Those who wait. Nigel Gostelow had Plymouth ‘Cudas on the brain since the late Seventies, but it took until the beginning of this decode For him to get one on the drive. We hope it was worth waiting for… Words: Nigel Boothman. Photography: Dave McBride.
If you’re going to turn up late for a party, at least make a grand entrance. Mopar’s 1970 E-body wasn’t on sale until the muscle car era was almost past its peak, but its entry was spectacular. It looked superb and anyone who picked the serious engine options would soon be drunk on power.
Since its launch in 1964, the Barracuda was Chrysler’s Mustang. But it was never properly separated from the economy-focused Valiant and failed to create the kind of aura that surrounded the Mustang. Chrysler finally answered Ford’s megaselling model in 1970 with the E-body, better known as the Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger, which undoubtedly matched the Mustangs in looks, driver appeal and street cred.
The Plymouth offered three levels of trim and mechanical specification, covering the whole Pony Car market from a ‘secretary six’ to the barely legal Street Hemi. Down at the bottom was the base Barracuda, offering just 225cu in of straight-six motor and minimal luxury for $2764, a price $43 more than a notchback Mustang and $7 less than a fastback. That kind of price parity continued up the range as Plymouth offered the more sumptuous Gran Coupe at just $8 more than the Mustang Grande… even the names were similar. But the one we’re concerned with today, the one that still gets arms twitching at muscle car auctions, was the ’Cuda.
From the tyres up, this was a more purposeful sporting machine than anything Chrysler had introduced since the 300 series of the mid-Fifties. The ’Cuda wore F70-14 boots with white letters, covering heavy-duty drum brakes and suspension. The base motor was a big-block 383cu in V8 with a four-barrel Carter BBD good for 335bhp at 5200rpm, at least at the crank. Inside and out it looked the part, too, with a floor-mounted shifter in a handsome centre console, three-spoke wood-grained steering wheel and leather bucket seats, plus sill and wheel arch mouldings.
If this wasn’t enough, you could play with the options list. The effect a few buyers’ decisions had on the classic muscle market of some 40 years later would be profound, especially if that decision involved splashing $871 on the 426cu in Street Hemi motor. Hemi ’Cudas are usually described using phrases like ‘Holy Grail’, such is their rarity (especially in convertible form) and value – think somewhere north of a million dollars for the ’70 and ’71 rag-tops, depending on history and condition.
Back on planet Earth, buyers tended to choose the much more affordable and nearly as potent 440cu in ‘Six Pack’ option, but many were happy with the grunt offered by the standard ’Cuda V8. Though in truth, there weren’t that many ’Cuda buyers of any kind. One problem was the rising price of insurance. Young drivers no longer found it so easy to walk into any dealership, arrange credit and get covered for a few bucks. Still, there seemed to be enough mature, insurable owners to keep sales ticking over: Plymouth shifted about 55,000 E-bodies in that first year, of which 19,515 were ’Cudas.
Dodge sold 82,000 Challengers, but the number of those that were R/T models, analogous to ’Cudas, was a very similar 19,938. This total of around 137,000 showed the new shape was a hit, but it couldn’t catch the Mustang’s 197,000 for 1970. What’s most remarkable is the tiny proportion of convertibles sold; Mustang, Challenger and especially ’Cuda ragtops all made up a fraction of the sales of any other body style.
Convertibles never really cut it for committed speed freaks of the time. They were often heavier, less stiff, more for ladling on the options and looking good than laying rubber. They were also expensive – for the price of a 1970 ’Cuda convertible, you could buy a hard-top ’Cuda and give it a 440 Six-Pack and a low-ratio rear end.
Nowadays, our priorities are a little different. If there’s a fast, handsome muscle car out there with a power roof, buyers are all for it. Buyers like Nigel Gostelow. The owner of the dazzling convertible in our pictures has had a lifelong love affair with exciting cars, which he can trace back to a childhood source: “I blame my parents,” he says. “The eccentricity of my car choices comes from my mum: always more than she could afford, often off-beat but never dull. AC, Bristol, a whole host of Jags, even an Aston Martin. Mostly loved, occasionally driven to destruction.
“She still remembers the 100mph dash down Goldhawk Road shoehorned into her Daimler Dart the day I was born! But my dad was just as bad. His cars were big and fast too, but they had to be that bit more showy.”
Before long, this interest began to refine itself into transatlantic machinery, and specifically muscle cars. A daily walk to primary school past Cliff Davis cars in West London made the drab crowds of small Fords, Austins and Vauxhalls fade away next to the Chevelles, Camaros, Firebirds, Rivieras, Challengers, Chargers and others. But again, it was mum who made the difference. “When I was eight or nine she turned up with a Dodge convertible – possibly a Polara – big, blue and fast. The mini burn-outs at school drop-off were fun, as was lowering the roof as she drove. That was the start of the Mopar bug. Then it was burned into me in the late Seventies… while standing on the Esso forecourt next to Olympia, my eyes and ears were assaulted by a yellow ’Cuda, looking awesome and sounding mean. I was a hopeless case, a lost cause.” Nigel’s first car was an AMC Javelin, which he soon had painted yellow. He moved on through a wallet-busting, heart-breaking experience with a regrettable ’78 Corvette, which put him off so badly it was the 21st century before he got back into an American car of his own. Don’t think he was idle, though – Nigel reckons he’s had something like 140 cars in his lifetime. But back to the Mopars.
“It was a ’1968 Charger 440 R/T, and it brought the bug back with a vengeance,” he says. “We loved that car, even now we wish we hadn’t parted with it.” Ten years later, Nigel knew the time had come to scratch a particularly longstanding itch. The next car had to be American, convertible, bright yellow and, of course, a ’Cuda. Ideally it would be a 1970 model and as original and usable as possible. The internet offered him two very strong candidates “There was this green one, well restored but not original, and a yellow one that we spent weeks going back-and-forth on with the dealer. With a lot of help from a friendly shipper (thank you, John!), the car was winging its way to Blighty.” In early 2011, Nigel became the owner and keeper of a Lemon Twist 1970 ’Cuda convertible. It’s a real one, with the right history (long term ownership, a light restoration, sale to a friend) but also all the right numbers. The VIN starts with a BS indicating a ’Cuda, rather than the BP or BH you’d find with a Gran Coupe or a Barracuda. Better still, all the other numbered stamps on obscure bits of sheet metal check with this, as does the engine, transmission and even the wheels. Not that Nigel is a Mopar nerd, or anything…
At this point, we should explain how lemon twist became rallye red. Having the yellow ’Cuda burned into his brain from 35 years earlier, Nigel somehow decided the reality wasn’t as appealing. So he went to Martin Savill at RPM and decided to strip the car. “The car was virtually dismantled for the repaint, allowing us to rectify some older restoration work and to take the car closer to original – other than the colour – in many other ways,” says Nigel.
“There was the correct interior detail and a glass-window roof, for example as well as a whole heap of mechanical and electrical fettling. Bodywork was restored to factoryperfect fit, as opposed to perfect-perfect, and the paint is a work of pure genius. Chris White at PhirmFX did a fantastic job. More than two years on it still looks magnificent.”
It wasn’t purely cosmetics, though: “The diff was replaced last year,” says Nigel. “Having sourced a correct casing and all-NOS internals, the whole thing was shipped to Hauser Racing for a rebuild and alignment. Around the same time a new Holley carb was installed for instant starting, smoother running and an unexpected improvement in economy. The brakes were overhauled earlier this year among other things.”
Since its UK debut in red, this ’Cuda has been backup car on a movie, attended several classic American car gatherings and even picked up a couple of awards along the way. It’s also travelled over 7000 miles between home, friends, work and events without incident, which Nigel attributes to the skill and patience of Martin Savill. So what’s like to turn a long-held dream into reality?
“It drives really well,” says Nigel. “It feels surprisingly modern, especially compared to my Charger, which always felt like you needed an extra foot or two each side in case it drifted off course. The ’Cuda has power brakes and steering, of course, but it’s not at all vague. It just goes where it’s pointed. It’s got a bit of poke but honestly the fact that it’s a full four-seater and allows us to go out as a family is just as important. It’s a happy mix of performance, comfort, nostalgia and total user-friendliness, and that is rarely available these days.”
The E-body Mopars turned up late to the party and this particular ’Cuda turned up late to Nigel’s personal obsession with the marque, but what is it that comes to those who wait? That’s right. Very good things indeed.
“The eccentricity of my car choices comes from my mum: always more than she could afford, often offbeat, but never dull. AC, Bristol, a whole host of Jags, even an Aston Martin. Mostly loved, occasionally driven to destruction…”
Owner Nigel Gostelow. Originally Lemon Twist, Nigel had the colour changed to its current Rallye Red. Extensive work carried out by RPM. Hood pins and bonnet scoops = performance. Shifter is understated.383 V8. High vinyl bucket seats incorporate head rests. 8-track with Janis Joplin tape! Rallye Instrument gauge cluster. Louvres on rear lights give a tri-light appearance. Steel wheels are dressed up with a satin-effect beauty ring. Square exhaust cut-outs. Space saver spare.
VIN decode: Nerd heaven!
Nigel has been able to get both the VIN and the body number of his car totally decoded, and it’s remarkable how much detail you can extract. Below is a full rundown:
BS27: Plymouth Barracuda Special, ’Cuda Convertible
N: 383 330hp OR 335hp 1-4BBL 8 cyl
B: Dodge Main, Hamtramck, MI, USA
30****: Sequence number
Body number: E63 D32 FY1 H6X9 000 415 135171
E63: 383 cid 4 barrel V8 High Performance
D32: Heavy duty automatic transmission
FY1: Banana (Dodge), lemon twist (Plymouth) exterior colour
H6X9: Trim – high, vinyl bucket seats, black
000: Full door panels
415: Build date: April 15
135171: Order number
V3X: Black convertible top
A01: Light package
A21: Elastomeric coloured front bumper package
A62: Rallye instrument cluster package
B51: Power brakes
C16: Console w/woodgrain panel