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Plymouth All-American Racers Cuda would be welcome revival amid Challenger, Mustang, Camaro refreshes

The 'Cuda is actually a separate performance model

The 'Cuda is actually a separate performance model from the Barracuda. It's common to confuse the two. Credit: Chrysler Group LLC

The AAR badge painted on the 'Cuda's rear flank spelled excitement for fans and generated a healthy dose of respect from those who competed against it on the race track.

From the earliest days of what would be called the "Pony car" phenomenon, the Plymouth Barracuda tried marching in lock-step with the iconic Ford Mustang. Of course it failed to match the Ford in sales, even though, technically, Plymouth's Valiant-based "fish" was the first such vehicle to appear in public in the spring of 1964. But with each passing year, the Mustang marketing juggernaut grew stronger, even though the slower-selling Barracuda steadily improved in both style and in terms of unbridled muscle.

In the fall of 1969, Chrysler introduced its third-generation Barracuda, along with a similar looking Dodge Challenger. The Plymouth version came in two strengths: regular Barracudas with basic six-cylinder and small-displacement V8 engines; and performance-oriented 'Cuda models that featured "big-block" 383-cubic-inch, 440-cube and 426 "Hemi" powerplants with as much as 425 horsepower itching to bust lose.

That year, the decision was made by Chrysler execs to supplement the corporation's existing competition program, which was primarily centered on drag and NASCAR racing, by sponsoring Barracuda and Dodge Challenger teams in the 1970 Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans-American sedan road racing series. Established four years earlier, Trans-Am racing was attracting big-name drivers along with car companies spending whatever was needed to field competitive machinery and showcase their respective cars.

The head honchos at Plymouth were keen to compete, but required an organization with enough expertise to manage their racing program. They brought in Dan Gurney, one of the most successful drivers to ever strap on a helmet. Since his retirement as an active driver, Gurney was busy building race cars under his All-American Racers (AAR) banner.

While Gurney set about acquiring the necessary talent and constructing specially modified Barracudas, Plymouth began assembling sufficient quantities of street-legal versions to satisfy the Trans-Am regulations, which specified that 2,500 examples be offered to the public.

Cashing in on Gurney's obvious notoriety, the model was labeled the AAR 'Cuda. The street cars came with Chrysler Corp's 340 V8 fitted with three two-barrel carburetors. Other unique equipment included exhaust pipes that exited below each door, beefed-up suspension, larger front disc brakes, "pistol-grip" four-speed shifter, a matte-black fiberglass hood with a functional scoop, rear-deck-mounted spoiler and a quicker steering gear.

One item of note was a special set of rear springs that added 1.75 inches of ground clearance (to help the exhaust pipes) and allowed for tires that were one size wider in back than on the front wheels. Although common on many sports cars today, altering a production car in this way was virtually unheard of back in 1970.

To visually distinguish an AAR 'Cuda from the rest of the school, an attractive broken-line "strobe" stripe ran along the sides, concluding with Gurney's AAR logo displayed on the rear quarter panels.

The AAR's output was pegged at 290 horsepower (up 15 from the 340, four-barrel), a rating equal to the Boss 302 Mustang street car, but less than Chevrolet's highly successful 1970 Z/28 Camaro that used a Corvette-based 350-cubic-inch V8 worth 360 horses.

For Trans-Am competition, previous to 1970, automakers had to build engines for their production cars that met Trans-Am's 305-cubic-inch limit, but the rules changed to allow modifying the 340 for racing. Still, even at 305 cubic inches, the reduced-displacement 340 reportedly made a stout 440 horsepower.

The AAR 'Cudas that Dan Gurney hand-built for his driver, the improbably named Swede Savage, cost considerably more than the $3,966 Plymouth charged for each one of its street versions. That price, however, represented a hefty $1,200 premium over and above a base Barracuda.

Still, Plymouth had no problems selling every one of the 2,724 AAR 'Cudas it was required to build that year, Unfortunately, the Gurney/Savage AAR race car wasn't nearly as successful, finishing fifth in the points (behind a similarly equipped Dodge Challenger and well off the pace set by both the Mustang and AMC's second-place Javelin entry) in what is acknowledged as the most competitive and dramatic Trans-Am series ever staged.

However, after just a single season, Chrysler withdrew its support for Trans-Am, following a similar move by Ford. Without a road-racing program in its future, AAR 'Cuda production was abruptly ended.

Today, surviving AARs are literally worth their weight in gold, especially those lovingly restored to their former fame, if not their racing glory.

And with a new Dodge Challenger, Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang now on the streets, perhaps the time is ripe for a new Trans-Am rivalry, one that we can write about in another 40 years.


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