Rare Rides: The 1970-71 Plymouth Hemicuda Convertibles

In the annals of muscle car history, there is a pantheon of names that conjure visions of high horsepower, monstrous cubic-inch displacement and stratospheric monetary values. GTO Judge, ZR-1, Boss 429, GNX Stage 1 and SS 454 immediately spring to mind.

But for my money, there is a moniker that stands above all of these, one that struck fear in the hearts of stoplight and dragstrip warriors alike in the 1970s. It is a name as sinister as a Black Mamba, and slithers off the tongue just like one…

Hemicuda.

Resulting from the mating of an E-Body Plymouth Barracuda with Mopar’s most powerful lump, the famed 426 Hemi “Elephant Motor,” the Hemicuda existed for but two model years in 1970 and ’71.

Owing to the fact that it added a considerable sum to the price of a ‘Cuda, Hemicudas were exceedingly rare. In fact, out of the roughly 65,000 Barracudas produced in 1970 and 1971, a paltry 780 of them were Hemicudas.

With any other mass-produced vehicle, that number in and of itself would be considered infinitesimal. In the case of the Hemicuda, however, it pales in comparison to the examples of Hemicuda convertibles that were manufactured. This perhaps makes the 1970 and ’71 Plymouth Hemicuda convertibles the ultimate in our continuing quest to explore the world’s Rare Rides!

The 1970 Plymouth Hemicuda Convertible. (Image courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

While many car aficionados assume that the 1964 ½ Ford Mustang started the pony car craze, the truth is that the Plymouth Barracuda was released some two weeks before it.

Aware long before the Mustang’s debut, Plymouth executives launched their own project aimed at this niche in the market. It knew Ford was working on a sporty, low-cost car, and that it would likely be a success.

The Valiant based 1964 Plymouth Barracuda. Note the bubble rear window. (Image courtesy of Bringatrailer.com.)

Styled by Irv Ritchie, the original Barracuda (originally named the Panda) was a fastback based on the company’s successful A-body Valiant compact. It borrowed the Valiant’s hood, doors, quarter panels, bumpers, headlight bezels and windshield, but featured a new trunk section, and a unique wraparound rear-window that was the largest ever produced at the time.

Mechanicals included three engine choices, ranging from the base 170 cubic-inch, 101 horsepower slant-6, the intermediary 225 cubic-inch, 145 horsepower slant-6, to the top-of-the-range 273 cubic-inch V8 that churned out 180 ponies.

Tranny choices included a standard three-speed manual, a four-speed manual, the brand new A904 Torqueflite 6, and the push-button TorqueFlite.

While the launch was successful, with 23,443 examples built in an abbreviated model year, sales of the Barracuda were dwarfed by its rival from Ford, with the Mustang shifting 126,538 units in the same amount of time.

The 1967 Barracuda redesign. (Image courtesy of classiccardb.com)

With the pony car wars now in full swing, Plymouth honed the potency of their steed, making the 225 slant-6 the base engine in the car’s second year. A Formula S package which included a four-barrel carbureted version of the 273 was also added. This upped the power to 235 horses. Sport suspension, disc brakes, and larger wheels rounded things out.

New sheet metal and exterior ornamentation followed in 1966, and a complete redesign was performed in ’67. By 1968, engine options included the 318 V8 in lieu of the 273, a brand new 340, and the range-topping 383 Super Commando big block, good for 300 bhp.

The track-only 1968 Hemi Barracuda. (Image courtesy of hot-cars.org.)

In a hint of what was to come, Plymouth, in conjunction with Hurst Performance, made 50, non-street legal Barracudas outfitted with the 426 Hemi for drag racing in 1968. Other niceties on these 10-second monsters included fiberglass fenders, considerable weight reduction, and a huge hood scoop.

Although the massive 440 Super Commando V8 was added as an option for street versions in 1969, Barracuda performance generally trailed that of hi-po Mustangs, and sales had yet to ever come close to the latter.

Plymouth executives were keen to reverse these trends, and decided to throw down the gauntlet. Enlisting the styling prowess of John Herlitz, who had just redesigned the Barracuda in ’67, the top brass gave him strict parameters. The car would ride on a shorter version of the A-body chassis, to be called the E-body; it must be able to accommodate all of Chrysler’s big blocks including the 440 and 426 Hemi; and it must dispel any hint of the former Barracuda’s econocar roots.

With these edicts in mind, Herlitz set about turning the Barracuda into a bonafide muscle car, capable of taking on all comers from GM and Ford. What resulted from his pen was one of the most iconic shapes in automotive history.

John Herlitz’s masterpiece of automotive design: the 1970 Hemicuda convertible. (Image courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

The new car, slated for 1970 introduction, featured a long hood and short deck, an aggressive-looking recessed grille, and most notably, sensuous hips that rose up to meet the B-pillar, ahead of the rear wheels. Gone was the fastback layout of the previous gen, replaced by coupe and convertible iterations. The new design was both classy-looking and muscular at the same time. It was truly a masterpiece of automotive styling, and Plymouth executives knew it straight away.

A vintage ad for the new Barracuda. (Image courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.)

The 1970 would be available in four distinct trim lines: the low-end Barracuda Coupe, the base model Barracuda, an upscale Barracuda Grand Coupe, and the muscular, sport version, the ‘Cuda.

Engine choices for the Coupe, Barracuda and Grand Coupe included a 198 cubic-inch slant-6, and the venerable 225, as well a trio of V8 – the 318, the 383 two-barrel and the 383 four-barrel.

A plain-Jane Barracuda Gran Coupe Convertible. (Image courtesy of dusty cars.com.)

The ‘Cuda dispensed with the sixes and offered the 383 cubic-inch, 335 horsepower V8 as standard. Optional engines included a 275 horsepower 340, a 440 four-barrel good for 375 ponies, the 440 six-barrel “Six-Pack” 390 horsepower lump, and the legendary 426 Hemi.

While all of the performance engines had their plusses and minuses, and each has its own loyal cult of worshippers, the Hemi, not surprisingly, was the Holy Grail for straight-line performance addicts.

The 426 Hemi’s genesis dated back to 1963, when it was developed as an engine for racing the 1964 Daytona 500. Using the Chrysler cast-iron “RB” block, engineers installed heads containing hemispherically-shaped combustion chambers and a top center located spark plug for maximum performance and burn efficiency.

The heart of the beast: the legendary 426 Hemi V8 “Elephant Motor,” equipped with a satin black Shaker hood scoop. (Image courtesy of Hemmings News.)

In 1970-71 street form, with a 4.25” x 3.75” bore and stroke, a 10.25:1 compression ratio, an aluminum intake, iron exhaust manifold and a pair of Carter AVS 625-cfm four-barrel carbs, the 426 put out a sarcastically factory underrated 425 brake horsepower and 490 lb-ft of torque. All of this was enough to motivate a street Hemicuda to a 5.7 second 0-60 time, and enable it to trip the quarter in 14 seconds at 117 mph. Seriously heady stuff for the time.

Transmitting this massive amount of power was a standard three-speed 727 TorqueFlite automatic, with an A-833 four-speed manual optional. The slushbox cars were equipped with an 8 ¾” rear axle, while the four-speed cars sported the heftier Sure-Grip limited-slip Dana 60, 9 ¾” unit with a 3.54 ratio, or a 4.10 ratio as part of the Super Track-Pak option.

“Aw, wouldn’t ya? Barracuda!” (Image courtesy of Hemmings News, lyric courtesy of Heart.)

The usual Chrysler design characteristics were present on the 1970-‘71 ‘Cuda unibody chassis and suspension. They included a heavy-duty, independent, front torsion-bar suspension system with leaf springs out back, all secured to a unit-body foundation. 426 equipped cars were provided with extra heavy-duty parts such as different front K-frames and 5 ½ leaves per rear spring, rather than 4 ½.

For slowing down, Hemicudas came stock with heavy-duty drums measuring 11 x 3.00 and 11 x 2.50-inches front and rear, respectively. Power front discs were optional and came with vented rotors measuring 10.97” in diameter. When equipped with front discs, rear drums would be 10 x 2.50-inches.

Body color 15 x 7-inch steelies with “dog dish” hubcaps were standard equipment. 14- or 15-inch Rallye wheels and 14 inch five-spoke Magnum 500-style wheels were optional. All Hemicudas came with Goodyear Polyglas F60-15 RWL tires.

A 1971 Hemicuda convertible in In Violet paint. Note the scalloped grill, quad headlamps, “dog dish” hubcaps and front fender “gills.” (Image courtesy of Barrett-Jackson Auctions.)

On the exterior, 1970 Hemicudas, in coupe or convertible form, had an Argent Silver, vertically split front grille with a single headlamp on each side. In ’71, the grille was divided into several scalloped segments flanked by quad lamps. Taillights were revamped slightly for ’71 as well.

Rally Red Hemicudas could be optioned with a body color Shaker hood scoop like this 1970. (Image courtesy of Wheelsage.org.)

While ’70 cars featured plain front fenders and brushed metal “gilled” rocker panel covers, ’71 ‘Cuda fenders featured four faux “gills” per side and the rocker treatment was dropped. All Hemi cars came with the famous N96 Shaker Hood which could be had in black or Argent Silver, except when FE5 Rallye Red was the exterior color, in which case the Shaker could be painted body color.

A handful of “High Impact” colors were available such as Lemon Twist. (Image courtesy of Sportscar Market.)

A large array of exterior colors could be chosen from, ranging from standard fare such as Alpine White, Black Velvet and Burnt Tan Metallic to the legendary “High Impact” hues like Lemon Twist, Tor-Red, Vitamin C, Lime Light and In-Violet Metallic.

Likewise, exterior options were legion. Body-colored Elastometric front bumpers, hood pins, chrome or body colored side mirrors, a rear deck “Go Wing” spoiler, rear window louvers, and a luggage rack were just a few of the ways you could outfit your Hemicuda. In 1970, “Hockey Stick,” side graphics were offered, and were supplanted by massive “Billboard” side graphics the following year.

A highly optioned 1971 Hemicuda convertible interior, complete with Rally Dash, “Rim-Blow” steering wheel, center console, Hurst pistol grip shifter and leather seats. (Image courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Hemicuda interiors were spartan as was the norm with most muscle cars of the era. High back, front bucket seats were standard, and a faux wood applique was present on the dash. Interior colors included Black, Bright Blue,Red, Dark Green, Saddle Tan, White and a few others. Interior options included a popular Rallye Gauge Cluster with 8000 rpm tach, leather seats, center console, a Hurst Pistol Grip Shifter, “Rim Blow” steering wheel, air conditioning, power accessories and several radio choices.

A close up of the Rallye Gauge Cluster, with its 8000 rpm tach. (Image courtesy of hamtramck-historical.com.)

Rarest of the rare options for the Hemicuda was the convertible top. Available in manual and power configurations, convertibles required stiffening and strengthening of the body and chassis at key points, and, as such, was an expensive option. As a result, in 1970 only 14 customers outfitted their cars that way, dropping to just seven people in 1971.

Owing to strict EPA standards and rising gas prices, the Hemi option went the way of the Dodo at the end of 1971. This ensured that the total production of Hemicuda convertibles would forever remain at 21 examples.

The $3.5 million 1971 Plymouth Hemicuda convertible at the Mecum Auction in 2014. (Image courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Because of this, original, numbers-matching Hemicuda convertibles have gone to Pluto in value. An immaculate, low-mileage ’71 example sold at the 2014 Mecum Auction in Seattle for a record $3.5 million dollars, making the Hemicuda convertible the undisputed King of the Muscle Cars, and forever cementing its status as the ultimate in Rare Rides!

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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