1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda: Inspiration to paranoia


1971Plymouth Baracuda Hemi 'Cuda

The “shaker hood” of the 1971Plymouth Baracuda Hemi ‘Cuda drew in cool, fresh ambient air.


That’s what a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda Hemi’ Cud makes you. Paranoid.

You carefully scan the road ahead, alert for the telltale roof-mounted light bar. You watch the mirrors to see if there is a police car behind you. You check the cross streets as you pass, and examine the car alongside at a stoplight for tiny hubcaps and the blue-serged occupant of a plain wrapper. The Man is everywhere. Or at least he could be.

And he can certainly see you. Everyone can see you. Phosphorescent chartreuse paint has a way of doing that. The Hemi ‘Cuda is covered in it.

Of course, to some people the glow-in-the-dark paint screams Race Me. The paint, along with the black “shaker” scoop and the four block letters on the rear fenders, is an arrogant standing challenge to the courageous. But to the police the car simply says Arrest Me. A lime green Hemi ‘Cuda is a moving violation even when sitting still. Chrysler called a “high impact” color. No wonder driving the car makes you paranoid.

But go ahead. Slip behind the wheel of the 1971 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda. Hmmmm. Tach is yellow-lined at five grand, red at five and a half. But look at that speedo, all the way to 150 mph. Never mind that the car is geared so that the last third will never be used.

1971 Plymouth Baracuda Hemi 'Cuda

1971 Plymouth Baracuda Hemi ‘Cuda

Small gauges include fuel, temperature, ammeter, oil pressure and clock, all tucked behind a heavily browed dash. Under the dash are two crude levers, one for the manual choke and one to open the air scoop. Rising from the console is Hurst shifter with a hyper-macho pistol grip. Wrap your mitt around that.

The bucket seats, however, are the typical Detroit slabs of the era. No lateral support here. The back is a dark cave of orthopedic torture.

The back seat, however, is a largely irrelevant story. We’re here to drive.

So start it up. It fires easily, albeit roughly when the engine is cold. The exhaust has that tinny high-compression cackle. There is a lot of power pulsing through those mufflers.

The engine is Chrysler Corp.’s notorious 426 Hemi, seven of the most powerful liters in the history of the American production automobile until then, and still a heavy hitter. First appearing in 1964 as a NASCAR powerplant, Chrysler wasted no time in putting it on the street in full-sized models to prove it wasn’t a race track special. I was just as quickly adopted for use by the factory-supported drag race teams.

Check the specs of the 1971 version: Dual quads, two Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors, 2.25-inch intake valves, a 1.94-inch exhaust, a high-lift, long-duration, high overlap cam, a dual point distributor and a compression ratio of 10.25:1. The stuff of a hot-rodder’s dreams, straight from the factory.

So put the shifter in first. The clutch is surprisingly light for a car this strong, and the shifter equally as easy to move. There’s just enough detent action for a positive feel.

The clutch comes up smoothly and suddenly the car is rolling in first. The cabin fills with the sound of the engine, and the while from the indirect gears of the transmission. Accelerate of back off in first through the third and the transmission noise is there. It’s music to a street racer’s ears, the song of the supercar.

1971 Plymouth Baracuda Hemi 'Cuda dash

A skinny “wood”-rimmed steering wheel and a pistol-grip shifter define the cockpit of the 1971 Plymouth Baracuda Hemi ‘Cuda. (click to enlarge)

Now roll on the throttle at about 2000 rpm. There’s a throbbing from the unmuffled intake system. Acceleration too, but nothing near the engine’s reputation. In fact, it feels remarkably soft.

But then 3000 rpm. It’s better.

Then thirty-five hundred—here it comes…Four…Five…Fifty-five…Shift.

Hoo-boy! What a ride, all that power on top. That’s unusual for big domestic engines, even a performance powerplant. Compare it to Chrysler’s other performance biggie, the three two-barrel-equipped 440 Wedge. Although both engines produce an identical 490 lb-ft of torque, the 440 does it at 3200 rpm. The Hemi doesn’t torque peak until four grand. The Wedge also makes “only” 390 horsepower at 4700 rpm, compared to the Hemi’s 425 bhp at 5000 rpm.

Those are SAE net figures and therefore highly suspect as an absolute value, but probably valid for comparison between the two.

1971 Plymouth Baracuda Hemi 'Cuda

1971 Plymouth Baracuda Hemi ‘Cuda

The Hemi ‘Cuda has to be considered the ultimate of the Barracuda line that began in 1965, when Plymouth grafted a fastback roof on to the Valiant. In 1968, the fish received svelte bodywork that made the ’68-’69 Barracuda one of the best-looking American models ever. However, the underhood space limited engines to a maximum of 383 cubic inches.

So in 1970, a bigger, more masculine-styled ‘Cuda was introduced (along with its sheetmetal sibling, the Dodge Challenger) with underpinnings based on the intermediate chassis rather than that of the compact. Engine availability ran from the ubiquitous slant six to the monstrous dual-quad Hemi.

There was a choice of brakes, the standard drums or power-assisted front discs. This car had the discs—and maybe they worked too well. They are definitely extraordinarily sensitive. Look, Ma, one toe.

One could also choose standard or power steering. San power, as with this car, one had to have the shoulders of Ahnold to turn the wheel. So Plymouth put in 5.3 turns lock-to-lock. Forget passing the wheel hand-over-hand, sports car style. Just crank it around and let it slide back.