1969 Pontiac GTO Judge
making Good on Getting Another One
“I’ve always been a Pontiac man, even though my first car was a ’56 Bel Air,” says Larry Zdunek of Marquette, Michigan.
The retiree spent his career as a civil engineer for the railroad, specializing in bridge inspection, so he has a natural attention to detail in all things. He’s never happier than when he’s polishing his ’69 Judge for a car show.
When he had this car restored, he insisted on a perfect re-creation of the Judge’s original Carousel Red, and the restoration shop completed the task with a special twist to make Zdunek’s joyful paint-waxing habits easier.
He bought his first GTO in 1965 and owned a ’66 GTO for a few years. When he saw the new ’69 GTO Judge, the Carousel Red attracted his attention and he “just had to have one.” The car came with an unseen problem, and it took 40 years for the opportunity to turn around and put a Carousel Red Judge back in his garage.
Zdunek says he and the dealer both made a fundamental mistake when he bought his new Judge back in the day. He remembers that the previous 421 Super Duty Pontiacs were literally drag racers with radical engines and low-geared rear ends. Pontiac made sure potential buyers knew that. By 1969, the insurance industry was not amused with the driving habits of muscle car buyers. Emissions laws were coming on line in various states. The Super Duty configuration existed in 1969, disguised as the Ram Air IV. Dealers and buyers were not always aware of it.
“Nobody really knew about the Ram Air IV,” Zdunek remembers. “The dealer just had no clue. I was only going by the stats and the literature I had. I knew I was in trouble right away when I took delivery of the car. When you hear these radical drag cars come up to the staging line, that’s what it was like. It was not a car you would normally drive on the street. It had a 4.33 rear axle, and the speed limit was 65, so you realistically couldn’t drive it on the highway. I started having huge problems with the engine. I was bending push rods, and the garage told me the engine would not idle because it was carboning up. They lost a lot on that car under the warranty program.”
One step down the spectrum was Pontiac’s wildly successful Ram Air III—a system with all the breathing virtues of the Ram Air IV but with a much calmer cam and a highway-speed rear axle ratio.
Zdunek didn’t have the impractical Ram Air IV Judge long, and a 1974 GTO was the next to grace his garage. Time and work paid off, and when he retired, he searched for the GTO he should have had in 1969 — a Judge with Ram Air III and highway gears. He found that dream Judge in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“The car was in phenomenal condition,” Zdunek tells. “It had a frame-off restoration, so the underneath was still extremely nice, and the paint was nice, except that the graphics were getting dull because there’s a lot of sun in Las Vegas. I wanted the car in the kind of condition I thought it deserved. I always wanted a collector car I could bring to a car show, and there would only be one like it — not because of the brand, but because of the fit and finish. It was a higher-level driver when I bought it, and I wanted to move it up to that extra level.”
Through a chain of advice, Zdunek sent the car to Chuck and Debbie Woolery at Run Rite Classics in Houghton Lake, Michigan. Zdunek had bought a reproduction graphics kit for the Judge from Phoenix Graphics, but Chuck had a better idea.
“One of my hobbies is waxing and detailing my cars,” Zdunek tells. “After a while, you actually start to force wax residue under those decals. Chuck asked me if I wanted those graphics painted on. I’ve seen people try to duplicate that stuff, but they did a horrible job. Chuck guaranteed he could reproduce those graphics. There would be a clear coat over them, and I would never have any wax buildup around them. I loved the thought. When I went to look at the car, I was just floored because the graphics were incredible! You have to see it to believe it.
“When I bring the car to shows, people really stop to look at the graphics. I even give people permission to touch it if they’re gentle about it, and they’re amazed that they can’t feel it. I’m ecstatic over that. The text on the hood scoop is really intricate, and he even duplicated that. You could swear those were factory decals until you run your hand over them. It’s as if he painted on the graphics and melted a thin sheet of glass over the whole car.”
When in Michigan, hit the car shows, and look for the Judge. In a sea of “Do not touch” signs, you’ll see people invited to reach out and touch this Judge. It took 40 years, but Zdunek has the Judge he always wanted — the drivetrain he should have had and graphics the way they should have been in a perfect world.