Updated: Jan 5
Back in the early days of our car collecting, which started in the early 80s, we tried to specialize in the so-called low-production or “1 of” variety. Our first “1 of” was a ’67 Shelby GT 350 (1 of 823) and we slowly found several other low production vehicles, until we finally secured a ’69 Judge RA III Convertible (1 of 103). I thought I had purchased the “mother lode,” until suddenly everyone discovered that the rarest of all Judge convertibles was a ’69 RA IV Judge Convertible, of which they only made 5.
The search was on. In the late 80s, I thought I had found one in New Jersey, but a quick check with the build sheet proved me wrong. The next lead, however, was the real deal and sent me off on the hardest acquisition of my life.
It all started with a call late in 1989 from Pete McCarthy in southern California. Pete was a top drag racer who had teamed with John Angeles to produce some of the fastest Pontiac Super Stockers in the country. We had met at several Pontiac Oakland Club national events and I had visited his shop while selling products at the huge Pomona, California, Auto Shows. Pete also wrote a highly successful book called “Pontiac Muscle Car Performance 1955 – 1979” that our company has successfully sold since the mid-80s.
It was great to hear from Pete, especially since he was giving me the name and phone number of the owner of one of these ’69 RA IV Judge Convertibles. Since Pete had already checked the VIN with Pontiac Motor Division, I knew this one was the real deal. He had no details on the automobile, but said it was in San Diego and belonged to a young man named Gary Stewart and gave me his phone number.
As you can imagine, I immediately called Gary – got no answer, decided it was a time change problem, waited until 9:00pm eastern time, and got him (and he was the right guy). Yes, he had recently bought the car and yes, I could look at it, but it was a new acquisition for him, and he had no plans to sell it.
No matter what its condition, I had to see it. I reserved a flight to San Diego and was at his home about three days later. He knew when I was coming and had the car out of the garage. This car was a mess. On the negative side, it had a Tempest nose, a Chevy 396 engine, and it was dented and scratched front to rear. On the plus side, it had the correct VIN and pre-PHS factory paperwork with a hand-written note from GM saying it truly was one of only five ’69 RA IV Judge Convertibles built, and the only one built at Pontiac’s Arlington, Texas, assembly plant.
“Gary, where did you find the car?” I asked. He responded, “At the police auction here in Southern California.” I said, “Police auction!”
“Yeah,” he responded, “the car was involved in running drugs between Tijuana and San Diego. As you can see, it must have hit every saguaro cactus between the two cities. After the drug runners were apprehended, their possessions were sold at auction by the Federal and State Police. My wife and I heard about this GTO, went to the auction, and bought it on the spot. I thought it started out as a Judge Convertible because of the Carousel Red color on the rear of the car and the four spoiler holes on the deck lid, plus pieces of the Judge stripes were still on the car.”
McCarthy was so correct; this was the real deal. I had seen enough – on one hand, it was one of the worst cars I had seen, and on the other hand, it was the best car I had ever researched. “Gary,” I said, “let’s go to lunch – I’ll buy you the best darn meal you can find.”
We ate a leisurely lunch, but I had to catch a red eye flight home that evening, so I obviously had to ask again “is the car for sale?” Gary hemmed and hawed and finally said he would consider an offer. I hate giving offers – it usually leads to more trouble than it’s worth – but in this case, I had to show genuine intent. I gave him a bona fide offer. He wanted a couple of weeks to think it over. I gave him a ride home, shook his hand, and took off for the airport.
Over the next two weeks, it turned out that we both thought deeply about our positions on the deal. I realized I had to own it and he also realized I had to own it. Somewhat unaware of my precarious position, I called Gary and in a friendly but firm voice he said “yup, I’ll sell it to you without the engine for twice what you offered.” I asked for a day or so to consider the proposition, since I realized I was now in the unenviable position of “point vs. counterpoint.”
The next day I called him back and told him I would accept the deal without further negotiations and would fly into San Diego with a certified check the following Saturday afternoon. The next Saturday, I was on my way to San Diego for the second time and met Gary to consummate the deal. He seemed more tense than I remembered, but we looked over the car again and discussed the proposal. After 10 – 15 minutes, I pulled out the cashier’s check and he abruptly said “no need for that, I’ve changed my mind – the car is not for sale.”
Whoa! What was this guy saying? Why the heck didn’t he call me before I left? What kind of individual am I dealing with? What? What? What?!
I’d had strange dealings before this and many afterwards, but this still ranks as one of the strangest. He was so vehement that I crawled back into the rental car, headed for the airport, and on another 6-hour flight home.
As you can imagine, I had a million thoughts over the next couple of weeks on how to approach this guy. I couldn’t give up because this car was historic. I called Pete McCarthy – no help because he’d never met the guy. Reluctantly, I called Gary back just to reopen negotiations, the old “nothing ventured, nothing gained” routine. I found him to be more like the first couple of times we talked: friendly, interested, interesting, and able to talk about the car without reverting to his “dark side.”
After several calls and probably a three-week timeframe, he suddenly threw another offer at me. Wait a minute, I thought we already had a deal! This offer tossed me into another tailspin. He said, “Let’s go back to the original deal, but you have to arrive here with an extra $5,000 in cash.”
As the tailspin plunged deeper, I mumbled something about “even if I accept this deal why should I trust you?” He answered, “I’ve thought a lot about this the last couple of months and I can guarantee you that I’ll sell you the car.” That was a strong statement, so to buy some time I said I’d call back with a decision within a couple of days.
Can you imagine the myriad of possible complications that ran through my mind? 1) Is this another setup for more money? 2) Where do I get $5,000 in cash anyway? 3) Is this car really worth these problems?
I got the money, called him up, and said we should all go out for supper when I get there. I’d never met his wife, Lenore. Actually, the whole supper idea was to buy him a few drinks to prevent his “dark side” from emerging again.
So, I’m in a plane to San Diego for the third time. I arrive and they take me to their favorite pizza place. We really had a great time. He was his friendly self, she was vivacious and fun, and I had a great time refilling his wine glass. Finally, I felt the time was right to discuss the car.
Again, things were okay. We double checked the amount of money agreed upon and noted the fact I was not buying the engine and that everything else was as is. I produced the check and cash and WHAM! – he said, “I can’t do it” and pushed the money and check back across the table. His “dark side” had blown up in my face and I was defenseless. All my planning was useless.
But wait! Out of nowhere, his wife starts to berate her husband with a 75-decibel tirade. I was astonished and only remember one very loud sentence: “Gary, you have told this man twice you would sell him the car – NOW DO IT!” I was speechless as I watched Gary get up and leave the table. Finally, I got my voice back and said “Lenore, where is he going?” She answered, “Oh, don’t worry about it, he’s going to the bathroom to throw up. In fact, he’s been throwing up every day since you last called. We’ll just wait for him to return, and I’ll fill out the paperwork back home – in fact, the transfer title from the state is in my name.”
In a couple of minutes, my fate had gone from “dead meat” to “happy as a clam” and I owe it all to Lenore M. Stewart. She was great. She drove us home and he never said one word to me. In fact, he went into an adjacent room to be alone. She brought out the paperwork, organized it, wrote a detailed Bill of Sale delineating the lack of an engine etc., and we signed all copies. “Lenore,” I said, “you’ve done a great job, but I’m still worried about your husband. I don’t trust him around the car.”
“You’re right” she said, “when will the transport truck arrive to pick it up?” I said I thought a truck and trailer could be at their address within one week. After a short pause she said, “I’ve got it, I’ll call my father.” It turns out he lived only two or three blocks away. He arrived at the house in minutes and said he’d drive the car home, remove the engine, and keep it safely in his garage until pick up.
I thanked Lenore and looked in the living room at the “dark side” as he looked away. I drove to my motel loving Lenore more than her husband did. To this day, the three of us have never had any further contact.
John and Jackie Kane of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, did a beautiful restoration, delivering the car to us in 1995 exactly as it is displayed. It has been displayed off-site only once. In 1996, I was invited to display the car at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. They were having an observance for the hundred year anniversary of the automobile and were inviting about 50 automobiles. Our Judge was invited to represent the muscle car era.
Purchased in 1990
Written by founder Steve Ames, 2001
*Added note: John and Jackie Kane of JJJ Enterprises, two of the very best in the business, have restored/worked on 6 other prized automobiles in the Ames Automobile Foundation Collection. Unfortunately, John passed away in 2017. The GM restorations were all done with the car’s original parts, 100% original GM NOS parts, and Ames Performance Reproduction new parts.
JJJ Enterprises’ Restorations:
1969 Pontiac Orange “Carousel Red” GTO Judge Convertible (Rotisserie frame-off)
1970 Pontiac Blue Judge Convertible (Rotisserie frame-off)
1970 Pontiac Blue Judge Hardtop (Rotisserie frame-off)
1970 Oldsmobile Copper 442 W30 Convertible (Rotisserie frame-off)
1970 Chevrolet Black Chevelle SS (Rotisserie frame-off)
1966 Pontiac GTO – paint swirls only - car had been polished excessively by owners. John did a magical job of hand-rubbing out the paint swirls without touching primer.
1956 Black and Pink Ford Sunliner Convertible – the first by Triple JJJ for Steve.
1969 Pontiac Green GTO Convertible (Exterior paint only)