Most gear-heads eventually gravitate towards Motorsports, though when Sixties muscle cars are favored, the competition of choice tends to involve the quarter-mile. Growing up in Illinois, Hugh Gilbert, like so many of us, got involved with automotive competition, though drag racing was not his first love.
“I was always into racing, and my father was smart enough to make me wait until I was 17 before I could get my license. Unlike others, I was drawn to road racing, but I was clueless about how to get into it. Drag racing was the opposite. There were a number of outlets, and it was easier to show up in whatever you were driving and start making passes. You found out early that if you have no money, you buy cheap cars, and if you want to race, things are going to break, so you learn to fix a lot yourself,” remembers Hugh.
Although Hugh’s daily driver was a 1966 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere II, his racing steed was a ’63 Plymouth Sport Fury with a modified 383 and a four-speed. By the 1969-’70 racing seasons, Hugh was mechanically inclined, and at his home track, the now-defunct Alton Drag Raceway, he managed to record a 75-percent win ratio. Late in the ’70 season, he married, and the Sport Fury made way for a 318-powered Dodge Dart before it, too, was sold in favor of a ’74 Duster.
“It was a street-legal car that had a 318, then a 360. I started racing it about 10 or 12 years ago at Gateway International, but in 2002 the body was looking tired. I was on my way to a body shop when I was center-punched on the left side by a pickup; it totaled the car. After all the insurance claims settled, I started to look for a replacement. I had always wanted an E-body, and I thought it was now or never. During my search in 2003, I found a small, inconspicuous ad out of central Iowa, so I hooked up the trailer to check out what was claimed to be a rust-free car.”
What he found was a 1972 ‘Cuda 340/four-speed. The seller, who was the second owner, had purchased it at age 19 and embarked on a local-level career of drag racing, which, not surprisingly, led to the demise of its original engine. According to Hugh, “He replaced it with a sad parts store engine, and when he realized he wasn’t destined to become the next Ronnie Sox, he parked the car in his garage with 36,000 miles on it. The ‘Cuda had the usual tow damage to the front valance and amateur lettering and pinstriping, but it was indeed completely rust free.”
Now living in Percy, Illinois, Hugh spent a year resurrecting the ‘Cuda mechanically. He acquired a 1975 360 block and had it machined with a .030-inch overbore before assembling it with KB step-dish pistons. The short-block was then fitted with Indy aluminum TA heads with PBM valves, which are controlled via a custom-grind hydraulic Comp Cams camshaft. An Edelbrock RPM Air Gap intake manifold mounting a 3310 Holley carburetor tops it off and TTI headers expel the spent gases. Several parts in the ‘Cuda’s 360 were salvaged from the Duster’s engine, such as the crankshaft and rods. Backing the engine is a Tremec five-speed transmission linked to a 3.55-geared Sure Grip differential.
Soon after getting the new drivetrain together, Hugh took the ‘Cuda to Gateway just once. “Street tires and a manual transmission aren’t the best combo for drag racing. The ET was nothing to brag about, but the 104-105 MPH trap speed was good enough for the high 12s if the traction was there,” Hugh offers. “But my love is still road racing. Even though I really can’t afford it, I ended up meeting a bunch of guys through the SCCA and discovered more autocross. You don’t need to do a whole lot to a car to have fun or to be competitive.”
To that point, suspension modifications have been relatively minor, such as a larger front anti-roll bar, Firm Feel Inc. upper control arms, ESPO rear leaf springs, a series of poly bushings, and brake and steering upgrades. “My car is about 95-percent street and five-percent race, and since you rarely get out of second gear, it’s all handling. Since the sport favors smaller, lighter cars, the ‘Cuda isn’t necessarily the best choice, but it’s still a lot of fun, even though I race it only a few times a year.”