Interview: Rick Dobbertin on his Pontiac J2000 pro streeter

Twin superchargers, twin turbos and nitrous were just the start of the insanity housed within Rick Dobbertin's legendary Pontiac J2000 pro streeter

Photographers: Street Machine Archives

Scan any list of the greatest, the most famous, the most influential or the most ground-breaking street machines of all time and it’s a good bet that it will include Rick Dobbertin’s outrageous Pontiac J2000.

First published in the April 2022 issue of Street Machine

At the height of pro street’s popularity in the mid-80s, when big-tyred, mountain-motored American muscle cars ruled the universe, it was unthinkable to almost everyone that you could transform a sporty little four-cylinder hatchback like the J2000 into a supreme pro streeter. Clearly, Rick thought otherwise.

Magazines of the day described the J2000 as being from another planet. It featured a pneumatically lifted flip-up body and a flip-front, all covered in insane graphics incorporating dozens of colours. Its tube-frame chassis was made from polished 304 stainless steel. The all-alloy 350 Chev up front ran dual Magnuson superchargers, dual Rotomaster turbos and a 20-port nitrous system. Like the engine block, the aluminium four-speed Lenco was fully polished, while the solidly mounted Dana 60 rear end measured just 25 inches (635mm) axle flange-to-axle flange – which left only 8.25 inches (210mm) between the tyre’s sidewall bulges! It had to be that narrow to tuck those custom-made 20-inch-wide wheels and tyres high up into the narrow J2000 body.

After its debut in 1986, Rick’s Poncho pretty much swept the pool at all the big US shows. At the 1987 Street Machine Nationals in DuQuoin, Illinois, Chic Henry convinced Rick to bring the J2000 to Australia for the inaugural Summernats in 1988. While it was holidaying Down Under, the Pontiac also went on display at the Melbourne Hot Rod Show.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Rick about this most radical of pro streeters.

Why a J2000, Rick?

I started out by creating a list of the 10 things the car had to have. Then I started thinking about how to take everything to the extreme, which everybody seemed to like. The J2000 was one of the narrowest cars that GM made. That really accentuated the width of the rear tyres, which is why it ended up with a diff that was only 25 inches wide. The car itself was owned by Pontiac; it was some type of test car and they were going to crush it. I convinced them to give it to me instead.

What inspired the crazy induction system?

I owned AA Speed & Custom back then, and on the promotional T-shirts that I had made was ‘Supercharging, Turbocharging and Nitrous Specialists’ – that’s why I put all three on my Nova [SM, Oct-Nov ’83]. It ran twin turbos, but only a single 6/71 blower. At shows, people often remarked, “Why not two blowers?” So when I sat down to map out the Pontiac, I decided to give this engine two of everything!

The car must have rode pretty hard with its solid-mounted rear?

There was no room for workable suspension; that’s why it was solid-mounted. However, to qualify for pro street at some shows, it needed to have suspension. So I installed two pairs of valve springs, which gave me about a half-inch of travel. Oddly enough, it rode and hooked up better when it was solid-mounted. As for the ride, with the really tall sidewalls and only about 4-5psi of tyre pressure, it didn’t ride too harsh at all.

How long did it take to build?

I documented 4720 hours, which we did in just under three years. I didn’t have a lot of money in the build – probably around $25-30,000, as I was able to contra a lot of stuff such as polishing the welds on the stainless chassis. We spent some 10 months die-grinding and smoothing all of them – each weld was given four passes. Then I got a professional polisher in to do the final finishing with an industrial-strength polisher. He spent about 14 days straight days polishing every last weld while I worked on his pro streeter. There’s very little chrome in the car; it’s mostly polished stainless or alloy. The ’cage and all the other polished stainless looks the same today.

Your Pontiac won just about everything, didn’t it?

Early on, it pretty much won just about every category it was eligible for at every show. Not sure how many trophies it won, but between my Nova and the Pontiac, I’ve collected about 240 plaques and trophies. It might have gone on winning, but I began taking it to shows as an exhibition rather than to compete – that way I got paid!

How much did you actually drive it?

All up, I think I drove it about 600 miles. One of the funniest stories is when I had to move it across this big paddock at a show over here. For some reason, I decided I’d back it across. In the Lenco, there’s no reverse gear as such; it just reverses the output, so you still have four gears in reverse. I went across the field, pulling gears while going backwards – that blew people’s minds!

Any trouble from the constabulary?

Most of the time they were pretty good. I did upset a couple during a photoshoot. The photographer wanted to get a shot of the car going down the street with the ’chute out. We told the officers what we wanted to do and asked if we could run it down the street. “No problem, go for it,” they said. What I didn’t tell them was that I needed to be going about 60mph for the ’chute to catch air and pop open. We did a pass and they came straight over: “You ever do that again and I’ll arrest you and impound the car!” That was kinda fun. One time at an event, I spun the tyres just a little. A policeman came over and chipped me about the tyre marks. I told him, “Wasn’t me.” He replied, “Tell me another car that puts down tyre patches like that?” Oops! He got me on that.

How did you enjoy your trip Down Under in ’88?

Taking the car to Australia was the by far the best thing I ever did with it. In the US, too many people take themselves too seriously – you guys know how to have fun! I had a great time; Chic Henry really looked after me. I got really stressed and nervous as hell before the City Cruise at Summernats. I was the lead car, and I didn’t know if it was going to overheat or blow up. It started up and ran fine, as it was a low-compression engine. But the more you put into a car, the more meticulous you are with it, the less fun it is to drive. In the end, it got a bit hot, but we made it.

What happened to the car?

Sold it to a guy in Chicago about 10 or 12 years ago for pretty decent money. He parked it in a warehouse and threw a tarp over it – I don’t think he’s ever driven it. He’s since on-sold it to a guy in Florida and I understand he made a reasonable profit. However, it’s still sitting in the Chicago warehouse and to my knowledge the new owner has never seen it. A friend of mine is trying to buy it but can’t get a price from the new owner.

Do you miss it?

I wish I still owned it, but I don’t. It pretty much just sat in the corner of the workshop, so it was good to get some money back on it. I do, however, like to keep something from every car I build. Usually, I buy two steering wheels and I also like to keep the front badge. When I sold the J2000, I couldn’t find a new or repro badge – it’s a rare car these days. I found a brand new one on eBay – I ended up paying $200 for this crappy plastic emblem. I had glued the original one on; to get it off without risking the paint, I had to grind away the fibreglass from behind and push it from the back to pop it off, then repair and repaint that area on the inside of the hood. A lot of effort, but I have my original badge.

Are you still playing with cars?

Sort of. I’m 69 now and was out of that scene for a long time doing amphibious car stuff. However, I’ve bought back my first project car ever – a 1977 Monza with IMSA flares. It’s in pretty good shape. I painted it BMW silver with black stripes. Also, a few years ago I put together a Chevy S10 with a mid-mounted LS3 V8. I built it to showcase the Dobbertin Performance Interface Suspension Adapters. They make it easy to mount the C5/C6 Corvette IRS into just about any RWD chassis.

What do you consider your greatest achievement with the J2000?

Getting Hot Rod magazine’s 1986 Hot Rod of the Year probably meant the most to me. Making their 100 most influential cars of all time in January 2008 was pretty good as well. So was walking into Kmart and seeing a model of my car on the shelf – Revell did one!

UPDATE 17 September 2023: After 19 years of searching for and attempting to purchase the Pontiac, Matt and Deb Hay are the new owners of Rick Dobbertin’s J2000. The couple plan to go through the driveline and then bring the car back onto the show scene, with Rick making selected appearances with the car.