Arguably, 1969 was the pinnacle year of Detroit's craziest car notions. It spawned all manner of what-ifs right there in iron, steel, and bits of aluminum. It was small bodies (small was good, small was light, small was fast) with big, hot motors thumping away under some hopelessly gaudy hood. The 440 Barracuda of that year comes sharply into focus. It was the stuff of endless daydreams, no matter where your support lay. It was your last thought before you let the car mag you shouldn't have been reading slide to the floor right before you put your head to pillow and winked out the light.
It was right there in black and white. The time-honored engine swap was blessed and embraced by the Gross Pointe establishment, not by a bunch of loony hot rodders everywhere else, and it had surely begun with the Mustang five years earlier, that ostensibly silly secretary's car without its wig hat and gone totally berserk. Brand affiliation was big then, it was the ONLY thing then. You were a Chevy guy, or a Mopar guy, a Ford guy, an AMC guy, whatever, but the lines never crossed ... harsh oaths, tar and feathers it certainly would have been.
By 1970, the ponies had gotten bigger and fatter, and their engines had continued to prosper right along with them, swelling, churning out more power and grunt than they ever had before. They weren't lightweights anymore, and had been doing a heavy party diet, so some kind of parity (at least in the eyes of the insurance wanks) had been established.
Enter Mopar wrangler Ken Kiefer, a hardcore Hamtramck hero who'd already experienced the shining in his '66 Barracuda, no less than four Challengers (two of them wearing R/T badges), a '68 Coronet R/T, and by the gods, a '77 Power Wagon to extricate them when his enthusiasm outweighed his judgment. Ken and his wife, Darla, have three kids, one a teenager, the other in her mid-20s, so it more or less fell to 20-year-old Jason to become the old man's pit crew.
As the discussion progressed, Ken the Mopar Nut (says so here on the tech sheet) told us about some of the others: a Hemi four-speed car and a couple of 340 Dusters, one with a roller motor and a four-speed. Not one Camaro. Not one Mustang. Nothing but Mother Mopar. Though all OEs maintained a special niche for its musclecars, Dodge and Plymouth ad agencies probably ran the toughest, in-your-face advertising and promotional campaigns. This was when the Detroit credo was "race on Sunday, sell on Monday."
"I used to street race in the 1970s, but I'm gettin' older now," winced the 51-year-old welder. "Now I believe that it is much too dangerous. Go to the dragstrip, run your car, and come back with timeslips to back up your braggin'."
Yeah, and don't forget lots of jing, either. Ken the hands-on dude and his able apprentice built most of this car by themselves and still figure they have about $50,000 and about 2,000 hours of twiddle time in it. Stuff like that happens when you violate boundaries and cross over to a place where no one has been before. For centuries, the front suspension of a Mopar was built around adjustable torsion bars, not the conventional coil spring.
Through it all, he smoothed the firewall, removed the engine compartment pinch wells, narrowed the axle housing 10 1/2 inches, and crafted mini-tubs to clear the Mickey slicks. He stuck the unibody together for the next million years with a 16-point rollcage by attaching a motor plate to the front of the RB-block, then flattened the floor of the trunk, laid in a fuel cell, enlarged the transmission tunnel, and made the chassis whole with frame connectors.
"I worked at Midas Muffler for 21 years," said Ken. "My nickname was Ken Bender. Most of my friends called me to help with their cars' periods of fabrication. I built custom headers, narrowed rear axles, built and installed rollcages, and did all the other engine, transmission, and axle modifications, too. Now I own McKinney Motor Company (in Albuquerque)." Ken acknowledges that he's probably a little behind with the next step of his professional life. "I'm getting ready to turn the place into a Mopar hot rod and restoration shop, but I'll perform on anything anyone brings in."
This brings us back to the RB-block in early Barracuda sleight-of-hand, a union that was clearly made in some very hot place and was never meant to be anything more than a (drag racing) homologation special. At the very least, the A-12 option with all-iron engine made the pony a nose-heavy S.O.B. that hadn't the brakes, chassis, or steering to back it up and used some weird equipment that made it all fit like it was supposed to. It was a harbinger. People said: "Yeah, well, this is cool, but where's the Hemi?" That engine came on line the following year, of course, but the car was totally changed (heavier) to absorb the influx and put the face of propriety on it. In those days, insurance underwriters were so nervous about these kinds of cars, they were always on the verge of levitation.
The vibe from Kenny's Barracuda is decidedly street-and-strip, but the car is licensed, insured, road-legal, and in no way drag-race sparse. What didn't he like about torsion bars? Too heavy. That, and he loves a challenge of this nature because most people would see it as a stage for colossal failure. Not Ken dog.
"I'd seen the Magnum Force setup in Mopar magazines and became fascinated with it. But $4,000 was ridiculous, and being a fabricator myself and a certified steering and alignment man, I purchased the Heim joints, ball joints, coilover shocks, and the tubing and designed my own system. I built it in my sleep first. There were no formal plans for it. I took the stock K-frame off, put it on the floor, and made a jig for the new one. I then built the tube frame, and when I put it on the car, it fit perfectly."
He replaced the fatty factory superstructure with the tubular K-frame and made tubular upper and lower control arms (banishing 200 pounds), making room for a manual rack-and-pinion steering assembly out of an '85 Mustang GT. Now, coilover adjustable shock absorbers work with Afco coil springs rather than the torsion spring of record. Ken channeled the pipes of headers he built through the torsion bar sockets in the frame.
Anyone could clearly see that Ken was rockin', but was he rollin'?
Hell yeah, he was rollin'
"Here in Albuquerque we have the Mopar Muscle Car Club, and five races during the summer. The 'Cuda took First Place in the first race, and Second on the last one. Right now, we have a big points lead in the series, and I won the championship for the last two years in another car, and we're about to do it again with this one."
The cockpit has all the requisite...
The cockpit has all the requisite equipment and seems literally commanded by a dozen Auto Meter Phantom instruments set in a Ken-built dashboard and a flip switch panel enabled by Ken's new wiring sequence. He also upholstered the seats, refurbished the panels, and diminished the somber background with a Grant 714 Formula GT wheel hewn from nature's own mahogany.
The engine swap: the core...
The engine swap: the core of hot rodding. To anyone from back in the day, this is always a delightful and heart-stopping sight-Holleys on a retro cross-ram manifold-dominant in a (relatively) small package. Ken claims no hard output numbers, but his 3,400-pound (including him) ponycar runs 10.58 at 126.60 on the motor.
One of this car's best visual...
One of this car's best visual attributes, the three-quarter rear image, emphasizes the perfect stance and diminishes the big but hidden-in-plain-sight Mickey balonies. Ken had Fox Auto shave the body, fix a rough spot or two, and apply the custom blue paint. Local custom house Creative Enterprises did the graphics.
When was the last time you...
When was the last time you saw a Mopar without torsion bars? The thing we like about Ken is that as hardcore a Mopar Mother as he is, he's blissfully oblivious to the expected, and a protector of personal freedom. Truth is, the factory crap is heavy, unnecessary, and restrictive.
Fat Mickeys fit better with...
Fat Mickeys fit better with Super Stock springs moved in-board. The 8 3/4 axle is narrower by 10 1/2 inches. A spool hosts 4.56:1 gears. Dynomax race pipes create the perfect burnout smoke swirl effect. Drive wheel control is the province of adjustable shock absorbers and two-link bars, but no snubber.