Demolition Man - 1970 Chrysler AAR Hemicuda Le Mans
Following the dramatic fallout resulting from unrest in the Middle East during 1973, the world of motorsport found itself in choppy seas. Embargoes imposed by the OPEC caused a massive spike in oil prices. This posed a significant threat to everyday life, let alone the expensive, elitist and very inefficient activity known as motor racing.
All across the board, manufacturers, races and even entire championships were affected. Events were shortened or even outright cancelled, and as public opinion began to turn against gas guzzlers, support from the corporate side of racing quickly dried up.
A shot taken during a "Car-Free Sunday" in the Netherlands, a measure intended to limit fuel consumption.
As a result, many smaller national series were forced to fold under the immense social and financial pressure. But the big dogs weren't quite immune either. Even the Automobile Club de l'Oest, principal organizers of the world's most famous endurance race, were feeling the heat.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans had remained a popular staple of endurance racing ever since its inception, only stopping for unilateral strikes in France in 1936, and devastating World War that followed. Not even the tragedy in 1955 could interfere with the event's top status, despite a loss of more than 80 lives in the aftermath of Pierre Levegh's crash.
Despite the hardiness of the great race, the 1973 energy crisis seemed to be able to get the better of it. Throughout its long and illustrious history, the ACO had always been able to bank on either a large manufacturer backing, or a swath of eager privateers to fill the grids.
But with the fundamental nature of racing itself under scrutiny, those lifelines were starting to falter. As entries lists became shorter and shorter, it was painfully clear something had to be done to stem the tide.
By 1975, no major manufacturer attempted to enter the race. In previous years, Circuit de La Sarthe had been the battleground for an all-out brawl between Matra, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Porsche, but all had retreated in the wake of the oil crisis.
In an effort to keep attendance at adequate levels, the ACO opened the floodgates for a plethora of slower cars. In the absence of a great deal of the top level FIA Group 5 prototypes, Group 2 Improved Touring Cars, Group 3 Production GT's, Group 4 Special GT's and the ethereal homologation-free GTX category were added to the roster.
For French privateer and regional rally champion Michel Guicherd, this development was a godsend. With the doors open for a grand variety of much cheaper cars. All he needed to do was find a suitable machine.
However, he chose to work the issue from a very unorthodox angle. Guicherd remembered the exploits of Chrysler France, which fielded a successful factory effort (Ecurie Chrysler France) in Group 1 Series Touring Car racing.
Instead of using the European-designed Chrysler/Simca products however, Chrysler France utilized a quartet of second generation, Hemi-powered Plymouth Barracudas. Rebranded as Chryslers since Plymouth had no presence in France, the cars racked up a host of wins in Group 1 circuit and even hillclimb racing from 1970 to 1974. After the works program had ended, the cars fell in private hands.
Guicherd was interested in acquiring one of the four famous Cudas, but was mindful of the modifications the cars would need to move up to Group 2. So instead of trying to buy a car he would then have to spend a lot of time and money on to bring it up to speed, he turned to Ecurie Chrysler France's head honcho, manager/driver Henri Chemin.
Chemin had imported a fifth car from the States, which had been built by racing legend Dan Gurney's All American racers for use in the Sports Car Club of America's Trans-American Championship.
In fact, it was the last car Gurney drover before announcing his retirement from competitive driving at Riverside Raceway in 1970. As luck would have it, Trans Am operated under Group 2 regulations. Satisfied with the car, Michel Guicherd purchased #50231 and a big batch of spare parts from Chemin for use at Le Mans.
However, being a Trans Am car, 50231 sported a destroked 5.0L version of the 340 (5.6L) Chrysler LA V8, since 305 cubic inches was the maximum displacement in the series. This worked very well for the twisty club tracks America was known for, but wasn't quite suited to the endless, still unbroken straights of Circuit de La Sarthe.
With this in mind, Michel Guicherd set about replacing the 460 horsepower engine with a specially prepared version of the legendary 426 (7.0L) Hemi. Better known as the "Elephant" for its enormous physical dimensions, the Hemi was a high-revving racing motor originally designed for NASCAR, and also used to great effect in drag racing.
The key to the engine's performance lay in the name. It was named after the hemispherical combustion chambers. The rounded shape gave room for larger exhaust and intake valves, which were positioned at a better angle on either side of the chamber.
This significantly increased and improved flow at high rpm, while limiting low end torque as a trade-off. Helped by the centrally mounted spark plug giving a more even spark, the engine was able to produce tremendous top end power. Reportedly, figures as high as 780 horsepower were seen in NASCAR competition.
For his Cuda, Michel Guicherd took thing a little more conservatively. As such, his Hemi settled on a neat 500 horsepower, presumably making it durable enough to last the full 24 hours. Though the car had now gained a hefty 40 horsepower, it had also piled on a good chunk of weight.
On top of having a much larger displacement than the AAR's stock 340, the Hemi's complicated valvetrain needed to operate the opposed valves meant it had much larger cylinder heads, a key factor contributing to its immense size. As a result, the Cuda clocked in at a lardy 1654 kg (3646 lbs), a substantial amount for a racing car of any kind. Additionally, all of the extra weight was in the front, severely upsetting the normally well-balanced Trans Am chassis.
To help the car along on the Hunaudieres straight, it was fitted with a modified four-speed manual transmission, and the longest rear end gear ratio imaginable (2.76 :1). Based purely on the car's power, Guicherd though it would do well at the high speed track, compensating for its comparatively high weight, poor braking performance and ill-handling with sheer grunt.
After securing the services of former Ecurie Chrysler factory driver Jean Claude Geral, Guicherd entered the car in the lower level 2 Hours of Le Mans, held on the short Bugatti Circuit in March of 1975. The tight and twisty track didn't suit the nose-heavy machine one bit, making the 4th place class finish and 9th position overall all the more impressive.
Michel Guicherd drove solo for the next event at Nogaro, where he continued to impress with a fine 3rd place. At this meeting, he quickly took the chance to boast the car would be fitted with a 600 horsepower engine for Le Mans, a claim he would never be able to substantiate.
For the race proper, Michel Guicherd found Geral's former colleague Christian Avril willing to complete the crew. Just a week before for the big event, the trio took to Circuit Paul Ricard to test the Cuda for the first time.
Famous for its 1.8 kilometer (1.1 mile) Mistral straight, the venue was the perfect alternative to actually testing at Le Mans. However, the test was far from a success, as a jammed needle in one of the Holley carburetors forced the car to a stop.
Despite limited running at Paul Ricard, Guicherd and his team arrived at Le Mans on the 11th of June, 1975. As the ACO's liberal admission plan had worked, there were 71 entries trying to grab one of the coveted spots on a 55-car grid.
This meant the team would have to fight its way into the race in qualifying. The eye-catching black and yellow painted car was decked out with decals from AIGFA 6, a producer of gardening equipment Michel Guicherd had a stake in, and CdF Chimie, a chemical engineering company. Keeping with tradition, the car was entered as a Chrysler, as the Plymouth name still meant nothing to the French public.
This was much easier said than done. Although the car turned out to be capable of 296 kph (184 mph) while running at a conservative self-imposed 6000 rpm rev limit in practice, the team had a much bigger issue to deal with. Fuel consumption.
The ACO had gone out of its way to make fuel conservation the main focus of 1975, so much so it cost them the race's World Championship status, since the FIA outright rejected the ambitious scheme. The ACO put a limit on fuel tank size, and required all cars to run at least 20 laps on a full tank, four more than the winning Matra MS670C had managed the year prior.
The arbitrarily made up limit in essence restricted the cars to 43 liters per 100 kilometers (11 gallons per 62 miles). Anything over this measure would result in immediate disqualification. Worryingly, a near-stock Group 1 Hemicuda already used up to 65 liters per 100 kilometers. With this in mind, Guicherd did his utmost to remedy the big brute's drinking habit.
Sadly, running the engine too lean caused a catastrophic engine failure just three laps into practice with Jean Claude Geral at the wheel. The fuel-starved big block had suffered internal temperatures high enough to melt several pistons, completely destroying it.
The small team worked their hearts out to fit the sole spare Hemi they had lying around, as Michel Guicherd enlisted a Holley engineer working on Henri Greder's Corvette to help sort out the fuel mixture.
Their attempts turned out to be in vain however, as the second 426 expired in a big way by dropping a valve on the long Hunaudieres straight. A cloud of smoke big enough to cause bystanders to think the car was on fire was the result. Defeated, Michel Guicherd brought the car to a safe stop and waited for the recovery services.
In the short few laps he had managed however, the car had made a lasting impression. Guicherd was used to driving 1600cc Alpine A110's on rally stages. As a result, he likened the Cuda's mountain of power and dizzying turn of straight line speed to that of an airliner at take-off.
As the adrenaline ebbed away, he came to a shocking realization. In his desperation to meet the fuel requirements, he had unfortunately allowed the ACO to poach his beloved Elephant engine. With the reserve also in pieces, he had to take drastic measures.
Alongside the Hemis, Guicherd had retained the car's stock 340 engine. Seeing as he had no other option, he and his crew worked through the night to refit the smaller V8 into the car, along with its corresponding gearbox.
The next day, Michel Guicherd immediately noted the difference in speed. The 340 was nowhere near as potent as the big Hemi, and it showed. The car was incredibly sluggish on the straights, and though it was lighter and better balanced with the smaller engine, the deficit incurred on straights couldn't be made up in the few curved sections.
Though the 340 was more efficient and consequently more reliable, the lack of speed resulted in a tragically slow best lap of 5:15.4. This was only good enough for 69th place in a field of 71 Le Mans hopefuls, only beating out the wacky Lamborghini Islero 400 GT of Paul Rilly/Roger Le Veve and the plagued GLD Porsche 2.0L prototype of Jean Louis Gama and Franc Leclerq.
By contrast, the slowest qualifier was the Daniel Brillat / Giancarlo Gagliardi (ITA) / Michel Degourmois (SUI) BMW 2002 TI, recording a 4:47.9, 27.5 seconds faster than the Chrysler.
Following the misadventure at Le Mans, Michel Guicherd entered the car into the 1976 6 Hours of Dijon. The Chrysler name had been dropped on its entry sheet, with the car finally known as a Plymouth Barracuda. However, the team did not arrive.
Following the no-show at Dijon, Guicherd provided the car to his more experienced teammate for a return to hillclimb racing. Jean Claude Geral would managed a fine second place in his first event with the car at Neuvy le Roy.
A second appearance that year at Le Buisson-de-Cadouin resulted in 5th place. Against his better judgement, Michel Guicherd had applied for a spot in qualifying for Le Mans once more, but his entry was denied in favor of a pair of headline-grabbing NASCARs.
A third entry to Le Mans in 1977 was rejected immediately, relegating the by then seven year old car to hillclimb events once more. JC Geral gave the car another outing at Eymoutiers, securing 8th place.
The car was then sold to a gentleman by the name of Pierre Brunet, who leased it to rally duo Claude Gallais and José Lourseau. The car would be repainted in a dark blue / white paint scheme in deference to new sponsor. Nelson Jeans.
Gallais and Lourseau would shock everyone present in the paddock of the Criterium des Cevennes rally by entering the former Trans Am star. The event was known for its incredibly tight, fast and twisty stages, an environment the comparatively massive Barracuda was wholly unsuited for.
Gallais and Lourseau used a Peugeot 604 on their reconnaissance runs of the stage, reasoning the European executive sedan was the closest thing they had to the Plymouth in terms of size. Though the length did match up, the Cuda was still a damn side wider than the Peugeot, making for an exciting prospect.
Despite his prior experience with Mustangs 390 GT and Boss 429, Claude Gallais found himself over-driving the venerable racer. After taking a jump at Dukes of Hazzard levels of speed, the impact caused a spontaneous oil leak, creating a massive cloud of smoke. Through quick action by nearby fire marshals the car and its occupants were saved, but the old muscle machine's career was finally over.
The AAR Cuda #50231 is one of the most unique and seemingly incredibly versatile American racing cars the world has ever seen. In just seven short years, the car went from being Dan Gurney's personal Trans Am weapon to a factory circuit/hillclimb racer under the Ecurie Chrysler France banner, taking a shot at Le Mans, and finally becoming an impromptu rally car.
Though its timing at the great race couldn't have been worse, its incredible career demands respect. Despite being conceived as a nimble road racer, it made its biggest impression as a blisteringly fast, stereotypically large-engined gas-guzzling muscle car in the most efficiency focused edition of the 24H yet.
After its protracted French holiday, chassis #50231 was eventually repatriated to the US, and fully restored to its original 1970 Trans Am specifications. In 2005, it was sold at a Barrett Jackson action in Scottsdale, Arizona, selling for 396.000 dollars. Currently it competes in historic Trans Am racing.