“Riding loud Harleys down Route 66 with no helmet is not the most sensible thing to do, but you will always remember it. This ’Cuda will be about as close as I will get to that with four wheels,” says Russell O’Donoghue. A man with an appreciation for all things American; he worked in the States for more than 20 years and, more pertinently, owns this astonishing 1970 ’Cuda.
He couldn’t have chosen a more desirable base to build from. ’Cuda convertibles are nigh on impossible to find and rank among the most desirable muscle cars on the planet. Of course, that desirability comes at a cost, but after years of working as a superyacht captain, he was ready to own the car of his dreams.
But the ’Cuda dream very nearly turned into a nightmare before the build even started. Though it was a show car in the land of stars and stripes, on its arrival in New Zealand the car was found to be an utter basket-case. Had it been a common vehicle it would have been scrapped, but being one of only 12 1970 Gran Coupe Convertibles built, that was never going to be an option.
It’s a situation that could have put Russell off cars for good, and while he says he will never build another car to this extent, we are extremely glad he saw the project through to completion, because the result is one of the most impressive vehicles ever to featured in NZV8.
From Rust To Respect
While figuring out what exactly to do with the car, Russell began talking to Mopar guru Wayne Grimmer, who referred him to some of the best people in the business. After almost four years in the build, Russell can’t speak highly enough of those involved, including Wayne. What was once a car that many people would have thrown away is now oozing quality, cool and sex appeal.
The man chosen to build the engine and other mechanical parts was Eric Livingstone from West Auckland Engine Reconditioners (WAER). The engine that came in the car was an iron-block Hemi but it was all but useless. After much research Eric and Russell devised a plan for serious but reliable and driveable power.
Meanwhile, the car was dropped to Greig McSporran of Profile Autobody, one of the few people in the business who would tackle such a major rebuild.
“It was stuffed, absolutely stuffed,” says Greig. “We’ve replaced basically every panel in the car, which required a Dodge Challenger to be purchased as a donor car for things like the floor, chassis rails, inner guards, you name it, it’s been replaced.”
During the panel replacement, which took place over a period of around three years, additional strengthening was added to the body, and the new wheel tubs were enlarged to allow bigger wheels in preparation for the massive powerplant that would be fitted.
There have been plenty of other small, but purposeful, body modifications such as the alterations to the right-hand shock tower, made to allow a decent-sized exhaust to hang off the big wide Hemi.
E-body aficionados would have noticed the Dodge Challenger R/T bonnet, which was fitted in an effort to add some aggression to the front of the car and also allow for heat dissipation. To match the higher rear end of the R/T bonnet, the top of the guards were extended, as were the front end of the doors, although unless you saw it parked next to a stock ’Cuda, chances are you’d never notice.
Most people would also never see the amount of work that has gone into the undercarriage, both in terms of strengthening, and smoothing to the point where the car looks just as good from the ground up as it does from the top. One of the reasons behind the top looking so good was that Russell believed getting the panel gaps right was important. Greig stepped up to the task with no problems.
The fact the ’Cuda was going to be black made Greig’s job all that much harder, but observing the car’s lines now, there’s no question that it’s straighter than when it left the factory back in 1970.
Hemi Or Nothing
Back over at WAER, good progress was being made with the powerplant, which, as far as we’re aware, is the most serious Hemi fitted to a street car anywhere in the country. “It’s an expensive motor but it’s worth it in the long run. I didn’t want to have reliability problems or end up changing parts later,” says Russell.
The powerplant in question is based around a Keith Black alloy block and with 7.1-inch billet Manley rods, JE 8:1 pistons and a 4.625-inch stroke crank to displace 588 cubic inches.
The list of gear in the bottom-end reads like a Hemi fanatic’s wish list, as do the specs for the Hemi heads. Rather than go for outright power, reliability was the main aim. Reliability while making a lazy 1000+hp, that is.
The heads themselves are ported Stage V items fitted with 2.25- and 1.9-inch valves, NASCAR-style tool steel lifters, Ray Barton T&D independent shaft-mount roller rockers and Comp Cams springs.
If fitted with an aggressive camshaft these items could assist in some crazy power figures, but a mild 283/283-duration cam that gives .612-inch intake valve lift and .601 exhaust has been fitted.
Don’t go thinking that more than 1000hp is unattainable, however; there is a massive F1-R Procharger to aid in that department. Even without it the combo is still good for around 800 tyre-shredding horsepower.
The Procharger huffs air through an Indy single plane manifold that has been modified for fuel injectors, which are run off a FAST ECU.
Rather than running an intercooler and trying to find room for the associated pipework in what is an already crowded engine bay, water/methanol injection has been added to assist in reducing intake temperatures. When questioned about this, Russell mentioned “The 20-litre water/meth tank in the boot should last for about 10 tanks of gas, as it only starts spraying when the car sees 3psi boost, so it’s pretty low maintenance.”
Anyone who’s met Russell knows that he loves power. However, he also wants things to look right, and this engine bay certainly does, despite almost overflowing with power and reliability-inducing parts.
TTI headers flank each side of the block, and with a 2.25-inch diameter leading to a four-inch collector, calling it a tight fit is an understatement. From the collectors, three-inch pipes flow towards the rear, and with Flowmaster mufflers as well as resonators, the sound emanating from the posterior is angry yet unobtrusive.
The front of the engine bay is as tight as the sides, with a massive RaceFX-built four-core triple-flow radiator, twin 14-inch SPAL fans and custom shrouding along with a large trans cooler all fighting for cool air.
WAER also got the task of building a transmission that would cope with the massive amount of torque the engine is capable of producing. The Richmond that was originally in the car was sold on, and the new trans, based on a 727 Torqueflite with a GearVendors over/underdrive unit, was attached.
While there are numerous upgraded parts in the trans, the main feature is the reverse pattern manual-valve body.
“The GearVendors unit is fantastic, with the press of a foot [similar to an old headlight dimmer switch] you have another range of gears at your disposal. The first time I drove the car, I just left it in third gear, and used that. You could drive the car all day like that,” says Russell.
Hit the switch on the onramp and you see 100kmh at 2250rpm.
When asked about the rear end, Russell says, “One of the only original parts left in the car from how I bought it is the Dana 60 diff, although we’ve narrowed it 150mm, changed the axles to 35-spline and fitted a Sure Grip head to it.” So while it came with the car, calling it stock would be far from correct
The WAER team also fabricated and installed the car’s brakes and suspension systems. The suspension has been left relatively untouched, with just uprated torsion bars, tubular A-arms and Rancho adjustable shocks being fitted up front. Down the rear there are Caltrac split mono leaf springs along with Nolathane bushes. While Russell knows he could swap the front K-member for one with coil-over-type suspension, he will wait and see if the car needs it first.
The brakes are as you would expect for a car with this much power, not to mention this much weight in the engine bay. Wilwood was the brand of choice, Superlite the caliper both front and rear.
Unlike most brake systems, the rear rotors are marginally bigger than the fronts, at 12.19 inches compared to 11.34. The reason is that the 29x15x15 Mickey Thompson S/R tyres wrapped around 12-inch wide rims are going to carry a lot more rotational weight than the smaller front tyres and eight-inch rims.
Connecting The Dots
The job of wiring the car from head-to-tail was passed to fellow ’Cuda owner and auto electrician extraordinaire Wayne Grimmer at Western Auto Electrical. Not a single strand of original wiring is left in the car, and as much as possible of the new loom has been hidden out of sight. Included in the wiring job was the installation of Auto Meter Cobalt series gauges, along with a bank of aftermarket switches and some serious security features. All fuses, relays and associated parts are now incorporated into the glovebox area for a neat and centralised install.
The stereo system, which according to Russell is nothing too flashy but simply has the right components, was installed by his friend Simon. Kicker gear was used exclusively in the ’Cuda for no other reason than it sounds great. The so-called simple system runs three amplifiers: one for the front component speakers and one for each subwoofer.
At first glance the door cards look standard, that is until you notice the speakers in them. Dashboard Restorations did a great job of vacuum sealing them as well as the rear-seat side panels, which now house the subwoofers. “The panels have been modified to allow for the wheel tubs,” Russell says, but only those in the know would pick it up.
Russell is a fan of electronic gadgetry, so when looking for a head unit he managed to find an all-in-one GPS/DVD/reversing camera Kenwood, which with its blue illumination ties in perfectly with the Cobalt gauges.
The remainder of the interior was taken care of by Ian Goodwin and Tom Black, who proceeded to wrap the Recaro front and modified ’Cuda rear seats in Mercedes Napa Leather. The late-model seats work remarkably well in the car, sitting at just the right height. “The stock seats were too flat, and just didn’t hold you well enough, whereas the Recaros are great and give plenty of support as you sink right into them,” says Russell.
The custom full-length centre console was designed and built by Profile Autobody, which also laid Dynamat throughout.
“We also decided on electric windows and a power top,” Russell says. “The steering column ignition has been removed and ‘keyless go’ installed. Vintage Air air conditioning is also installed, as were track sliders in the boot for the water/meth tank and battery box to allow them to be tucked out under the guards to allow for more boot space.”
Relax And Enjoy
The day before our photoshoot, the car hit the Dyno at C&M Performance for the final tune-up. Still with a few teething problems and just 6.8psi boost, the car pumped out 1050hp at the engine. With new injectors and a 10psi supercharger pulley alleviating those issues, that figure is likely to climb to 1200hp or more.
Russell admits there are a few things that he would do differently if he did it again, and there are a few things that will change on the car over time, but after four years in the build, the time has come for the ’Cuda to hit the streets.
Unlike many projects of this magnitude, Russell is still satisfied with everyone who has helped out along the way. “I can’t speak highly enough of Greig,” he says. “Most people would have walked away from it or never taken on such a big job, but the end result is perfect. It came out exactly how I wanted it, and with Greig’s touches it’s even better.”
We love it too. While it’s excessive in the engine bay, it’s understated in other areas; it has the best of the best bits in it and suits Russell’s taste for the finer things in life, yet isn’t extravagant or unnecessarily bling. “Lots of people have opinions about what I should have done, that I didn’t need that power, it needs bigger wheels or I shouldn’t have done it to a convertible, but at the end of the day, it’s what I wanted. I love convertibles; I love E-bodies, especially ’Cudas; I love big power and love black cars.”
That’s a logic you can’t argue with, and anyone who meets Russell will know this really is the car of his dreams. Then again, it’s the car of many of our dreams, he just happens to be the lucky one with the keys. Well…he would be, but it’s keyless.
1970 Plymouth Barracuda Gran Sport – Specifications
Engine: 588ci Keith Black street Hemi, ‘Charlies’ alloy sump, billet Manley steel, 7.1-inch I-beam rods, 4.625-inch stroke Scat crankshaft, Keith Black alloy rocker covers, JE forged 8:1 pistons, 6-bolt mains, Miloden gear drive, Miloden oil system with external entry and swinging pick-up, ported Stage V heads, stainless 2.250-inch intake valves, 1.9-inch exhaust valves, billet solid lifter cam, Nascar-style tool steel lifters, Ray Barton T+D independent shaft-mount roller rockers, 10-degree retainers/locks, Comp Cams springs, Indy single-plane intake manifold modified for injectors, FAST throttle body, F1-R ProCharger with competition-style blow-off valve, water/methanol injection system, FAST fuel injection pump with FAST inlet and outlet filters, stock fuel tank with 0.5-inch pickup and return line, MSD crank trigger, modified MSD distributor, Taylor Spiro Pro HT leads with Hemi tube and covers, FAST ECU, MSD coil, TTI headers, 3-inch Flowmaster mufflers, custom 4-core triple-flow radiator, twin SPAL 14-inch skew fans,
Driveline: Competition 727 Torqueflite with GearVendors over/underdrive, reverse pattern manual valve body, moly billet race pump gears, competition clutch plates, competition bands, Kolen steel clutch plates, competition clutch springs, HP high stall converter, Dana 60 diff, Powerlock limited slip head, 35 spline axles
Suspension: Uprated Hemi torsion bars, tubular upper A-arms, Caltrac rear suspension system, custom Nolathane bushes, Rancho RS 9000 adjustable rear gas shocks, gas front shocks
Brakes: Wilwood Superlite calipers front and rear, 11.75- and 12.19-inch rotors
Wheels/tyres: 15×8- and 15×12-inch American Racing Torque Thrust II rims, 26x10x15 and 29x15x15
Exterior: Modified Challenger R/T bonnet, streamlined body, slightly rolled guards, solid blackest black
Chassis: Complete rebuild of chassis and body to show car quality, customised and strengthened with frame connectors, torque boxes, tubing and all welded together and seam sealed
Interior: Recaro seats, Napa leather, Grant steering wheel, B&M Black Diamond shifter, Autometer Cobalt gauges, carbon fibre dash and consol, Custom door skins
ICE: Kenwood DNX8120 head unit with 7-inch touchscreen with integrated Garmin GPS, Kicker 6.5-inch components, 2x 10-inch Kicker subwoofers, 3x Kicker amplifiers, Kicker cabling throughout
Performance: 1050hp (flywheel) at 6.8psi boost
Russell O’Donoghue – Driver Profile
Occupation: Superyacht captain
Previously owned cars: 2002 Nissan R34 M Spec NUR Skyline, 2004 Merc E55 AMG, 2003 Audi RS6 Avant
Dream car: It changes, but this one for now
Why the Cuda? I wanted a muscle car customised for me
Build time: 4 years
Length of ownership: 4 years
Russell Thanks: Greig McSporran — Profile Autobody, Eric Livingstone — WAER, Wayne Grimmer — Western Auto Electrical, Ian Goodwin Car Upholstery, Carl – C&M Performance, Dashboard Restorations, Kicker, Clay – Auckland Air Care, Colin – Perfect Shine, Psymin, RaceFX and everyone else involved in the project.
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Adam Croy