Trans Am – Nimble, Sexy, and Stylish
By 1970, the muscle car phenomenon had grown to immense proportions and so had the muscle car. The cars were larger and heavier than ever before and they were loaded with luxury options and practically every one had a 450 cubic inch engine. In short, muscle cars were starting to look a lot like the full sized cars that ruled the road before 1964. But there was another type of performance car that still offered lightweight nimble handling and sexy styling: all the things that had turned on young America about the muscle car. They were called pony cars.
The pony cars were built as America’s version of European sports cars but they had a definite Detroit flavor. The Cuda and the Challenger were two of the most successful interpretations of the pony car theme. Since the introduction of the Mustang and Camaro, Chrysler had settled for third place in its attractive market segment. But the 1970 Cuda and Challenger were going to change all that.
Their styling was immaculate and their range of available engines which included everything in Chrysler’s inventory made sure that Dodge and Plymouth lovers could do just about anything they wanted with this car including going racing. “Chrysler corporation stepped up in 1970 to compete in the Trans Am series and really that just shows how competitive the pony car marketplace was more than anything else,” explains Keith Maney, “I think all the manufacturers were going to play in the pony car market, then you had to race the cars.” Trans Am racing was a way for pony cars to go fender to fender with each other on America’s finest road course. This heads up racing series had been raging on for several years but Ford, GM, and even AMC spent millions of dollars on full tilt factory racing efforts. With all the media exposure and fan enthusiasm the series generated, the auto makers thought it was worth every penny.
Trans Am was about the only racing series that Plymouth and Dodge hadn’t participated in. But by 1970, they wanted some of this action. Even though Ford and GM had a few years lead in car development, Chrysler corporation called in some big time help. And in a short time, they put together two first class racing programs. Champion race drivers recall the excitement of forming a team to race the Dodge Challenger. Remembers Sam Posey: “Auto Dynamics was awfully proud when we were signed by Dodge. We had almost been signed by AMC about a month before and had done a lot of the preliminary work with the Javelin deal. And we couldn’t wait to strap these big fat things on and get out there and run into people.” With Sam Posey’s Auto Dynamics fielding a Challenger, Dodge and Plymouth hit the market with special editions of the Challenger and Cuda, which had road racing suspensions, big bold graphics, and a lightweight high revving 340 engine. Dodge’s special edition of the Challenger was called, appropriately enough, the T/A. Both cars were high style, high visibility, and loaded to the max with go fast hardware.
Young America took notice and soon the big battle in Trans Am wasn’t on the track, it was at the Mopar dealership. Less than 3000 copies of each car was ever made and the people who got their hands on one knew they had something special. These cars would soon become some of the most collectible pony cars of the entire era. But could fantastic cars like these possibly have an economy car heritage? Yes and no. It had been six years since Plymouth had introduced the Barracuda and they had been wild years. But it started like a fun little exercise of putting high revving little V8s into sporty little cars had becoming the fastest growing and most lucrative part of the entire automobile industry. The Barracuda had been upgraded from its original design and was now a heavy duty ground pounder like the Mustang, which traced its roots back to the Ford Falcon. The Barracuda had been created by an equally slow little car called the Valium.
Introducing the Barracuda
The Barracuda was actually introduced a few weeks before the Mustang but it looked so much like the compact car from which it was derived that many actually mistook it for a Valium. It took Plymouth three years to correct this misconception. When they did, the little lightweight Barracuda became more of a sports car than the Mustang, the Camaro, or the Firebird. But the rule even for pony cars was now go big or stay home. Ford and GM had started this cubic inch race by putting big block engines in the Mustang and the Camaro. But Chrysler could bring more motor to the party than any other kid on the block: they had the Hemi.
Unless you were Ronnie Sox or a handful of other racers, the 426 Hemi in the ’68 Barracuda wasn’t something you could walk into your Plymouth dealer and buy. It was a little reminder to all the other pony cars that they could be just as serious about going fast as anyone else. Mopar’s racing experience had also developed ultra heavy duty drive line components. Their sure grip rear ends and bullet proof four speed and automatic transmissions could handle the torque output from any Mopar engine no matter how wild. Drive train breakage in Chrysler products was practically unheard of. But amid all the muscle car smoke and noise, Chrysler introduced a little high winding small block that was the best kept secret of 1968: their new 340 cubic inch engine. This engine used a 4.0 inch bore and short 3.1” stroke. With a 445 lipped cam, 10.75 compression, and a single Carter four barrel carburetor, it was underrated at 275 horse power at 5000 RPMs. With its lightweight and quick revving ability, the 340 Barracuda offered agility and handling as well as acceleration. In fact, thanks to their curb weight, 340 Barracudas could run the quarter mile within an eye lash of other much bigger engines. The street crowd had been calling the car Cuda for several years so in 1969, Plymouth formalized the nickname as an option package. And now, you could even order the 440 engine in the Cuda, which was a textbook case of overkill.
But, after three years, the Cuda’s body was ready for an upgrade. The new Cuda for 1970 would be an awesome muscle car and an equally good road racer. Nothing about the ’70 Cuda could be traced back to any economy car. IN 1970, Chrysler’s designers gave it a body that turned the Cuda into the sexiest pony car on the road. The designers gave the Cuda one other thing in 1970: a running mate. The Dodge Challenger along with the Cuda were Mopar’s new E bodies. Their surface similarity hit many differences in the two cars but they were both designed to hold any engine in Chrysler’s inventory: the slant six to the 426 Hemi.
The Pony Car’s Mission – Straight line Acceleration
Even though muscle cars still played the bigger is better game in 1970, there were some people out there who remembered what the pony car was originally designed to be. These people didn’t have anything against straight line acceleration, they just though turning corners was fun, too. For them, the new E body car was a gift. If you could take your eyes off the Challenger and the Cuda’s new body for a minute, you found a host of new suspension items underneath that made these cars excellent road machines. The cars featured big front and rear anti-roll bars, bigger brakes, and heavy duty shocks.
According to Sam Posey, the street Cudas and Challengers had a similar feel to what he raced. “It feels like the real racing cars did. The same harshness of ride. It has the same rumbly sound. It has the same kind of Spartan quality to the interior, the same heavy steering. Not quite any of those things to the degree that was felt in the real racing cars but a good whiff of it.” A little attention to the car’s suspension was a good move because Chrysler corporation was about to take these cars up against GM and Ford in the Trans Am series. “They really had to get on the ball to develop this car,” recalls Gary Savage, “Finding out in ’69 and having to haul to get it done and put it all together and produce the street version to be able to run in the series so they were running around frantic for a while there.”
With racing preparations underway, Dodge and Plymouth now went to work designing street versions of these Trans Am race cars like the Z28 and Boss Mustang, the AAR and the TA would have a definite road racer flavor, which would set them apart from the other Cuda and Challenger models. Thanks to Plymouth’s relationship with Dan Gurney, it was a natural that their cars would have all American racers’ logo on it. So it became the AAR Cuda. Dodge wanted something a little more in your face and since Pontiac had already taken the name Trans Am, they settled for the initials TA. Plymouth decked out its Cuda with eye catching graphics, including a laser stripe down the side of the car, the All American Racers logo, and a black out hood treatment, which also blacked out the top of the front fenders.
Dodge also gave the Challenger a black out hood treatment. Its side stripes incorporated the letters TA. The Challenger also featured a large 340 six pack fender decal just in case you didn’t know who you were messing with. Both cars had duck tail rear spoilers and both cars featured a fiberglass hood. The Cuda’s hood scoop was a low drag item inspired by NASA design and the Challenger’s was a more traditional Mopar super stock looking piece. Under each hood was a jewel, a special heated up version of the little 340. In addition to its smaller block, the AAR and TA’s 340 engine mounted special cylinder heads, stronger rocker arms from the 426 Hemi and improved valve train oiling. On top of the engine sat a trio of Holley carburetors on an aluminum intake manifold. The air cleaners sealed to the scoop with a rubber gasket to draw in fresh air. To make the car legal for Trans Am racing, Chrysler had to make 2800 Cudas and 2500 TAs. Such a small production run made these cars in extremely short supply at the dealership Those who got one discovered this was no ordinary pony car.
With less than 6000 of these little street screamers in the pipeline, Mopar fans considered themselves extremely lucky to just ride in a TA Challenger or AAR Cuda. Remembers Marty Bugbee: “After I did the research on the car and found out what the car was I knew I had something.” Adds Doug Sawyer: “The 346, the style, the lines on it really got my attention and I didn’t realize until I got this car how enjoyable it is to drive.” Challenger and AAR interiors were typical pony cars with bucket seats, a console, large easy to read gauges and a custom steering wheel. You had your choice of either the torque light automatic or the Chrysler 833 four speed trans with Mopar’s pistol grip shift handle. Most cars came with power steering and brakes and the Music Master AM radio. Most dealers never received more than two or three of them. And there were so few made that buyers couldn’t even special order them. If you wanted one, you took what the dealer had on the showroom floor. But the AAR and the TA were already loaded with the trick features that their buyers wanted anyway.
Keith Maney describes: “These cars also featured side exit exhaust which is very unusual. What happens is the exhaust comes back from the manifold runs into a muffler and turns around and comes back forward and sticks out the side.” By the time Dodge and Plymouth put on the finishing touches, they had made two little boulevard racers that were easily the equal of anything from GM or Ford. With the stripes and decals, the special handling, and exhaust, and the two different size buyers, these cars were exactly what the pony car thing was all about. Tom Shaw describes: “ They were just perfectly shaped. The graphics were perfect they had the high impact colors, fiberglass hoods. They looked like Hot Wheels.”
Time to Go to the Track
While Dodge and Plymouth were building enough cars to satisfy SCCA minimum production requirements, work had been continuing on putting together a racing program. Now that they had enough street versions it was time to go to the track. “Dodge and Plymouth were late to the game in ’70. They missed out on critical development time Their efforts were incredible for a first year team.” Says Tom Shaw. In choosing the Auto American Racers and Auto Dynamics, Chrysler gave themselves a powerful one two punch in the Trans Am series. Not only were they savvy racers, they were fierce competitors, even with each other.
On the engine side, world face engine builder Keith Black was retained to build the race motors. “Keith Black was a genius. He was a drag racing specialist who turned to road racing to produce our engines. He never missed a beat,” remembers Posey, “He made reliable, extremely powerful engines. It was the strong part of our car by far.” The Trans Am rules called for an engine no larger tha305 cubic inches but the 340 could be shrunk down to this size and still make enough horse power to be competitive with the Boss Mustang and the Z28, then Dodge and Plymouth might just be fighting each other for the Trans Am title in 1970.
Over a two month period, Mopar’s Trans Am racers had been stripped down, beefed up an welded on until they were now ready for the track. From the stands, as they whizzed by at 150 mph, the cars looked like the ones in the show rooms. But these were full on race cars. Says Poser: “They do look stock compared to today’s cars. They ain’t! It was a terrible to think of these things being stock in anyway. The engines were anything but stock, the transmissions and rear ends had housings that were made out of magnesium with a little metal glued n them so that when the tech inspector tried with this magnet,the magnetic could stick to him. We cheated from the nose of the car to the tail of the car.”
Under the hood, a real miracle was taking place. Engine shops had kept the 340’s4.0” bore but it de-stroked to 303.8 cubic inches. Thanks to the special Trans Am block, which had a beefier bottom end, the main bearing web was re-drilled for four bolt main caps. A cross drilled crank and forged rods were good to 8500 RPM and the engine was kept alive with a better oiling system. New heads were treated to a port job and the valve train was beefed up with Hemi rocker arms and shafts. With a single Holley four barrel cabriolet, the engine now dinoed at over 460 horse power. Plymouth rolled out its two racing Cudas for Sweet Savage and Dan Gurney. Simultaneously, Dodge’s Challenger entered the fray with Sam Posey in the driver’s seat.
With all the chips on the table from Ford, Chevrolet, AMC, and now Chrysler, the 1970 season was a brawl from start to finish. At stake were the pony car bragging rights and millions of dollars in car sales. Thanks to this, the Mopar teams had some interesting rules to live by. “If the engine blew up and parts were littered all over the place, you’d come in and say ‘Stuck throttle,’” says Posey, “Or you’d come in and you’d say, ‘The transmission let me down’ or ‘The rear view mirror fell off’ but you would not say the engine blew. Chrysler engines never blew.” Trans Am racers were wild and crazy affairs. Gary Savage relives this excitement today as he vintage races his father’s restored AAR Cuda. “The first place I drove it, you come over the crest and the thing’s squirrelly all over trying to keep it from going into the corner. And coming down the corkscrew, which is a corner which is just something. You can’t even see past the hood on these things. You see a big hood and then the trees so you kinda pointed to the trees, drop off the corkscrew and hope you’re at the right place.”
Neither the Cuda or Challenger posted a win in 1970. Suddenly the season and the Cuda and Challenger’s Trans Am racing career was over. The AAR Cuda and the Challenger TA take their place today as two more examples of the extremes to which American companies were willing to go to to claim the performance market as their exclusive territory. There are probably several hundred of these cars today. But in the muscle car hobby, few cars are as prized or respected as these little road rockets. “The legacy that Chrysler’ s Trans AM cars create continues today,” comments Tom Shaw, “I don’t think anyone expected that the reputation was to last decades after the series ended.”