Car of the Week: 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda

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Story and photos by John Gunnell

When sliding into a 1970 Plymouth ’Cuda, you might notice the ignition key seems “upside down.” Then you find the key won’t come back out, no matter how hard you pull it, because you have to put that Pistol-Grip shifter in reverse to remove it. What about those door handles that lock by pushing them forward? And notice the trunk lock is on the right side of the rear panel, not the center. Mopar sometimes built its cars differently, but this ’Cuda has more notable strong points. Take that Hemi engine as an example.

To get that big engine under the hood for ’70, Plymouth widened the Barracuda by more than five inches from the previous year and spread both the front and rear track widths by three inches. That was to fit the big 60-series tires the power of the street Hemi demanded.

The 426-cube, 425-hp Hemi was a new ’Cuda option and added $871.45 to the 1970 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. For shifting gears, there was a choice of the New Process A-833 four-speed manual gearbox or the 727 TorqueFlite 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.

Plymouth built cars with a complete package and not just a big engine. All ’Cuda performance V-8s came with heavy-duty underpinnings and those with a 440 or Hemi had extra-heavy-duty 0.92-inch-diameter front torsion bars with a spring rate of 124 lbs. per inch and a heavy-duty 0.94-inch-diameter front stabilizer bar. Extra-heavy-duty, 148-lbs.-per-inch rear leaf springs were fitted, along with extra-heavy-duty shocks, but no rear stabilizer bar was used.

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By the time the 1970 run came to an end, only 652 hardtops had left the factory with Hemi power and 284 of those had four-speed transmissions. (Plymouth built 14 Hemi ’Cuda convertibles for ’70, five with a manual gearbox.)

All Barracuda and ’Cuda models were cleaner and meaner looking for 1970. The new Mopar “E-Body” was two inches lower and a half a foot shorter than its 1969 counterpart, but on the same wheelbase. This emphasized the new “wide body” styling, which was a fluke. Designers originally tried to build the new car off the ’66 Belvedere type B-Body front floor pan and cowl. Eventually, the idea of B-Body sharing was dumped, but the wide-body styling looked good and stayed.

Standard equipment for the 1970 ’Cuda included the 383-cid four-barrel V-8; high-back all-vinyl bucket seats with integrated head restraints; molded door and quarter interior trim panels; wood-grained three-spoke steering wheel; floor-mounted shift lever; carpeting; sill, wheel lip and belt moldings; heavy-duty suspension; heavy-duty drum brakes, ’Cuda ornamentation; and F70-14 fiberglass-belted black sidewall tires with raised white letters.

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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,” said Heasley. “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.” Smooth and uncluttered, the styling was emphasized on big-engined ’Cudas with optional “hockey stick” graphics. The ’Cuda also gained recessed windshield wipers and flush door handles. A pair of rectangular exhaust pipe tips stuck out through the rear valance panel, except on California cars.

Like the car itself, the new ’Cuda name was an abbreviated version of Barracuda and had grown 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 drive-ins 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 ’Cuda slang term. Like other Detroit-area car makers, Plymouth monitored what was happening on Woodward Avenue and quickly picked up on the ’Cuda name.

Among ’Cudas, the Hemi was king of the streets and quickly became legendary for its performance and rarity. Today, the Hemi ’Cuda is regarded as one of the most desirable and valuable models in the muscle car market.

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Randy Beren of Scottsdale, Ariz., unearthed this ’Cuda. He had heard rumors of a Hemi ’Cuda squirreled away in his general vicinity. With Scottsdale being the home of big auctions, Beren knew it wasn’t wise to spread rumors by asking lots of questions. So, he quietly set off on a bicycle to search for the car. Besides getting some exercise, he was able to slip through small streets and back alleys on his bike.

He found the ’Cuda he had heard about in only a few days of pedaling. The car was hidden from view under a carport and anyone passing by in a car, even at a slow speed, would probably have missed the car. Because he was riding his bike, Beren spotted the ’Cuda.

Amazingly, it was not only a ’Cuda, but a Hemi ’Cuda with 43,000 miles. 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 rotten. The sun-baked finish was chalky and virtually colorless. Yet, the car was complete down to its Shaker scoop and performance hood, and best of all, 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 work to start. Somehow, the job was never started and the man told Beren he would be happy to sell the car.

Beren bought the car and soon had the long-stalled restoration under way. He was amazed to learn the car required no body panel replacements or serious metal work. It was a virtually unmolested and solid Hemi ’Cuda. The factory exhaust manifolds — usually replaced immediately with headers — were still bolted onto the monster engine. Earlier Hemi engines were once a little high-strung and often needed constant tuning, but in 1970, Chrysler Corp. made the cars easier to tune, and this car even had its original spark plug wires!

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The car’s fender tag — Chrysler’s data plate — indicated that it 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 handle). 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-in. 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 seven-blade torque drive fan with shroud, a wood-grained shift knob and a recess warning light.

Other options included 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 windows. In the trunk is the factory-installed small spare tire. The car carries VIN BS23ROB222674 and was manufactured in December 1969. An old Arizona certificate of title shows it was licensed in 1971-’73, and 1983 date tags were obtained in May 1982 when it belonged to a man in Clifton, Ariz.

Since then, the car was judged “Excellent” by the Arizona Challenger ’Cuda Club of Phoenix and awarded 97 of a possible 100 points. The interior and engine compartment were perfect and it lost one point on the exterior because the tires weren’t correct. Later, original-style Goodyear F60-15 Polyglas GT tires were installed on the car.

 

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