Plymouth Hemi Cuda Four-Speed Convertible
In 2002 a 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible generated national headlines when it became the first muscle car to sell for over one million dollars. Yet even before reaching that historical milestone Plymouth’s Hemi-powered Cuda was long considered by enthusiasts and authorities alike to be the ultimate creation of the muscle car era. A well-documented and fully restored example of this most coveted of factory muscle cars, this 1971 Hemi Cuda convertible, one of just two 4-speed versions delivered in the U.S., has been hailed by enthusiasts, collectors, journalists, researchers and appraisers as the Holy Grail of muscle cars.
The Cuda’s rise to legendary status began in 1968 when Chrysler turned out big block versions in limited numbers but without such amenities as power steering and air conditioning. Chrysler then took the next logical step in producing low-volume mutant pony cars, contracting George Hurst’s Hurst Industries to build special Hemi-powered Darts and Barracudas for NHRA Super Stock racing.
Chrysler finally brought both the design and manufacture of its big-engine pony cars in-house for the 1970 production year, with clean-sheet designs based on a scaled-down adaptation of the larger B-body and designed from the outset to accommodate the Hemi’s generous proportions. Trimming the overall length and following the established long hood-short deck design theme resulted in an all-new Barracuda and its Dodge Challenger counterpart, both available direct from the factory with the 426/425 HP Hemi, arguably the most sophisticated and potent powerplant ever offered in a production car.
The all-new Cuda was the work of 27-year old designer John Herlitz. The design was initially panned by Chrysler design chief Elwood Engel, who expressed his displeasure during a weekend visit to the studio by leaving a hatchet embedded in the clay model’s side that Herlitz discovered the following Monday morning. Undaunted, Herlitz carried on and eventually watched an exuberant Engel drive an early prototype Hemi Cuda off the third floor elevator in Building 128, roll out into the hallway and lay down two perfect Black stripes on his way to the design auditorium.
The new-generation Barracuda and its high performance Cuda variant scored a hit with buyers. Sales all but doubled from 1969’s total of 27,392 vehicles to 50,617, including 652 Hemi Cuda coupes and 14 Hemi convertibles. But with increasing government regulations and ballooning insurance rates, buyers shied away in 1971. Total sales tanked to just 16,159 units, with Hemi production falling to 108 coupes and 11 convertibles.
Documented as the only matching numbers 4-speed convertible in existence, its factory broadcast sheet confirms that it was equipped at the Hamtramck, Michigan assembly plant with the New Process 4-speed, Dana 60 rear end with 4.10 Super Track Pak, 26-inch radiator and power brakes. Previously owned by Russ Meyer, a famous cartoonist from the Southwest, who later sold it to a buyer in Oregon for $250,000, it was eventually seized by authorities there in a drug investigation and sold at auction for $405,000, both prices were unprecedented at the time.
The buyer subsequently commissioned a restoration by highly regarded Mopar restorer Julius Steuer of Los Angeles, California, who completed the work in approximately 2000. A few years later it was then traded for a number of vintage Corvettes from the current owner’s prestigious collection.
For any diehard Mopar enthusiast, the process of decoding the Cuda’s fender tag can best be compared to sitting at a slot machine as it spins out a jackpot; everything is there to add up to the grand prize of Hemi Cuda convertibles. In addition to being exceptionally rare, the car is a visual feast, its code B5 Bright Blue combining with a Black power top and matching Blue high-back bucket seat interior.
Nominally adorned with rear deck lid bright trim and wide sill strips, the car’s exterior decor is kept to a minimum, its painted steel wheels, dog dish hub caps and White-letter tires establishing the look of a serious road-burner further bolstered by the rare Shaker hood, hold-down pins and chromed dual exhaust tips. Driver appointments in the bright Blue interior include the Rallye Instrument Cluster with 8,000 RPM tachometer, 150 MPH speedometer, oil, temperature and alternator gauges and clock, 3-speed wiper switch and Hurst Pistol Grip shifter. Perhaps most importantly, in addition to retaining most of its original sheet metal, it is the only remaining example with its original factory-installed drivetrain.
Of all the wild machines created by Chrysler in the golden age of Detroit muscle, the 1971 Hemi Cuda 4-speed convertible is surely the most fabled. As one of only two 4-speed examples and the only one still powered by its factory-original engine and drivetrain, this 1971 Hemi Cuda convertible could be considered by any measure as the crown jewel of muscle cars.
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Source: Mecum Auctions as part of the Seattle event in June, 2014
Photo Credit : David Newhardt