The magical year for America’s Trans Am racing series was 1970. Momentum in the SCCA-sanctioned series had been building for the past few years, but the explosion in the Pony Car market saw every manufacturer want a piece of the action, so what better way to show off your wares than on the racetrack in a manufacturer’s championship.
The dawn of the new decade saw factory-backed teams representing Ford (Mustang), GM (Camaro and Firebird), AMC (Javelin) and newcomer Chrysler, who fielded both the new ‘E-Body’ Plymouth Barracuda and its Dodge Challenger sibling.
Dan Gurney and his ‘All American Racers’ (AAR) team were recruited by Chrysler to run the Plymouth Trans Am tilt. In addition to his management role, Gurney would also get behind the wheel, with David ‘Swede’ Savage serving as the other driver in the two-car team.
Gurney’s AAR workshop also built the Dodge Challenger driven by Sam Posey, but the round-by-round management of that campaign was handled by Ray Caldwell’s ‘Autodynamics’ operation.
As the deal was signed in October, 1969, AAR had only a few months to get the cars built and tested before the opening race of the ’70 season.
Chrysler had to build a number of roadgoing cars to homologate the new AAR ‘Cuda for racing, too.
In an effort to make the cars more ‘production-based’, the homologation minimum was set at 2,800 for Plymouth – up from only 1,000 units the previous season.
It was all a bit tight, both in the AAR workshops and on the factory floor, but Gurney got the race cars ready and Plymouth got all the homologation specials built – almost. History shows that only 2,724 AAR ‘Cudas were produced, but its seems SCCA rulemakers weren’t counting! One of those homologation specials is the car you see here.
When new, the roadgoing AAR ‘Cuda was the most expensive Plymouth Barracuda/’Cuda you could buy. At US$3,966 before options, it was 20 per cent dearer than a base ‘Cuda V8 hardtop, but you got a fair bit of gear – and unmissable style – for your coin.
Under the bonnet, the AAR ‘Cuda used an engine configuration unique in the Barracuda lineup for 1970. The 340ci V8 was similar to that used in the actual race cars (the race engines had to be de-stroked to meet the 305ci capacity limit), but topped with a trio of 2-barrel Holley carburetors and connected to a 4-speed manual transmission and Sure-Grip diff. Heavy duty suspension at both ends was augmented with front and rear sway bars, while power-assisted front disc brakes were standard. Wide rear wheels and tyres ensured all 290 horses from the powertrain didn’t go to waste, while the side-exit exhausts mimicked those on Gurney’s AAR racers, but featured extra bends and redesigned mufflers to make them street legal.
This particular AAR ‘Cuda has been owned by Rick Saunders for more than eight years now, but he came across it purely by chance. The Victorian was actually looking for a ’71 ‘Cuda when this AAR came up – at a good price.
History on the car was sparse, but it appeared reasonably solid and looked undeniably cool, so a deal was done.
Investigation revealed that the car was originally painted in Lime Light green, but had been changed at some point to the Vitamin C Orange it wears today.
As a mechanic, Rick found the work the car needed wasn’t daunting, and completed fairly easily after purchase. This included a new fuel tank, fixing the gear stick (shifter breakages were a known problem) and some electrical work.
Inside and out, the car is stock, right down to the 15-inch steel Rallye wheels, but Rick has worked a little more mumbo into the engine department with high compression heads and a lumpier camshaft.
For all the fanfare of Plymouth and Dodge’s entry into the Trans Am series, the outcome was disappointing. The AAR ‘Cudas were fast, but fragile, with Chrysler-mandated strengthening of engines, gearboxes and diffs upping the weight to the point where the cars struggled to be competitive. Gurney vacated the driver’s seat after two rounds to ensure there was enough money for Savage to complete the season, but returned for a “retirement” send-off at the final round.
The best result for an AAR ‘Cuda in that golden 1970 season was a second place for Savage. At the end of the year, Chrysler joined GM and Ford in withdrawing their factory-backing and Trans Am was the worse for it. The series continued, but undeniably lacked the sparkle of preceding years.
Of course, the end of the Plymouth ‘Cuda racers meant the end of the homologation requirements, too, so the AAR ‘Cuda road car became a one-year-only model.
Fortunately, guys like Rick are keeping the AAR ‘Cuda – and a bit of the Trans Am era – alive today.