That ’70s ’Cuda

3 weeks ago Gallery Owners + Clubs

There was time long ago when muscle cars became the canvas for young enthusiasts to express themselves and modify their rides. No one cared about “number’s matching” this and “date coded” that. All that mattered was how crazy you could go with wild metallic paint colors, cool graphics, murals, mag wheels, body flairs and other customization trends. The goal was to make the troops hanging out at the local Burger King stop in their tracks and flock to your ride. It was an era of bellbottoms, feathered hair, FM rock and cheap secondhand muscle cars. The country had just started to recover from Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon and inflation, and the “Streak Freak” car craze movement was born. Nurtured by major car magazines such as Hot Rod, Car Craft and Popular Hot Rodding, the pages were alive with over-the-top trick and custom cars with owners trying to outdo the next guy. An avid reader to these publications was Don Cenkner, a Motor City native who was into cool cars, especially Mopar® vehicles. It was 1976, Don was 24, and he was looking for a fun project when he spotted the 1970 HEMI® ’Cuda listed in the Trading Times, a black-and-white newsprint publication that advertised used cars throughout Metro Detroit.  

“My buddy and I drove over to Madison Heights to check out the ’Cuda,” said Don. “Seller was asking $3,000 but we negotiated him down to $2,700. It had a built 426 HEMI with a crossram intake manifold, so the Shaker bubble was bolted to the hood as there was no air cleaner attached to the engine. We could tell it had been a former drag car as one of the prior owners had cut the rear wheel wells to run wide slicks mounted on slotted mag wheels. Originally Lemon Twist and with the optional Elastomeric painted front bumper. The HEMI ’Cuda only had 20,000 miles on it when Don brought it home and began to customize the car. No one back then knew or even cared about the rarity of these cars and that’s what makes this tale even more interesting. “I always love the early Pro Stock ’Cudas and Challengers of Sox and Martin and Dick Landy,” noted Don. “The big fat slicks, skinny front runner tires and the rake just made these cars look even cooler, and when I began working on the ’Cuda, that’s what inspired me.” So, Don and his buddy began to transform this low-mileage HEMI engine-powered vehicle into a wild Street Machine with serious muscle under the hood. “When I drove the car home, I could tell it was not running right. I knew right then I’d have to pull the motor and rebuild it. I enlisted Lou Mancini of Mancini Racing and he went through the HEMI, blueprinted the internals, raised the compression ratio and installed a .590-lift solid camshaft that just made this engine thump. We also added a tunnel ram intake manifold with a pair of Holley carbs sticking out of the hood. I did these modifications so others driving next to you could see the engine as that was a trend back in the mid-seventies,” smiled Don.

Along with the engine modifications, Don went about changing the rear gear in the Dana axle to a 5.13 ratio and swapped out the four-speed transmission for a tricked-out 727 TorqueFlite® automatic transmission. “The HEMI ’Cuda was viscous when you’d step on gas. It was a terror when I’d cruise Gratiot Avenue,” reminisced Don. When it came to the exterior, Don and his friends did all the paint and bodywork in the driveway at his modest home in Warren, Michigan. “Before we could transform the ’Cuda, I had to extend the garage for more room. Once that was set and we had the space, we added the rear flares as the wheel wells had already been radiused and the original paint was had minor nicks and scratches, I decided to paint the ’Cuda 1977 Corvette metallic orange as I always loved that color. I had Frank Galli, a local custom painter, add the pinstripes and “SUNRIDE” on the ’Cuda’s rear quarter panels. I chose the name ‘SUNRIDE’ because the metallic orange color reminded me of a sunrise,” said Don.

After competing in many outdoor and indoor custom car shows that included Street Machine Nationals at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and Detroit Autorama at Cobo Hall, Don and the HEMI engine-powered ’Cuda got caught in a snow storm driving home from Autorama. “We didn’t own tailers back then and would drive our cars into and out of Cobo Hall for Autorama,” noted Don. “On the way home after the show was over, we drove the ’Cuda out of Cobo Hall and headed back to house to put the ’Cuda away. It was nerve-racking driving the car in a blizzard from downtown Detroit to Warren with slicks on the car, no hood and big snowflakes going into the carbs. So, we went slow but still slid most of the way. We eventually made it back to my house and got the car in the garage unscathed.”

By the summer of 1979, Don was ready to move on to another custom car project and put the SUNRIDE HEMI engine-powered ’Cuda up for sale. “I advertised the car for $6,500 and immediately a 16-year-old kid came to look at the ’Cuda. I thought he just pulling my chain as he didn’t scoff at the price. He came back later with his dad and sure enough they bought the car. The funny part was, his dad insisted I drive the ’Cuda to their house as he didn’t want his young son behind the wheel of this tricked-out HEMI ’Cuda with a tunnel ram sticking through the hood and slicks,” laughed Don.

Like many cars, we lose track of them over the years and wonder whatever became of the machines we heavily invested money, sweat and blood into. The current caretaker of the SUNRIDE ’Cuda is Jack Persky from Gladwin, Michigan. A machinist by trade, Jack heard about this unique car back in the 1990s but never saw it in person. “In the early 2000s, a friend that was working for the ’Cuda’s current owner told me he was going to sell the car and I told him not to tell anyone else,” said Jack. “I called the owner to see if I could come look at the car since it was only 40 minutes from my house. Upon seeing it, I had to have it!”

The owner at the time had to discuss it with his wife, so Jack was on pins and needles for a week waiting for an answer until the owner said no dice as his wife didn’t want him to sell the car. “So, after six months of calling, I was about to give up, so I gave it one more shot,” commented Jack. “The owner finally convinced his wife it was time to let the car go. So, we agreed on the price, and I went and picked the car up the same day.” This rare HEMI ’Cuda has had at least six owners since the mid-1970s but has basically remained untouched from when Don sold it. It’s apparent that the SUNRIDE ’Cuda has been a garage ornament because of the radical motor and the 5.13 rear gears that make any sort of a road trip out of the question. “The owner before me pulled the HEMI and rebuilt it so it’s not as radical and more driver friendly,” said Jack. “With the car being in the magazines back in the day, it’s been a time piece for 45 years. Trust me, I would never think of restoring the car back to original condition. I did put the four-speed back in it and took the 5.13 gears out and put the factory 4.10 ring and pinion back in the Dana rear end.”

Despite being an iconic muscle car in its stock, production form, the SUNRIDE ’Cuda is rolling history that captures a moment in time in the custom car scene that we’ll never see again. When production numbers and perceived rarity had no bearing on a car; when sheets of lacquer paint, custom pinstriping and gobs of fiberglass got applied on body panels. It was a period when the rallying cry among the car crazies was “The Street is Neat” and descriptions like “Street Freaks” were synonymous with vehicle personalization and individualities while representing freedom and expression. The SUNRIDE ’Cuda, in all its 1970s customization glory, will continue to epitomize that bygone era for decades to come!

Check out these awesome pics from back in the day of the SUNRIDE HEMI engine-powered ’Cuda coming home, being built and how it looks today!

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