If you ever get the chance to talk with Robert Bernstein about his 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, you'll quickly find out that he isn't your ordinary car nut. We all love our muscle cars, and they claim a very special place in our garages and our hearts, but in Robert's case, it's really hard to figure out where Robert ends and the Barracuda begins. It's not so much a case of obsession, it's more like the car is an extra limb—an arm or a leg. You see, Robert could no more easily disown his Barracuda than he could cut off a finger.
SUV makers tout space and convenience as if they invented the idea. Not by a long shot. Th
We've known car fanatics who eschew family, jobs, relationships, and all manner of interaction with the greater world in order to fulfill a single hot rodding dream—let us assure you that Robert is not that guy. Married for over a quarter century to his understanding wife, Debby, and father of two lovely adult daughters (Stacy and Denise), Robert is, for lack of a better term, a normal human being. With no outward symptoms of chronic Chryslerphilia, there's no immediate need for an emergency Moparectomy—yet.
Our story begins in November of 1968 when Robert was just 4 years old. His parents bought the brand-new Barracuda so that Robert's mother would have something to use as a family truckster. Remember those days? Families bought cars, farmers bought trucks, the Russians were coming, and nobody knew what the hell soccer was. God forbid any of us should brave the 405 freeway without an AWD SUV with dual DVDs.
This 1969 Barracuda walks just the right line between preserving pure muscle car heritage,
For 10 years, mom shuttled Robert and his younger brother back and forth to school, made trips to the grocery store, and ran the family operation from the cockpit of the 318-powered A-Body. The Barracuda was inextricably woven into the fabric of Robert's life from his earliest hazy memories. The smell of hot vinyl baking in the sun, the thrum of gear whine on the open road, the aroma of hot oil when the hood is raised. It was with much heaviness in his heart that he watched it drive away for the last time when his parents sold it 10 years later in 1978.
But 14-year-old Robert would not let go that easily. Just two years later, he signed up for high school auto shop class and got car fever. In those years before the Internet, good intel on cars was hard to come by, but Robert found out through a neighbor who was in touch with the current owner that the 1969 was for sale. After $800 exchanged hands, it belonged to Robert. We'll pause while you consider the scenario: It's 1980, you're a 16-year-old boy in sunny Southern California with a newly minted driver's license, and you just bought your first car—a 318ci V-8–powered 1969 Barracuda. It is indeed the heady stuff of dreams.
Through the remainder of high school and the obligatory stint at college, Robert used the 1969 as part-time transportation, gradually weaning it from commuter duties. In 1984, he began modding it for bigger bumps in performance with a larger 340 small-block, headers, a mild cam, dual-plane intake, and a double-pumper carburetor. In 1993, when Big Willie Robinson and the Brotherhood of Street Racers convinced the Los Angeles Harbor Commission to reopen the dragstrip at Terminal Island, Robert started bringing the Barracuda out to the drags. But by 1994, Terminal Island's days were over, and the aging Plymouth had a badly slipping TorqueFlite automatic trans. We'll pause while you consider this scenario: You're eight years into your marriage, you've got twin 18-month-old daughters, a broken toy hot rod, and a stack of bills to pay. Many men would raise the white flag, slap a "for sale" sign on the car, and walk away.
There is, however, more than one path to righteousness—and Robert sensed that the Barracuda was more than just a toy to be tossed on life's heap. In 1994, Robert asked mom if she would store the Barracuda in the garage for an indeterminate amount of time, and like moms do, she kindly acquiesced. After all, it started out as her car. In the intervening years, Robert's family owned insurance business grew, his daughters grew up, and even though his priorities were on raising a family, that ember of automotive affection was still glowing in his mother's protective garage.
Early on, Robert decided to reuse the 2003 Dodge Ram truck’s gauge cluster, lighting, harn
Then one fateful day in February 2004, he was talking to a friend who told him about the South Bay Mopars car club. "I was a Mopar guy, and he was a Mopar guy too," Robert says. "I took it out of storage a month later before the next club meeting, and we flushed all the old gas out of the tank, put new gas in, and it ran. After 10 years in storage, the trans held up just fine. It only slipped at high rpm and high speed." Robert was back in the game. "I was able to get to meetings and hang out with the guys with it, but after two years of nursing the old 340 and TorqueFlite trans, it was time for a change. The paint was oxidized, the carpet and seat covers were torn, the dashpad was cracked, there were minor dents throughout, it had rust issues around the rear window, the weatherstripping was cracked, and the engine bay was dirty. It was just an embarrassment when compared to the restored Mopars in the club," Robert says.
In March of 2006, Robert was brainstorming with a friend over what to do. As he and confidant John Hopper munched on Costco pizza, it became clear that having a reliable turnkey car that was also very unique was paramount. The answer: swap in a Gen III Hemi and a late-model overdrive transmission. It would be powerful, efficient, dead nuts reliable, and at the time, highly unusual as a swap into an early car. "I wanted a bunch more horsepower originally, but John said, 'dude, 345 hp is plenty. Anymore and you're just gonna kill yourself.'"
Check out the light and dark gray two-tone leather interior, which was wrapped by Robert’s
If we stopped to think about the obstacles presented on the way to life's most triumphant moments, we might not even try. Sometimes it's just best to dive right in without dwelling on the difficult, and that's exactly what Robert did, along with help from John Hopper, and friends Chris Steenstra and Doug Snyder. The first move was securing a 5.7L Hemi, five-speed 545RFE automatic trans, powertrain control module, transmission control module, and engine wiring harness from a salvaged 2003 Dodge Ram pickup. The eBay find set Robert back $3,600, but that was only the start. He also wanted to rewire the Barracuda to gain all the Dodge truck's functionality, including the gauges, lights, and HVAC. Another $500 through PayPal, and he had lined up a 2003 Dodge Ram truck gauge cluster, taillight harness, dash harness, and front lighting harness.
Having the power and economy of a 2003 Dodge Ram Hemi pickup in a package with half the weight was going to be a blast, but only if it had commensurate handling. Digging through the pages of Mopar Muscle magazine in 2007, Robert hit pay dirt in an ad for Reilly Motorsports (RMS). RMS had a front suspension/steering system called AlterKtion that fixed all the long-cursed geometry, clearance, and space concerns of most Mopars, while offering motor mount options for Gen III Hemi engines in a package that was both lighter and stronger than stock. As a bonus, it came with a firmer, more responsive rack-and-pinion steering conversion kit as part of the deal. The AlterKtion kit was going to solve a dozen problems in one swoop—Robert couldn't write the check fast enough.
Robert says: "In doing the research, I found that the AlterKtion K-member provides the support for the unsprung weight, it's not pounding into the car's unibody. I liked that design because it's stiffer and stronger. I also liked how the design opened up the engine bay and had Gen III Hemi motor mount options. More room for oil pan, headers, and starter access. Another thing about this kit is that the car no longer bottoms out on the bumps. You're no longer hitting the lower bumpstops like it used to."
Currently, the Barracuda is running the stock 8¾-inch rear with 4.30 gears (they work just fine with the five-speed's ultralow .67 final drive ratio). These are linked to the stock leaf springs and KYB shocks, but Robert would love to someday convert to the RMS four-link Street Lynx system, which will reduce axlewrap and roll steer while improving stability.
During the Barracuda's rehab, or perhaps because of it, Robert and John Hopper went into business together, opening their Mopar-themed shop, Blue Sky Dynamics, in September 2006. The Barracuda became its poster child, and by September 2007, all the mechanicals were done except the paint and interior. Unfortunately, the business met an untimely end thanks to the recession, and closed its doors in February 2008, with the car unfinished. After all these decades and all the hard work, Robert was undaunted. He got a job working at Affordable Classics in Torrance, California, which specializes in restoring classics and muscle cars. Then in June 2010, Affordable Classics resumed the work on the car, helping to complete the interior, and the body and paint—including a coat of 2008 Daytona Go Mango.
During the transformation, Robert and his trio of friends worked tirelessly to create a standout piece of automotive art that is not only powerful, but functional and reliable. This was due in large part to the carryover en masse of components from the 2003 Dodge Ram, but also the forward-thinking update of the A-Body's suspension geometry and steering by the RMS AlterKtion system. It's fair to say that the reincarnation of Robert's childhood transportation into something that is beautiful, fun, and useful is a testament to the bond of family and friends, and the tenacity of an idea. Robert's Barracuda was finished in March of 2012, and one of the car's first destinations was mom's house. In failing health and surrounded by family, mom got the chance to see her Barracuda one more time before she died nine months later. Robert Bernstein's 1969 Barracuda is indeed more than an obsession, it's a part of him.
BY THE NUMBERS
1969 Plymouth Barracuda
Robert Bernstein, 48
Under the hood of Robert Bernstein’s 1969 Plymouth Barracuda resides a 2003 vintage 5.7L H
Type: 345ci (5.7L) Gen III Hemi
Block: factory cast iron, 2003 Dodge Ram
Bore x stroke: 3.920 x 3.580 inches
Rotating assembly: factory Gen III Hemi; cast-iron crank, 6.25-inch powdered-metal connecting rods, eutectic cast-aluminum pistons
Compression ratio: 9.6:1
Cylinder heads: factory 2003 Dodge Ram, cast-aluminum Hemi combustion chamber
Camshaft: factory 2003 Dodge Ram truck
Valvetrain: factory 2003 Dodge Ram, investment-cast steel rocker arms, 2.00-inch intake and 1.55-inch exhaust valves, stock beehive springs
Induction: factory 2003 Dodge Ram truck, nylon resin intake manifold
Throttle body: factory 2003 Dodge Ram
Engine management: factory 2003 Dodge Ram PCM with integral transmission control module
Fuel system: 2003 Dodge Ram in-tank fuel pump, returnless fuel system, factory Dodge Ram Hemi injectors
Exhaust: TTI 1¾-inch mild steel long-tube headers with ceramic coating, dual 3-inch H-pipe exhaust with Flowmaster Super 40 mufflers with axle turndowns
Ignition: stock dual-plug waste-spark system with dual coils per cylinder
Cooling: Northern aluminum radiator with shroud and dual 10-inch electric fans
Other: retrofitted 2003 Dodge Ram gauge cluster into stock dash, controlled by Dodge Ram PCM
Output: 375 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm, 345 hp at 5,600 rpm
Engine built by: Chrysler
Transmission: Chrysler 545RFE five-speed automatic overdrive from 2003 Dodge Ram truck; 3.00 (First and R), 1.50, 1.00, 0.75, and 0.67 ratios
Rearend: 1968 vintage 8¾-inch rear with 4:30 Richmond gears and Sure-Grip diff with 489 carrier
Frame: factory unitized body construction (Chrysler A-Body), modified by Blue Sky Dynamics, Torrance, CA
Front suspension: Reilly Motorsports (RMS) AlterKtion coilover independent front suspension with modular bolt-in K-member, QA1 coilover shocks, and RMS sway bar
Rear suspension: factory leaf-spring rear suspension, new replacement bushings, KYB shocks
Steering: Reilly Motorsports (RMS) rack-and-pinion conversion
Brakes: 11-inch Ford Granada rotors with GM D52 single-piston calpers, factory 11-inch B-Body drums (rear)
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: 17x8 American Racing
Tires: 235/40R17 (front) and 245/45R17 (rear) Yokohama