’70 Plymouth Cuda Is Reborn With Gen III Hemi Power

01/17/2024

’70 Plymouth Cuda Is Reborn With Gen III Hemi Power

01/17/2024

“For a Mopar guy like me, a Hemi Cuda with a four-speed has always been kind of the holy grail,” says Chris Newell of Diamond, Kentucky. “I never thought I’d have one. My wife used to tell me that she wanted a ’70 or ’71, and I’d say, ‘Well you’re going have to keep wanting, ‘cuz it ain’t gonna happen!”


While Newell’s E-body isn’t the kind of numbers-matching Gen II Hemi-powered machine that can command prices deep into seven-figure territory, it does indeed fit the definition of a Hemi-powered 1970 Plymouth Cuda. And thanks to some strategic restomodding, it captures much of the essence of those original ground-pounding monsters while benefitting from significant improvements in handling, ride quality, braking, and overall reliability.


“I’ve had a lot of Mopars over the years, but the biggest build leading up to this Cuda was my ‘68 Road Runner clone,” he recalls. “I basically built that one from the ground up. Unfortunately there were some time and finance constraints along the way, and it just didn’t get built quite the way I saw it in my head.”

A Hemi Cuda was a lifelong dream for Mopar enthusiast Chris Newell, but it always seemed unattainable. So he rolled up his sleeves and built one himself by combining the rough shell of a '70 Cuda with potent Gen III Hemi power.


Eventually Newell decided it was time to part ways with the B-body, and in the process of negotiating a deal with its next owner, he was presented with an interesting opportunity. “I ended up selling the Road Runner to a friend of mine who has a yard full of old Mopar projects,” he explains. “I was open to the idea of a cash-and-trade kind of thing, and one of the cars he offered was this 1970 Plymouth Cuda.”


Acquired in 2018, the 318ci-powered E-body was in rough shape at the time, but Newell saw potential. “There was no interior and it was pretty rusty, but the frame was solid,” he tells us. “I had a vision for what the car could be. I always wanted a four-speed with a modern Gen III Hemi – I knew that was the only way I was going to end up with a four-speed Hemi Cuda!”

Chris Newell's dream Hemi Cuda project began as a barn find minus the barn. A cash-and-trade deal for another car yielded the derelict '70 Cuda, which formed the foundation of the project.


Newell says that although he has done some bodywork in the past, the Cuda’s needs were well beyond his level of expertise, so he sent the car off for a proper makeover. The work ended up taking a bit longer than he’d initially anticipated, though.


“The body shop had the car for almost two years,” he says. “The front valance, hood, fenders, A-pillars, roof skin, rear decklid, both rear quarters, tail panel, and rear valance are all brand new parts, along with the floor pans and trunk pan. Basically, the only original parts of the body that we kept were the doors and bumpers. It was a lot rougher than I initially thought it was. But when I first saw the Cuda, my eyes lit up with stars like in the cartoons, and I kind of got tunnel vision.”

When it was all said and done, hardly any body panels remained from the hulk of the '70 Cuda Newell started with. “The body shop had the car for almost two years,” he says. "It was a lot rougher than I initially thought it was. But when I first saw the Cuda, my eyes lit up with stars like in the cartoons, and I kind of got tunnel vision.”


The Cuda’s extended stay at the shop gave Newell time to source the other parts he needed for the build. He found a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 from a 2013 Dodge Challenger in a junkyard and scored a period-correct Chrysler A833 four-speed manual transmission to match it up with. To give the Gen III Hemi a bit more character as well as some extra oomph, Newell ditched the stock camshaft for a Comp Cams “Thumpr” unit and matched it up with a ported throttle body, a custom cold air intake, and TTI headers, a combination that Newell estimates to be good for about 430 horsepower at the crank. A Holley Terminator X Max EFI system manages the proceedings.


“I liked the fact that it could control everything, and knowing that I was going to be putting a cam in it, I wanted something that was going to be easy to tune with,” he says of the ECU. “I also have some additional upgrades planned, and I wanted something that would be able to handle those as well.”


Check out Holley’s complete line of Gen III Hemi Swap Kits!

A mildly warmed over Gen III Hemi updates the drivetrain to modern power, while still keeping the Cuda all in the Chrysler family. The Gen III Hemi swap is straightforward with the many kits available, allowing car builders to easily get the best of both worlds for their classic Mopars. Owner Chris Newell did, however, go old-school with the transmission, opting for a classic pistol-grip-shifted A833 4-speed instead of more typical modern 5- and 6-speed units.


The rebuilt A833, meanwhile, was outfitted with a Hurst Competition/Plus shifter and an American Powertrain Hydramax clutch system. The grunt makes its way to the rear wheels through an 8¾ rear end with a 3.55 gearset.


During the teardown process, Newell discovered that the factory crossmember was toast, so he decided to replace it with a tubular unit from QA1. He figured it was a good excuse to do some other chassis upgrades as well, so he sourced sway bars and aftermarket upper and lower control arms from QA1 and high-performance shocks from Viking Performance. The Cuda’s stopping power has also been vastly improved thanks to a Wilwood big brake kit that features six-piston calipers up front and four-piston units in the rear.


“The rear suspension is a custom four-link,” he notes. “I wanted to be able to get the car to sit low, have that nice stance, and I figured I could get better handling out of a four-link setup, too. It’s something we basically designed in the garage, and since I work in a fabrication shop, I was able to get one of my buddies to weld it all up.”

Newell took a subtle, less-is-more approach to his '70 Cuda build, upgrading the car with tasteful mods that make a big difference in the performance and appearance of the car. The interior was pretty much non-existent when he got the car, but now the cabin is a thing of beauty, with VDO gauges and Corbeau sport seats.


While the interior is largely a factory-stock affair, VDO gauges and Corbeau sport seats give the Cuda a dose of functional modernity. It’s a similar story with the exterior, which benefits from some understated, but meaningful, tweaks.


“I’m a big fan of subtle changes. A diehard Mopar guy could walk around this car and pick several things really quickly, but to most people, they’re not obvious. The shade of white that we used is much brighter than the factory Mopar color, for example, and the Hemi side stripe is a gunmetal gray color instead of black. I also always thought that the factory positioning of the side mirrors was a little goofy, so we moved them from the middle of the door to a spot that’s closer to the A-pillar.”


Check out Holley’s complete line of Gen III Hemi Swap Kits!

Thoughtful details abound on Newell's Cuda, including repositioned side mirrors, LED headlights, a brighter-than-stock shade of white paint, and gray-instead-of-black stripes. "A diehard Mopar guy could walk around this car and pick several things really quickly, but to most people, they’re not obvious."


Although he’s adamant that projects like these are never truly done, Newell tells us that the car was roadworthy once again in late 2021. He’s taken it to a number of different events in the time since, and he cites Holley MoParty as a particular highlight. “It’s close to where we live in Kentucky, so going to MoParty is a no-brainer for us. And I love that there’s so much to do at these events. We can check out all of the gorgeous cars at the show, and when we get tired of doing that, we can go check out the drag racing. And if we get tired of that, we can check out the swap meet. It’s great to have all of that in one place.”

With late-model Hemi power, subtle but attention-getting appearance, and strong overall performance, Chris Newell's '70 Cuda is truly the stuff of dreams. He has plenty of fun with the car, particularly at MoParty, Holley's annual festival of all things Mopar, which happens every Fall in Bowling Green, Kentucky. "Going to MoParty is a no-brainer for us ... I love that there’s so much to do at these events."


Newell is currently wrenching on a third-generation Dodge Ram pickup project with his son, and he’s hoping to have his wife’s ’64 Dodge Polara up and running in time for the next MoParty event. And, as if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he’s hoping to sort out those aforementioned upgrades to the Cuda in the near future, too.


“A 392ci Hemi was actually the plan for the car from the get-go. I’ve got a couple of 5.7-liter Gen III Hemis, so I’ll just take one of those and do like a .020 overbore, along with the pistons and stroker crank. We’ll probably run the stock Eagle heads with a bigger cam. I think that should get us into the 500 to 550hp range.” While a more contemporary manual gearbox would likely elevate the Cuda’s performance even further, he says that, for him, the current combination is the sweet spot for the vintage-meets-modern mixture.


“So many people have asked if I’m going to put a five-speed or a six-speed in it. It would probably be quicker, and it would make it easier to cruise, but I think it would lose a bit of character. The four-speed gives it an old-school feel that I really love.”


Check out Holley’s complete line of Gen III Hemi Swap Kits!

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