As of late, the '70 'Cuda has become one of the most coveted forms in the high-end hot rod rebuilding business. Why? They're not Camaros or Mustangs and all the 'Cuda's lines fit like they belong. One look at the predecessors will tell you tell that. The early cars look awkward and unfinished at best. Compared to the powerful, aggressive lines of the Mustang and Camaro, the early 'Cudas looked like Dumbo. This is only my opinion, of course, but it seems valid in the light of recent history. Highly visible Mopar elite drag racers like Sox & Martin did more to foster the image of the final body style on the public domain than any flamboyant advertising copy could have hoped to accomplish.
Regardless of their sometimes frumpy duds, Mopars were feared and revered for their prodigious engines and powertrains, none more so than the 426 Street Hemi and the RB (raised block) 440. In 1969, nobody else offered an engine with that much displacement either, a stark reality embraced by practical law enforcement agencies nationwide. It's called torque. At 3,200 rpm, the RB laid out 480 lb-ft of it as thick and wide as the 405 Freeway. With grunt like that, the Spam-can exterior didn't mean a thing. Besides, a certain mentality held that Fords and Chevys sucked basically, so the affinity for Mother Mopar was as strong and as exclusive as being a Brooklyn Dodgers zealot in the heart of Yankee and Giant country.
The 375hp 440 grew from the bored-out 426 wedge in '66, and in '67 it got better-breathing heads, a larger carburetor, and a lumpier camshaft. How did it wind up in an A-body? Stone hot rodding, dudes, the bedrock of the hobby: Put a bigger engine where a smaller one sat. The 440 A-body prototype was the fretful brainchild of crafty Norm Krause and the street racers who worked his Grand-Spaulding Dodge on Chicago's west side. In 1968, this devilish crew built and marketed (6 to 12) GSS 440 Dart conversions and it was Norm's cheekiness that prodded Mother to make the A13 'Cuda (and its Dodge counterparts) a limited-production reality. What days they were!
All the factory cars (approximately 400 'Cudas and 600 Darts) were built in the Hurst assembly plant in Madison Heights, Mich., and all were originally equipped with a regular production 383, which meant they were endowed with a big-block K-member and motor mounts. But before the arrival at the Hurst line, the 383s were yanked in preparation for the fabled transplant. The 727 Torqueflite transmission was mandatory as was the 8 3/4-inch rear axle (rather than the 9 3/4-inch ring gear Dana 60). The thinking was that the smaller axle wouldn't be able to stand the gaff of flat-shifting idiots, so it was the automatic or nothing. The four-speed manual was still available to buyers of the low-deck 383 A-bodies; apparently there was no concern that its measly 425 lb-ft of torque was a mortal threat to the 8 3/4.
Summer 1969: I do an extended road test of the A13 on my way from Alexandria, Va., to north Jersey. Somewhere on the Turnpike it hit me. What, had somebody poked a hole in the gas tank? I'd just dumped a bunch of icy blue Sunoco 260 in it for the third time in less than 250 miles! It was July. It was stinkin' hot. Thisthing didn't have air conditioning, power steering or front disc brakes. It was humid. Leaving the rest area, I stomped the throttle and made smoke big-time, nearly getting sideways before the SS Trooper headed me off. He was laughing maniacally and jabbing his finger at the side of the road.
"You can't be doin' that shit on my road, son. Good thing I didn't catch you out there." He dug the 'Cuda, though. I bled Super Stock magazine associate editor and limited-production bilge all over him ... and it worked. A few minutes later I was sailing north toward destiny, as cool as those drag racing gears would let me, and thinking with a squirrel's brain again. Hell, I was tooling the Q-ship of the year; one that a few critics had claimed was "in some ways, a disturbing automobile." Disturbing, indeed. Obviously they'd never gone berserk in a ZL1 Camaro. I wanted beers and a babe, but the bad boy ride did not look the part. Its exterior was bile green invisible, not bloody red, and full wheel covers (instead of the much cooler dog dishes) clung to its pitiful 14-inch steelies.
As part of a scheme by Manhattan's Plymouth News Bureau Kerry Smith and Rockville Center Dodge high-performance service manager Al Kischenbaum (later HRM Tech Editor), this press fleet bullet had 4.30:1 cogs instead of the usual 3.55s or 3.91s. K-Bomb was the keeper of all the Mopar hot stuff, so he knew how much diddling had transpired from the time the car rolled off the transporter until it wound up in the mitts of East Coast magazine kooks.
Rivalry between Ford, GM, and Chrysler street lords was very, very secretive at the time and was just as intense on the super speedway and at the drag strip. The physical was called "bringing it up to spec." We called it "hate to lose." All the majors condoned the press car top-of-the-engine massage, and sometimes more. A re-jetted carb, re-curved distributor, and an optimum-phase camshaft were the least of the fussin'. Often the cylinder heads were blueprinted, as was the rotating assembly. Kirschenbaum configured most of these slave cars. He tweaked ours with a quicker spark advance and colder Champion UJ12Y plugs. He re-jetted the Carter AVS and reset the pump shot and the floats, all very good reasons why it lit the tires in front of that cop.
A complete amateur when it came to a road course, even I was acutely aware of how unbalanced this torpedo really was. The front-to-rear weight bias was laughable. With a hair more than 57 percent of its weight over the front wheels, agonizingly slow manual steering (29:1 ratio, 3.5 turns lock-to-lock), buckboard springs in the back, runty E70 bias plies on 5.5-inch wheels and nearly 500 lb-ft of grunt, it would either understeer or oversteer in massive proportions just by looking at it. Hammering the throttle in the dry kicked it sideways; doing the same in the rain was for Crazy Vinnie down the block. The steering was arduous, viscous, and sloppy, and the tiny 10-inch drum brakes burned off energy in inches, not feet. Sort of like handing a kid a sawed-off 12-gauge and asking him to hit the bull's-eye with a single pellet.
Cubic inches ruled, but they were always packed into oversized containers, ones that really didn't belong in the engine bays of compact-class automobiles sculpted for small-blocks. The installation in the 'Cuda was clean enough, but the motor was too tall and too wide to accommodate the basic necessities. Air conditioning, power steering and power brakes weren't in the program. Although the disc rotors and calipers fit the hubs perfectly, there was no room on the firewall for the big brake booster. A special left-hand side exhaust manifold (PN 3462016) snaked its way around the steering shaft, Viewed from the front, the end of the business end of the casting dropped straight down, flattened out and made a hefty U-turn towards the side of the block, then trailed down and to the rear of the car.
The "'Cuda 440 Special" warranty spanned 12/12,000 and the disclaimers were obvious and ridiculous: "This warranty shall not apply if the vehicle shall have been subjected to misuse, negligence, or accident. Misuse of the vehicle includes, but is not limited to, all forms of extreme operation, such as racing or other sustained high-speed use, acceleration trials, or wide-open throttle operation or other high-speed acceleration, or shifting transmission gears at high engine RPM." Right. Here's your Komodo dragon. Pet it nice but for God's sake don't make it angry.
Strangled exhaust system and stripper basics notwithstanding, the 'Cuda still sounded real good through its dual pipes, and it ran nearly as well as it barked. One stifling, white-sky July afternoon I banged it at York US30 in Pure Stock trim. Shooter Mike Brenner and I tanked the car with high-test, puffed the E70s up (50 psi front, 30 rear), and trashed the air cleaner top and element but left the base intact to smooth out the airflow. Timing was 10 degrees at the crank (factory timing was 5 degrees BTDC) with 36 degrees total. Getting it out of the gate was difficult without annihilating the tires. The best numbers came after finding the stickiest part of the starting line, walking out from a dead idle, and manually shifting the Torqueflite at 5,300 rpm. Even so, the tires squalled heavy through First gear and on into Second. In 10 passes, I managed a best of 13.89 at 103.21 mph. No doubt, slick rubber and cooler denser air would have had the 3,400-pound King Roach nipping at 12s.
Ultimately, a front tire went down and the pendulum effect of the 'Cuda's disparate weight distribution and slow steering conspired to spin the 'Cuda, then shove it into the center divider Armco on the Belt Parkway, taking out the right front fender, the headlights, grille and bumper. K-Bomb told me he harrumphed a few times, counted to 10, and then drove it home.