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by Steve Temple  More from Author

Cookin’ Up a “Hemi Under Glass” Barracuda

Muscle-car collectors come in all flavors. Some acquired their rides when new or nearly so, and hung onto them, while others discovered dilapidated machines sorely in need of restoration. Still others went on a treasure hunt, scouring the country for precious metal.

Bill Sefton is actually a combination of all of these, and something more. He regards himself more as a keeper of the flame, a caretaker of automotive history, rather than merely a collector. Indeed, nearly every one of his astounding cache of cars at the Red Vette Ranch has a significant lineage. Besides his 427/435 Corvette, the range of cars includes just about every rare domestic muscle machine you can imagine, and more, from a ’68 Shelby GT500 to a COPO Camaro racecar to a couple of ’68 Dodge Darts (GSS and GTS). We could get lost just trying to cover the entire collection, so instead we’re going to focus on his three particularly colorful ‘Cudas, known for their unusual abilities and configurations, thanks to Hurst Shifters and Bob Riggle.

George Hurst of Hurst Shifters had a reputation for promotion that made PT Barnum’s three-ring circus look like a carnival side show (just ask Linda Vaughn, aka “Miss Hurst Shifter”). He dubbed these specially constructed exhibition ‘Cudas “Hemi Under Glass,” because the rear-mounted engine was clearly visible through the large rear window. It didn’t have the gourmet elegance of pheasant under glass, though. This fish dish was actually just like its namesake Barracuda, a predator on the prowl, chomping on the asphalt of dragstrips across the country. The Hurst Hemi Under Glass wowed the crowds back in the late Sixties by running all the way down the track doing a full wheelstand. How it managed to achieve this feat is a story in itself.

Back in 1963, Riggle had his own custom welding shop, fabricating motorcycle frames. In his spare time, he raced an A/Gas car fitted with a fuel-injected nail-head Buick. Opportunity came knocking when Hurst Performance asked him to work in the R&D shop. While there, in that proverbial moment of sketching out an inspired idea on a dinner napkin, he drew a ’65 Plymouth Barracuda with its 425 Hemi bolted to the rear diff, allowing it to do something no conventional ‘Cuda could, and thus garnering all sorts of publicity for Hurst. The dual-quad carbs were swapped in favor of Hillborn injection, in order to prevent fuel sloshing and bogging when the nose pointed skyward. Initially the Hemi Under Glass drivetain was backed by an A833 four-speed and Corvette independent rearend, but that soon had to be changed.

For the initial test run, driver “Wild Bill” Shrewsbury dumped the clutch and all four wheels launched off the track, rocking the car back on its rear bumper. (Which has been described as “hitching up its pants, ” basically the automotive equivalent of picking yourself up by your own boot straps.) In this position, the Hurst logo and “Bear-of-a-Cuda” slogan on the underbelly were clearly visible. (And that was long before the term “brand recognition” had become a common expression.)

Problem was, however, when those spinning big meats dropped back down on the track. They grabbed the asphalt and instantly shredded the Corvette IRS, which was then replaced with a Sure-Grip straight axle with 4.56 ratio.

With that teething pain sorted out, the car’s debut outing at Bristol for the 1965 season mesmerized the crowds. Sure they had seen cars pull wheelies off the line, but the Hemi Under Glass took that to a whole new extreme. The car proved so popular that the ‘Cuda was updated to a 1966 model for the following season. Rather than rebuild a new Hemi Under Glass, Riggle updated the ’65 model’s sheetmetal with ’66 components.

When “Wild Bill” departed from Hurst to drive the LA Dart wheelstander instead, that left the Hemi Under Glass without a driver. George Hurst asked Riggle to step into the breech. He immediately said yes, even though he had never driven the car. He’d soon find out just how difficult it is to drive a car with no steering control (the independent brakes had yet to be installed, and the driver had to look out the side window to check his position on the track).

In his first run for all the Hurst execs, Riggle made it about 300 feet down the strip before taking an unexpected left turn. On the second time, he went to the right instead. George Hurst was not smiling. Riggle knew he’d probably have only one more shot to show that he could reel in the thrashing ‘Cuda. On the third try, he rolled off the line in Second gear to bring up the front more slowly, instead of lifting off all four tires at once. This did the trick, and he’s waved to George as he marched by, nose in the air.

Riggle got the job as driver of the Hemi Under Glass, but things didn’t always go smoothly, even after honing his driving skills. One time he lost his bearings at the end of a track, ended up in the grass, and rolled the car, busting out the rear glass. He was out of sight from spectators, though, and with the help of the fire crew, righted the car and drove it back to the pits as if nothing had happened.

For the third Hemi Under Glass, the custom-fabricated frame was fitted with a new 1967 body, a new 426 Hemi, and independent brakes. The latter consisted of two master cylinders, each operated by a Hurst shifter handle. While it made for a much more controllable ride, one time he got carried away while spinning the car around in front of the tree at the Irwindale dragstrip. He forgot to straighten the front wheels, and when they landed, the car jumped right over the guardrail.

While the 1967 Hemi Under Glass was a tremendous promotional vehicle, it came to an ignominious end. At the finish of the season, it was supposed to become a static display car, but instead lost its engine, was sold and then later parked in a driveway in Canada, for unknown reasons.

For 1968 to 1970, an all-new Hemi Under Glass was built with a supercharger and 727 TorqueFlite. In addition, a single lever operated the rear brakes (push to go left, pull to go right), so the car was much easier to drive. Later, when Riggle drove the Hemi Under Glass on his own, (because Sunbeam, Hurst’s then-new corporate owner, didn’t want the liability of campaigning a race vehicle), he switched to a truck rearend for improved durability. Eventually he used this chassis setup as the underpinnings for a funny car with a fiberglass flip-top Challenger body, which he ran until 1975.

The Hemi Under Glass name appeared on some later cars with different drivers, after Riggle decided to take some time off from the track when a nasty accident that destroyed the vehicle. Then in 1990 he ran into his old friend Linda Vaughn, and she convinced him to resurrect the Hemi Under Glass. He scrounged up ’66 Cuda, and a Hemi from a race boat. Through some wheeling and dealing, he ended up paying only $50 for the engine, after selling off the boat and a Mustang included in the purchase. (Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?)

That ’66 ‘Cuda was completed by 1991, and again became a big hit on the exhibition circuit. Around that time, the ’67 car in Canada resurfaced, and after inspecting some photos, Riggle identified it as an original Hemi Under Glass. After some hard bargaining to the owner, and then some fast-talking to the customs officials, he brought the car back across the border and restored it with the dual-lever independent rear brakes.

At that point, Bill Sefton entered the picture, meeting Riggle at a car show. Sefton has a solid reputation for preserving the heritage of automotive muscle, instead of buying and selling for a quick buck, and offered to buy all three Hemi Under Glass cars.

Riggle accepted the offer, but had to agree to one condition on the purchase. Sefton wanted a ride with Riggle in the 1968 car, to demonstrate how he herded this handful of Hemi on the strip. Riding shotgun on one wild pass, “It was pretty frantic in that cockpit,” Sefton admitted, shaking his head in disbelief.

But that won’t stop them from making some more exhibition runs for old time’s sake. If you get the chance to watch the Hemi Under Glass in action, you’ll never forget seeing how they managed to land this wild Barracuda.

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