BY RICHARD EHRENBERG.
Written in 1989. Copyright © 1989 Richard Ehrenberg. Used by permission of the author, a regular contributor to Mopar Action
Flip the calendar back a few decades to the summer of '67. I'm just out of my teens -- and a part of the wallpaper at the local Chrysler-Plymouth Dealer in Jamaica, New York. I didn't work there, mind you. I just spent every spare minute hanging around the shop, parts room and showroom. In time, I developed quite a rapport with all the managers and the owner's son, a bottom-line-oriented type in his late thirties, the heir apparent to the burgeoning dealership.
I was the gofer, helping out with parts deliveries, picking up pizzas and the like. Occasionally, on an evening or weekend, when the mechanics were off, I'd be trusted to do a minor, emergency-type repair. In return for these favors, I was given parts at a generous discount and allowed to use the shop nights and weekends to work on my street and strip '65 273 Valiant. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
At this time in history, the most recent news from Mother Mopar was the introduction of the 1967 GTX and R/T. They had new trim and identification, but they were basically rebadged versions of the '66 Belvedere and Coronet models -- save for one important feature: the all-new 440 Super Commando (Plymouth) and 440 Magnum (Dodge) engines. From drive-ins to drag strips, in 50 states and all provinces, it wasn't long before the mill had begun to earn itself a well-deserved reputation -- so much so that 1966's news, the Street Hemi, seemed to take a back seat, at least temporarily.
Late one Friday afternoon, as I was preparing to twist the wrenches on my Valiant, I was asked to help push a car around the service department lot. I went outside and nearly flipped. The "clunker" we were pushing was a '66 Satellite, four-speed Hemi! It seems that the owner's nephew was given one when they first came out in September of 1966. He immediately took it away to college and, in 10 or 11 short months, had succeeded in beating it to within an inch of its life.
There wasn't an unmarked body panel, the seats were tainted by cigarette burns, the valves were noisy as hell, probably 0.020-inch too loose, and the final blow was that the transmission was stuck in one gear, which I think was third. Still, this was the first Hemi car that I had ever been really close to, and it was an awe-inspiring experience. Opening the hood and seeing that two-foot air cleaner and those oh-my-god valve covers just about blew me off my feet.
The mechanics had just enough time to push the car onto a lift before quitting time. The minute they split I was all over the car, drooling. I asked the owner about it, and he related the sad story and implied that, henceforth, his nephew would be driving something more like a 170 automatic Valiant.
It was then that my brainstorm struck. I proposed to fix the car, right then and there, in return for a weekend's use. Much to my amazement, he accepted! Within two hours, I had the valves lashed and the crummy shift linkage patched up.
By 8 p.m., I was tanked up with Sunoco 260 and looking for action. It wasn't long before I came to realize the plight of the Street Hemi pilot. The sight of those 426 Hemi nameplates scared off damn near everybody.
By 10 p.m., I had made maybe three runs, a small fraction my usual every-stoplight racing. Aggravated, I pulled into a closed gas station lot, popped the trunk, grabbed the jack handle and deleted the nameplates. Voila! Instant sleeper! "Whatcha runnin'?" was the typical line. "Stock 383 four-speed," came my reply. (Luckily for me, the Satellite's generous rear overhang and just-adequate ride height combined to make the Dana 60 rear axle nearly invisible).
In two full nights of street racing, the car proved itself invincible, which only served to further increase my Hemi worship. Everything the magazines had said was true, and then some. I had always suspected those magazine-types of being less-than-aggressive drivers; now I had proof.
Tripower Goats disappeared like they were in reverse. Fuelie Vettes were finished by second gear. Those 390 Mustangs, which had been easy prey in my Valiant, now seemed so slow as to bring up the question, "Did you remember to start your engine?" It was great fun. Nights to remember forever.
Then an idea struck: New York National Speedway, Long Island's now defunct premier drag racing plant. Sunday. Borrow cheater slicks. Win Trophy Class racing. What a plan!
Sure enough, bright and early, I'm in the pits mounting up a pair of borrowed 7-inch Caslers. Pull into the staging lanes. (Wow. I'm actually racing a Hemi.)
First run: decent launch but breaks loose about 50 feet out. ET: 13.95. Not bad for the first run. Back to the pits, take a hacksaw to the exhaust pipes.Goop up the tires with some "BX.10: tenth-of-a-second" traction compound. Launch easy, then get into all eight barrels. (Wow. What a kick.) Grab second, hang on! Go for third, listen to those AFBs suck air. Fourth, cross the line. ET: 13.44.
I'm hyper! Back to the pits, wait for the class to be called. First run: me vs. a '67 Hemi GTX. Rumor has it he's runnin' 4.56s, a far cry from my 3.54s. Go on green, come out about even. He pulls about 6 feet on me by upshift time. Damn. Power shift second, pedal mashed, close to seven grand. Pull back the 6 feet and ahead by a nose. Get ready for third. Bang! Shift jams, miss the gear. It's over. Trash that inland shifter, I think to myself.
Back now in the pits, we patch up the headpipe destruction (beer cans and muffler clamps) and prepare for the trip home. Then we realize that the valves are noisy as hell again. Arrrrrgh! Bent pushrods on the missed gear. Maybe they were bent before, that's no doubt why the valves were originally noisy. With borrowed tools, we pulled the valve gear and hammered the pushrods straight. By 6 p.m., we were heading back to Jamaica to drop off the elephant, before the witching hour. What a weekend. What a car.
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