Hot Hemi

Hot Hemi

Stefano Bimbi of Nickey Chicago tosses me the key ring and says, “Here, you drive the ’Cuda to where we’re going.” Sliding into the seat of the Vitamin C Orange Hemi ’Cuda, the first thing you notice is that the ignition key seems to go into the slot upside down. Then, after a brief but neck-snapping ride, you find the key won’t come back out, no matter how hard you tug on it.

“It doesn’t pull out unless you slide the Pistol-Grip shifter into reverse,” Stefano explains. “Chrysler things all seem to work a little weird, from the upside-down ignition switch to the door handles that lock by pushing them forward. Even the trunk lock is on the right side of the rear panel, instead of in the center.”

Despite such idiosyncrasies, the ’Cuda was more like bigger Mopar

Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)

muscle cars in 1970 – at least below the hood. Chrysler designers widened the car by more than five inches and spread both the front and rear track widths by three inches. That was to fit the 60 series tires needed to handle the weight and power of the street Hemi that now fit in the larger engine bay.

The 426-cube 425hp Hemi was then an option for the ’Cuda and added $871.45 to the coupe’s $3,164 base price. The 1970 Hemi had hydraulic lifters, but thanks to a hot new cam profile, Mopar engineers found no reason to alter the advertised horsepower from solid lifter specs. The Hemi ’Cuda’s dual Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors breathed through a functional shaker hood scoop.

In order to get the horses to the pavement, Hemi-powered ’Cudas relied on heavy-duty driveline parts. There was a choice of the New Process A–833 four-speed manual gearbox (found in Stefano Bimbi’s car) or the 727 TorqueFlight automatic. A Dana 9–3/4-inch differential was kept in place by a leaf-spring rear suspension with six leafs on the right and five leafs plus two half-leafs on the left.

All ’Cudas with performance V–8s came with heavy-duty underpinnings, and those with a 440 or Hemi engines had extra-heavy-duty 0.92-inch diameter front torsion bars with a spring rate of 124 pounds per inch and a heavy-duty 0.94-inch diameter front stabilizer bar. At the rear, extra-

Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)

heavy-duty 148 pounds per inch rear leaf springs were fitted, along with extra-heavy-duty shock absorbers, but no rear stabilizer bar was used.

Describing the ’Cuda suspension in 1984, Chrysler’s Larry Shepard told writer Anthony Young, “We offered our cars with a complete package and not just a big motor. The guy at the local drive-in could talk about his Mopar with Super-Stock springs, the heavy-duty rear axle, a TorqueFlight transmission with high-stall converter and so on, but the Chevy guys didn’t have any of that. All they could do was point to SS on the side of the car and talk about the motor.”

Raw power was the Hemi ’Cuda’s long suit, but the list of buyers was short. Insurance companies frowned on Hemi ’Cudas and weren’t impressed that they could do 0-to–60 mph in 5.8 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 103.2 mph. By the time the 1970 run came to an end, only 652 hardtops had left the factory with Hemi power, and 284 of them had four-speed transmissions. (Plymouth also made 14 Hemi ’Cuda convertibles – five with a manual gearbox.)

Outwardly, the 1970 Barracuda, Gran Coupe and ’Cuda models were cleaner and meaner looking than previous Barracudas. Their new

Mopar E-Body was two inches lower and a half a foot shorter than its 1969 counterpart but used the same wheelbase. This emphasized the new “wide body” styling, which was actually a fluke. Designers started out trying to build the new car off the 1966 Belvedere type B-Body front floor pan and cowl. Eventually, the idea of B-Body sharing was dumped, but the wide body styling looked so good it stayed.

Automotive writer Jerry Heasley interviewed John Herlitz, a key designer who worked on the new E-Body. “He told me that their aim was to pull the rear quarters as high as possible and then spank the roof down as low as possible,” Jerry says. “This created a high haunch look in the rear quarter area, allowing the front fenders to become long, leading design elements that ran out past the engine, giving the front a dramatic forward thrust.” The Mopar stylists took the classic long hood/short

Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)

deck look of the American pony car to the absolute max and achieved a great-looking car.

Smooth and uncluttered, the styling was emphasized on big-engined ’Cudas with “hockey stick” graphics that accented the cars’ hunched “hinder” and carried engine call-outs that served as status symbols at the drive-in on Saturday nights. The 1970 ’Cuda also gained recessed windshield wipers and flush door handles to make it even smoother looking. On ’Cudas, a pair of rectangular exhaust pipe tips stuck out through the rear end sheet metal.

Like the car itself, the new “’Cuda” name was a streamlined version of “Barracuda” that grew out of the Saturday night cruising culture. Early, “fishbowl” type Barracudas with small engines were typically put down as “Back-A-Roodas” by Chevy and Ford Fans hanging out at “Mel’s Diners” across the country, but as more and more styling

improvements and performance upgrades were lavished on Plymouth’s pony, the name began to change to the tougher sounding slang term of ’Cuda. Like other Detroit area carmakers, Plymouth monitored what was happening on Woodward Ave. and quickly picked up on the ’Cuda name.

Among ’Cudas, the Hemi-powered cars were King Kong out on the streets and quickly became legendary for both their performance and their rarity. Today, they are regarded as one of the most desirable and valuable models in the muscle car market. Doc Hopkins has a jet black Hemi ’Cuda coupe sitting in the muscle car museum at his flamboyant Harley-Davidson dealership in Bonduel, Wisconsin. The sign in front of the car places its value at $5 million.

“I believe these cars are the last true era of collectible American cars,” says muscle car dealer Colin Comer of Milwaukee. “Let’s face it; much like other cars such as Model Ts or Tri-Five Chevys, they were never intended to be valuable. Collectibility wasn’t part of the plan. The muscle cars were stripped down versions of the most utilitarian and basic mass-produced cars Detroit had to offer. They were built to conform to a specific price point, with no regard given to longevity or sophistication. Junk, in

Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)

other words! The hook is that they were fast junk; they were visually appealing with bright colors, stripes, mag wheels and hood scoops.” The youth market couldn’t get enough of them.

Does Comer really think a Hemi ’Cuda should be worth millions of dollars like a classic, one-off custom-bodied Duesenberg SJ? “No question,” he says. “But, unlike the SJ Duesy that was unobtainable to 99 percent of the population when it was new, anybody with a decent job and a couple of bucks down could have bought a new Hemi ’Cuda, and those same guys are buying them today.”

As for the future, Comer says, “The muscle market went crazy over the last five years, and a lot of cars jumped in value when they shouldn’t have. However, I feel the ultra-rare, very low-production, special muscle cars like a Hemi ’Cuda will always be in demand from educated collectors.”

Randy Beren, of Scottsdale, Arizona, was the collector who unearthed the Hemi ’Cuda that Steve Bimbi ultimately acquired for Nickey Chicago. Beren had heard rumors of a Hemi ’Cuda that was squirreled away in his general vicinity. With Scottsdale being the home of big auctions like Barrett-Jackson, Russo and Steele and an RM sale, Beren knew that it wasn’t

wise to spread the rumors further by asking lots of questions. Instead, he quietly set off on a bicycle to search for the car. Besides getting some good exercise, he was able to slip down some small streets and back alleys on his two-wheeler.

As it turned out, he found the car he had heard stories about. It only took him a few days of peddling before he came across the hard-to-see Plymouth that was hidden from total view under a carport. Anyone passing by in a car at even slow speed would probably have missed this sighting, but because he was riding the bike, Randy caught a glimpse of what looked like a ’Cuda.

Amazingly, it was not only a ’Cuda, but a Hemi-powered version with 43,000 miles on its odometer. The car had no serious rust problems, but the desert climate had taken its toll after two decades of storage. The interior was completely dried out, and most fabric and vinyl had

Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)

rotted away. The sun-baked finish was chalky and virtually colorless. Yet the car was complete down to its shaker scoop and performance hood, and it was restorable.

The man who owned the car said that it had been a locally-owned vehicle that never saw long-distance driving. He had originally purchased it as a project car that he intended to restore when time and money permitted. As often happens, the car sat and sat waiting for the “right” time to start the work. Somehow, the job never even got started, and now the man told Randy that he would be happy to sell the car and have it gone.

Randy bought the car and soon had the long-stalled restoration underway. He was amazed to find out that the car required no body panel replacements or metal work. It was a virtually unmolested Hemi ’Cuda. The factory exhaust manifolds – usually the first thing to get replaced (with headers back then) – were still bolted onto the monster engine. Hemis were a little high-strung and often needed constant tuning, but this car even had its original spark plug wires!

The car’s fender tag – Chrysler’s form of a Protect-O-Plate – indicated that the car had left the factory in the Vitamin C orange color with black stripes and white vinyl bucket seat interior. It also

verified factory installation of a four-speed manual transmission with Hurst shifter (which came with a Pistol Grip shifter that perfectly fit the driver’s hand). Also correct on the car were a black vinyl top, the shaker hood and the 426 Street Hemi V–8. The car had the Super Trak Pak option, which included the 9–3/4-inch heavy-duty Dana Sure-Grip rear axle with optional 4.10:1 gearing, power front disc brakes, an 8–1/4-inch ring gear, a 7-blade Torque Drive fan with shroud, a wood-grained shift knob and a recessed warning light.

Other factory options on the car include an AM radio and the Road Lamp package. A three-spoke wood-grained steering wheel and bucket seats were standard, and it has standard crank-up windows, too. In the trunk is the factory-installed small spare tire. The car carries the VIN BS23ROB222674 and was manufactured in December 1969. Bimbi has an Arizona certificate of title that shows it was

Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)

licensed in 1971 and 1973, and 1983 date tags were obtained in May 1982, when it belonged to a man in Clifton, Arizona.

The car was judged “Excellent” by the Arizona Challenger ’Cuda Club

of Phoenix, which awarded it 97 of a possible 100 points. The interior and engine compartment were perfect, but it lost one point on the exterior because the tires weren’t original. It now has original-style Goodyear F60–15 Polyglas GT tires.

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Hot Hemi – The Hemi ’Cuda Joined Mopar’s Rapid Transit System in 1970 (cont)