If you are like me — a member of the so-called Generation X — and were obsessed with horror movies as a kid, chances are there were a small handful of films that introduced you to being scared out of your wits.
Alien, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror were three late-1970’s films in particular that prevented me from sleeping with the lights off for several days after watching them. But, if you were also a kid like me, you developed an obsession with cars as well as horror movies. For you, the seminal film of your youth could only have been one movie, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm.
That’s because this example of 1970’s low-budget horror featured one of the most iconic movie cars of the “Me Decade.” The modded 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda happens to be one of my favorite muscle cars and the subject of this month’s chapter of “Rob’s Movie Muscle!”
Before we get into the ‘Cuda, a few Phantasm essentials are in order.
The movie was an auteur effort by Long Beach, California-native Don Coscarelli, who wrote, directed, produced, photographed, and edited the film on a budget of only $300,000. Money that was primarily sourced from family and family friends.
Doing things in this manner afforded Coscarelli complete artistic freedom — free from the typical interference most filmmakers receive from studio executives, investors, and the like. Thus, all facets of the pre-production process, such as casting, locations, wardrobe, and production design, was entirely up to Coscarelli alone.
Which of course means that Coscarelli, himself a car nut, was able to pick the perfect protagonist’s vehicle. The car he chose had its roots firmly planted in his high-school years in the early-1970s.
Finding The Right Car
“When I was in high school, there was a kid who was a year younger than me who somehow bought one of those cars and would drive it through the parking lot,” the director recalls. “I would stand there with my friends, and we would salivate over this car. It was a beautiful 1970 Plymouth AAR ‘Cuda in Sassy Grass Green with a white interior. It was really hot with the blacked-out fiberglass hood and pistol-grip shifter. He’d roar out of that parking lot.”
Years later, while penning the screenplay for Phantasm in a cabin up in the mountains, Coscarelli remembered that ‘Cuda.
“I was cobbling together this horror movie, and for some reason, I thought, ‘oh, the brothers will drive one of those ‘Cudas! It will give me a chance to get my hands on one!'”
And so it was the older brother in the movie, Jody (played by Bill Thornbury), who would drive one of Mopar’s finest fish!
“Back in the day, the price of those cars dropped because the price of gas started to go up and the insurance costs were too high,” Coscarelli says. “We bought it off a kid in Los Angeles who wanted to get rid of it. We cleaned it up, fixed it up, and then it became this icon in the movie.”
For the four of you out there who aren’t familiar with Plymouth’s Barracuda, its history began in 1964.
Based on the Valiant A-Body platform, the first-generation Barracuda was a two-door hardtop featuring sporty, simple lines and a unique wraparound rear window. According to Mopar historians, the car was initially slated to be called the Panda, but in the late stages of development, the name Barracuda prevailed. We can all forever be thankful for that, but I digress.
The new car was revealed in April of 1964 with a trio of rather milquetoast engine choices. Sales were rather paltry compared to the competition, which included the all-conquering Ford Mustang.
As such, the House of Pentastar prompted a redesign of the car and released it just three model years later.
The second-gen Barracuda — still based on the A-body platform — was thoroughly new, with “Coke-bottle” design, a concave rear deck and curved side glass. Hardtop coupe and convertible versions joined the fastback in the lineup. To combat the Mustang and other pony-car competition, Plymouth upped its game with the Barracuda when it came to performance.
Although the base engine was a weak slant-six, engine options included the famous lineup of 318, 340, 383, and 440-cubic-inch V8s. Roughly 50, non-street legal cars were produced with the legendary 426 Hemi “Elephant Motor” for drag racing purposes. The Hemi cars could allegedly turn low-tens in the quarter-mile.
For the 1970 model year, Plymouth once again completely redesigned the car. With the horsepower and muscle car war now in full swing, the company aimed for the top of the heap with the new Barracuda.
Now based on the larger E-Body platform, the 1970 Barracuda and its Dodge stablemate, the Challenger, were masterpieces of automotive aesthetic design. Larger and wider, the new car was blessed with an exquisitely tough-looking front end with dual headlights, sensuous haunches, and a short rear deck. “Gilled” rocker panels gave the vehicle a slight aquatic touch in a nod to the car’s name. The interior featured a simplistic, driver-oriented cockpit with a center column and bucket seats.
A six-cylinder was the base engine, but once again the lineup of 318, 340, 383, and 440ci V8s were available, along with a now-street-legal 426 Hemi. It was good for a ridiculously factory-underrated 425 horsepower. Choosing any of the latter powerplants transformed the Barracuda into a ‘Cuda, with this nomenclature appearing on the panel between the taillights.
For ’71, the powertrains remained the same, but substantial aesthetic changes were implemented, including an entirely new grille with quad lamps, scalloped vents, four non-functional “side-gill” vents on the front fenders, revised taillights, and different seats.
The Phantasm ‘Cuda
The ‘Cuda in the movie was originally an FC7 In-Violet with a white interior. It was repainted by the production in X9 Formal Black, with subtle blue and gray pinstripes applied to the car’s flanks.
The car’s hood call-outs said “440 6-Pack,” denoting the Chrysler raised-block 440 with three, two-barrel Holley carburetors. It actually packed a customized 340 with a Carter 1000 cfm Thermoquad carb. It sent power to the rear via a four-speed with a Hurst Pistol Grip shifter.
Most interesting were the aesthetic customizations done to the car for the movie. They included a set of Cragar chrome wheels with fat tires all around. To accommodate the oversized rear rubber, leaded rear fender flares were added. A black-tinted sunroof was added to facilitate a scene where Jody pops up through the roof to fire a shotgun at a pursuing vehicle.
Phantasm’s ‘Cuda gives a sterling performance on screen, delivering many a burnout and a high-speed chase. But in actuality, the car was a disaster on set. Multiple breakdowns occurred relating to the electrical system. At some point in the car’s life, it was toyed with.
After filming wrapped, the production’s Art Director, David Brown, took the ‘Cuda home with him where it sat in his driveway for many years. Tired of looking at it, Brown sold it to a car enthusiast for $2,500. It has never been seen or heard of again, despite later efforts by Don Coscarelli to locate and procure the vehicle for himself.
While I always preferred the 1970 ‘Cuda versus the 1971 model for aesthetic reasons, I’d certainly be overjoyed to one day own an example of either one. In the meantime, I have Phantasm to watch (and rewatch) to get my fix of that big, bad fish!