Seemingly a lifetime ago, in 1992, I graduated from NYU Film School with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in film & television production. Less than a year after, a wet-behind-the-ears Rob embarked on a move to Los Angeles with his trusty BFA and all his worldly possessions to pursue a career in filmmaking.
Through a fortuitous series of events, I managed to get myself hooked up with one of the top assistant directors in the business. At that time, he was moving up to the position of line producer and unit production manager on what he told me was “a major star’s new television show.”
He asked if I was interested in working with him on it, and I readily agreed. The show turned out to be Don Johnson’s return to network television, Nash Bridges, and that’s where my rabid love for Mopars began. You see, as part of my duties as a production assistant on the show, I was the person who liaised between the production office and the shop that was prepping the 1971 Plymouth ‘Cudas for the show!
In this month’s edition of “Rob’s Movie Muscle,” I thought I’d share some of my remembrances from the job and discuss one of my favorite muscle cars of all time — the Plymouth E-Body ‘Cuda!
Nash Bridges was produced by Don Johnson’s production company, in conjunction with Rysher Entertainment, and aired on the CBS television network from 1996 to 2000. It has since gone into syndication on the USA Network in the United States.
The series starred Johnson, along with Cheech Marin, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, James Gannon, and Yasmine Bleeth. It followed the exploits of San Francisco Police detective Nash Bridges and his partner Joe Dominguez (Marin) as they investigate cases for the city’s Special Investigations Unit.
My involvement with the show began in 1995, prior to the filming of the pilot episode. As a production assistant, I was the lowest man on the totem pole. Many of my duties involved fetching coffee and running to office supply stores and the like. Nonetheless, I was content, as it was my first taste of big-budget production, and our office was the entire penthouse floor of a building just off the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank.
I vividly recall the pre-production day when a meeting was held to discuss what car Nash was going to drive in the show. I was present to take minutes in the meeting as Don and the writers browsed a coffee table book of vintage muscle cars.
Originally, Don was gravitating towards a GTO — a Judge — if I recall correctly. Then, one of the writers noted in the book that the king of muscle cars from the era was generally considered to be the Plymouth Hemicuda, in particular, the ultra-rare convertibles.
From somewhere, I gathered the moxie to chime in and agree with the writer. The Hemicuda convertible would be an awesome pick! The only problem, I suggested, was that there were less than 25 such cars ever produced. Finding one, let alone multiple examples, needed for filming would be next to impossible.
My naivete was made clear when Don explained they had plenty in the budget to find lesser examples of the car and dress them up to look like Hemis, should they decide to go with the Plymouth for the show.
A few days later, another meeting was held and it was decided they would go with a 1971 Plymouth Hemicuda convertible for Nash’s car. While I was always partial to the looks of the 1970 ‘Cuda over the ’71, I thought it was cool they went with a make and model I lobbied for!
How would they explain how a man on a cop’s salary would be driving what was even then a very pricey ride? They decided that dialogue in the pilot episode would explain how Nash’s older brother bought the car before deploying to Vietnam. Upon leaving for boot camp, he tossed Nash the keys to take care of it in his absence. After his brother disappeared during a battle and was declared MIA, Nash kept the car in his brother’s honor.
With the choice made, the producers set out to procure three identical cars for the show: a “hero car” that would be aesthetically perfect and used for close-ups, and two stunt cars that would be used for all of the on-camera driving. The producers reached out to a man named Frank Bennetti, a seasoned builder of vehicles for movies and television.
Frank was the owner of Same Day Paint and Body, a shop on San Fernando Road in the Los Angeles suburb of Newhall. He had numerous contacts in the field of car procurement all over Southern California. A deal was struck for Frank to locate and do all the work on the ‘Cudas slated to be the show’s four-wheeled star. There was just one catch: the production needed the cars ready in a month’s time for the filming of a conceptual promo for the network!
In the span of a week, Frank miraculously located three, four-speed convertible cars: a 340ci ‘Cuda with a Shaker hood and two 318ci Barracuda “granny cars” (Plymouth only called performance versions of the car “‘Cuda,” whereas all six-cylinder and 318-equipped cars were known as “Barracudas”).
There was just one hitch — all of the cars were 1970 models, as they were much more prevalent, and therefore, easier to find quickly than ’71 ragtops. Don was adamant, though, that he wanted Nash’s car to be the more outrageous-looking 1971 model.
It meant some fairly intensive work would have to be done to convert the cars to 1971 aesthetics. This would include swapping out the 1970 front ends with their dual-headlamp configuration for the quad-lamped and scalloped grilled ’71 ones. The rear end would need to be replaced, as it had different taillights between model years. Also, the plain 1970 front fenders would need to change for ’71 ones, which featured “fish gill” vents behind the wheel arches. The rocker panels would also have to change.
While work began on the cars, another meeting was held at our office, during which other aspects of the cars’ appearance was discussed.
Don definitely wanted the cars to be painted in what Plymouth called a “high-impact” color that he correctly felt was emblematic of the Golden Era of muscle cars. But which one? In 1971, Plymouth’s over-the-top colors included FC7 In Violet purple, FJ5 Lime Light green, EK2 Vitamin-C orange, EV2 Tor-Red orange, FY1 Lemon Twist yellow, FM3 Moulin Rouge pink, FJ6 Sassy Grass green, and GY3 Curious Yellow.
After much debate, Don chose Lemon Twist, which I thought was an excellent choice. He also wanted the car to have white seats and a matching white convertible top.
The decision was communicated to Bennetti, who was already busy sourcing original parts for the cars such as the Shakers and body panels. This was no small feat at the time, as reproduction parts for E-Body cars were still several years down the road.
About a week after that meeting, I was sitting in my office cubicle when Don came in, unexpectedly. “I’ve got a chore for you, kid,” he said. “Since you obviously like cars a lot, I think you should be the one to go to Frank’s shop once a week to check on the progress and bring me back pictures.” A broad smile quickly spread across my face. Don shot me a knowing wink and motioned for me to head to the shop.
An hour later, having braved the midday traffic up Interstate 5, I arrived at Same Day Paint and Body armed with a disposable camera (millennials take note: there were no camera phones back then!).
I introduced myself to Frank, and he took me inside to the paint booth where one of the cars had just been painted. For all intents and purposes, I was looking at a 1971 Hemicuda, quad lamps, fender gills and all! And, oh, that Lemon Twist paint! I can remember at that moment falling in love with the look of the E-body Mopar. It is a romance that still lasts to this very day.
I took a few pictures, and then Frank took me to an area of his shop where all the ’71 parts were being collected.
It was a modern restorer’s dream — flawlessly complete Shaker intakes, new-old-stock fender gills, elastomeric bumpers, grille inserts — all-original parts laid out on a blanket in the corner. I took some pictures of the parts and then hurriedly left to drop the camera off at a one-hour developer.
A week later, I returned to the shop to find all three cars finished for the most part, aside from minor trim details. I took a walk around the 340 car and admired its shape, the bold yellow color, the clean-looking white interior, and the Shaker hood with “Hemicuda” on the side. What a beast!
Just as I was about to snap more pictures for Don and the producers, Frank asked me the biggest no-brainer question of all time. “Wanna take a ride?”
I eagerly hopped into the passenger seat as Frank fired-up the car. The sound was glorious. So old school, with a loping idle. And the vibrations! While sporting gorgeous design and fantastic powertrains, there was no mistaking Chrysler products of that era were fairly crappy cars in terms of quality. Everything on the car seemed to vibrate and rattle, with the Shaker the only part that was supposed to.
We pulled out of the driveway, and Frank gave it some gas. I watched him slap the Hurst shifter from gear to gear and felt the whole chassis lurch in protest each time. This was not a refined sports car. No, this is what muscle was all about.
After what seemed way too short a period of time, we were back in the shop, and Frank shut the monster down. “What do ya think?” he asked.
“I think I have to have one,” was all I could muster.
A few days later, the cars were transported up to San Francisco where the promo was shot. I can remember watching a video copy of the dailies back at our office in Burbank with Don and the producers. Everyone agreed that the Lemon Twist paint I so loved in person, looked awful on film. For whatever reason, it appeared washed out and oxidized.
As a result, before shooting of the pilot episode began, the cars were repainted in a deeper shade, Curious Yellow, which to my eye didn’t look as good in person, but did better under film lights.
Later in the show’s run (long after I left the job), another ‘Cuda was apparently procured and added to the Nash Bridges fleet. I recall hearing it was a big-block, though not a Hemi. It was a 440 Six-Pack, which some Mopar nuts actually held in higher esteem than the “Elephant Motor” for its improved streetability and near-Hemi level of performance.
After the show’s run ended in 2001, all the cars except the 340 were sold off. Don retained the lone car and had a ground-up restoration performed on it. It was later auctioned off at Barret Jackson in 2003 for $148,500.
I wish I had the money to buy it…