Beck Kustoms 1973 Plymouth Barracuda
Words Chris Nelson Images Aaron Beck
Aaron Beck’s life is a series of ludicrous, kaleidoscopic reveries. He was born in Morrinsville, New Zealand, a small farmland town in central North Island where film director Peter Jackson built the set for Hobbiton, or The Shire, for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. From a young age Beck showed talent in drawing robots, sci-fi creatures, and otherworldly machines and weapons, and in college he majored in animation just as digital animation came into vogue. For eight years he worked at Weta Workshop — the special effects and prop company that helped create The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as Avatar, Blade Runner 2049, and District 9 — and during his first week at Weta he carried around prosthetic severed heads, fired an Uzi from Peter Jackson's gun collection, and pet a tuatara, which is a prehistoric “leftover” reptile native to New Zealand. As incredible as Aaron Beck’s story is, it becomes even more spectacular when you understand how, over nine years, he built this 1973 Plymouth Barracuda.
One night over a decade ago, Beck stayed after hours at Weta to finish a digital illustration of his dream car, a ’69 Ford Mustang, ridiculously flared out and done up as a race car. “Every car ever made looks better as a race car,” Beck says. “Even the most beautiful Italian ‘60s roadster — a glorious, curvy little thing — you turn it into a race car and it's got pumped fenders, wider wheels, and it sits low, and maybe you have a chin spoiler, and it's all driven by the function ... it just does its job well, and you can see that.” As Beck rendered his dream Mustang, his then-boss, Academy Award winner Richard Taylor, walked by and said, “If you bought a car like that, imagine what you could do with it here in our workshop?”
A year later, Aaron showed up at Weta not with a Mustang, but instead with a beat-to-shit ’73 Barracuda. “I thought, ‘Damn, the Barracuda might be the better choice,’” Beck tells us, recalling how he stared at side-by-side, one-eighteenth-scale models of the Mustang and the 'Cuda, trying to decide which he liked more. “The Mustang had a couple of really good angles, but the Barracuda looked good no matter what angle I looked at it. And another thing that swayed me was the 1970 Trans-Am car, the Gurney AAR 'Cuda, the All American Racer, which in my opinion is one of the best looking race cars ever made: a deep blue with a rainbow-stripe vee on the hood, sponsored by Hot Wheels.”
Beck knew the 'Cuda had a crack in one of its frame rails, but he didn’t know how bad it was until he stripped the front end and pulled the stock 318 short block. “Oh my God, it just got worse and worse and worse,” Beck says. “It was so rusty and covered with underseal and body filler, and the other chassis rail was bent, and the control arm was bent, and everything was skewed.”
He wanted to do the repairs himself but, seeing how Beck had never built or even owned a car before, he didn’t know what he was doing and sought advice from local chassis shops. One shop begged him not to do the work himself and gave him a good price to straighten the frame and replace the rails and inner fenders. When it was done, Beck towed the car home with a four-door Ford Laser — “it gave its life so the Barracuda could live” — and continued with what he thought would be simple rust repairs. But before he knew what had happened, the 'Cuda was on a scratch-built rotisserie in his garage, and then it was in acid bath, and then it was being sandblasted as a bare shell.
Eventually, when Beck had a clean foundation to build on, he didn’t hold back, and the Barracuda is undoubtedly what it is because of that. Beck shaped the fiberglass bodywork at Weta and embedded with a local hot rod shop to learn how to hammer and file body finishes. He wanted to build an engine but says, “It seemed out of my reach in terms of money to afford to have someone else do it, and skills when it came to me doing it,” so he bought a fully-built, never-run 440 long block, and proceeded to replace the water pump, intake, carburetor, valve covers, and anything else he found aesthetically displeasing. Beck took a month off of work to build and weld a stainless, 3.5-inch exhaust that had to be perfectly symmetrical, which required modifications to the floor, the cross members, and the mount for the handbrake.
Beck came across a story about a Chrysler E-body built by Hotchkis Sport Suspension and read that they had spliced a steering quickener into its column and completely transformed the character of the car, so Beck did the same, and he says the 'Cuda now handles remarkably well on a matched set of Hoosier R7 slicks. When Beck builds one-eighteenth-scale model cars, he paints them with two different sides — “because you put it on your shelf and you've got one look, and then you flip it around and you've got another look” — and he continued the tradition with his 'Cuda; the nose and driver’s side are matte black, but the other side of the car is in primer gray, which softly transitions to black near the roofline.
The 'Cuda has headlights because it is street legal, but Beck has them on a quick-release bracket and doesn’t run them often, and he is surprised by how hilariously freaked out everyone is by it. Since the 'Cuda has a wafer-thin fiberglass hood and Beck lived in windy Wellington, he tacked two Aerocatch pins to the roof so, if need be, he could confidently rest the hood on the roof of the car like old-school drag racers would between runs, which suits the 'Cuda well. “It's got no side windows, it's got no sound damping of any kind, or heat shielding, or anything like that,” Beck says. “It's got a bare steel floor which heats up fast and gets quite hot. You do get a bit of fumes, like your clothes smell a little bit of car when you're done, and it's super fucking loud. I designed the exhaust so that you can unbolt the caps. I haven't yet, because I'd just be a menace, and it is disgustingly loud when you do that. Your whole body is vibrating at all of these different frequencies ... it's just ruthless.”
The day before we spoke to Beck the 'Cuda lost oil pressure as he drifted around a track. Beck didn’t hear any knocks, but he told us it could take him up to a year to come up with fix. “But to be honest, the engine is the one part of the car that I didn't build myself, it’s the weakest link in the car, and it never quite performed quite to the point that I was hoping for, so it doesn't really bother me having to rebuild it.” The 'Cuda used to be all-consuming in Beck’s life and thoughts, but now in Los Angeles he has new demands and priorities, although he is always thinking about his next build. “The strongest direction at the moment would probably be a BMW E36 with an LS, a full cage, and a wide body. Or a little, cute, rotary-powered Japanese car, or a Hakatora Datsun pickup. I would desperately love to build it myself, but I would like to do it under some degree of supervision, just so I avoid costly mistakes. I just need to find the right person who's willing to let me clutter a corner of their workshop and muddle my way through it with some helping hands when needed.”
Aaron Beck’s Barracuda is as exacting as it is haunting, and it isn’t hard to imagine what he’ll build next, because chances are he’s already drawn it. What’s difficult to imagine, though, is how he could build something more beautiful than this car — but no doubt he will thanks to all he learned through his first-ever automotive build. “What you learn doing a project like this is what you would want to do again, and what you never want to do again. Building an exhaust or a roll cage or a fabricated steel bracket for suspension or anything like that, I love, and I would love to do more of that. But sanding, body filler, and painting a car from the ground up, and just general bodywork? Hell no.”