Old Cars Weekly archive – May 8, 2008 issue
Unearthing a Hemi ’Cuda sealed for 26 years
Story & photos by Geoff Stunkard
In collector-car circles, the word “Hemi” has become one that connotes rarity and value. The old Chrysler Corp. was not the only auto manufacturer to design hemispherical combustion chambers in its cylinder heads, and it did it more than just once, but the NASCAR-bred 426-cid monsters put into street cars and special race cars between 1964 and 1971 put that word into the automotive lexicon as a MoPar specialty. Indeed, the company holds a trademark on it, having successfully shown that it is indeed associated primarily with its products.
Until 1970, Chrysler did not have a model that could be identified as a sports car. Sure, the midsize Charger was stylish, but it wasn’t a Mustang or Camaro, and the Dart-and Valiant-based Barracuda just didn’t cut it with the more affluent buyers. As early as 1967, the company was preparing an entry into what became known as the pony car market, and the names would be Challenger for Dodge and ’Cuda (a popular performance enthusiast derivative of Barracuda) for Plymouth. What’s more, they would be designed from scratch to take any engine that MoPar offered, including the 440-cid V-8 (with its recently developed Six Pack induction system) and the Hemi, whose oversize cylinder heads made it the largest engine dimensionally the factory offered.
The ’Cuda and Challenger, on a new vehicle platform Chrysler designated as “E,” would end up being the final new performance cars introduced in the super car era, though other models would undergo redesigns before the period ended. Sales were marginal at best, as the two vehicles entered the already-saturated marketplace at almost the same time as GM’s exciting 1970 new redesigns and as the insurance heat tempered the overall muscle car business. However, in big-inch convertible trim, these cars would eventually climb to the pinnacle of values as the American performance collector car market evolved, due in part to the low-production volume during the two years that combination was available.
Hemi cars, in particular, were not for everybody anyhow. The race-breed nature of the engine meant it had finicky tendencies in poor weather, and even the line mechanics at the local dealerships had trouble keeping them in proper tune.
By 1970, a change to hydraulic lifters had taken some away of the maintenance headaches, but the engine was designed to develop serious horsepower above 4,000 rpm, and low-end torque suffered accordingly. If geared properly for racing, there was no mileage to speak of, either. The recently introduced 440 Six Pack engine was a much better street choice for all but the stoutest enthusiast.
So there were buyers who ended up with Hemi cars that did not get a ton of miles put on them. Of course, many got their mileage added a quarter-mile at a time, but the 1970 Hemi ’Cuda featured here is a true find, an original paint, triple-black survivor.
To be honest, 1970 Hemi ’Cudas happen to have been produced in substantial numbers when compared to other models so equipped. There were more than 700 built that year, but it is likely only one, this one, was a stripe-delete, triple-black (black paint/black top/black interior) four-speed example.
And it really was a gem. The original owner raced it briefly with no major changes, and then parked it in a garage. Then, he sealed the garage — permanently. When the car was located 26 years later in 2004, the story was a wall had to be removed to get the 17,800-mile diamond out. It went through a broker from its Wisconsin home to a muscle car enthusiast in Connecticut. Here, current owner and MoPar enthusiast Bruce Bartie enters the equation. Bartie is a successful Midwestern professional, and he had been looking for a survivor four-speed ’Cuda; the triple-black rarity was a bonus.
Friend Eric Hegrenes, who runs the Chrysler muscle car-oriented Web site Muscle MoPars at www.musclemopars.com, was instrumental in making the deal happen. Eric completed the negotiations and, once the deal was made, went and picked the car up from its temporary New England home and brought it back to the Midwest for Bruce. The only thing that had been changed on the car from stock were the carburetors, which had been removed and lost during the car’s long storage (factory-original replacements from the production era are on it now), and normal maintenance upgrades. The exterior was color sanded and buffed, and the engine received new gaskets, was oil-prepped and tuned up to run, and the rest was left alone (yes, those are the original tires).
The original owner, in whose name the car was still titled, had also retained everything associated with his treasure. The extensive documentation included the dealer invoice, original tag, original warranty paperwork and agreement from the originating dealer, partial build sheet and even the IBM punch card with the wire attached.
Despite the slightly inclement weather, Bruce brought the car out-of-doors during one of its appearances at the Forge Invitational Musclecar Show to give us a first hand look at his time capsule. The car’s mild imperfections only add to its charm, as very few Hemi cars came out from the era in such completely unmolested form.
“I like original survivor cars,” says Bartie in conclusion. “This one was a dream.”
I would have to agree.