1 August 2013

Ray Dupuis: Merrily Making Mopar Magic

Without question, 1969 will be remembered as the year when Neil Armstrong and fellow space traveler Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. Max Yasgur's dairy farm in the tiny town of Bethel near Woodstock, New York, went peace and love, man. And the Jumbo Jet officially got its wings.

It was also when Jets of a different stripe muscled their way through the goal line to beat the Baltimore Colts 16 to 7 in year three of the Super Bowl — the first such championship to bear the name. During that very match on Jan. 12, a group of the now-celebrated Mad Men pushed their first Plymouth Road Runner ad into millions of American households via the magic of color TV: speed, muscle and stealth brought to you by the fastest of birds whose zany bisyllabic call became the most lucrative ever.

And so it was in 1969, when a gallon of gas cost 35 cents, that Motor Trend magazine proclaimed the Road Runner (acceleratii rapidus maximus) “Car of the Year” with sales skyrocketing to 84,000 units from initial projections of 2,500 the year before. Touchdown, Team Plymouth!

But more importantly for Ray Dupuis, 1969 was the year when he bought his first car; always a milestone to be cherished, and in this case, one that would later prove life-defining.  As things turned out, though, young Ray didn't actually secure the wheels he had so deeply desired. For better or worse, dad got involved in the affair: “A Road Runner? No way! Too fast, too dangerous. Better find you a nice Chevy Nova from that salesman we know,” he said. But low and behold, there was none left. In the end, Ray and his bro André, with whom he shared the price tag, settled for a Dodge Swinger with a 318-cubic-inch motor, automatic transmission plus Positraction, 14-inch rims, a deluxe tan interior and a radio. Not the jazziest wheels in town but certainly cool enough to impress the college gallery. Yet, much like Wile E. Coyote, Ray was left with that lingering feeling of having missed out on his luscious prey. As the cartoon jingle said, just runnin' down the road was his idea of having fun.

It took three long years for him to put his hands on a Chrysler performance product he really liked, not a Plymouth Road Runner quite yet, but a Dodge Challenger T/A 340 Six Pack in Sassy Grass Green, equipped with a bench seat and automatic transmission — one of only 27 built. That second car, his first “real” one, kick-started a long string of hot Mopar properties, including many armed with the fearless 426 Hemi block. During the years that followed, drag racing became Ray's pastime, which in time led to a growing, quasi-compulsive passion for restoring his vehicles to be as period-correct as possible. With that in mind, he spared no effort crisscrossing the continent in search of the rarest or tiniest of parts for his menagerie of Super Bees, Darts and RR's, including a yearly pilgrimage at the Carlisle Chrysler Annuals for the last 25 years.

Most of Ray's vehicles stem from limited editions, have low mileage and usually date from the late ’60s — his period of predilection. Among his prized possessions is a rare 1967 Plymouth Belvedere II Superstock RO23 once test-driven by the legendary Ronnie Sox of Sox & Martin, of which only 17 of the 55 made came with the manual shifter such as this one. “It's as no-frills as a car gets. Even the only color scheme available is a basic white exterior with black interior. It's pure brawn with no distractions,” he adds.

While he loves every vehicle he has brought back to life, Ray is always more elated by his next restoration project, often a bruised rusty carcass, daunting in appearance to the untrained eye. Sitting high up in his garage are the countless trophies and awards he has received for the outstanding quality of his workmanship. His extensive knowledge, both technical and historical, has made him a sought-after reference for collectors and hobbyists from all over who consult him on a regular basis.

He notes that while the 1964 Pontiac GTO is recognized as the first American muscle car, Chrysler was already into some pretty powerful stuff of its own. In 1960, it had unleashed its wild aluminum cross-ram intake technology for the 383 motors on its C-bodies. Then came the iconic 413 Max Wedge in 1962 that spared no punches at a stated 375 hp, delivering compression ratios of up to 13.5:1.Those gave way to a racing generation of re-introduced Hemi engines in 1964 with an upped displacement of 426 cu, which constituted the foundation for the savvy street-ready version in 1966.

First used by Chrysler in the 1920s and introduced as a brand name in 1937, the popular acronym “Mopar” — resulting from the contraction of the terms “MOtor” and “PARts” — gradually evolved to a more broadly used colloquialism designating all Chrysler-built vehicles. Fans even invented their own slogan, the “Mopar or no car” mantra, which perfectly characterizes Ray Dupuis' kid-in-his-own-candy-shop world. It is one he shares with his sweetheart Lisette, who gets to drive a second set of mighty wheels to car shows wherever her man goes. 

As an interesting and somewhat uncanny footnote to the couple's story, Lisette's e-mail address contained the words “Road Runner” much before the two lovebirds met a few years ago. Mere coincidence, you say? Or perhaps the premonitory sign of some serious fun ahead “just runnin' down the road.” By the way, the little feathered dude is still zipping across the desert as fast as when he started back in 1948, while forever eluding his furry forlorn amigo. After 65 years of being chased to death by a famished coyote, call that surviving all odds. Or, in a word: Beep! Beep! Or was that.... two words?

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