Vintage CL Road Test: 1969 Plymouth ‘Cuda 440 – “A Disturbing Automobile”

The 440 ‘Cuda — and its corporate sibling, the 440 Dart GTS — is a perfect examples of how the muscle car wars were taken too far at the end of the sixties. Stuffing the RB (raised block) 440 V8 into the engine compartment of the compact A-Bodies was simply an exercise in showing that it could be done, regardless of the many compromises and shortcomings. Those included excruciatingly heavy and slow manual steering, no power assist for the little 10″ drum brakes (front discs not available), no air conditioning, puny E 70-14 tires (equivalent to 205/70R 14s) on 5.5″ wide wheels and carrying over 57% of the weight on the front end. Just the recipe for turning the widely-acknowledged best-handling of the pony cars (and one of the fastest with the high-revving 340 V8) into a monster.

But even monsters have their charms, and the ‘Cuda 440 had one, but it’s probably not what you would expect: effortless cruising on the freeway. Just don’t ask it to stop or turn quickly. Or even make a truly impressive pass down the drag strip.

Given the 428 CJ Mustang (incorrectly called a 429 in the text), 396 Camaro and Firebird 400, Plymouth obviously felt the need to not only keep up, but stay ahead. But CL starts off by saying “it’s hard not to wish that the factory wasn’t quite so willing to keep up with the competition, or at least would wait until the rest of the car could be kept in balance with the thumping great engine”.  True on both accounts, and of course the second issue would be addressed in the significantly bigger and better balanced 1970 E-Body Barracuda (and Dodge Challenger). As to the term “factory” in their statement, it’s important to point out that these 440 barracudas and Darts didn’t receive their oversized engines in the factory, but were cobbled up at Hurst’s facility in Madison Heights, MI. These cars were specced as 383 cars, and then shipped to Hurst; 400 ‘Cuda 440s and 600 Dart 440s were built in total there.

Speaking of the 383, the decision to implant that slightly physically smaller engine in the Barracuda back in 1967 involved similar compromises: no power steering or air conditioning. But the power assist for the brakes and optional discs were available. The result was a milder version of the 440 ‘Cuda. And the 383 became largely irrelevant when in late ’67 the brilliant 340 LA V8 became available. It weighed less but was an overachiever of an engine if ever there was one. In a 1968 C/D comparison of six high performance pony cars, the 340 Barracuda bested all of them at the drag strip despite having a substantially smaller engine than the rest. The 340 Barracuda became the gold standard for the serious driver who wanted it all.

But obviously there were some drivers who didn’t want it all; they just wanted the most cubic inches. So Chrysler indulged them. Here it is, the Super Commando 440. But note: this is not exactly a rip-snorting genuine high-performance engine; it’s the same engine that was available in big sedans, and came standard on the Plymouth GTX and Coronet R/T. It was not a hemi, but it did pack 480 ft.lbs. of torque.

CL makes it very clear that the 440 ‘Cuda is targeted for a specific kind of buyer. As presumably one who more than anything values the 440 numbers on the front fenders. Big time bragging rights. But for anyone who wants a “complete” car, the 340 was the way to go. CL flat out says that the 440 ‘Cuda “is a disturbing automobile”.

But it goes like a missile, right? Not, actually. In fact, “CL was disappointed in the ‘Cuda 440.” The expectation that it might equal or best the 13.68 second 1/4 mile time of the Hemi Charger 500 quickly went up in smoke; the best it could do was a 14 second flat ET. Which is just a hair quicker than the 14.2 seconds a 340 version would do. The challenges of launching 480 ft.lbs. of torque through the Torqueflite transmission and the skinny tires were great, and ultimately created an inherent limitation in the concept.

Oddly, the legendary Torqueflite came in for criticism: “it did not shift crisply, but was mild, smooth and slow, seemingly out of place in this car.” The explanation was that this version was straight out of the sedans, just like the engine, and did not have performance mods like the version used behind the hemi and some other hot Mopars. Among other reasons, this was done to help preserve the modest-sized rear end, which is also why no 4-speed was available. More compromises.

The 440 ‘Cuda was then taken to CL’s road test course. The very substantial understeer, significantly greater than the 340 version, had a significant negative impact. But powering out of corners was easy with the torque-rich 440 and the limited slip rear end.

The biggest single compromise was the slow, heavy and sloppy manual steering, which was simply not capable of dealing with the 440’s power surges. Having to throw the wheel lock-to-lock to try to keep the flopping fish in a straight line quickly wore out the testers.

The steering wheel was too high, thanks to sharing all the hard points with the Valiant sedan. The bucket seats were “stiffly upright”. And of course the unassisted 10″ drum brakes were not up to the job at hand.

The one thing the ‘Cuda did well was roll down the California freeways at 70 miles per hour. Passing was effortless, and the stiff springs and shocks kept it stable. I’m guessing that’s not exactly what its 400 buyers were placing a priority on.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1968 Plymouth Barracuda Formula 340 – The Worst Selling But Best Pony Car Of 1968

Vintage Review: Car and Driver Compares The Hot 1968 Pony Cars – Which Is The Hottest Of Them All?