2 June 2008

World of Mopar

Hemis, 440s, Scat Packs, Challengers and Super Bees – when it came to muscle in the heyday, Chrysler let it all hang out.

“Mopar or no car!” It’s the battle cry of the Mopar faithful, often heard when a badass Ford or Chevy motors by. To the uninitiated, this fierce brand loyalty can be almost cultish in nature. However, to those who have experienced the wild Chrysler creations from the late ’60s and early ’70s muscle car era, this loyalty isn’t shocking.

During their heyday, those pavement-thumping Super Bees, Road Runners, Chargers, Barracudas and Challengers ruled the avenues that mattered with their bumblebee stripes, shaker hoods and color names like Plum Crazy, Sublime, Go-Mango and Top Banana.

So what led to this muscle-car supremacy for Chrysler? It was actually just a continuation of a long line of performance-oriented cars going back to the early ’50s. Chrysler, considered by many the most engineering focused of the Big Three, has always been a leader in horsepower innovations. In 1953, Chrysler set a stock car record at Bonneville with a scorching 196 mph pass, and Lee Petty introduced NASCAR to the Hemi with five first-place finishes and 25 top-five finishes.

But real production muscle started in 1955 with the Chrysler C-300, the first of the famous “Letter Cars.” Sporting a 300-hp, 331-cubic-inch dual-quad Hemi, the C-300 assumed legend status after a record-setting 127.58-mph flying-mile run at Daytona.

The best part was that for $4,050, anybody could walk into a Chrysler dealership and order one of these luxurious hot rods. By 1958, the last year of a Hemi-powered Letter Car, the 300D, the record-setting tradition continued with Norm Thatcher’s Class E 156-mph-plus record run at Bonneville.   The B Series “wedge” engine replaced the expensive and complex Hemi in 1959. Later, with the advent of the Max Wedge version, Chrysler was doing quite well in NHRA competition. The problem was NASCAR.

Although great for drag racing, in NASCAR, the Max Wedge just couldn’t compete with the best from Chevrolet and Pontiac. By April 1963, the top brass at Chrysler sent “the word” down from above: They wanted to win Daytona in 1964.

According to the “Godfather of the Hemi,” Chrysler engineer Tom Hoover, all agreed that to win Daytona they needed the free- breathing Hemi back. The engineering team immediately went to work, creating the 426 Hemi by placing Hemi heads on the 426 Max Wedge engine. In February 1964, Chrysler introduced its new 426 Hemi at the Daytona 500 and simply destroyed the field.

Driver Paul Goldsmith put his Hemipowered Plymouth on the pole with a record-setting 174-mph run. Richard Petty qualified second in his Hemi Plymouth and led 184 of the 200 laps – even lapping the entire field on his way to victory circle. In the end, Chrysler and its new 426 Hemi finished 1-2-3 at Daytona, handily meeting their goal of taking back NASCAR in ’64. The Hemi won 26 of 62 races that year.

After a 1965 NASCAR rule change that almost eliminated the 426 Hemi in competition, as it was not a regular production option, Chrysler made the 426 Hemi available in 1966 Dodge street cars. NASCAR was again the “Property of Mopar” and the car-buying public could get 426 Hemi power just by walking into a Dodge dealership.

Muscle Mopars also left their mark in NHRA drag racing competition. The “Ramchargers,” a team comprising Chrysler factory engineers, won the NHRA Nationals in ’58. The legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits used Hemi motivation in his “Swamp Rat” dragsters to be the first to break 170 mph in the same year, before smashing the 200 mph barrier in 1964. In multiple classes of NHRA competition, drivers like Garlits, Ronnie Sox, Gene Adams and countless others used their Hemi hammers to drive away the competition.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Chrysler products made heroes out of racers and accumulated race wins like a windshield gathers bugs on a muggy night in Louisiana. If you were serious about winning, you raced a Mopar.

Which brings us to the real reason manufacturers put so much effort into winning races – to sell cars. While Chrysler was dominating the racing world, they were not winning in the showroom. The fight for the performance car market in the mid-’60s was fierce. Chrysler products had the engines – they just didn’t have the flash needed to get buyers’ attention.

Late response to the pony cars

The two platforms for Chrysler products aimed at the youth market in the mid-’60s were the A Body cars (the Dodge Dart and the Plymouth Valiant and Barracuda) and the B Body cars (Dodge Coronet and Plymouth Belvedere and Satellite).

Chrysler’s offerings didn’t stand a chance against the competition. The Ford Mustang, introduced in 1964, caught both GM and Chrysler asleep at the switch. While GM was able to speed up the introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, both released as 1967 models, Chrysler was solidly shut out of the pony car wars with its outdated A Body offerings. They were nowhere near as stylish or performance oriented as the GM and Ford compacts.

The fight for Mopar B Body cars was even tougher. Starting in 1964, Pontiac officially kicked off the muscle-car race with the GTO. The GTO and its corporate cousins – the Oldsmobile 442, Buick Grand Sport and Chevrolet Super Sports – were quite well focused on the youth market, with an intoxicating blend of performance and sporty appearance. Dodge and Plymouth had little to offer outside of big horsepower. Even the 1967 introduction of the Coronet R/T and Belvedere GTX did little to bolster sales. No question, Chrysler was late to this party.

But this would change with the 1968 introduction of the new B Body models. Two new cars were aimed squarely at the youth market: The Plymouth Road Runner and the Dodge Super Bee. The tables were turned on the competition, for even though they had great cars, not one had anything named after a cartoon character.

Sales improved dramatically. In 1967, Plymouth sold 12,115 Belvedere GTX models – the sportiest model for that year. In 1968, the redesigned GTX sold 18,272 cars, while the new Road Runner, a low-price trim level of the same car with a standard 383 CID V-8 and manual transmission, sold a whopping 44,598 copies.

Chrysler had found the magic formula – a good-looking, no-frills performance car at a price almost anybody could afford. With a base price of $2,896, Road Runners were being sold as fast as they could be built. As had been the case since 1966, check the right boxes on a B Body order sheet and you could get the 426 Street Hemi with 425 hp, a fact not lost on horsepower-hungry buyers switching to a Mopar from the GM or Ford camps.

In 1969, Chrysler refined the new B Bodies even more, adding more performance drivetrain options, such as the Super Track Pak, which consisted of a 4.10:1 Dana 60 rear axle, power disc brakes and other tweaks.

As an alternative to the almost $900 Hemi option, midyear saw the introduction of the 440 CID 3x2bbl carbureted engine as part of the bargain $468 option code A12 “conversion package” offered on Road Runners and Super Bees. The A12 cars were thinly disguised drag cars offered right from the factory. Chrysler wasn’t stupid – it knew the best way to get its new 390-hp, multi-carbureted 440 noticed was to put it in cars that would see heavy street and drag racing action.

Today, good Hemi B Bodies sell for $100,000 to $200,000, and A12 cars trade at similar numbers. Any good B Body is desirable, and there’s one to fit just about any budget. For example, a great ’69 383/four-speed Road Runner hardtop is right around the $35,000 mark – and a lot of car for the money.

One die-hard GM guy wooed by the new Mopars in 1969 was then-22-year-old Mike Guarise. After seeing the new 1969 Charger R/T, he traded the Tri Power GTO he was driving at the time for his first Mopar.

“It was a beautiful car; very sharp in B5 Bright Blue with a white vinyl top and white interior,” Guarise says. “It had the 440 Magnum V-8 and 375 hp, and the color combo looked great with redline tires. I owned it for two years and wish I would have kept it.”

The biggest shot fired by Chrysler in the muscle-car wars came late in the game – the iconic Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger. Introduced as 1970 model year cars on Chrysler’s new E Body platform, they were a complete package with both looks and performance. At long last Chrysler had two cars that could actually compete with the Mustang, Camaro and Firebird.

Available with everything from a lowly Slant Six engine to the mighty 426 Hemi, the E Body cars were all new, unlike the warmed-over 1964 design used on the previous A Body Barracudas. Performance versions of both were offered – the Plymouth ’Cuda and the Dodge Challenger R/T.

The base engine was the 383 CID V-8, with optional 340 CID 4 barrel, 340 CID 6 barrel, 440 4 barrel, 440 6 barrel and 426 Hemi. A multitude of transmission and drivetrain options were available, as well as just about every luxury and convenience option you could want in a “sporty” car. To top it off, 1970 began the availability of Chrysler’s famous “High Impact Paint” colors.

Although the Challenger and Barracuda continued in production through the 1974 model year, after 1971, ever-tightening government regulations took most of the fun out of just about every car from Detroit, including the once mighty Mopar performance offerings.

The last year of the 426 Hemi and 440 engines was 1971, and the most horsepower you could get in an E Body for 1972 was 240 from a 340 CID 4 barrel engine. So for collectors, pre-1972 model year cars are where it’s at for Chrysler products.

Riding the muscle car revival

In 1970, the base price for all Barracuda variants was right around $3,000. If you built the ultimate ’70 ’Cuda, a 426 Hemi-equipped drop-top, like 14 people did that year, your car would have been roughly $4,500 new.

In 2006, one of the 14 sold at auction for $2.16 million. Think that’s a big number? How about a similar 1971 Hemi ’Cuda convertible, one of just seven produced, also about $4,500 new. In 2007, RM Auctions sold just such a car for a staggering $2.42 million.

David Christenholz owned the ’70 Hemi ’Cuda convertible that sold for $2.16 million. “I bought the car when it was expensive, but not so much that I was afraid to drive it,” says the Arizona muscle-car collector.

But while he owned it, the values increased so much that it became a delicate investment. “It was garage art,” Christenholz says. “The money took away from my enjoyment.”

He replaced the Hemi ’Cuda convertible with a ’70 Hemi ’Cuda hardtop. “It’s a great car, just like the convertible, but something my whole family enjoys driving,” Christenholz says.

Don’t despair – not all ’Cudas and Challenger R/Ts have phone-number prices. For the enthusiast who just wants a great E Body to drive, show and enjoy, there are plenty to be had for well under $100,000. My pick? The limited-production 1970 Plymouth ’Cuda AAR and Challenger T/A 340 Six Pack cars – with a four-speed, of course.

Built to homologate the E Body for SCCA competition, these cars with their high-revving 340 engines, side-exiting exhaust, road race-tuned suspensions, fiberglass hoods, front and rear spoilers, and tasteful racy graphics are as much fun to look at as they are to drive.

The world of Mopar Muscle has a long and successful history, with vehicles to match just about any taste. And while I recommend against getting a Pentastar or Road Runner tattoo to display your loyalty, I wouldn’t blame you one bit if driving some Mopar Muscle makes you shout “Mopar or No Car!” at least once.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2008 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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