As Close as You Can Possibly Get to a Brand-New 1971 Plymouth ’Cuda
This is what it takes to achieve a perfect 1,000-point score.
There's something counterintuitive to the notion that the restoration of a vehicle is supposed to bring it back to a "like-new" condition, or even better than when it rolled off the assembly line. It's hard to believe, but this assertion must be true because we looked up "automotive restoration" on the internet and that's exactly what we found. The reality is that's a simplistic answer to a more layered definition because there are as many levels of restoration as there are days in a year, and they're usually dictated by factors like how much someone wants to spend, availability of parts, and the actual value of the car being restored.
The idea of making a car built in Detroit better than when it was new is an arguable point, in that the attempt to achieve perfection at the highest level also means making Detroit iron in many ways imperfect. When it comes to the top of the restoration pyramid, the highest level is the OE Gold Certification, and the Curious Yellow 1971 Plymouth 'Cuda that you see has been restored to that level. This is probably the closest anyone can get to a new Hemi 'Cuda almost a half century later.
Unveiled last year at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (MCACN) by Mike Mancini and his talented crew from American Muscle Car Restorations in North Kingstown, Rhode Island (www.amcri1.com), this 'Cuda was awarded a perfect 1,000-point score. This marks one of only three cars total in the entire history of the MCACN show to achieve a perfect score. The question is how do you get a car to this level?
The simple answer that Mancini gives is, "You have to build and restore a car to exactly the way it rolled off the assembly line." When you're dealing with a Mopar, especially those built in the late '60s and '70s, that can be a tall order, because factory fresh was synonymous with questionable build quality, and doing an OE restoration requires that level of poor quality to be reproduced—sort of.
The degree of difficulty with these extreme restorations always depends on the quality of the starting point, and on this 'Cuda it was pretty solid with only a bit more than 10,000 original miles on the odometer.
This particular car was an export vehicle ordered in 1970 and sold new at Veilleux Autos Chrysler in Saint-Georges, Quebec, Canada. Jacques Fournier, the original owner, worked at the dealership behind the parts counter and was the one who placed the order.
Beyond the extra-cost Curious Yellow paint and the Hemi under the hood, it was a no-frills purchase. It was ordered with a TorqueFlite automatic, which would've included the 8-3/4-inch rear as standard equipment; however, Fournier did splurge a bit with the addition of the A34 Super Track Pak option, which included the 9-3/4-inch heavy-duty Dana 60 rear with a 4.10:1 axle ratio. Soon after he purchased the car, the Rallye wheels were swapped, the back end jacked up, and an AAR spoiler added.
He ordered the car with one thing in mind, and luxury cruising wasn't it. "I owned the 'Cuda for about two years," he recalls. "I put around 1,000 miles on it, mostly at the drag strip. My best time was 12.21 in the quarter-mile." When wedding bells rang in 1973, the 'Cuda went to a new home. The second owner kept the car for about a year, and eventually ended up selling it back to Veilleux Autos Chrysler. From there, it went to a third owner who kept it until 2001 when it was sold again to a Canadian restoration shop.
By that point in time, the value of Hemi E-Bodies and their meteoric climb was well on its way, so cars were being snapped up and given restorations to resell for big profits. Mancini says, back then, the rage was to do rotisserie restorations and paint the underside body color, and do quickie resprays on the components, ignoring the correct finishes, markings, and imperfections that these cars rolled off the assembly with.
On this 'Cuda, that restoration shop fixated on the body and paint. But in an effort to save time and money, they ended up putting back many of the original parts incorrectly restored, including the hard-to-find Hemi-specific pieces that came on the car—shortcuts that were a blessing down the line. It was eventually sold and made its way back to the U.S., where it changed hands a few more times until it was purchased by Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour. It was in his possession until it was again sold to the current owner, who had it shipped directly to Mancini's shop for its makeover.
The 'Cuda arrived at Mancini's shop in decent condition, still wearing its 15-year-old restoration. When the crew began to methodically disassemble the car, there were no hidden surprises. Underneath the paint was still all the rust-free original sheetmetal, along with the numbers-matching Hemi, TorqueFlite transmission, and Dana 60 rear.
From there, it came down to what the guys at the shop have done numerous times. It also came down to a car owner who wanted to take things to the absolute highest level. Simply put, Mancini explains, "This car was a no-expense-spared restoration, and our customer was gracious enough to go down that road."
Going down that path requires not only a larger pile of cash, but also a greater investment in time devoted to the restoration process, and tracking down the right parts. That means finding NOS parts where needed, and then going a level beyond that—the assembly-line parts. Finding these correct items has become a crucial piece of the overall puzzle, and a task that only a few shops are capable of accomplishing to push these kinds of restorations to their absolute best. Often referred to as "lunchpail parts," these items have been given that label because many left the factory by the back door and ended up in employee's home garages, making them much more elusive.
Before the restoration started, Mancini was able to go through the huge assembly-line parts collection of the late Steve Juliano. Perhaps one of the most prolific collectors of all things Mopar, Juliano amassed a large stash of these rare parts. Mancini was also able to go through the parts collection at the Wellborn Muscle Car Museum. Beyond those valuable resources, no high-end restoration today goes without a daily combing of eBay for NOS parts. The most elusive parts to hunt down end up being the disposable ones that get replaced when cars are serviced.
Items like oil filters, break-off Zerk grease fittings, and date-coded hoses and belts are all very specific and unique when installed on a car as it rolls down the assembly line. Some of the items that are date-coded have to fall within a certain window of time. Dictating that time span comes from items like the engine assembly date, fender tag, and, most importantly, the build sheet if it's still with the car. On this 'Cuda, the job was made a little easier because it still retains all its original documents, including two original build sheets.
After the 'Cuda was taken apart, the body stripped, and all the metalwork done, laying down the primer was next. As part of the OE restoration process, Chrysler's multi-step primer application was replicated. While most of this effort isn't visible, things like the duplication of primer runs on the undercarriage, dip lines inside and out, and the factory's unique dip primer rinse process were carefully performed to introduce that level of assembly-line detail. Once the results were satisfactory, the next step was to get it painted.
As with the primer stage, on a restoration like this, it doesn't come down to simply applying a coat of paint. There are two options available when taking things to the highest level in terms of paint choice. One option is to reapply a coat of enamel to mimic the original factory paint, which satisfies the purists—the other is to use a basecoat/clearcoat paint.
The owner of this 'Cuda opted for the modern PPG finish, which was the only deviation on the restoration. With the application of the color coat there were also things that needed to be reproduced in that process. Much of it came down to where to apply the paint and where not to. Overspray, or lack of paint in many areas to reproduce the original directional spray patterns was faithfully executed. This vital step was possible as a result of years of research done on original survivors.
The commitment to accuracy from the owner's perspective on this restoration was evident because Curious Yellow is notoriously reproduced incorrectly. In order to ensure that the 'Cuda was painted in the correct shade, he had his other 1971 Curious Yellow Hemi 'Cuda survivor shipped to the shop so that it could be color matched. What you see is an exact match to a factory-applied Curious Yellow paint job. Mancini says, "This was no easy task, as the color changes before your very eyes with the slightest difference in lighting."
A new coat of fresh paint is just one of the many steps in the overall restoration. Underhood, the assembly-line parts played a key role in accuracy. The most difficult to find items were the date-coded heater and radiator hoses, assembly-line belts, assembly-line spark plug wires, NOS wiring harnesses, and NOS motor mounts as examples. Beyond those, every original part used was treated to a restoration as well. Mancini explains, "I look at every single individual part of the car as its own project." The Hemi was also given a full rebuild and finished off with all the correct overspray and markings.
The same level of attention was also given to the interior. As a starting point, most of the original pieces were still in place and in very good condition. All the existing upholstery was retained. It was cleaned and restored to a like-new condition. The same treatment was also executed on the carpet, door panels, kick panels, console, along with the rest of the plastic trim. Even the headliner was sewn from NOS material. The dashpad is original to the car, while the dash assembly was given a complete restoration using all the correct finishes. Mancini's other company, Instrument Specialties (www.instrument-specialties.com), performed this work. For those who follow the MotorTrend Network series Graveyard Carz, they're responsible for most of the dash restorations used on the TV show.
As the car came together and the suspension was installed, items like NOS shocks, e-brake cables, and brake hoses were added. The brake and fuel lines were hand-fabricated from NOS tin-coated Bundy Steel, instead of the reproductions currently available. All the original suspension hardware that was put back on the car received a full restoration as well. This particular aspect of the process relies heavily on a number of different metal prep processes and treatments to achieve the correct natural, forged, and heat-treated finishes, while items like the lower control arms were partially coated in Cosmoline. Most of these parts also received very specific assembly-line paint markings. Some of these items were painstakingly restored and then mucked up when the undercoating was applied. Mancini prides himself on the unique undercoating application that his shop has been able to achieve. It's the closest that anyone has come in terms of an authentic look in reproducing the heavy, tar-like material the factory applied.
When you pop the trunk, the attention to detail continues. The original sound deadening was preserved on the car and is visible on the rear quarters, while seam-seal patterns were duplicated to match survivor cars. The rear trunk seal is an NOS piece, while the trunk mat is an original assembly-line part. The jack and spare are date-coded, and the inflator bottle is original to the car. On the exterior, all the trim is also original to the car. Every piece was reconditioned and polished. The same applies to the weatherstripping. Most of that came with the car, or is an NOS replacement.
The shaker bubble, as well as the rear tail panel were faithfully resprayed in black Organasol lacquer — a detail that's often overlooked on a regular restoration. It's worth pointing out that PPG recently discontinued their entire line of lacquer paints. Mancini purchased their entire remaining stock so that his shop can continue to use authentic materials while they last. The rolling stock on the 'Cuda is also an example of the level of authenticity achieved with this restoration. The Goodyear Polyglas GTs are NOS date-coded tires, along with the wheels, trim rings, and center caps, while the billboard stripe was cut from an original roll of 3M material.
The goal for completion was the 2018 MCACN show. The last few weeks leading up to the event were all hands on deck at the shop, with many long hours put in to get the car finished. It was unveiled on Saturday during the show and judged that weekend, where it was awarded its OE Gold certificate.
It's one of the finest restorations done on a 1971 Hemi 'Cuda, and in many ways is clearly better than when it rolled off the assembly line. From the paint finish to the body gaps and how things close properly, there's no denying it. It's essentially a hand-built car, where every part has been massaged to its best original look and function, even if the end result in many ways also points out the persistent flaws these cars had as they were being built.
For Mancini and his crew, the toughest part of putting this car together was hunting down all of the correct parts. The car owner played a vital role and was equally involved in their acquisition. Mancini notes, "You can redo and perfect your process time and time again, but it's the parts that send the restoration over the top. Without the correct parts, the car will never really be the very best." This truly is as close as you can get to a new brand-new Hemi 'Cuda.
1971 Plymouth 'Cuda
Type: 1971 426 Hemi
Bore x stroke: 4.25 (bore) x 3.75 (stroke)
Block: cast-iron 426 block
Rotating assembly: forged steel crank, Hemi connecting rods, aluminum forged pistons
Cylinder heads: cast-iron, hemispherical combustion chambers, two valves per cylinder
Induction: factory Hemi cast-iron intake, 2 x four-barrel Carter AFB 4742S (front), Carter AFB 4746S (rear)
Oiling system: Chrysler factory oil pump
Exhaust: original cast-iron exhaust manifolds, 2.5-inch dual exhaust with H-pipe, factory mufflers and resonators
Ignition: Chrysler dual-point distributor and electronic ignition
Cooling: factory Mopar 26-inch radiator
Transmission: 727 TorqueFlite, 2,500-stall converter
Driveshaft: factory Chrysler
Rearend: Chrysler 9.75 Dana 60 rear, 4.10:1 Sure-Grip
Front suspension: stock Chrysler torsion bar, heavy-duty 1-inch shocks
Rear suspension: heavy-duty six-leaf spring (left), heavy-duty seven-leaf spring (right), heavy-duty 1-inch shocks
Steering: factory Chrysler
Front brakes: Chrysler 11.00-inch rotors, single-piston caliper
Rear brakes: Chrysler 10.00x2.50-inch drums
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels: 15x7 (front) and 15x7 (rear) factory Rallye
Tires: F60-15 Goodyear Polyglas GT (front); F60-15 Goodyear Polyglas GT (rear)