This story was written by Nicholas Maronese, who is not only the wizard who edited Weird Cars for me, but a writer, model maker, amateur pilot, and about a dozen other things. I'll often marvel at how productive he is…I can usually only manage to make myself a sandwich and keep my cat's food bowl topped up. Go read his stuff.
Between 1965 and 1968, Carroll Shelby went from running a fledgling hot-rod-and-racing upstart cranking roughly 500 cars out of an 11,000-sq.-ft. garage in California to operating a gotta-have-one Mustang tuner headquartered near Motor City with annual sales of more than 4,400 units.
It was an American Dream success story wrought in metal, and in ’68, everyone wanted to replicate it. That’s why Chrysler, much like Ford several years prior, took a chance on a no-name ambitious young mechanic, one who wanted to make their Plymouth Barracuda a Shelby-beater.
Spoiler alert: he didn’t.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1968, George Prentice Jr., general manager and designer for the Auto Craft Co. of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, convinced Chrysler to supply him with new Barracuda muscle cars that he’d hop up and then sell via Plymouth dealers.
Prentice’s pitch to Chrysler was that Auto Craft could put together a car that wasn’t just faster than Shelby’s Mustangs, but that he anticipated would be “the safest production automobile available today.”
Modifications included a padded roll bar and shoulder harnesses (plus, for safety, recessed dashboard knobs and switches); factory performance suspension with added front and rear stabilizers; and 150 mph-rated 14-inch Dunlop radials on six-inch-wide Trans American alloys (some sources mention Chrysler wire wheels or Cragars as options, too).
Aesthetically, Prentice fitted the car with a new grille and a be-spoilered fibreglass deck lid, both bearing badges with the car’s new name, “Savage GT.” Brake duct openings were repositioned under the car, the exhaust was routed ahead of the rear wheels, and a fibreglass hood with a functional “Hemi”-type scoop and “Le Mans-type” hood pins replaced the stock unit.
What really set the car apart was what sat under that hood, though: a choice of either a 340-, 383- or 440-cubic-inch V8, each underrated at 280, 335, and 380 horsepower, respectively, and backed by a stiff four-speed, with a three-speed auto optional.
Car Life named the four-barrel 340 their favourite, in part because it weighed more than 200 lbs less than the 440, and in part because the big-block didn’t have room in the engine bay for power steering, making the Savage GT rather savage to handle at lower speeds. The 383, being sort of a compromise of the two, was this close to being dropped from the options list, they said.
During the magazine’s test of the car in their September 1968 issue, they noted all these features added about $1,000 to a Barracuda’s base price, making the total somewhere between $4,600 and $4,850 depending on engine—about $31,000 in 2015.
Working out of his three-car garage and using money borrowed from family members, Prentice turned out the first production Savage GTs in late April 1969, with the car’s official launch being held the next month in Fond du Lac.
But that beginning also wasn’t that far from the car’s end: Auto Craft ended up building just 13 of the cars, most with the 340, three or four with the 383, and one 440. Prentice packed it all in when the new 1970 models debuted later that year, and it’s said just three or four cars remain today.
Decades later, Chrysler would skip the betting-on-an-upstart gimmick and jump straight to bribing ol’ Carroll to work his magic on their front-wheel-drive sports car lineup, and later their Shelby Cobra-inspired Viper. It’s just like they say, “If you can’t beat ’em, write ’em a big cheque.”