1965 McKee Mark V Plymouth powered by Chrysler’s 426 HEMI V8

McKee Plymouth Special(Left) Stark functionality includes easy access to the Chrysler-prepared 426 CID HEMI V8. Note windshield height and absence of doors.
(Right) Left front view shows off her sleek curves and, like the competition, no headlights, turn signals, or bumper.

John and Jane Rasmussen deserve accolades for taking in this beast, and later restoring it. The lightweight, two-seat, doorless, topless, Plymouth Special #15, built by McKee, lives on as an extreme expression of power. The restoration’s contributors included Chrysler, Ronnie Householder, Bob McKee/McKee Engineering, Koni North America, Lone Star Caliper Company, Signitex Powder Coating, John James Racing Restorations, and Phil Bergeron/Bergeron Engineering.

(Left) Race rules required two seats, a cozy fit. Here, the right side access hatch is open to the battery and other equipment.
(Right) Impressively logical and neatly executed are the major electrical controls and battery.

Former Marine rifleman and fighter pilot Robert (Bob) Montana knew and appreciated power, especially in difficult sports car off-public highway road racing. The Chrysler Hemi V8 naturally gained his attention.

The crankshaft was shot-peened forged steel, with nitride-hardened 0.015-inch journals. The cast iron block was stress-relieved with aluminum heads (A-990, single plug); they had machined hemisphere combustion chambers. The plenum-ram dual four-barrel intake manifold was magnesium. Bearing caps were malleable iron, tie bolted. Rods were forged steel, center-measured at 6.861”. Intake valves were Silchrome XB, with head diameter of 2.25”, solid stem diameter 0.309”. Other specifications:
Intake duration: 312°. Intake max open: 112° ATDC. Exhaust duration: 312°. Overlap: 88°.
Intake and exhaust valve lift: 0.54”.
Rocker ratio, intake: 1.57”, exhaust, 1.52”.
Two Holley four-barrel, #3116, 780 CFM carbs.

Through hard, smart work he had become a successful Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. His zeal was well known to Chrysler management; he hosted the Ramchargers during the NHRA “WinterNationals” in Phoenix, Arizona. Chrysler officials had learned that the overwhelming 426 Hemi was going to be banned for the 1965 NASCAR season, due to its 1964 dominance, and arranged to provide Mr. Montana with a Super Stock engine, a 613-pound 426 Hemi blasting out 610 horsepower at 6,400 rpm on high-test gasoline.

The 1965 McKee Mark V was designed and built for about $15,000 by McKee Engineering Corporation in Palatine, Illinois. Mr. Montana had selected Bob McKee’s firm based on their experience and well-earned reputation among the racing fraternity. More than fifty cars from the company competed in NASCAR, SCCA, FIA Group 6, Can-Am, F-5000, Trans-Am, IMSA and Indianapolis. The McKee team had already produced four vehicles of the type needed to hold big Detroit power, and the project was soon inked and scheduled as the Mark V; it would have 2.71 pounds per horsepower.

McKee Special(Left) Pentastar emblem confirms the corporate family background of her incredible engine.
(Right) Front right view reveals the carefully applied finish in white and Petty Blue assisted by red pin-striping.

McKee Engineering used a Borg-Warner T-10 transmission group (also used by the Corvette), with an aluminum case unit, weighing only 146 lbs. Ratios were 2.28 (one source says 2.20), 1.66, 1.31, and 1.00:1. Halibrand quick-change gears ensured track adaptability. Seventy ratios were available, from 1.80 to 7.95. Ring and pinion are Ford 3.78:1, Z-F limited-slip differential (the only imported item in the design). Chrysler U-joints were linked to custom, balanced half-shafts. Shifting is via a McKee-designed cable system; this transaxle was also used in the Shelby-American King Cobra, Cooper-Chevrolet, Comstock Cooper-Ford, and others.

McKee Plymouth restoration(Left) Neatly stowed behind the driver, the HEMI sports the Magnesium dual four-barrel cross-ram intake manifold.
(Right) HEMI exhaust takes a short journey sans silencing.

The front suspension uses unequal length A-arms, Corvette spindles, and Koni coil-over shocks (210 lbs/inch). The rear suspension uses unequal length A-arms, McKee Engineering-designed cast aluminum alloy hub carriers with Corvette stub axles and bearings, and Koni coil-over shocks rated at 335 lbs/inch.

The front brakes were Corvette vented discs/calipers, 11.75” inches in diameter. Rear brakes were Ford Mustang vented discs/11.25” calipers. Individual Girling 0.875” master cylinders served front and rear systems; the car used rack and pinion steering, with gasoline carried by two concealed, custom fabricated, eight-gallon fuel cells. A Corvette 1965 small-block aluminum radiator meets cooling needs.

restored Plymouth racing car(Left) HEMI viewed from the right side presents the extremely orderly layout and careful securing of wiring and hoses.
(Right) Right bank exhaust mirrors left side. Note proximity to the open side compartment.

Magnesium wheels were made by American Racing-Torque Thrust—front, 8x15 inches; rear, 10.5 x 15-inches. Tires were Goodyear Blue Streak Sport Car Specials, front, 9.20 x 15 inches (vintage 6.00 x 15 inches); rear, 12.00 x 15 inches (vintage, 8.00 x 15 inches).

There were no doors, a low-height windshield, no top, and a minimal rollbar. The driver stepped in after detaching the steering wheel. The rules then required two seats. These were fabricated of aluminum and positioned side by side. Stewart Warner gauges showed fuel pressure, oil pressure, oil temperature, and water temperature; a Jones 8,000 RPM mechanical tachometer rounded out the panel.

car(Left) The Mckee-designed cable shift helped driver ergonomics, as did the convenient array of instruments.
(Right) One senses instantly the sheer driving thrills built into this beauty - nothing plush - but 100 percent GO!

Adding fluids and driver brings drive-away weight a variable amount above the 1,655 lb—say to 2,000 lbs ready to launch—a weight to power ratio of 3.28:1. For comparison, six famed “muscle cars” for 1965 had ratios ranging from 10 to 12.4:1.

The wheelbase was 96 inches, overall length 160 inches. The tubular frame used mild steel tubing 1.5” by .065 and .049”, configured for mid-point engine location. The aluminum body envelope was used to create a Fiberglass replacement early in her campaigning; kept in storage for a number of years, the original aluminum McKee body disappeared. Presently, the Fiberglass version wears a quality finish in white embellished by “Petty Blue” accents.

During construction, Richard Petty visited to consider driving the new car in the 1965 United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) program. However, since the car’s completion date overlapped USRRC’s calendar, Mr. Petty opted to take up National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag work for 1965.

Robert Montana Goes Pedal To Metal

May 1965 found Robert Montana at the Riverside USRRC event, in competition with, among others, Lothar Motschenbacher in a 427 Cobra, plus Bob Challman and Chuck Parsons in Lotus 30s. At Sacramento in 1965, Mr. Montana set a record of 166 MPH on the course straightaway. He reached a high point in January 1968 on Phoenix International Raceway’s 2.75-mile road course, taking a class win over a B/P Cobra piloted by Don Roberts.

robert montana

The Plymouth Special received positive media coverage including text and photos in such publications as National Speed Sport News, Car & Driver, Road & Track, High Performance, Rod & Custom, Competition Press & Autoweek, Hot Rod Magazine, Sports Car Graphics, and Car Craft. At least two models were marketed: Testor Slot Car #2302, Plymouth “HEMI” Special, (1/24 scale); AMT Corporation Slot Car, McKee Engineering Special, (1/32 scale).

Tragically, in early 1971, Robert Montana, his wife Mary Lou, and his sons Mark and Gregg, were killed in an airplane crash while returning from a Utah ski trip. The #15 car remained in the dealership’s race shop until the dealership was sold in the mid-1970s.

john james racing car

Taking on a project as complex as bringing to show state a forty-year old veteran race car requires intelligence, bold investigation, travel, organization, persistence, interim goal setting, cash flow management, contacts galore, a sense of total mission, plenty of applied humor, and sometimes delicate timing.

Arriving for the first appointment a few minutes early, vehicle craftsman Douglas E. Bowers, accompanying the writer, immediately noted the high quality fifth-wheel trailer specially identified as the mobile protection for the HEMI racer. Unique warrior Number 15 would travel in comfort for display and chat at selected show opportunities—a major contribution to the history of the sport by John and Jane.

When Mr. Rasmussen started the engine in his perfectly arrayed, special nest, the Hemi bellowed in a satisfying surge of energy unleashed. Floor and walls vibrated in demanding command cacophony. The velocity potential requires extremely high driver skill and prudence. Near the “edge” everything becomes important: tire adhesion, road or track surface quality, curve configuration, wind, temperature, humidity, visibility, cabin/controls ergonomics, driver comfort, chassis stiffness, suspension behavior, vehicle body integrity, fuel consumption, engine cooling, driving strategy, driver restraint protective devices, and fire protection.

In all the world, there is only one 1965 McKee Mark V Plymouth Sports Racer #15 powered by Chrysler’s 426 Hemi V8.

Update: November 2013

Hemmings Motor News reported that the car is now up for sale. They wrote that Richard Petty had asked Bob McKee to build “a Can-Am car, powered by a Hemi V-8;” by the time it was built, the NASCAR ban on the Hemi had been lifted, and Petty was back in stock car racing. Chrysler’s Ronnie Householder connected McKee with racer Bob Montana, who owned a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Arizona. Montana won two SCCA class wins for the 1965 season, but according to the article, the combination of high power and “somewhat flexible” chassis made the car hard to drive, and the rise of unibody chassis cars made the McKee obsolete in the 1967 season. The car was still raced in SCCA until 1969. The restoration was finished in 2004, and the car is expected to sell for over $275,000 at a Russo and Steele auction in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 15-19, 2014.

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