Plymouth’s low-cost, short-wheelbase, insanely powerful ’Cuda really was the ultimate expression of ‘muscle car madness’. By 1970 when Chrysler Corp finally got its Mustang/Camaro contender into showrooms, there were practically no rules governing performance car design and only the US insurance industry had the clout to change that.
The first ’Cudas appeared in 1970 as an adjunct to the North American Plymouth Barracuda model range. Most had V8 engines ranging in size between 5.2 and 7.2 litres and included ‘Street Hemi’ V8s with more than 300kW available.
That first frantic year also saw Plymouth offer street-legal versions of its AAR (All American Racing) ’Cuda with a 340 cubic inch engine. It developed 217kW and was similar to the units destined for Australia and the Charger E55 competition program.
Keeping sticker prices down meant stripping out whatever equipment wasn’t essential then asking people to pay extra for it to be put back in again. The Gran Coupe offered a range of trim options including full leather, a roof console and stainless body mouldings.
Convertible ’Cudas were offered but very few sold. That hasn’t stopped now-scarce survivors generating great interest now and setting record prices. The highest amount ever paid for a car of this type is US$3.5 million spent in 2014 on one of just 13 Hemi ’Cuda convertibles built during 1971.
’Cudas were hardly ever seen in Australia as new cars. That was quite different from the situation applying to Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros and there were a couple of reasons why.
Chrysler dealers in Australia seemed very reluctant to import North American cars on behalf of customers. They didn’t even seem keen to use such cars to help draw buyers into their showrooms.
Unlike Ford and Chevrolet, Chrysler’s US brands didn’t compete at any official level in motor sport outside the United States. Therefore Australia had no coterie of enthusiasts cheering for a competition ’Cuda in the way they cheered ‘Big Pete’ Geoghegan in his Mustang or Bob Jane in his various Camaros. No 'Win on Sunday, Sell a ’Cuda on Monday' here.
Nothing changed until the 1990s when local importers saw how cheaply the US was selling very good ’Cudas and began importing cars that would fill a niche in our muscle car market. Some were converted to right-hand drive and that was by all accounts a nightmare. The majority stayed LHD until old enough to qualify for full registration without conversion.
Because genuine 440 Six Packs are today scarce and expensive, ‘clones’ with incorrect engines pop up regularly in the US market. The few that appear in Australia are normally disclosed for what they are.
Cars available here will most likely have 318 (5.2-litre) or 383 (6.3-litre) V8s and cost less than $70,000. In years past it was worth heading offshore to find and import a car however exchange rates, freight, tax and the need to get the vehicle certified as ‘asbestos free’ encourage buyers to look here first.
Body Mopars were a compromised design intended to be powered by sixcylinder engines or a small V8. Certainly they weren’t intended to deal with the weight or torque of a 7.2-litre lump up front. Build quality wasn’t flash either and cars that have never been crashed may still display shocking panel gaps and body rattles. A car that has had a ‘rotisserie’ restoration will cost more to buy than one that is largely untouched, but costs in the long term will be lower. Rust attacks sills, floors and the turret. Also closely check windscreen/rear window surrounds and rear pillars for bubbling plus the lower door skins and sills. Replacement parts are available new but not here so ask for the overall cost when ordering from overseas.
Apart from the oftengrumpy Hemi and fuelguzzling ‘440-6 Pack these engines aren’t too costly or hard to maintain. Overheating is the enemy because everything is crammed in so tightly. Before the engine gets hot check for ‘milky’ oil, stains around hose connections and the water pump. Afterwards listen for hissing and radiator gurgling sounds. If the car has been RHD converted many years ago it needs to be checked by a specialist engineer. Authenticity is important, especially if the car you choose is scarce, so even $12,000 spent rebuilding the original motor will be worthwhile. Sets of ‘Six-Pack’ carburettors, the aluminium manifold and linkages are available but allow A$5000 plus fitting. Manual and automatic transmissions used in these cars have a great reputation for durability.
NUMBER BUILT: 72,370 (all V8)
BODY: integrated body/chassis two-door coupe & convertible
ENGINE: 5211cc, 5565cc, 6275cc, 6974cc or 7206cc V8 with overhead valves, single or triple downdraft carburettors
POWER & TORQUE: 279kW @ 4800rpm, 554Nm @ 3600rpm (440 4bbl)
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h: 5.9 seconds, 0-400 metres 14.4 seconds (440-6 4-speed)
TRANSMISSION: 3 or 4-speed manual, 3-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with torsion bars, control arms, wishbones, telescopic shock absorbers & anti-roll bar (f); live axle with semi-elliptic springs & telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: Drum or disc (f) drum (r) with power assistance
TYRES: F70-14 bias ply
Mopar vehicles were for many years characterised by their torsion bar front suspension. The system is light and simple but as the bars age they can delaminate and mountings rust. Creaks when turning or cracking noises on bumpy surfaces point to torsion bars with suspect mounts or that are on the verge of breaking. Complete replacement front ends which use coil springs cost A$50008000 dollars but they are said to improve ride and lateral loadings and reduce weight. Although drums were standard on most ‘Cudas, disc brakes are pretty much a must-have for big-block cars. Conversion kits are available.
Even though a ’Cuda might today cost $100K, the interior isn’t at all luxurious or even of good quality. Standard vinyl seats, some with ‘brushed nylon’ inserts, were flimsy and sagged or split with use. Replacement seat vinyl and foam padding are being remanufactured. Peeling plasti-wood trim, cracked dash plastics, door trims and armrests can also be replaced. However the cost of a reproduction dash and console total over US$2000 plus shipping. These aren’t cars that were normally loaded with electrical accessories so there's not a lot to go wrong. Basic items such as power window motors at US$45 are affordable.
PLYMOUTH 'CUDA (‘Cuda 440-6 Pack)
(Note: concours cars will demand more)