dad and I were driving on one of the backroads of this part of Maine on some errand or another and passed a used car dealership.
Well, I say "used car dealership," what it really was is, a guy had six or seven ~20-year-old cars in his yard and put up a sign. You used to see this kind of thing on Maine backroads a lot. Not as much any more, presumably because 20-year-old cars in 2019 are nowhere near as collectible as 20-year-old cars in 1988 were, and the cars from that same era have been priced out of the backyard-trade-jockey market by now, but back then it was definitely a thing. These places were usually pretty sketchy, and Dad tried to avoid them whenever possible, because he hated dealing with the kind of guy who usually ran them—but this one had one of those 1968 Chevelles, so we stopped to take a look.
It wasn't an SS, so Dad's interest fairly quickly waned, but by then the proprietor had spotted us and come out for a chat. Dude was exactly as expected, too, straight out of Central Casting—oily T-shirt, belt buckle advertising a brand of beer, ballcap advertising a brand of chewing tobacco. In my memory, he was actually chewing chewing tobacco while talking with us.
But: he had one of these.
Fig. A All rise...
That is a 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge, or—much as with the similarly-named firearm—technically a 1969 Pontiac GTO The Judge. This was not named in an ironic nod to the professionals Pontiac's customers hypothetically spent a lot of time dealing with in traffic court, but in fact after, of all things, a comedy routine from a television show that was popular when they were made, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. I have no idea what the joke was, except that the punch line was "Here come the Judge!" and was evidently so funny that GM figured a reference to same would sell a special even-higher-performance edition of the GTO in 1969 and 1970.
Apart from those wacky graphics (including a similar "The Judge" badge on the glove compartment door inside) and the wing on the trunk (which did nothing except carry another "The Judge" decal), the Judge package included special wheels, a unique shifter handle for the transmission, and the Ram Air III 400-cubic-inch V8 engine (hence those nostrils on the hood). This engine claimed to develop 366 horsepower, but GM had a habit of lying about that kind of thing to make its products cause less panic among insurance underwriters; the big-block Pontiac V8 was well capable of making one or more horsepower per cubic inch of displacement by then.
Oh yeah, also: about half of them that year were painted that color, which is called—I'm not kidding—Carousel Red. I know, I know it isn't red. But that's what they called it.
(The following year, GTOs were also offered in a color that was obviously yellow and was called Orbit Orange. No, I don't get it either.)
Anyway, Dad asked the guy (hereinafter Guy) how much he wanted for the GTO. Guy hemmed and hawed, well, that's a special edition you know, they didn't make very many of 'em, be worth a lot of money in a few years (ed. note he was right about that part), buuuut it's not really runnin' right now, probably nothin' serious but I ain't really had time to get into it, and so on, and so forth, and finally came up with a number. Dad replied with a significantly smaller number, and half an hour or so of what I hope was the most tedious conversation I will ever have to witness ensued.
Finally, they settled on a price, Dad said he'd need a day or so to get the cash together, and Guy said oh listen, there's one more thing, I'm kinda still waiting for my dealer license to come from the state so you're technically gonna have to buy the car from... I forget, his brother, or brother-in-law, or some equally dodgy thing. (In Maine, a person can sell... it's either no more than five, or fewer than five, cars before having to get and pay for a license as a used car dealer.)
If you're thinking we should have just called the whole thing off and gone home at that point, you're absolutely right, but, well, this wouldn't be a very good story if we had done that. And anyway, that particular little bureaucratic dodge wasn't the good part; it actually went down as advertised, no problems, and we had ourselves a '69 GTO.
That didn't run.
So, we spent the summer rebuilding the engine, like you do. And in the process we discovered that the car's body wasn't really as straight as it looked, and was in fact pretty rusty in a few places, and the transmission that came in it wasn't original, and... so... on, as Carl Sagan might have put it. Still, one makes do with the situation one has, right, and I have vague memories of the car actually running for a little while at the end of the summer. A very little while.
That winter, Dad decided the bodywork had to be addressed and took the car completely apart. In the process, he started finding numbers. This was long before you could look all that stuff up on the Internet in an instant from the comfort of your own smallest room, but there were reference books in print, one of which, after developing some suspicions, Dad bought.
You've already guessed that the engine wasn't original either. It wasn't a Ram Air III, or even from a GTO; just the regular 350-horse 400 out of a 1969 Grand Prix.
At least the car itself was a real Judge and not a clone. Since most of the differences were cosmetic, that's a common scam, so common there's a joke about it in the classic car community:
In 1969, Pontiac made around 7,000 GTO Judges. Today, thanks to natural attrition, there are only 25,000 left.
Still, without an original power train, Dad rather lost interest in the project after that point. He took the Judge with him when he moved after I left Maine to chase tech jobs, but he never really worked on it again, and a few years later he sold the rolling chassis to someone who had a '69 GTO power train without a body to put it in.
Anyway, the GTO isn't the actual star of this entry, believe it or not. I'm not sure I ever drove it; that summer it was briefly working was before I had my license. I just had to tell you about it to provide context for the car that is.
I mentioned the fate of my Oldsmobile before, and noted at the time that Dad replaced it with something much less luxurious, but cooler. One day, not long after the Toronado departed, he suggested we take a drive down to the coast and look at a car he'd found for sale. The address he'd gotten was a large house in a nice neighborhood in one of the more upscale coastal towns, I forget which one now. It was the kind of house where there are no longer farm fields anywhere around, but the garage had once been a barn; it was actually bigger than the house.
A nice, elderly lady met us in the driveway and showed us into the barn. As we went, she explained that the car she was selling had been her late husband's, which he had bought new. She didn't drive at all, and so she was selling both his most recent car, which was parked near the doors in front (it was a Mercedes or some such—he was a dentist, or lawyer, or something of that sort), and his old one, which was under a cover in the back.
Now... the Barn Find is a thing in classic car circles. It's such a part of the classic car culture that it's one of the game mechanics (as it were) in the Car Mechanic Simulator games. The exciting thing about Barn Finding is that, even if (as we did in this instance) you know what kind of car you're there to see, you never know what awaits under the cover. Especially in instances where the person who wrote the ad doesn't know much about cars—it'll probably be what the ad said, or something close to it, but as for what condition it'll be in, there's really no telling. Even people who are being straight with you are often wrong about these things.
The ad we'd responded to said the car was "like new", which you always take with a very large grain of salt, but when Dad and I removed the cover from the late gentleman's old car, we discovered to our astonishment that it was true. In the summer of 1990, 22 years after its original owner drove it off the lot, his 1968 Pontiac Tempest looked like he had just taken delivery that morning. There was not a ding in the bodywork, not a fleck of rust at any of the usual trouble spots, not a split or wrinkle in the blue vinyl upholstery, not a spot on the carpet. Even the inside of the trunk, under the rug, looked like one of those old-fashioned metal roasting pans, in its original white-flecked black crackle finish.
Fig. B Illustration from a GM sales brochure, coincidentally depicting the exact color, model, and trim level of the one we found. I'm sure you can see the family resemblance to the following model year's GTO, which was, though it didn't carry the name any more, still effectively a Tempest two-door hardtop.
Closer inspection revealed that it wasn't quite original. The tires had been replaced with modern radials (which is good, because bias-ply tires aren't very nice, and 22-year-old ones wouldn't be safe at all), and at some relatively recent point the old gentleman had had the original radio replaced with a cassette deck. Overall, though, it was in amazing shape for its age and the fact that it had spent its whole life in Maine, which is traditionally not an environment where cars age gracefully.
The lady wanted $3,000 for it, which was not a lot of money for that much car. A lot of cars back in the '50s and '60s came in two- and four-door versions, and most additionally came in hardtop (pillarless) and sedan (frames around the windows) variants of same. Customarily, sedans aren't as desirable as hardtops, and two-door models are preferred over four, so a four-door sedan like the one we found would have been the least sought-after Tempest variation, but all the same, she wasn't asking anything like as much as it was worth.
She knew that, though, and she didn't care. Her husband had liked the car so much that when it reached the end of its year of regular service (he was the kind of guy who only kept a car a year—good work if you can get it!), he put it away in the back of the barn and kept it while a succession of more expensive items passed through the front bay, and sometimes he'd take it out for a cruise on a nice weekend day. She liked the thought of it going to someone it would make as happy as that.
"And anyway," she mused over tea (she really offered us tea), "it ought to be used, don't you think."
Well, over the next few years, I did that. I drove it to school, to Bangor, even took it to Worcester for a while when I lived down there between my time at WPI and when I moved back for (what I thought was) good in '94. I spent many happy hours behind that big ol' chrome nose piece.
The Tempest was a silly car. I freely admit that. Like all V8-powered cars of the '60s, it got pretty poor gas mileage, but unlike its cousin the GTO, it wasn't terribly powerful. It had the same big-block V8 as the GTOs, but with a shorter stroke that reduced the displacement to 350 cubic inches, and tuned down for much smoother and quieter operation, so it only (heh, "only") had about 300 horsepower. It also had GM's venerable two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, which was... not one of the paragons of power motoring, let us say.
Still, the Powerglide was fun if you handled it right. One of my favorite things to do was to come to a complete stop at the top of the entrance ramp to I-95 southbound (when it wouldn't inconvenience other motorists, which was pretty much always, Exit 237 was not one of the Interstate's hubs of activity), let the car settle, and then put the accelerator flat to the floor.
This was sort of like firing a flintlock rifle, in that for a second or so, nothing happened. There would be a palpable silent pause while the throttle telegraphed All Ahead Flank down to the engine room and the car girded its loins, and then the Powerglide would drop down into low, the four-barrel carb would open up, and with a sudden massive jump of RPM the car would lean back and start down the ramp. It felt like incredible acceleration, and with the engine roaring away WAAAAAAAAA in low gear it sounded like it too, but... it wasn't. When the car reached the bottom of the entrance ramp, it would be going maybe 45, 50 miles per hour. :)
It also needed leaded gasoline, which was no longer available for sale by then. One of the oddities of cars that took what used to be called regular gas and those that took unleaded was that neither could survive on the other fuel. Cars that needed unleaded had catalytic converters, which would be ruined by the lead (this was the real reason it was phased out, not because it's toxic), while cars that took regular had valve seats that depended on the traces of lead in the exhaust to seal properly, and would eventually ruin their exhaust valves. So, every time I filled up (which was often), I had to dump in a little bottle of tetraethyl lead additive, which was still sold in gas stations along with the oil and windshield washer fluid and stuff into at least the mid-'90s.
1968 was an odd sort of transitional year for the Tempest. In 1967, they had a different body shape, much squarer and stodgier, and it acquired its swoopy "coke bottle" body in '68, but it still had the ignition on the dash and GM's original, ridiculous attempt at a shoulder belt system. In 1968, the shoulder belt was a completely separate belt from the lap belt, and it was of fixed length where it attached to the body shell above the door. To adjust it, you had the same sort of sliding buckle on the seat end as the lap belt, so to buckle up, you had to get in, match up the lap belt and its buckle, buckle it, pull it snug, then do the same with the shoulder belt.
The manual said not to make the shoulder belt completely snug—if you did, you wouldn't be able to reach any of the controls on the dash and it would be really uncomfortable. Instead, you were supposed to leave enough slack in it to put your fist edge-on between the center of your chest and the belt. The theory was that if you crashed, that wouldn't be far enough to accelerate to a speed that would cause the shoulder belt to cut you in half. It was not the most comforting restraint system the world has ever known, but I suppose it beat not having a shoulder belt at all, especially for the driver.
(I think 1968 was also the last year that the hood release was on the outside of the car. Yes, you heard me. On the outside. Before 1969, if you had a GM car, anyone could just walk up to it, pop the hood, and have a look at your engine. Or take things off it. Or whatever. Not that anyone ever locked their cars anyway back then. The way the dash-mounted ignition locks used to work, you could unlock the ignition with the key, then take the key out of the ignition and just use the switch to turn the car on and off, forever, without ever locking it back up again. People used to forget where their car keys even were until they sold the cars and had to hand the keys over to the new owners.)
I never got a moving violation in the Tempest either, but it does hold the distinction of having been the only one of my cars ever to have a search warrant served upon it. I was out driving around aimlessly one evening with my friend Mike, listening to music and bullshitting about random stuff (probably largely to do with the BattleTech game we were in), when we noticed a police car with its lights on heading into the cul-de-sac we were just coming out of. An hour or so later, in another part of town, we got pulled over, and it went very oddly. After pulling us over, the cop didn't get out of his car. We just sat there, by the side of the road, in a blue disco light show, for a few minutes, until the other town police car arrived.
And the area's state trooper.
And another state trooper.
At which point they all came to my window. While one of the local cops was looking over the paperwork I bemusedly forked over, the other one asked, "What were you doing up by $STREET_NAME earlier?"
"Just driving around."
"Do you know $PERSON_NAME?" (A fellow member of the Stearns High School Class of 1991, as it happened.)
"Just to nod to in the hall."
(This was not strictly true. We were old enemies, dating back to a beef over canned pudding in the first grade, but we hadn't interacted for probably 10 years. By that point, we didn't even nod to each other in the hall. I suspected it wouldn't be wise to get into that level of detail right then, though.)
"His house was burglarized this evening, just before you were seen driving out of the street he lives on," the cop said. "I'm going to have to look in your trunk."
Did you ever have one of those moments where you knew you were about to do something that was going to complicate your life, but all you could do was sit there and watch yourself do it?
I had one of those moments then, as, as much to my surprise as the officer's, I heard my voice ask, "Have you got a warrant?"
"... Do I need one?" the officer asked after a moment's silence.
No, I thought, but the sounds my face emitted were something along the lines of, "I guess that depends on how solid you think your probable cause is."
We, uh, may have just covered all that sort of thing in Government class with Mr. Niles.
So now all four of the cops in town are convinced I'm a smartass and a would-be lawyer as well as a probable burglar of elementary-school nemeses' homes. Champion!
They let us go, after which Mike couldn't decide whether to be furious or buy me a pizza just for the sheer gall of it.
The next day was a Monday, and just after lunch, as I was sitting in Mr. Dubois's math class trying not to lapse into food coma, in comes the cop from the night before to serve a search warrant on the car. I figured that just about took the biscuit. Not only did he actually go to a judge (in Bangor, I assume, since there was only one in Millinocket one day a month in those days) and get a warrant, he then chose to serve it right in the middle of class, and he evidently thinks I'm so stupid that I would burglarize a house, get caught, have an argument with the cops about their right to search my vehicle, and then leave the loot in the car.
So, down we went to the school parking lot, to the space I always parked in (right at the end of the fence, next to the gate to the tennis courts), and I handed the officer my keys and stood well back while he perused the contents of the Tempest's trunk. Here's what he found:
1) The spare tire.
2) The jack and tire iron.
3) A milk crate containing what my father considered the essential supplies for vintage motoring: a quart of oil, a half-gallon of mixed coolant, booster cables, and a spare bottle of tetraethyl lead.
4) A large piece of blue fabric, which the officer now hoisted out and turned to me, holding it out suspiciously.
"What's this?" he demanded.
"It's a car cover," I told him.
"Why isn't it on the car?" he wanted to know.
Is that relevant to your inquiry? I thought, but for once was able to make my face say something reasonable, like, "I only put it on if it's going to be outside overnight."
The trunk, although large enough to contain the furnishings for a modest apartment and/or at least one dead body rolled up in a rug, contained nothing else. I was informed that I was free to go for the moment, but should not consider leaving town until further notice, and sent back to class.
(The coda to all this is that they called the house and talked to my father that evening, and he did so much yelling at such a sustained volume that the matter was thenceforth dropped. I don't know if they ever did find out who robbed my old foe's house, but it wasn't me. And besides, even if I were so gauche as to burglarize a schoolmate's house, I would like to think that I'm at least clever enough to use a getaway car a little less distinctive than my own 1968 Pontiac Tempest.)
A lot of my car stories have sad endings, and unfortunately the Tempest's is no exception. A couple of years later, when I was back from Worcester, my mother asked me to sell it to her elderly landlady. The car was not for sale, and I told her so, but she pleaded with me: the lady's ancient Plymouth station wagon had breathed its last, and she couldn't get to grips with anything more modern. Finally she promised that if I sold her landlady the car, I could get it back when she gave up driving, which would surely be within only a few years. In my memory, Mom even promised to pay for its recovery herself if I didn't have the cash when the time came, although she insists I'm making that part up nowadays.
Realizing I would get no peace, I relented and let it go for what we'd paid for it, then used the money to buy an old VW Beetle. Life took me elsewhere, and over the next few years I would check in on the Tempest from time to time. Every time, I was assured that the landlady was taking good care of it, remembered the arrangement, and would be ready to sell it back any day now, as her eyesight was failing and she wouldn't be able to drive much longer.
(That makes me sound a little predatory in hindsight, or at least vulture-like, but wait for it:)
Instead, the old lady kept the car until she died, then left it to one of her grandsons in her will. He beat it around for a few years—this is the same kid who nearly assassinated Mom's old Giannini classical guitar by putting steel strings on it; he's not great at looking after his own things, let alone other people's—and then, in the finest Elwood Blues style, traded it to some other would-be musician for an amp when he tired of paying its fuel costs. And that was the end of that. It vanished into the continuum that is the greater Portland area. He claimed a little while ago that he'd seen it for sale again on Craigslist, but when pressed for details he admitted that this was more than a year ago, so there were some hopes raised and dashed again.
I'm mildly annoyed about Dad's high-handedness with the Toronado and the Camaro (although the latter was never technically my car, so I've got no legitimate beef about it),and I'm sad that I've had to part with various other cars I've had in my life, but the Tempest's fate is the only one that I'm actively pissed off about, even now. Men have gone on rampages for less. They're lucky I'm such a god damn milquetoast.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.