The French Hemi Cuda: Finally Uncovered!
by Bill Stephens
The first of four 1970 Hemi Cudas delivered to Chrysler of France over 40 years ago went on to dominate in European hillclimbs and road races while campaigned by Henri Chemin, the man who built Chrysler’s French racing operation in the late 1960’s. When Chrysler officially ended its European competition efforts at the end of the 1973 season, Hemi Cuda BS23ROB249759 changed hands several times and was raced by a handful of privateers before falling into relative obscurity.
By the late 1970’s, it had been converted to street-legal trim, was used as a daily driver, but eventually was parked in a dark, drafty barn on the outskirts of the town of Toulouse in southern France. It was there that I first laid eyes on the car, having been asked by Colton Amster of Redline Restorations in Black Rock, CT, to chronicle the project which will see the Hemi Cuda shipped back to his shop for a full restoration which will bring it back to competition specs. Colton’s father, Bruce, who brings 50 years of experience restoring and researching special interest automobiles, is leading this expedition.
It’s a cloudy, damp afternoon when we arrive at the barn. The Hemi Cuda is completely shrouded by a dusty cover and when it’s removed, the car’s white paint is dirty and grimy, the right-rear tire is flat, and it’s obvious this Cuda hasn’t been driven for a while. The exterior of the Cuda appears generally sound with no major body damage, all glass and chrome is in place, and just some slight bubbling of the paint appears behind the rear wheel wells. Inside, the remnants of a roll cage remain where it was installed during its racing career; the carpets, door panels, and seats are weathered but not ravaged; the near-iconic “Pistol Grip” shift lever which connects to the Cuda’s 4-speed transmission pokes up through the center console.
Caption: Once the Hemi Cuda was uncovered inside the shadowy barn where it has been parked for several years,one would never guess they were looking at one of a handful of factory-campaigned racecars which won numerous events in France in the early 70’s.
Amster gives the car a preliminary visual inspection and determines the next step is to attempt to get the Cuda started. If the 426 cubic-inch, 425-horsepower Hemi engine capped with two Carter four-barrel carburetors will come to life, he can take the Cuda for a brief drive and get a better feel for what the car’s needs may be.
After a battery charge, a check of the fluids, a simple adjustment to the dual-point distributor, and several cranks of the engine, the Hemi somewhat surprisingly barks from its long slumber. Amster coaxes the Cuda from the barn, easily guides it onto one of the many rural two-lane roads crisscrossing the French countryside, and gradually shifts through the gears with the unmistakable sound of a Chrysler Hemi engine reverberating into the air.
Once the short shakedown cruise is completed, he issues his evaluation. “There’s a fairly heavy vibration as the engine ramps up,” says Amster. “But, otherwise, I’d say the Cuda is pretty solid and will take to the restoration well. And it definitely still corners like the racecar it was.”
It will now be a long journey for the Cuda, both in the sense that it will soon be embarking on a 5000-mile repatriation back to the United States within the next few weeks, and once underway, the restoration process is expected to take as long as six months. But for now, the winningest Hemi Cuda in history has been loaded onto a truck headed for Paris where the next chapter in its remarkable life is about to take shape.
I’ll be following the ongoing developments surrounding Hemi Cuda BS23ROB249759 in the coming weeks and have more to share with you in future blogs.
In the meantime, expect more than a few ultra-rare Muscle Cars to go up for auction at Dana Mecum’s Original Spring Classic in Indianapolis on May 15-20. If you can’t be there in person, enjoy four consecutive days of live coverage on Velocity beginning Wednesday, May 16th.