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.
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.