There are some muscle cars that qualify as special. They made a statement, either with styling, performance or the unique ability to stop traffic and turn heads. These cars stand out among the other legends of the muscle era as symbols of what a car could be when taken to the extreme. In this case, even the name of the car was enough to stop you in your tracks, in the drive in, at the drag strip, wherever you were, heads turned when you heard the word Hemi.
Brotherly Love – the Hemi ‘Cuda and the Dodge Hemi Challenger
The Hemi ‘Cuda and it’s younger brother from Dodge, the Hemi Challenger represented the absolute pinnacle of the power to weight pyramid The ‘Cuda started life as a Valiant. Between 1960 and 1970, it underwent a complete transformation. Going from a six cylinder grocery getter to a sporty little compact car to a sporty little pony car to a fire breathing awesome mobile.
In 1970 as the ‘Cuda was graduating awesome cum laude from the Chrysler school of big engines and little cars, the Dodge Challenger was born. To the casual observer, the cars appeared identical. Nothing, however, was further from the truth. Like two fraternal twins separated at birth, the ‘Cuda and Challenger had different upbringings. Different physically in different areas and were aimed at different audiences. The ‘Cuda, by virtue of its Valiant heritage, was brought into the market with a low buck image, which stayed with the car even after engine upgrades and styling changes throughout its lifetime The Challenger entered the market as an upscale rich boy’s toy. Dodge and Plymouth had very different ideas about these cars.
The ‘Cuda and Challenger did share one very important component. Chrysler’s 426 Hemi engine. With this power plant under the hood, their straight line performance covered just about anything any other muscle bound pony car wanted to throw down. And that is what makes legends.
Three Stories in One
To tell the story of these cars, we need to tell three stories: how the Valiant turned into a super car, why Dodge waited until 1970 to jump into the pony car market, and how an engine originally built in 1951 as a barge power plant became the mightiest name in horsepower. Everybody knows what happened to the American car landscape in 1964: the Mustang. It was the largest, most successful single product introduction in history. Over 440,000 Mustangs were sold in just 6 months., creating a market segment which still lives on today. You might think a market trend of this magnitude might have been by everyone, but it wasn’t. In fact, besides Ford, no one saw it coming. Except Plymouth.
Tom Shaw explains: “In ’64, the Barracuda was the “other pony car.’” It did okay selling 23,000 units but it was nothing compared to the Mustang sales of almost half a million. But there was very little else in Detroit that year did get any attention.” Like the Mustang, the ’64 Barracuda had already made platform. As the Mustang used the Falcon underpinnings, the Barracuda would be built up from the Plymouth Valiant. First generation Barracudas were, in effect, Valiants with a sporty body, a few interior upgrades,and the largest single piece of auto glass ever made for a rear window. The early Barracudas were great race cars in the hands of drivers like Bob Riggle. The second generation Barracuda, from ’67 to ’69 were completely new from the ground up. And no longer borrowed anything from the Valiant By now, Chrysler had tired of its little pony car being the slowest one of the bunch. The 273 was replaced with a 340 small block V8 and the 383 big block. But this was the muscle car era and somewhere within Plymouth, somebody said, “It isn’t enough.” So by April 1969, a few Barracudas began terrorizing the streets with a 440 cub inch wedge engine.
Tom Shaw goes on to say: “The 440 really marked the Barracuda’s transformation from a European influenced car to a Detroit muscle car. But the engine was such a tight fit in the bay, you could not get air conditioning, power steering or power brakes. Can you imagine trying to parallel park one of these things with that big 440 sitting over those wheels?” The third stage of the ‘Cuda, which was now its given name, came in 1970. The ’70 was clearly the best one yet. Now all that remained was the additional of the final ingredient, which would turn this great car into the ultimate weapon in the street wars. The 426 street Hemi.
Racers had been putting Hemi engines in the Barracuda ever since they could get two of them in the same garage. The factory had even made a few special ones for a few special people. “In 1968, Chrysler put together a package where they installed the Hemi engine in the Barracuda. Chrysler put together a package, these cars were not even built on the assembly line. Hurst, the famous shifter people, did the assembly of these cars for Chrysler. They were pure bred race cars. You didn’t even get a title when you bought one. You got a MSRP, which is a manufacturer’s suggested retail price certificate. That’s all. The cars were not legal to be licensed for the street, they had plastic side windows, they had fiberglass fenders and hood. They came with no exhaust system. The cars were not street legal built, they were a purpose built race car. Chrysler was pretty particular who they put these cars into the hands of. Dick Landy, Sox & Martin, these were the type of people that got these cars, the people that Chrysler knew would campaign them successfully and carry the banner into the winner’s circle.” Explains automotive journalist, Greg Rager.
But now, anyone with the necessary funds and the cheek to inquire about insurance coverage could have one. The word spread like wild fire among all the other stock class racers: get a Hemi or pack up and go home. Illustrates Tom Shaw: “If you didn’t pay very close attention the 426 Hemi was often a little bit slower than the 440. But its potential was just about unlimited. With the right cam shaft, the right carburetor, the right rear gearing, you could run a 10 second quarter mile wit one of these 426 Hemis. But by the time you tune it to that level it was just about impossible to live with on the street.” the 426 street Hemi added $871 to the price of a ’70 ‘Cuda. By contrast, the 440 six pack engine carried a price tag of just $250, so it might have seemed strange that anyone would have spent over $600 more for an engine option that was, by all reports, better suited to the high banks of the Daytona speedway than the stoplights of Main Street. But the Hemi had a mystique all its won. The fewer than 1000 people who were lucky enough to buy a Hemi ‘Cuda in 1970 didn’t mind that it didn’t idle well or that it’s low end response wasn’t as snappy as a Z28. When they opened the hood and there were two big black valve covers, two four barrels, nobody wondered any longer. They just knew. Bob Karakashian brags about his Barracuda: “My car is a 1970 Hemi Barracuda. Roughly they made 650 of these. This particular one has an automatic transmission and I drive it on the street, I muscle car race it and we have a lot of fun with it.”
The Headlining Hemi Challenger
If the muscle car era was a Broadway play, then the Hemi Challenger was certainly a headliner: a major box office star. Unfortunately, it didn’t get on stage until late in the third act. By the time this car was introduced, every other car maker had fired his best shot and the marketplace was full of Chevys, Fords, and a half dozen other ground pounders all clamoring for the attention few the car buying public. What was worse, the proliferation of factory performance cars on the street lit a huge fire under the media, the safety lobbies, and a lot of legislators who wanted all these fun cars to cease. By the time Dodge brought the Challenger to center stage, insurance companies were levying surcharges of up to 100% of anyone silly enough to inquire about liability coverage. Greg Rager remembers: “It got to the point where if you drove a four speed you were considered to be a second class citizen in the eyes of the auto insurance industry.” Tom Shaw goes on: “If you were a male under 25 years old and you were trying to buy insurance on something with a V8, four speed, and four barrel carburetor, you could see very clearly why the muscle car market was beginning to go away.” Continues Greg Rager: “When OPEC shut off the spickets, gas shot from fifty cents a gallon at dollar fifty a gallon. And few course the ever tightening emission controls that the manufacturers were having the met.’ Tom Shaw says: “Chrysler was wondering if they should be in this market.”
Nonetheless, the beat went on, into the most incredible year yet for Detroit performance: horsepower ratings were up, every car had custom wheels, wide tires, racing stripes, and aggressive nicknames like the Boss and the Humbler. You didn’t buy cars at a dealership, you bought them at Wide Track Town. If you hadn’t yet joined the Plymouth Revolution, then you must have had Dodge fever. Muscle car marketing was not subtle. Plymouth and Dodge both had a hand in creating all this excitement, of course. A steady stream of Barracudas, Roadrunners, Chargers, GTXs, Darts and other fun cars had been pouring out of their factories since the muscle car era began. Indeed, some credit Dodge with actually starting the whole muscle car era in 1955 with the D500. So, while one part of the corporation was worrying they might be staying a little too long at the fair, another part was busy building the ultimate Dodge muscle car: the 426 street Hemi Challenger RT.
Greg Rager observes: “From the 1966 model year, Dodge had an opportunity to share the Barracuda frame, platform, body, if you will and have their own pony car. They chose instead to come out with a B body personal luxury car. The ’66 Charger. It wasn’t until 1970 that Dodge moved into the pony car ranks with the Challenger. ” And Tom Shaw adds: “Nobody knew the muscle car market better than Dodge. And they knew that for their new Challenger to be taken seriously, it had to have the Hemi engine.” Dodge looked into the marketplace in 1970, saw go big or stay home game and decided that now was the time to go really big. But this time, there was really only one trump car left playing the muscle car game and Chrysler had this car in their hand: it was called the 426 Hemi engine. Born as the fire flight engine of 1951, the Chrysler Hemi had been a world beater since day one. Chrysler enjoyed the reputation as a builder of luxury automobiles second to none. The New Yorker, Newport, and Imperial were the epitome of class and high style among the well to do. These magnificent cars were huge, heavy and loaded with power options. They needed an engine that would produce big horsepower. By 1955, the 331 cubic inch Hemi was making 300 horsepower. In 1956, the Hemi was punched out to 354 cubic inches and managed to make 355 horsepower, more than one horsepower per cubic inch. By the end of its first run, the Hemi had been opened up to 392 cubic inches and was the favorite of racers everywhere Bob Karakashian loves driving a Hemi: “Driving a muscle car to me is a lot of fun for the simple reason that you feel the acceleration and deceleration, especially on a drag strip. I equate it to riding in a 747 airplane. When you’re taking off, you sit back in that seat and feel the power. You’re talking 300, 400, 500 horsepower sometimes. A far cry from today’s cars. I drive my wife’s minivan. Doesn’t it.”
Chrysler dropped the Hemi in 1959 in favor of the max wedge engines but the Hemi made a triumphant return in 1965, primarily to give a boost to Chrysler’s Nascar racing programs. Greg Rager points out: “When the Hemi engine was re-introduced, now based on the original 414 wedge that was also introduced in 1959, shared little or nothing other than looks with the earlier Hemi engine. It took the racing world by storm.” The Hemi heads were a design nobody had been able to improve upon. The max wedge 426 block was an ultra strong bottom end. When bolted together, they created the ultimate weapon The Hemi had never really disappeared from top fuel drag racing. The motor of choice for the well dressed nitro burning dragster had always been the Chrysler Hemi. The street version of the Hemi and the ’70 ‘Cuda and Challenger differed only slightly from the race motor. Its compression was a slightly more reasonable 10.25 to 1. It’s two quarter four barrels fed the engine through a more conventional aluminum high rise intake manifold and it had hydraulic rather than mechanical lifters. Factory cast iron headers and dual exhausts were standard. The Hemi E bodies also came with sure grip differentials and either Chrysler’s heavy duty four speed or the torque flight automatic.
Tom Shaw recollects: “Enthusiasts knew that the factors 425 horsepower rating was not realistic. Chrysler engineers knew that just about ever 426 Hemi they put on the Dino cranked out just over 500 horsepower.” No one was fooled by this rating. Least of all the insurance companies The Hemi ‘Cuda and Challenger suffered some of the most severe surcharge penalties imposed by the underwriters Their targets were males driving age through their twenties, exactly the market the car as intended to please. This weight would eventually prove too great for even the mighty Hemi to carry.
The 1970 ‘Cuda
Chrysler had invested heavily in a new body redesign for the ’70 ‘Cuda and even more in the creation of the all new ’70 Challenger. 48,000 ‘Cudas sold that year. Excellent, but still not the bonanza Plymouth had hoped for. Dodge was the big one with first year Challenger sales of 83,032 cars. But these figures are for all models of ‘Cuda and Challenger, counting everything from slant six coupes to fire breathing muscle cars. Hemi cars made up a very small fraction of these totals. Greg Rager adds: “The Hemi engine was always a low production engine and the cars it was installed in were always low production. For the 1970 model year there were only 666 Hemi ‘Cudas built and 59 Hemi Challengers.” Tom Shaw goes on: “If you read the classifieds, you see the term rare thrown away very carelessly. The Hemi ‘Cuda and the ‘Hemi Challenger define the word rare.” And Bob Karakashian throws in his two cents: “Today, as you see we had a lot of people here with their muscle cars, real variety of type of cars, different brands, sizes, whatever and the owners are the unique thing. All ages and all interests. Different backgrounds. But all the guys come together. Fantastic. Have a great time. They enjoy it. They enjoy each others’ cars, no matter the brands. In years past, there might have been some strong rivalries, where people favored the particular ones they liked. Now it’s more a camaraderie between everyone and people like to just be here because there’s not enough of these races going on right now. We enjoy bringing these cars out and showing the people what they’re all about. It’s a part of history.”
Watching the Muscle Car Era Evaporate
After 1970, Chrysler watched along with the rest of us as the muscle car era evaporated before our eyes. Among the earliest casualties were the Hemi cars. Recollects Greg Rager: “If you were driving a muscle car, you were driving distressed merchandise. No one wanted to drive a gas hog when gas prices went over a dollar a gallon. You could buy muscle cars dirt cheap.” After 1971, Chrysler no longer offered the street Hemi in any model. They were a late appearing but unforgettable blip on the muscle car radar screen. Illustrates Bob Karakashian: “This car’s driven on the street quite a bit. We take it to cruise nights. My wife will drive it and we’ll go out to the cruise spots but we don’t really street race too much with it. An interesting story, I had a guy pull next to me, who was on the phone in his Ferrari at one time and he looked over at me and I looked at him and I said, ‘Don’t even try it, buddy.’” Some guys just stand a little taller among their peers, whether they were faster, prettier, or gave you more goosebumps is mostly subjective. But the fact remains, that among a host of great, memorable cars, there are a select few that are special. At or very near the top of this short list are the Plymouth’ Cuda and the Dodge Challenger with the 426 street Hemi. Recalls Greg Rager: “I can look back and say ‘Wow, I lived through this era. I participated in it. I was heavily involved in the muscle car era.’ But back then, no, we never gave a thought to it. When we bought these car new, they were just cars. There was no line drawn where you could say that on this side of the line we have the muscle car era and as soon as we crossed this line it came to an end. It ended gradually, each year horsepower and compression ratio were down, performance was done. And I lived through that era. I was involved with the muscle cars of that era and it wasn’t something that we noticed taking place. It happened so gradually over about a five or six year period of time that all of a sudden one day we woke up and realized that muscle cars don’t exist anymore.”
Thanks to the restorers, there are a few of these magnificent beasts still around for us to appreciate. One look at them recalls a time when high octane fuel was plentiful, the drive ins were full of people, and the nights were just fine for a little cruising.