A snapshot from one wonderful year
by John F. Katz
AUTOWEEK March 3, 1997
Eleven races in six months, with all four
U.S. automakers battling for the manufacturers' championship:
There would never be another Trans-Am season like 1970. And there
would never be another Barracuda like the 'Cuda AAR.
Despite its slick, carnivorous nameplate,
the Barracuda had long been a small fish in a big pond. Chevy
sold four times as many Camaros, Ford built seven or eight times
as many Mustangs. Plymouth knew the problem. Since its hatch in
mid-1964, the Barracuda had shared its windshield, cowl and
floorpan with Plymouth's humble Valiant. That saved money on a
low production model, but it compromised the Barracuda's
proportions, and left no room for Chrysler's biggest engines.
Plymouth engineers had cobbled some high-strung, high-performance
variations that were genuinely fast in skilled hands - faster,
sometimes, than their bigger-engined competitors. But it was
clear that Plymouth's fish would remain a small fry until it grew
into a body shell of it's own.
That new body arrived for 1970 - riding the
same 108-inch wheelbase, but measuring six inches shorter, two
inches lower and five inches wider than the Valiant-based 1969
Barracuda. More robust running gear came from Plymouth's midsize
Belvedere, and the engine bay could easily swallow anything
Chrysler made. Plymouth offered the new fish in three flavor's:
run-of-the-pond Barracuda, luxurious Barracuda Gran Coupe and the
apostrophized 'Cuda, shorter in name but longer on performance.
'Cudas could be ordered with 340, 383 or 440-cid V8s, or even a
426 Hemi. Now Plymouth had a pony to match the Mustang and
Camaro, and it took the new 'Cuda racing to prove it.
Carroll Shelby's Mustangs had won the
5.0-liter class of the SCCA Trans-American Championship for
Manufacturers in 1966 and 1967, and Camaros took the trophy in
1968 and 1969. With hopes of breaking the Big Two's lock,
Plymouth hired Dan Gurney's All American Racers in Santa Ana,
Calif., to build a Trans-Am 'Cuda.
In 1970, Trans-Am cars were still built up
from stock bodies; the SCCA even required roll-up windows.
Appearance had to remain absolutely stock, which meant no scoops
or spoilers that weren't seen on the showroom floor. The rules
demanded a stock block and heads, with displacement of 305 cubic
inches or less and a single four-barrel carb. Stock meant a
production run of 2500 units, or .4 percent of the marque's 1969
production, whichever was greater.
Chrysler Trans-Am manager Pete Hutchinson
and engine builder Keith Black destroked the small-block 340 to
303.8 cubic inches and developed new cast-iron heads with pushrod
holes shifted slightly to permit bigger ports. Early on, Chrysler
reported 460 hp, but development produced more as the season
The street version featured the same block
and offset-pushrod heads, but without the bigger port's. Still,
with the full 340 cubic inches, three two-barrel Holleys on an
Edelbrock aluminum manifold and low-restriction, side-exit
exhaust, the street mill made 290 hp at 5000 rpm and 345 lb ft of
torque at 3400. The street car packed heavy-duty springs, power
front disc brakes, a four-speed transmission and an 8.75-inch
Sure-Grip axle. Exterior identification included a remote control
racing mirror, a racing spoiler and a bold strobe stripe
comprising 75 individual segments of decreasing width. Plymouth
priced the 'Cuda at $3,966, and named it AAR in honor of Gurney's
Collector Phil Krasner found our featured
AAR in well-kept orig-inal condition, but restored it to showroom
perfection anyway. The soft buckets hug the floor in a wide, dark
cockpit brightened only by accents of plastic and paper wood. The
340 idles quietly, but open the throttle and the V8 thumps and
howls like its road-racing cousin. Acceleration is simply
fabulous. Even with all those carburetors, the 'Cuda never
stumbles or falters when driven less aggressively.
The soft-feel steering wheel connects to
optional fast-ratio power steering, perhaps a little too fast for
so little effort. But the chassis - blessed now with modern
Goodyear Eagle radials - flow's confidently around corners. The
ride, while stiff, is never uncomfortable; the AAR drives with
unusual refinement for a muscle/pony car.
Alas, the 'Cuda never fulfilled it's
promise on the track. Three times driver Swede Savage started
from the pole. Often he led. But the Chrysler four-speed, proven
on NASCAR's ovals, tended to jam in the rigors of road racing.
Savage finished fifth at Donnybrooke, stuck in second gear; the
transmission also cost him a couple of DNFs. A broken
differential retired the Plymouth at least once, as did an oil
system that couldn't cope with one g corners. Savage's best
finish, a second, came at Elkhart Lake in July. Plymouth ended
the series fifth in points - behind the Boss Mustang, Donohue
Javelin, Camaro Z-28 and a Dodge Challenger T/A also built by
Gurney but campaigned by Sam Posey. Only AMC would return with a
factory team in 1971. With no Trans-Am program, Plymouth needed
no homologation car, and the AAR disappeared.
Plymouth built 55,499 Barracudas (2727
AARs) in 1970, but production fell to 18,690 in 1971 as the
entire performance car market stagnated. The company finally
pulled the plug on the Barracuda's 10th birthday - April Fool's
Revised: March 23, 1999
Copyright © 1999 Larkco