We’ve all heard emotional rollercoaster stories about classic muscle cars that spent decades in neglect before coming back to life. However, the tale of the 1971 Plymouth HEMI Cuda “Phoenix” is more special than others. You can take its name quite literally—this Mopar icon was ruined in a garage fire back in 1999 and was left outside for over 20 years before a specialist dubbed Graveyard Carz got the chance to stay true to its name by reviving the machine. The build, which has been in its current, sparkling form for over a decade, was exposed at the official Mopar booth for SEMA 2022, together with a Hellcat Redeye-swapped 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A which is a fresh project from the said shop.
Some of you are probably familiar to the Graveyard Carz name. That’s because the Oregon-based specialist, which is led by Mark Worman, has had a dedicated TV show on Motor Trend since 2012. Oh, and Graveyard Carz season 17 is coming this December.
Now, the label has covered countless high-ranking Mopars, such as a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona belonging to the Florida collector whose other Daytona and Plymouth Superbird got flooded by Hurricane Ian in late September. However, the Phoenix Cuda is one of their most famous creations.
Graveyard Carz’s 1971 Plymouth HEMI Phoenix Cuda
Given the serious price hike commended by the NASCAR-bred 426 HEMI, not that many customers ordered their Mopars with the bad body, even when it came to monsters like the Cuda, which was the sportier version of the Barracuda—when Mopar introduced the meaner, E-Body, Gen III Barracuda for the 1970 model year, the range was split between the said derivatives and the more lavish Gran Coupe.
And this car is one of the just 48 units Plymouth built with an automatic for the 1971 model year. Keep in mind that while notable visual updates for most model year changes are unheard of nowadays, this was the norm five decades ago. And the 71MY might make for the most popular Cuda grille out there, which is why a New York-based specialist chose it when retromodding a 2022 Challenger Hellcat Redeye into a carbon-bodied, modern-day Cuda for SEMA 2022.
Alas, back in 1999, the garage accommodating the rare Plymouth exploded. The disaster “almost claimed the life of the owner” and ruined the vehicle, as Graveyard Carz states on the plaque accompanying the vehicle at Las Vegas event.
And, after storing the destroyed car outside for some 20 years, owner Wendell Malmberg, whom you can now see standing next to the legend on the SEMA floor, tasked the specialist with reviving the car, which explains its name
Fortunately, the fire hadn’t completely destroyed the vehicle as it happened with this G80 BMW M3 in Texas, whose hot exhaust burned the vegetation around it, which ignited the car itself. As such, the inner structure of the Mopar, where the stampings attesting to the original nature of the HEMI Cuda are found was sorted out after some chemical dipping. Still, as the firefighters had to step on the vehicle when dealing with the situation, the restoration demanded a roof from another car.
Given the significance and rarity of the 1971 HEMI Cuda, the most expensive one sold to date fetched $935,000 during a Barrett-Jackson auction held earlier this year, while an estimated average value for such an icon would sit somewhere around $250,000.
So we can imagine that this restoration was not exactly easy on the owner’s wallet, especially since the idea was the be able to label the car as an “all-classic, all-numbers-matching” example—once again, this is written on the plaque accompanying the project, which was displayed in the official Mopar booth at SEMA 2022.
Some original parts survived the fire, others did not
Thus, original body parts and aftermarket reproductions that have surfaced more recently were used to bring the Plymouth back to its former glory. Nevertheless, in the process, the machine went from orange to B5 Blue Fire Metallic, a shade that also pays tribute to the Golden Era of muscle.
The iconic 426 HEMI was given a slight bore (60/1,000) to fight the corrosion brought by all those years of elements exposure. And the unit, which is rated at 425 hp from the factory, is mated to a 727 Torqueflite three-speed automatic and a factory 4.10 Dana rear axle, just like it was back in the day.
The new interior is a black leather affair and yes, there’s an AM/FM stereo in there to accompany that 426 rumble at times.
If you’re seeking a more in-depth look at the troubled past of this ’71 HEMI Cuda, you’ll find an old Graveyard Carz episode about it in the YouTube video below.
As for a live SEMA 2022 take (lens tip to Keystone Automotive Operations), that’s what awaits you in the second Instagram post below, albeit with this, as well as the first post, kicking off with the Hellcat-powered 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A we discussed earlier today.