Text and video captures from Speedvision, American Muscle Car, AAR Cuda and T/A Challenger
Hemi motored Cudas and Challengers were awesome cars, but the ones with the little 340 engines became Trans-Am racers.
By 1970, the muscle car phenomenon had grown to immense proportions and so had the muscle car. The cars were larger and heavier than ever before and they were loaded with luxury options and practically every one had a 450 cubic inch engine. In short, muscle cars were starting to look a lot like the full sized cars that ruled the road before 1964.
|But there was another type of performance car that still offered light weight, nimble handling and sexy styling, all the things that had turned on young America about the muscle cars. They were called pony cars.|
The pony cars were billed as Americans version of European sports cars but they had a definite Detroit flavor. The 'Cuda and the Challenger were two of the most successful executions on the pony car theme. Since the introduction of the Mustang and Camaro, Chrysler had settled for third place in sales in this attractive market segment. But the 1970 'Cuda and Challenger were going to change all that.
|Their styling was immaculate and the range of available engines, which included everything in Chrysler's inventory, made sure that Dodge and Plymouth lovers could do just about anything they wanted with this car, including going racing.|
|Keith Maney, Restoration Expert -
"Chrysler Corporation stepped up in 1970 to compete
in the Trans-Am series and really that just shows how
competitive the pony car marketplace was, more than
anything else. I think all the manufacturers knew that if
you were going to play in the pony car market then you
had to race the cars."
|Trans-Am racing was custom tailored for pony cars to go fender to fender with each other on Americas finest road courses. This heads up racing series had been raging on for several years with Ford, GM and even American Motors spending millions of dollars on full tilt factory racing efforts. With all the media exposure and fan enthusiasm the series generated, the automakers thought it was worth every penny.|
|Tom Shaw, Editor Muscle Car Review - "The musclecars wars were really reaching a fever pitch in 69 and 70 and anything they could do to get an advantage over their competition they did and Trans-Am racing proven to be a great marketing tool for them."|
|Trans-Am was about the only racing series that Plymouth and Dodge hadn't participated in. But by 1970 they wanted some of this action. Even though Ford and GM had a few years lead in car development, Chrysler Corporation called in some big time help and in a short time, they put together two first class racing programs.|
Champion race driver, Sam Posey recalls the excitement of being asked to form a team to race the Dodge Challenger.
|Sam Posey, Racing Champion - "AutoDynamics was awful proud when we were signed by Dodge. We had almost been signed by American Motors about a month before and had done quite a lot of the preliminary work with the Javelin deal in mind and we just couldn't wait to strap these big fat things on and get out there and run into people."|
|With Sam Posey's AutoDynamics fielding a Challenger and Dan Gurney's All American Racers preparing two 'Cudas, Dodge and Plymouth then hit the market with special editions of these cars, which had road racing suspensions, big bold graphics and a lightweight, high revving 340 engine. Dodge's special edition of the Challenger was called appropriately enough the T/A. Plymouth called their car the AAR 'Cuda after Dan Gurney's All American Racers.|
Both cars were high style, high visibility
and loaded to the max with go fast hardware. Young America took
notice and soon the big battle in Trans-Am wasn't on the track,
it was at the Mopar dealerships.
Less than 3,000 copies of each car was ever made and the people who got their hands on one knew they had something special. These cars would soon become some of the most collectible pony cars of the entire era.
But could fantastic cars like these possibly have an economy car heritage? Well yes and no. We'll start with the 'Cuda and it's not so racy beginnings.
It had been six years since Plymouth had introduced the Barracuda and they had been wild years. What had started as a fun little exercise of putting high revving little V8's into sporty little cars had become the fastest growing and most lucrative part of the entire automobile industry. The Barracuda had been upgraded from its original design and it was now a pretty heavy duty ground pounder. Like the Mustang which traced its roots back to the Ford Falcon, the Barracuda had been created from an equally slow, unexciting little car called the Valiant.
|The Barracuda was actually introduced a few weeks before the Mustang, but it looked so much like the compact car from which it was derived that many people actually mistook it for a Valiant. It took Plymouth three years to correct this misconception, when they did the little lightweight Barracuda became more of a sports car than either the Mustang, the Camaro, or the Firebird.|
But the rule even for pony cars was now go big or stay home. Ford and GM had started this cubic inch race by putting big block engines in the Mustang and the Camaro. But Chrysler could bring more motor to the party than any other kid on the block, they had the Hemi!
|Unless you were Ronnie Sox or a handful of other racers, the 426 Hemi in the '68 Barracuda wasn't something you could just walk into your Plymouth dealer and buy. It was however, a little reminder from Plymouth to all the other pony cars that they could be just as serious about going fast as anyone else.|
Mopar's racing experience had also
developed ultra heavy duty drive line components. Their sure grip
rear ends and bullet proof four speed and automatic transmissions
could handle the torque output from any Mopar engine, no matter
how wild. Drive train breakage in Chrysler products was
practically unheard of.
But amid all the muscle car smoke and noise, Chrysler introduced a little high winding small block that was the best kept secret of 1968, their new 340 cubic inch engine. This engine used a 4.04 inch bore and a short 3.31 inch stroke. With a .445 lift cam, 10.75 compression and a single Carter 4 barrel carburetor, it was underrated at 275 HP at 5,000 RPM.
|1968 Chrysler 340 C.I. Engine
Bore: 4.04 Inches
Stroke: 3.31 Inches
.445-Lift Hydraulic Cam
Carter 4-bbl Carburetor
With it's light weight and quick revving
ability, the 340 Barracuda offered agility and handling as well
as acceleration. In fact, thanks to their curb weight of 3,100
pounds, 340 Barracudas could run the quarter mile within an
eyelash of other pony cars with much bigger engines. The street
crowd had been calling the car 'Cuda for several years, so in
1969 Plymouth formalized the nickname as an option package and
now you could even order the 440 engine in a 'Cuda which was a
textbook case of overkill.
But after three years, the 'Cudas body was ready for an upgrade. The new 'Cuda for 1970 would be an awesome muscle car and an equally good road racer. The third generation 'Cuda hits the streets.
|Nothing about the 70 'Cuda could be traced back to any economy car. In 1970, Chrysler's designers gave it a body that turned the 'Cuda into the sexiest pony car on the road.|
The designers gave the 'Cuda one other
thing in 1970, a running mate. The Dodge Challenger along with
the 'Cuda were Mopars new E-Bodies. Their surface similarities
hid many differences in the two cars, but they were both designed
to hold any engine in Chrysler's inventory, the slant 6 to the
Even though muscle cars still played the bigger is better game in 1970, there were some people out there who remembered what the pony car was originally designed to be. These people didn't have anything against straight line acceleration, they just thought turning corners was fun too. For them the new E-Body car was a gift.
AAR Owner, Scott Waddell - "This one being a road racer, I guess most of the muscle cars were big block cars and had more of a straight line appeal but this one was made for the handling and taking the turns and all that."
If you could take your eyes off the Challenger and the 'Cudas new body for a minute you found a host of new suspension items underneath that made these cars excellent road machines. In addition to larger torsion bars, the cars featured big front and rear anti-roll bars, bigger brakes and heavy duty shocks and leaf springs. According to Sam Posey, the street 'Cudas and Challengers had a very similar feel to the ones he raced.
|Posey - "It feels a lot like the real racing cars did. It has the same harshness of ride, you feel the ride. It has the same rumbly sound. It has the same kind of spartan quality to the interior. The same heavy steering. Not quite any of those things to the degree that was felt in the real racing cars, but a good hint of it, a wiff of it."|
A little extra attention to the car's suspension was a good move because Chrysler Corporation was about to take these cars up against GM and Ford in the Trans-Am series.
|Gary Savage - "They really had to get on the ball to develop this car. Finding out late in 69 and having to just haul to get the thing done and they put it all together and had to of course produce the street version to be able to run in the series. So they were running around frantic for a while there."|
With racing preparations underway, Dodge and Plymouth now went to work designing street versions of these Trans-Am race cars. Like the Z-28 and Boss 302 Mustang, the AAR and the T/A would have a definite road racer flavor, which would set them apart from the other 'Cuda and Challenger models.
|Thanks to Plymouth's relationship with Dan Gurney, it was a natural that their car would have Gurney's All American Racers logo on it, so it became the AAR 'Cuda.|
|Dodge wanted something a little more in your face and since Pontiac had already taken the name Trans-Am, they settled for the initials T/A.|
|Plymouth decked out it's 'Cuda with eye catching graphics which included a laser stripe down the side of the car, the All American Racers logo, and a blacked out hood treatment which also blacked out the tops of the front fenders. The 'Cudas hood scoop was a low drag item inspired by NASA design.|
|The Challenger's hood scoop was a more traditional Mopar Super Stock looking piece. Dodge also gave the Challenger a blacked out hood treatment and its' side stripes incorporated the letters T/A.|
|The Challenger also featured a large 340 Six Pak fender decal just in case you didn't know who you were messing with.|
|Both cars had ducktail rear spoilers and each car sported a fibreglass hood.|
Under each hood was a jewel, a special heated up version of the little 340. In addition to a stronger block, the AAR and T/A's 340 engine mounted special cylinder heads, stronger rocker arms from the 426 Hemi and improved valvetrain oiling. On top of the engine sat a trio of Holly 2 barrel carburetors on an Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold. The pax air cleaner sealed to the scoop with a rubber gasket to draw in fresh air.
|1970 AAR-T/A 340 C.I. Engine
Stronger Engine Block
Special Cylinder Heads
Hemi Rocker Arms and Shafts
Improved Valvetrain Oiling
To make the car legal for Trans-Am racing
Chrysler had to make 2,800 'Cudas and 2,500 T/As. Such a small
production run made these cars in extremely short supply at the
dealership. Those who got one discovered that this was no
ordinary pony car.
With less than 6,000 of these little street screamers in the pipeline, Mopar fans considered themselves extremely lucky to just get a ride in a T/A Challenger or an AAR 'Cuda.
AAR Owner, Marty Bugbee - "After I did the research on the car, and found out what the car was, I knew I had something"
T/A Owner, Doug Sawyer - "The 340-6 Pack, the style of the car, the lines on it really got my attention and I didn't realize until I got this car how enjoyable it is to drive."
|Challenger and AAR 'Cuda interiors were typical pony cars with bucket seats, a console, large easy to read gauges and a custom steering wheel. You had your choice of either the TorqueFlite automatic, or the Chrysler 833 four speed trans with Mopar's pistol grip shift handle.|
Most cars came with power steering, power
brakes and the music master AM radio.
Most dealers never received more than two or three of them and there were so few AAR 'Cudas and T/A Challengers ever made that buyers couldn't even special order them. If you wanted one, you took whatever the dealer had on the showroom floor. But the AAR and the T/A were already loaded with all the trick features that their buyers wanted anyway.
Maney - "These cars also featured side exit exhaust which is very unusual. What happens is that the exhaust comes back from the manifold, runs into a muffler and then actually turns around and comes back forward and sticks out the side."
Waddell - "They also put larger back tires, they used the Goodyear Polyglass, they had G60's on the back and E60's up front and I guess that just all adds to the height and kinda gives it more of that Hot Rod-ish or Race car-ish look"
By the time Dodge and Plymouth had put on the finishing touches, they had made two little boulevard racers that were easily the equal of anything from GM or Ford. With the stripes and decals, the special handling, and the throaty exhaust and even the two different sized tires, these cars were exactly what the pony car thing was all about.
Maney - "Image is everything. If you're a car manufacturer and you're wanting to promote your product , you can't really do it halfway."
Shaw - "They were just perfectly shaped, the graphics were perfect, they had the high impact colors, fibreglass hoods. They looked like 1:1 scale Hot Wheels."
While Dodge and Plymouth were building enough street cars to satisfy SCCA's minimum production requirements, work had been continuing on putting together a racing program. Now that they had enough street versions it was time to go to the track.
Shaw - "Dodge and Plymouth were late to the game in 70. They missed out on critical delevopement time, their efforts were incredible for a first year team".
|In choosing Dan Gurney's All American Racers and Sam Posey's Autodynamics, Chrysler gave themselves a powerful 1-2 punch in the Trans-Am series. Not only were they savvy racers, they were fierce competitors, even with each other.|
Posey - "Autodynamics found out that
Gurney was acid dipping and so we went and said 'Well we'll acid
dip even more! We'll just be lighter than he is'. At the first
race of the year at Laguna Seca our car was the last to go
through tech inspection. When we were finished we asked John
Tomanis, the chief tech inspector, whether he'd like to have a
beer with us, he said 'Sure!'. Well we gave him a beer and he
relaxed and put his elbow up on the roof of our car and dented
it. He said 'Boys, we've got a problem.'"
On the engine side, world famous engine builder Keith Black was retained to build the teams race motors.
Posey - "Keith Black was a genius. He was a drag racing specialist who turned to road racing to produce our engine. He never missed a beat, he made reliable engines, he made extremely powerful engines. It was the strong part of our car by far".
|The Trans-Am rules called for a engine no larger than 305 cubic inches. If the 340 could be shrunk down to this size and still make enough horsepower to be competitive with the Boss Mustang and the Z-28, Dodge and Plymouth might just be fighting each other for the Trans-Am title in 1970.|
|Over a two month period, Mopar's would-be Trans-Am racers had been stripped down, beefed up and welded on until they were now ready for the track. From the stands, as they whizzed by at 150 miles per hour, the cars looked like the ones in the showrooms, but these were full on race cars.|
Posey - "They do look stock compared to today's cars ... they ain't! It was a terrible error to think of these things as being stock in any way. As I said, the whole body had been through the acid bath, the engines were anything but stock. The transmissions and rear ends had housings that were made out of magnesium with a little metal glued on them so when the tech inspector tried with his magnet, the magnet would stick to it. We cheated from the nose of the car to the tail of the car".
|AAR Cuda-Challenger T/A
Keith Black Race Engine
303.8 Cubic Inches
4-Bolt Main Caps
Better Oiling System
Ported Cylinder Heads
Hemi Rocker Arms and Shafts
Under the hood, a real miracle was taking
place. Keith Black's engine shops had kept the 340's 4.04 inch
bore but had destroked it to 303.8 cubic inches. Thanks to the
special Trans-Am block which had a beefier bottom end, the main
bearing web was redrilled for four bolt main caps. A cross
drilled crank and forged rods were good to 8,500 RPM and the
engine was kept alive with a better oiling system. The new heads
were treated to a port job and the valvetrain was beefed up with
Hemi rocker arms and shafts. With a single Holley four barrel
carburetor, the engine now dyno'ed at over 460 horsepower.
Plymouth rolled out it's two racing 'Cudas for Swede Savage and Dan Gurney. Simultaneously, Dodge's Challenger entered the frey with Sam Posey in the driver's seat.
|Posey - "To be able to race against Mark Donohue, Parnelli Jones, George Follmer, Swede Savage my special friend and Dan Gurney, this was fantastic stuff. You'd go tearing down a straight, Dan Gurneys' right there, and Mark Donohue is right over there, and you know, Parnelli Jones is ahead ... he's always ahead. I mean, that's a lot of fun".|
With all the chips on the table from Ford, Chevrolet, American Motors and now Chrysler, the 1970 season was a brawl from start to finish. At stake were the pony car bragging rights and millions of dollars in car sales, thanks to this, the Mopar teams had some interesting rules to live by.
|Posey - "If the engine blew up and parts were littered all over the place, you'd come in and you'd say 'stuck throttle', or you'd come in and you'd say 'ah, the transmission let me down' or you'd come in say 'the rear view mirror fell off', but you would not say the engine blew. Chrysler engines never blew."|
Trans-Am races were wild and crazy affairs. Gary Savage relives this excitement as he vintage races his father's restored AAR 'Cuda.
|G. Savage - "Laguna Seca was the first place I drove it. You come over the crest there and the thing's squirrely all over, trying to keep it going straight into the corner. And then coming down the corkscrew which is, you know, a famous corner there, it was just something, you can't even see over top of the hood on these things. You're sitting down low all you can see is this, the big hood and you see the trees so you kinda just point at the trees and drop off the corkscrew and you hope you're in the right place."|
|Neither the 'Cuda nor the Challenger posted a win in 1970. Suddenly the season and the 'Cuda and Challenger's Trans-Am racing career was over.|
The AAR 'Cuda and the Challenger T/A take their place today as two more examples of the extremes to which American car companies were willing to go to claim the performance market as their exclusive territory.
|There are probably several hundred of these cars still around today. In the muscle car hobby very few cars are as prized or as respected as these little road rockets.|
|Shaw - "The legacy that Chrysler's Trans-Am cars created continues to this day. It's amazing. I don't think anybody expected the reputation to last decades after the racing series ended".|
Don't crush'em ... restore 'em.
Revised: March 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Larkco