Pocket Aces: The 1970 Chrysler Trans Am A-Bodies

Musclecar Masterpieces by Geoff Stunkard

They were called pony cars, models that fit a small but sporty segment between economy models and midsize cars. Named for the sales niche that Mustang had established in 1964, all the major manufacturers were making offerings to this marketplace by 1970. Prior to that, Plymouth had used their A-body platform to release the first Barracudas, but sales proved that it and the Dart from the Dodge Division was not quite what the public wanted. For 1970, it was the new Duster 340 aimed at the economy muscle market, because now Chrysler had released a completely new design, designated as the E-body, to meet the desires for ‘pony’ muscle.

These new models, Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda (that was called ‘cuda in performance trim), could be had with any engine in the Chrysler line-up, right up to the 426 Hemi. Though based on the B-body platform, big blocks in the E-bodies tended to be nose heavy. When it came to handling prowess, the refined 340 small-block ended up being the best overall choice, and you could get the four-barrel version in the both the coupe or convertible E-body styles. For hardcore fans, you could also get a very special E-body with a Holley six-barrel layout, which arrived in the special A53-coded Trans Am models that came off the line in March.

The Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-Am racing series had become a big deal for the manufacturers, and 1970 was by far the most visible year the SCCA ever had. Dodge hired Sam Posey to direct their Challenger program, while Dan Gurney’s All American Racers oversaw the Plymouth ‘cuda development. Part of the SCCA rules required that race-engineered equipment needed to be available on production examples. Thus the Cuda AAR (named after Gurney’s company) and the Challenger T/A (named after the racing series) were born, to homologate that hardware for the racetrack and promote the factory’s involvement in the series.

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By far the two most visible signs of the car special heritage were their fiberglass hoods and the side-exiting exhaust. The hood on the Challenger featured a styled snorkel-type scoop that raised the opening an inch off of the hood surface; the ‘cuda used a channeled subsurface opening that had been developed by NACA for aircraft use. Both were pinned down in the front with light-duty hood hinges. Meanwhile, the exhaust system featured black-painted tubing, transverse mufflers (with the inlet and outlet on the same side), and dealer-installed chrome tips with deflectors that exited from under the rocker panel in front of the rear tires.

Special graphics and callouts in black tape were also standard, as was the rear spoiler, rear-mounted radio antenna, and mixed-size tires (Goodyear raised letter Polyglas E60x15 up front and G60x15 in the rear, all on 15x7 rims, with a Sav-A-Space inflatable spare in the trunk). Special heavy duty suspension equipment, front power disk brakes, and the special E55 340” engine completed the package.

Based on a stock 340, this was the most radical small-block done by Chrysler in the era. A high nickel content block with meat for four-bolt mains, head castings drilled for offset pushrods, and an Edelbrock aluminum intake (painted the same color as the engine) topped with three Holley two-barrels, were all part of it. Rated at a paltry 290 horses, the E55 was never again offered as a production option. With changes in policy and government mandates, the factory pulled out its money and support of the series after just one season, and the cars were never revived (though a ’71 Challenger was depicted in some 1971 model advertising).

The Wellborn Musclecar Museum features two of the most impressive examples from the one-year experiment. Moreover, both vehicles are low-mileage survivor cars, something the museum has specialized in. The duo came from the legendary collection of Otis Chandler, were subsequently sold to Carlos Monterverde and shipped to England, and finally returned to the States to become part of the Wellborn’s then-private museum in 2002. Take a look at them: Plymouth ‘cuda AAR and Dodge Challenger TA.