Thursday, July 26, 2007

Testing the Same 1970 Hemi 'Cuda Convertible Twice in 35 years

The least of our problems with the Hemi 'Cuda convertible was doing burnouts for the camera. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
Now worth $5 million, the same Hemi 'Cuda can still roast its Goodyears. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
The first test took place in 1970 at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
Joe Oldham's second track day with the Hemi 'Cuda took place 37 years later at Speedworld Raceway Park in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
New Barracuda styling for 1970 was clean, simple and classic. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
It still looks good 37 years later. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
Even though the car puked transmission fluid all over the track, the Napp brothers let us back in after it was repaired so we could continue to beat the crap out of it. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
The 426-cubic-inch Street Hemi engine was rated at 425 horsepower. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
There's no real way to describe in words the sound of eight Carter AFB barrels opening up on top of a 426-cubic-inch Hemispherical Combustion Chamber engine. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
Shaker hood scoop was functional. Every 1970 Hemi 'Cuda convertible has one. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
This is the first Hemi 'Cuda convertible ever built. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
Only 14 Hemi 'Cuda convertibles were built in the 1970 model year; this is one of only nine built with an automatic transmission. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
Only 14 Hemi 'Cuda convertibles were built in the 1970 model year; this is one of only nine built with an automatic transmission. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
The Hemi 'Cuda handled pretty well — as well as any Mopar had by 1970. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
Rally wheels measuring only 15 inches in diameter and bias-ply Goodyears were state-of-the-art for the day. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
A few of the things that made a Hemi 'Cuda a Hemi 'Cuda. Shaker scoop and hood pins were factory cool. (Photo by Joe Oldham, Contributor)
Some observers tell me that this particular Hemi 'Cuda convertible may well be worth as much as $5 million. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
The interior is still all-original and looks new. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
The seating position was better than I remembered but the steering column still felt too long and too close. All that was forgotten as I twisted the key and the big 426 Street Hemi bellowed to life. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)
Today Bill Wiemann of Fargo, North Dakota, owns the 'Cuda and just had it restored by the great Roger Gibson of Roger Gibson Restorations of Scott City, Missouri. (Photo by Cliff Gromer)


Date posted: 07-24-2007

The following Hemi 'Cuda Road Test is an excerpt from the new book Muscle Car Confidential: Confessions of a Muscle Car Test Driver by noted automotive journalist and frequent Inside Line contributor Joe Oldham.

When it's late on an overcast, dank, gray Saturday in November, and you're standing in the middle of Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, shooting photos, and it's freezing cold and it's getting dark and your camera has just frozen again, you're not thinking that this red Hemi Barracuda convertible you're shooting might be worth four or five million dollars at the Barrett-Jackson Auction 35 years from now. You're just thinking, Let's run the wheels off this piece of crap before the transmission blows again. Get the shots and get the hell out of here and into some warm bar somewhere.

So it was in late November 1969. Believe me, there were no thoughts of this car someday being a coveted objet d'art. In fact, this car, which turned out to be so historic and iconic, was a headache from the get-go.

The first time I ever saw the car, it was sitting in a corner of Chrysler Corporation's press fleet garage on West 44th Street in New York City. Even in the dim light, I could see trouble — a pool of liquid-something oozing out from under the car.

Oh no, I thought. It's going to be one of those tests — trouble all the way. It was. In spades. This was Marty's fault. But Marty Schorr was the boss and I was just a coolie worker.

Two days before, Marty had given me instructions: Moon Mullins, then East Coast public relations manager of Chrysler Corporation, had left a 1970 Barracuda convertible in the press fleet garage for us. It had the new-for-1970 hydraulic-lifter 426 Street Hemi engine. Go pick up the car, photograph it, run it at the track, go street racing and generally live with it for a week, then write it up for the next issue of Speed & Supercar magazine.

Damn, I remember thinking, stuck with a Mopar for a week. Hey, I admit it. In those days, I was prejudiced against Mopars. Assembly quality was low. They were about the worst handlers of all the performance cars of the day. The seats were usually covered with taxicab-grade plastic and the cars had the ride motion and feel of a truck. I preferred GM or Ford products. They were just nicer to drive.

Hemi-powered Mopars weren't revered works of art selling for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars, as they are today. The Hemi engine was better suited to full-throttle operation on a racetrack (after a blueprinting and supertuning) than to street use. The huge sewer-size ports and twin 4-barrel carbs made zero low-end torque and the solid lifters had to be adjusted every two miles. At least they were now putting hydraulic lifters in there. Hemis just never ran right the way they came off the assembly line. Now I was stuck for a week with this red-on-red convertible sitting in front of me, the one with the, yes, transmission fluid oozing out from underneath the car. Remember, back then it was just a job and this was just another car.

I borrowed a flashlight from the garage attendant and looked under the car. I could see a visible drip coming off the transmission. And another. And another. I wondered if I would make it home to Queens much less all the way to Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, tomorrow.

Happily, the car started right up and I got it home. As you would expect, the transmission slipped badly all the way and I had to baby it.

The next morning, yet another pool of transmission fluid was under the car. I checked the dipstick and it was at least two quarts low. I filled it up with gas and transmission fluid at the local service station and made my way to Raceway Park where Al Kirschenbaum met me. Al had performed the factory prep on this car at his dealership, Rockville Centre Dodge. I had asked him to assist me at the track on this test.

Al told me a little about the car as I shot some still photos. This was a very early-build car and had been delivered with black body side moldings. Chrysler's PR department didn't want the moldings on the car so they had been removed at Rockville Centre Dodge's body shop. What's more, despite being built as a Barracuda "'Cuda" convertible, the car did not have some of the cosmetic trim pieces that all 'Cudas carried, such as the hockey stick decals on the side. There were simply none available at the factory on September 27, 1969, the day this car was built.

The transmission fluid duly replenished, I asked Al to jump in the car and pull to the line for a run. He did so, brake revved the engine and promptly blew out the transmission cooler line, dumping fluid all over the starting line at Raceway Park.

After calming down track owners Rich and Vince Napp, I called a flatbed and had the car hauled back to the press fleet garage in New York City. Test over for now.

About a week later, I received word from PR man Mullins that the car was repaired and ready to go at the garage on West 44th. Upon arriving at the garage, the first thing I did was crawl under the car and take a look. Damn, there was still a transmission leak but not like it had been. I drove the car home uneventfully except that the transmission still didn't feel right when it shifted and the trans selector linkage was loose. It was hard to tell what gear it was in.

The next day, back at Raceway Park, we ran the car mercilessly. We made a couple of dozen full-throttle runs down the strip, did at least a dozen burnouts for the photos you see here, and ran the tires off the car on the handling loop.

My notes from that day tell me that the car ran pretty well despite having tired plugs. The best timeslip was a 14.30 at 97 miles per hour, accompanied by lots of wheelspin and tire smoke and zero traction. This was usual stuff for box-stock Hemis in those days. Several weeks later, Kirschenbaum informed me that his guys had recurved the distributor, rejetted the carburetors, installed new colder plugs, and generally supertuned the car. Back at Raceway Park, it had turned a 13.80 at 103 miles per hour.

My notes also indicate that the Hemi 'Cuda was the best handling Mopar I had ever driven to that time and that the fit and finish and interior materials were the best ever for a Mopar. So despite the trials and tribulations the car had given me, I had been favorably impressed, overall.

After adding yet another quart of trans fluid, I returned the car to the press fleet garage so the next automotive journalist could have his shot.

The following Hemi 'Cuda Road Test is an excerpt from the new book Muscle Car Confidential: Confessions of a Muscle Car Test Driver by noted automotive journalist and frequent Inside Line contributor Joe Oldham.

For almost two decades, I never saw the car again, nor did I even think about it. I went on to work for The Hearst Corporation and eventually became Editor-in-Chief of Popular Mechanics. In the meantime, this particular car became a cult object, a revered objet d'art, and one of the most highly coveted cars in all of the car collector hobby.

It turned out to be the first Hemi 'Cuda convertible built in the 1970 model year. It was one of only 14 1970 Hemi 'Cuda convertibles built, and one of only 9 built with an automatic transmission. It was the only red-on-red Hemi 'Cuda convertible built. It was even used as the model for the Danbury Mint's Hemi 'Cuda die-cast replica. At a recent Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, a '71 Hemi 'Cuda convertible sold for an even $2 million. So what is the worth of the first one ever built? Some observers tell me that this particular Hemi 'Cuda convertible may well be worth as much as $5 million.

In 1989, 19 years after my article was published, I was walking through a car show in New Jersey with Cliff Gromer. We saw a red Barracuda convertible down the row of cars. I thought it looked familiar. As we got closer, I said to Gromer that it looked like the car I had tested in November 1969. But there was one way to tell for sure. I got down on my hands and knees. Yes, there it was — the transmission leak forming a small pool of red oil on the pavement! It was the same car! Wayne Hartye, a Mopar collector from New Jersey, currently owned it and promptly agreed to let Gromer do an article on the car for
Mopar Action. It appeared in the April 1994 issue. Hartye told us he thought the car was worth maybe $150,000 at that time. We were amazed at how the car had appreciated in value. Again, I lost track of it.

I was even more amazed last year when Gromer told me he had received a call from the present owner, Bill Wiemann of Fargo, North Dakota, who had acquired the car and was in the process of having it restored by the great Roger Gibson, of Roger Gibson Restorations, Scott City, Missouri.

And would I like to drive it when it was completed? Would I? Would I like a date with Pamela Anderson? What do you think?

So, 35 years later, I had yet another encounter with this car. And there it was, sitting in Bill Wiemann's private Mopar museum in the Arizona desert. I couldn't resist. I had to look under. There wasn't a speck of oil on Wiemann's spotless floor.

Could it be the transmission leak had finally been repaired 35 years later? Could it actually be the same car? Wiemann showed me the provenance of the car. Yes, this was the real deal all right. The copy of the window sticker clearly read that the car was to be delivered to Chrysler Corporation's offices in New York City. It also said "company car" and "public relations car." I knew that Chrysler had also built a Hemi 'Cuda convertible for the West Coast press fleet but that car would have been delivered to its Los Angeles office. So, yes, this was the car.

When I opened the driver's door and looked in at that red, redder, reddist interior, I could almost feel a shiver go through my body. The interior was still all original. So when I sat down in that seat, my butt would be in exactly the same place it was 35 years before. It was weird. I felt very much in touch with the past, as if I was about to go back in time, to relive a past experience that I thought had been gone forever, a mere memory in the passage of time.

The next day, the warm Arizona sun pierced a bright-blue sky with not a single cloud in sight. Wiemann and Roger Gibson, who had flown in for the day, dropped the Hemi 'Cuda's top and we were off to Speedworld Raceway Park in Surprise, Arizona. I climbed into the driver's seat and settled in. The seating position was better than I remembered but the steering column still felt too long and too close. All that was forgotten as I twisted the key and the big 426 Street Hemi bellowed to life.

Man, what a sound. Blip the throttle. Brraap, brraap, brraap! I'll tell you something. I've driven every car made in the last 40 years. And I would be the first to admit that the lowliest Dodge Neon can run rings around any Mopar muscle car of the Sixties in terms of ride and handling and driving comfort. But as far as ambiance from the driver's seat, no amount of modern technology can match the sheer thrill of being the master of 426 cubic inches of leashed fury. I just sat there grinning as the twin exhaust pipes gurgled.

We headed out for the track and the ride was stiff, but that's how all Hemi cars were. The steering was a little loose and overboosted, but that's how all Mopars were.

Then I mashed my foot down through the linkage detents and all eight barrels opened up. There's no real way to describe in words the sound of eight Carter AFB barrels opening up on top of a 426-cubic-inch Hemispherical Combustion Chamber engine. But I'll try. It starts as a low moan, slowly rising into a wail that eventually turns into a shriek, a shriek that threatens to suck not only the surrounding air but also the hood itself and the closest two fenders directly into the shaker hood scoop.

We heard that delicious sound several times on the way to the track, each time backing out of it just north of a hundred. At the track, I got to do several full-throttle burnouts and we ran the car through the traps. On the clocks, the car ran a couple of mid-14-second passes at just less than 100 miles per hour, eventually recording a best of 14.32 seconds at 99 miles per hour — almost identical to the box stock times of 35 years ago. And guess what? The transmission was doing it to us again, not quite shifting properly on the 2-3 shift, even hanging up on one run. Some things never change.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about rarity and cars that bring millions of dollars at auction. Why would a Plymouth Barracuda convertible, that had an original list price of $5,631.70 plus $79 destination charge now be worth $5 million?

Because it's a rare car? Because they only made 14 of them that year? Yes, but why did they make only 14 of them? And since two of those were for the company's own press fleet, only 12 people actually ordered a car like this in 1970. Do you think if Chrysler had had 20,000 orders for 426 Hemi 'Cuda convertibles, they wouldn't have gladly built and sold them? Of course they would have. They would have loved to build 20,000 or more cars like this rather than 14 of them. In 1971, only 11 people ordered one. Do you know why?

Because they were lousy cars and no one wanted them. Do you think they would have dropped the Barracuda convertible and the Hemi engine after 1971 if they were selling all they could build? Let's face it. Off the showroom floor, a 440 car ran better and was $800 cheaper. It's no wonder that so few customers checked box E-74 on the order form.

No matter. What did happen happened. Today, Hemi 'Cuda convertibles are like the Picasso and Da Vinci works of the motoring world, art that we can look at in wonder and awe. And, if we're lucky, even do burnouts in.

Muscle Car Confidential: Confessions of a Muscle Car Test Driver is available at Motorbooks.com.

1 comment:

knicksgrl0917 said...

hey! i'm going to cali this weekend and won't be back until september...here is the website i was talking about where i made extra summer cash. Later! the website is here