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(Most of) Plymouth’s Rapid Transit Caravan to make one last trip together

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by David Newhardt, courtesy Mecum Auctions, unless otherwise noted.

Somewhere in Detroit, supposedly in a garage under the Ambassador Bridge, rests a heavily modified ‘Cuda, the last car that Steven Juliano needed to complete his collection of one-off show cars from Plymouth’s Rapid Transit Caravan. He stood next to it, spoke to the owner, and yet he never brought it home to finish the set.

“He was very personable and charming, he had unlimited means,” said Bob Ashton, founder of the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals and a decades-long friend of Juliano’s. “My theory is that he just let it be because he knew it would be the end of the hunt for the cars, but also for him.”

Juliano, a collector who tracked down rumors and bits of automobilia regarding the Rapid Transit Caravan cars all over the country, had battled pancreatic cancer since the mid- to late 2000s. He’d pursued experimental treatments out of the country and lived with his diagnosis for longer than anybody expected, but as Ashton figured, Juliano figured he could hold on a little longer if he just knew that the ‘Cuda was still out there.

That’s why only three of the four Rapid Transit Caravan cars will cross the block in May when Juliano’s family disperses his collection at auction.

When Chrysler marketers conceived of the Rapid Transit Caravan as a means of promoting the Rapid Transit System line of Plymouth muscle cars in 1970, they first turned to Harry Bradley, former GM and Hot Wheels designer, to pen some Hot Wheels-inspired youth-luring modifications for three of Plymouth’s showroom offerings: a Duster, a ‘Cuda, and a Road Runner. They then hired Detroit Autorama show promoter Bob Larivee to enlist a group of customizers to take a whack at their cars. The formula had already worked using Bradley and Detroit-based customizers Mike and Larry Alexander to create the Deora in 1967 and to modify a Dodge Dart Swinger in 1969, so the marketing department just wanted some of the same  for the Rapid Transit Caravan cars.

That they got. The Road Runner, which went to Roman’s Chariot Shop in Cleveland, featured a drag strip stance with the flared quarters hiked three inches in the air over the wide tires on Ansen Sprint wheels. A wing at the rear and Cibie rectangular headlamps in the front, along with a bunch of stripes and a big road runner graphic, set the car apart visually. Almost lost in the mix was the dual-quad Hemi under the Air Grabber hood scoop.

Larivee trusted Byron Grenfell of Marquette, Michigan, with the Duster, a 340/four-speed car that received an extended front end, quad Lucas headlamps, a bumper made up of Camaro and Thunderbird parts, and a roof spoiler above the backlite.

The third, the aforementioned ‘Cuda, a 440-powered car, went to Chuck Miller at Styline Custom in Detroit. It too received Cibie headlamps, installed behind a projecting nacelle and above a split chin spoiler. Trendsetter side pipes and a rear end jacked up over wide slicks, paired with wheelie bars emerging from the stock rear exhaust outlets in the bodywork, rounded out the street/strip racer look.

Along with Don Prudhomme’s Barracuda funny car, the trio traveled the country’s Plymouth dealers and the occasional car show, promoting “high-performance cars, parts, accessories, service, racing and the people associated with them,” according to Jim Schild’s “Dodge Scat Pack and Plymouth Rapid Transit System: Chrysler’s Muscle Car Marketing Programs 1968-1972,” which described the caravan as “probably one of the greatest marketing ideas in automotive history.”

The entire show was transported to the event in a big, yellow 44-foot tractor-trailer rig with RTS and “Plymouth Makes It” logos painted on its sides. Three men accompanied the rig just to load and unload the cars and displays and set them up at each location.

For 1971, Plymouth decided to continue the caravan. The Duster received a repaint from its original red to flat black over candy green, and the ‘Cuda got another Chuck Miller makeover. Because Chrysler altered the two-door B-body styling for 1971, the marketers also had to have another car done for the caravan, so they sent a 383-powered 1971 Road Runner to Miller, who extended the nose six inches and hid the headlamps behind a custom grille, incorporated twin air induction scoops into the hood, sunk the decklid between the quarters and bridged them with a spoiler, and added taillamps that glowed green under normal driving, yellow under deceleration, and red under braking. He also added so-called “chicken heads” in the shape of the cartoon road runner’s head in place of the normal side marker lamps.

Once the caravan ended, according to Ashton, the cars fell off the map. “From 1971 through the 1990s, you never read about them, there were no features on them,” he said. “Even when they started to pop up again, they were outcast cars. They were shunned because they weren’t factory correct.”

They started to pop up again largely through the efforts of Juliano, Ashton said. Twenty years ago, Juliano’s interest was in Shelby Cobras, and only through a chance encounter with Ed Meyer did Juliano start collecting Rapid Transit System automobilia and develop an interest in tracking down the original caravan cars. The 1970 Road Runner was about to be turned into a drag car – “To the guys who owned it, it was just a crazy custom Road Runner,” Ashton said. – while the Duster had been parked in a Detroit-area parking garage in 1982 and subsequently abandoned. The 1971 Road Runner, on the other hand, remained in Miller’s possession, in exactly the same condition as when the caravan ended.

Along the way, Juliano also took the opportunity to acquire and restore the Alexander brothers-modified 1969 Dart Swinger, the Ron Mandrush-modified 1970 Dodge Challenger-based Diamante show car, and the George Barris-modified 1967 Dodge Dart-based Daroo I, though he has since sold off the Diamante and Daroo.

“Steve was a real historian,” Ashton said. “He always made sure to tell the story of why these cars were special.”

Photo by Bob Ashton.

While Juliano did keep the cars together in his private garage in California and show two of the three caravan cars at Carlisle several years ago, last year’s Muscle Cars and Corvette Nationals was the first and only time Juliano committed to showing all three of his caravan cars in public. He died a couple months prior, in September 2018.

The three caravan cars, the Dart Swinger, and the rest of Juliano’s collection will head to Mecum’s Indianapolis auction, scheduled for May 14-19. Pre-auction estimates for the group have not yet been finalized.

For more information about the auction, visit Mecum.com.