How Did The Hemi'Cuda Convertible Get So Damn Expensive?
Musings on the Crown Jewel of Muscle Cars.
You may have seen the articles hyping this 1971 Hemi’Cuda convertible appearing at Mecum's Indy auction on May 14-22, 2021, and how it could reach as much as $6.5 million. Aside of the fact that’s the auction house trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, what none of these articles are telling you is how this particular type of car got to be in this position.
1969 'Cuda 440 (St. Louis Car Museum)
First, a little background: The Barracuda became a full-fledged pony car in 1970 after spending 6 years as a Valiant-inspired pony car. Sure, there were flashes of brilliance, like the introduction of the 1968 340, and the 1969 ‘Cuda 440 with an engine that was somewhat too much for the A-body to handle (in some ways, quite literally), but neither really met the Mustang or Camaro head-on. That all changed in 1970 with the introduction of the E-body Barracuda (and its Dodge Challenger cousin). Now the Barracuda was on equal footing with other pony cars in the market, and it was able to easily accept Chrysler’s best performance engines.
1970 Plymouth Hemi'Cuda ad
At the top of the list was the 426 Hemi. When installed in the Barracuda, Plymouth called it the “Rapid Transit Authority” (a reference to the team of performance cars in Plymouth’s roster) because the redesigned pony car was the perfect showcase for the Elephant engine. Being the lightest Hemi car available in 1970 counted for something, right?
1970 Hemi'Cuda convertible (Sports Car Market)
The 1970 Barracuda comes off as the cleanest, while the 1971 version can be a bit over the top, especially when equipped with all the candy. When introduced in the fall of ’70, most enthusiast publications felt Plymouth ruined a good thing due to the busy cheese-grater grille surrounded by four headlights, side gills, and the option of “billboard” decals. Thanks to early visibility in the muscle car hobby, the Hemi’Cuda convertible rose to the top of the heap in desirability and market value. Yet none of the current online articles have talked about what it takes to bring a vehicle like this to the top. Here’s how I see it:
The 426 Hemi was developed in 1964 to win in NASCAR and sanctioned drag racing. Its reputation was cemented after Hemi Mopars placed 1-2-3 at Daytona—in its first outing, no less. In 1966, Chrysler released a “Street Hemi” available on many Plymouth and Dodge mid-size models, and this engine remained available with few changes through 1971.
Hemi for the win in 1964. (Pinterest)
Any connection to racing generally elevates a vehicle in the eyes of collectors—witness the Camaro Z/28, Mustang Boss 302 and Boss 429, and several NASCAR homologation specials from Ford and Chrysler. True, the Hemi is an awesome engine in its own right, but its racing heritage pushes it up the ranks.
Back in the day, industry wags grouped pony cars in the “specialty car” segment, which included personal-luxury vehicles like the Toronado and Thunderbird, AMX, Corvette, and Dodge Charger. Of course, thanks to the Mustang, pony cars captured America’s imagination, able to play the role of sporty economy car or ultra-high performance vehicle and anything in-between. Today, in the hobby, pony cars are no less popular, and they often command a price premium over identically-equipped mid-size brethren. In other words, Hemi‘Cuda > Hemi Road Runner and GTX.
Since the Hemi’Cuda convertible has been at the top of collectors’ lists since the mid/late-1980s, the value of the car has always been a fight among many wealthy collectors but only a few authentic examples. For 1970, there were 14 US-spec ‘Cuda ragtops with the Hemi plus three for Canada and at least one export vehicle; for 1971, there were seven, two, and at least three, respectively.
Perhaps the most famous of the 1971 Hemi'Cuda convertibles. (BlakeMachine.com)
Rarity is a no-brainer of sorts, but there’s plenty of expensive cars that aren’t rare, such as the 1969 Camaro Z/28 or even the 1969 GTO Judge. And there are cars that are rarer than Hemi’Cuda ragtops, but none of them have that special combination of a drop-top pony car with racing heritage.
This blue '71 'Cuda sold at auction for $3.5 million several years ago. (Road & Track)
Several years ago, a “GB5” blue ’71 Hemi’Cuda convertible was auctioned off for $3.5 million. That car had a 4-speed—out of the bunch, only three—just like this one. In respect to supply and demand, there are more well-heeled collectors than authentic Hemi’Cuda convertibles built, for sale or otherwise. Combine these observations and it’s logical to see this kind of coin for a lowly muscle car that was expected to be junked after a few years.