A FAM­ILY AF­FAIR

WHAT HAP­PENS WHEN YOU MARRY INTO A CAR-LOV­ING FAM­ILY MUS­CU­LAR WITH A “THING” FOR MOPARS? YOU END UP WITH A SASSY GRASS GREEN ’71 ’CUDA OF YOUR OWN.

Mopar Muscle - - Contents - BY RICHARD TRUESDELL PHO­TOS BY THE AU­THOR AND JOHN AND VINCE MARCONI

What hap­pens when you marry into a car-lov­ing fam­ily with a “thing” for mus­cu­lar Mopars? You end up with a Sassy Grass Green ’71 ’Cuda of your own.

If you live in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and run in car en­thu­si­ast cir­cles, you might’ve run across the name Marconi. Dick, the pa­tri­arch of the fam­ily moved to Cal­i­for­nia in the 1950s to start a fam­ily, was ex­tremely suc­cess­ful in the health sup­ple­ments field, and in his not-quite-re­tire­ment gave back to the com­mu­nity, found­ing the Marconi Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum & Foun­da­tion for Kids in Tustin, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1997. Along the way he backed his son’s rac­ing ac­tiv­i­ties with John en­joy­ing a large de­gree of suc­cess in Can-am, Trans-am, For­mula Ford, For­mula At­lantic, For­mula 5000, Indy lights, and in sports rac­ers — in­clud­ing as a Fer­rari factory driver — win­ning the 348 US Chal­lenge, and sec­ond in the 348 World Cham­pi­onship. Sev­eral of John’s race cars are on dis­play in the mu­seum. And while John was rac­ing, in 1988, he mar­ried the love of his life, Michelle, and to­gether they raised three ex­cep­tional kids, Vin­cent, Monique, and Colt. Vin­cent es­pe­cially, in­her­ited the “car guy” gene from his dad, buy­ing, build­ing, and restor­ing his first car over a two-year pe­riod be­fore he could le­gally drive, a ’69 Dodge Dart Swinger. Ten years ago, while a high school se­nior, it land­ing on a mag­a­zine cover. Once he grad­u­ated, in­stead of tak­ing the road to col­lege, Vin­cent took a de­tour and that’s where the story on this Sassy Grass Green ’71 Ply­mouth Cuda 340 re­ally be­gins. Mopar fans con­sider the ’70-’74 E-bod­ies as the Holy Grail of Mopar mus­cle. We know that the rarest ’71 Hemi-pow­ered cars have sold for $3 mil­lion or more. But might the best-bal­anced of the John Her­litz–de­signed Bar­racu­das ac­tu­ally be those pow­ered by the small-block 340s? While it’s of­ten said “there’s no re­place­ment for dis­place­ment,” that’s not al­ways the case when the weight of a big-block 426 or 440 is stacked on top of the front axles. While straight-line is fun it’s also about the han­dling!

As John Marconi ex­plains, this car was ac­quired in 2009 about two weeks be­fore Christ­mas. “Vin­cent, my­self, Julius and Dave Mick­el­son were buy­ing and sell­ing Mopars and hav­ing a good time do­ing it. David and Julius had done the ba­sics on this car. They asked Vin­cent to fin­ish up the car be­cause they were swamped. The car was in our shop be­ing worked on. Michelle had come down from the house to ask Vin­cent a cou­ple of ques­tions and saw this beau­ti­ful Sassy Grass Green ’71 340 ’Cuda. Her com­ment was, ‘Oh my good­ness, it’s beau­ti­ful.’ Un­der­stand Michelle has seen a lot of cars — she’s been around rac­ing most of her life. For her to say some­thing like that, it caught our at­ten­tion.” John con­tin­ues, “Later on that evening she made a cou­ple of com­ments about it that she thought it was re­ally a nice car. This was around De­cem­ber 9. Vince and I met up the next day and thought it would be re­ally cool to buy it for Michelle. We con­tacted David and Julius and ne­go­ti­ated a deal to pur­chase the car. The car stayed at the house with Vin­cent do­ing work on it, get­ting it ready for the big re­veal on Christ­mas Day. When we did a com­pres­sion check on the mo­tor,

it was pretty ob­vi­ous it had some burnt valves due to un­leaded fuel. The car had about 75,000 miles on its match­ing-num­bers mo­tor. So like mus­cle car guys do, we or­dered up a 400hp 360 Mopar roller crate mo­tor. That was the task — try­ing to get the mo­tor in our shop with­out Michelle see­ing it.”

“The plan was to pull the stock mo­tor and in­stall the new crate mo­tor be­fore Christ­mas. How­ever, there was a hitch in the giddy-up. We had two cars in restora­tion at that time and didn’t have the room to do the en­gine swap. Be­tween the ninth and Christ­mas Day, Michelle made sev­eral trips to the shop to see how Vin­cent was do­ing on the car, still think­ing that he was work­ing on it for David, and Julius get­ting it pre­pared so they can sell it. Christ­mas morn­ing ar­rived. Once all the fes­tiv­i­ties up in the house were done, the fam­ily walked Michelle down to the back with her eyes closed for the big re­veal. We tied a big red bow around the roof of the car and one around her 400hp crate mo­tor sit­ting on an en­gine stand next to the car. When she opened her eyes there were tears, at first we weren’t sure whether it was tears of joy, be­cause we bought her the car or she was go­ing to kill Vince and I for spend­ing the money. Thank good­ness it wasn’t the lat­ter. We then be­came a three ’Cuda fam­ily.”

The Marconi’s three E-bod­ies in­clude Michelle’s 340 Sassy Grass Green ’71 ’Cuda; the sec­ond ’Cuda, of­ten driven to shows by the then 18-year-old Vin­cent, was a ’73 440 Six-pack resto­mod; and John’s “daily driver,” a ’71 Hemi ’Cuda four-speed. John re­calls that Christ­mas morn­ing al­most like it was yes­ter­day. “Of course, the first thing she wanted to do is go out for a drive, so we pulled it out of the drive­way. She took off for what

we thought was go­ing to be an aroundthe-block ex­cur­sion. A half-hour later she brought the car back said, ‘This thing is a dog! She wasn’t kid­ding. It had five burnt valves. Vince and I did what any good Mopar fam­ily would do on Christ­mas Day, we backed it into the garage and started tear­ing out the en­gine. Our mis­sion was to in­stall her new crate mo­tor on Christ­mas Day. Re­mem­ber, at this time it was 11 a.m. Out came the power tools and out came the tired 340. We got the new mo­tor in­stalled and run­ning just be­fore dark.” (It doesn’t hurt to have a well-equipped home garage with three lifts.)

As the sun was set­ting on Christ­mas Day, Michelle took it for a sec­ond spin that day. “The mo­tor has a very se­ri­ous cam in it and backed up by two-cham­ber Flow­mas­ters — noth­ing sounds sweeter than a Mopar with proper ex­haust. Com­ing up to the in­ter­sec­tion some neigh­bor­hood kids spot­ted her on their bikes; they re­quested a burnout. That’s ex­actly what she did as she lit it up across the in­ter­sec­tion. Life was per­fect around the house. Over the next cou­ple weeks Vin­cent con­tin­ued tidy­ing up the en­gine com­part­ment to make it drive­able. Vin­cent took the car over to Su­pe­rior Au­to­mo­tive for a cou­ple of hours of in­tense dyno work. The mis­sion was to build Michelle a fast gro­cery getter that she could have fun with, take to car shows pe­ri­od­i­cally, and yes, go get gro­ceries. One thing about all our cars is while we like go­ing to car shows, we pre­fer driv­ing our cars. They’re not trailer queens.”

Michelle, who by na­ture is some­what shy, did re­late that over the years, she’s taken her ‘Cuda to go gro­cery shop­ping. “We have a Stater Broth­ers su­per­mar­ket close by and on oc­ca­sion I would take ‘Sassy Fish’ for a gro­cery run. Not be­cause it was con­ve­nient to do so given where it was parked in the drive­way, but be­cause I wanted to. And it never failed to at­tract at­ten­tion. With its color, it’s not a car for some­one who is in­tro­verted. This is a bit of a con­tra­dic­tion for me, but I sim­ply love the color.”

John didn’t ex­pect the re­ac­tion a few weeks later, when at­tend­ing their first show. “What peo­ple did not an­tic­i­pate was a beau­ti­ful 5-foot 9-inch nat­u­ral blonde in a pony­tail to roll in with a ’71 Sassy Grass Green ’Cuda. I will ad­mit that it drew at­ten­tion com­pletely away from the two big-block cars in red. It’s amaz­ing to watch her pull into the shows, and the other two ’Cu­das lit­er­ally dis­ap­pear into the back­ground. That Sassy Grass Green car is a show­stop­per. Michelle loves frogs, es­pe­cially red-eyed tree frogs so Vince painted the in­take plates on the rally hood in red. Now she’s got a very fast, very an­gry, redeyed ’Cuda.”

When the car was first built back in 2009 and 2010, it was built with the stro­ker crate mo­tor with a larger pul­ley on the al­ter­na­tor. With a 6,500-rpm red­line, and be­cause John and Vince didn’t want to see wife and mom grenade the

… rather than just restor­ing and dis­play­ing their cars, when they walk down to the garage, they’d much rather take the cov­ers off of one of their ’Cu­das and hit the road.

al­ter­na­tor, Vin­cent in­stalled a 2,500-stall speed torque converter. Next was a vac­uum pump on the brakes. With the lift and overlap of the cam, it didn’t build much vac­uum for the brake booster. Vin­cent re­built the en­tire sus­pen­sion, in­stalling a 1 1/8-inch front sway bar with a 3/4-inch rear sway bar. To stiffen up the front sus­pen­sion, a set of 1-inch Hemi tor­sion bars and heavy-duty shocks were in­stalled along with a re­built steer­ing box. There were some small rust holes in the trunk, which were re­paired. LED lights up­graded the other­wise stock-look­ing in­te­rior. Michelle wanted to keep the car stock­look­ing, so the factory Ral­lye road wheels were re­tained up front, but in a Mar­coni­trade­mark mod­i­fi­ca­tion, 9-inch wide cus­tom Ral­lye road wheels were in­stalled in back. These mod­i­fi­ca­tions, com­bined with the mod­ern rub­ber, give this vin­tage E-body han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics sim­i­lar to a con­tem­po­rary Dodge Chal­lenger SRT8.

Re­cently, Michelle, John, and Vin­cent de­cided to re­in­stall the orig­i­nal en­gine. Rather than Vin­cent re­build­ing it him­self, the trio de­cided to send it out to Mopar mo­tor guru Julius Steuer in Chatsworth, Cal­i­for­nia. The rea­son? Not enough time, as John is busy with his var­i­ous busi­nesses and Vin­cent is turn­ing wrenches un­der the watch­ful eye of mas­ter me­chanic Bill Go­jkov at Enzo Mo­tors as a mas­ter Fer­rari tech­ni­cian.

About the paint. Orig­i­nally when it left the factory, this 340 ’Cuda rolled off the as­sem­bly line fin­ished in Snow White. As far as Vin­cent knows, it got the Sassy Grass Green paint at some point in the late 1990s. In Vin­cent’s words, af­ter his care­ful at­ten­tion it’s a good driver-qual­ity paintjob. As the pho­tos clearly show, with his at­ten­tion to de­tail, it’s much more than that. But it’s not too nice for when his mom takes it for gro­ceries.

About be­ing a three E-body fam­ily, here’s what Vin­cent has to say. “As for own­ing three E-bod­ies, it’s pretty amaz­ing when you take them all out for a drive. It re­ally draws in at­ten­tion, or if you tell some­one you have three ’Cu­das they usu­ally don’t be­lieve you. But now we’re down to two. I sold my 440 Six-pack ’73 ’Cuda. But it was fun while it lasted.”

Over time, since our first stu­dio shoot in 2010, the fam­ily has branched out, but on two wheels rather than four, tak­ing over the op­er­a­tion of The Cy­clist, a bike shop in Costa Mesa. Michelle and Colt are fixtures at the shop. And John has re­launched the line of Amer­i­can Flyer bikes, a leader in the mo­tor­ized ebike cat­e­gory, build­ing a na­tion­wide net­work of deal­ers. And it shouldn’t sur­prise any­one that John fol­lows in his fa­ther’s phil­an­thropic foot­steps and his mantra, “learn, earn, and re­turn,” as the shop and Amer­i­can Flyer do­nates bikes for kids at risk and in need.

But at their core, the Mar­co­nis are a dyed-in-the-wool Mopar fam­ily like few oth­ers. And rather than just restor­ing and dis­play­ing their cars, when they walk down to the garage, they’d much rather take the cov­ers off of one of their ’Cu­das and hit the road. Given that we live in Cal­i­for­nia, al­most any day is good for that.

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