25 August 2008

1970 Plymouth 'Cuda AAR

In 1970, Plymouth entered SCCA Trans-Am racing, contracting with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers (AAR) to build and campaign cars to be driven by him and Swede Savage. At that time, SCCA homologation requirements dictated that a manufacturer build a minimum of 2,500 street versions in order to compete. The single-production-year AAR ’Cuda was special for that purpose, and 2,724 were built, all during a five-week period between March and April 1970.

The street-version AAR had a 340cid V-8 topped by three 2-bbl Holley carburetors. The engine was underrated at 290 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. In addition to cylinder heads that were unique to this engine, the block had thicker main webs along with a forged crank and rods. Other special features included an aluminum intake manifold, larger brakes and a rear deck spoiler. A 4-speed manual transmission was standard. The car was equipped with a 3.55:1 rear axle ratio combined with Sure-Grip, and a 3.91:1 ratio as an option. The AAR suspension included special front and rear sway bars and heavy-duty shock absorbers. Heavy-duty rear leaf springs raised the rear end of the car to make room for the side-exiting exhaust and provided room for Goodyear G60X15 tires at the rear and E60X15 in the front, making the AAR ’Cuda the first American modern-day production vehicle to come with different-sized tires front to rear.

A special textured flat-black finish was applied to the grille, hood, tops of the fenders and upper door edges and tail panel. The hood, proprietary to the AAR, was lightweight fiberglass, had a functional air scoop and contained hood pins holding it closed at the front. Despite lighter-weight hood springs, the hoods typically bowed within weeks of delivery. The exterior had a distinctive strobe stripe graphic running the length of the car ending at the rear with the red, white and blue AAR crest. The stripe itself comprises 75 individual segments of decreasing width. The AAR was priced at $3,966.

The feature car is owned by N. Mark Becker, Jacksonville, Florida. As a youngster, he spent many weekends sitting on corner flag stations at racetracks such as the now defunct Bridgehampton in New York and Daytona and Sebring in Florida during the heyday of the Can-Am and Trans-Am series as well as endurance sports car events. His parents were heavily involved as SCCA medical and flagging personnel.

Dan Gurney became his favorite driver and was successful not only in a car of his own construction, the Formula 1 Eagle, but in various Can-Am, Trans-Am, and endurance cars as well. Since the young Becker was not old enough to enter the pit area, at Bridgehampton in the late 1960s his father arranged a meeting with Dan Gurney so that the two could meet through a chain link fence. He was awe-struck at the time and was unable to speak. His father even enrolled him as a charter member of the Gurney Eagle Club.

A little more than 30 years later, Mark Becker decided to acquire an AAR ’Cuda, the muscle car that had captured his imagination as an 11-year-old and that was the production version of the car driven by Dan Gurney in the 1970 Trans-Am season. The search included telling his Mopar enthusiast friends that he was looking, checking Hemmings on a monthly basis, and unending Internet searches. Ultimately, he found a car in Spokane, Washington.

A trusted Mopar expert previously viewed the car and vouched for the fact that the engine, transmission, and multiple chassis stampings reflected the car to be numbers matching. A deal was struck and an enclosed transport was engaged for the cross-country journey to Jacksonville.

The car arrived with a treasure trove of documentation, including factory broadcast sheets (manufacturing checklists that followed Chrysler products down the assembly line and told the workers what options and special equipment were to go into a given vehicle). Yearly license-plate registration paperwork went back many years and verified mileage from year to year. The car had undergone a rotisserie, overspray-correct restoration in the late 1980s and, based on the included paperwork, had been driven very little since the restoration. The paint looked as though it had been applied very recently as opposed to having actually been done over a decade prior.

A close inspection found that while large components such as the engine, transmission, suspension pieces and rear end had been restored or refinished correctly, not quite so much care had been taken to install those items with correct hardware or fasteners or the correct finish. Thus began the painstaking detail research into the correct fastener, clip or retainer for each location and the appropriate finish for each. Chrysler used multiple vendors, each of whom used their own head markings on various bolts and screws and, as we found out, would even vary from assembly plant to assembly plant. Fastener finishes varied widely from bright zinc and cadmium to an iridescent dichromate dip to various dark oxide and phosphate finishes.

As the 1970 Barracuda and ’Cuda vehicles carried the new E-body style, there are many parts that are unique to that year. It became obvious that when the car was originally restored, a 1971 Barracuda had been a donor vehicle as there were many pieces such as lower shock plates, the fuel filler tube and gas cap as well as valve covers that, while at first glance appeared correct, turned out to be parts off of a later vehicle.

Sourcing the many one-year-only pieces was one of the greatest challenges. NOS parts were used extensively during the re-restoration process. Much research went into determining the correct placement and color for the multiple paint daubs and grease-pencil markings in the engine compartment and undercarriage, which reflect that certain components and sub-assemblies had been inspected during the manufacturing process.

The color of this particular car, Sassy Grass Green, is one of the extra-cost “high impact” colors offered. While the AAR was available in more than 20 different colors, this was one of the rarer shades with only about 30 known to exist.

In 2002, Dan Gurney was the honorary chairman at the Amelia Island Concours and as a result, Chairman Bill Warner invited and assembled a group of cars reflecting Gurney’s storied career. Becker’s car was included. Making the invitation even sweeter was the opportunity to once again meet his childhood hero and the reason for the purchase of the vehicle in the first place. The weekend got even better when Gurney graciously spent time with the owner of each of the cars assembled for his tribute (Becker had him autograph the underside of the trunk lid).

This car received its AACA First Junior in 2004 and a Senior award in 2005. It was also judged best stock E-body at one of the largest Mopar shows in the southeast (the Garlits Museum in Ocala, Florida) two years running and was also invited to the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance where it placed first in the American Performance Class.

Restorations are never really completed. NOS parts continue to be installed when found and Becker finds much enjoyment from the continued research into the manufacturing processes and flaws inherent in all Mopars of the time in order to make the restoration as accurate as possible.

West Peterson is editor of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America.

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