The Dodge Chargers drag racing team
The big Chrysler Wedge engines dominated drag racing through 1962 and 1963, setting the stage for the 1964 Season of the Hemi. In the opening months of 1964, a pair of sedans would give the big engine a well-deserved sendoff.
With lavish, indirect factory funding, California’s Dragmaster Company installed three supercharged, stroked Wedge engines into Dodge 330 sedans (one car was a sapre) and called the resulting monsters the “Dodge Chargers.” Their name predated the 1964 Dodge Charger show car.
The S/FX Dodge Chargers were run for just a few months, from March through July 1964, by experienced racers Jimmy Nix and Jim Johnson. Even now, many remember them as the first Funny Cars, a phrase that could come later.
Originally, the Dodge Chargers were to get Hemis, but development problems blocked that plan, and Wedges were used instead. Dragmaster chief Jim Nelson had already set records in gasoline-powered supercharged dragsters using the Wedge; he used a cast crankshaft to increase the stroke by a full half-inch, using the stock bores, expanding the engines to 480 cubic inches. The block had to be ground for clearance for the custom crankshaft and rods; and the oil pump pickup tube had to be diverted somewhat (the stock pump was used). Stock rockers were covered with magnesium covers.
Custom pistons were used. Ted Cyr set up the superchargers, from GMC; a Weiland magnesium blower manifold and drive kit was used, along with an 18% overdrive pulley system. The cars used four-port Hilborn fuel injectors, with a mechanical fuel pump drawing from a 2.5 gallon tank behind the grille, which in turn used an electric fuel pump to bring gas up from the conventional tank in back. The engine was estimated as having 850 to 900 horsepower and a redline of 7,800 rpm, far above the 426’s usual 6,500 rpm.
Harvey Crane, whose cams were to become famous, personally set up three sets of heads, enlarging the stock chambers; he lightened and polished the valves, which kept the stock size. A Schneider roller cam was used with a standard Mopar valvetrain; four-inch header collectors were used with short pipes. A sheet metal shield was placed above the exhaust headers to keep heat from the engine, and the engine was cooled by a fresh air system using openings in the outboard headlights. The rear leaf springs were augmented by special shocks and traction bars, and power was transmitted by a modified TorqueFlite automatic and a stock limited-slip rear. Wheels were 14 inches up front, 15 inches in the rear.
The interior was actually left as it was, for the most part, so that Dodge could get the most promotional use of it; but safety equipment was added. Outside, the bumpers were replaced with lighter aluminum panels, to keep the stock look but cut weight; the usual aluminum front end kit was also fitted. One non-stock feature was the Jim Diest-designed parachute, which fit into a rack in the trunk and was bolstered by reinforced straps; the gas filler tube had to be moved to fit it.
The program’s funding showed in numerous ways, beyond the lavish construction of the three cars. Dodge donated three standard Polaras (with 318 engines) for the team's staff; and the drivers got $200 per week plus travel expenses, which could include flying to races at a time when most racers drove to their engagements. A full time truck driver carried not just the two cars, but also a self-contained display, in a custom truck. Jim Nelson did all the mechanical work.
The Dodge Chargers were sent to strip engagements at the will of the Dodge sales apparatus; dealers would run special ad campaigns, and the Chargers would appear, with their cars shown at the dealerships between engagements. They set strip records in their initial California runs, turning in quarter mile speeds of over 132 mph during trial runs.
At one of the first appearances, though, one of the motors locked up, and the car was destroyed in a multiple rollover; fortunately, the driver was fine, but that was the end of the spare. Then the factory cut its funding, and the racers lost their crew; they did not get replacement parts, or the promised Hemis.
The two drivers persevered, making at least 40 matches at drag strips and Air Force bases, intentionally slowing down from their sub-11-second runs. Jimmy Nix lost an engine, and the two had to share a car, making single runs instead of running against each other.
Then Ford countered with a new, lighter, Comet “on the bottle;” their Jack Chrisman started to show up at Dodge Chargers appearances, challenging the pair. Jimmy Nix started working on a counter measure, altering the engine-less Dodge 330 with the intention of making it an all-out drag car, with a 392 Hemi fuel and direct drive, but Chrysler suddenly cancelled the program; racing dates were cut. The drivers continued to attend non-racing appearances, and the surviving Dodge 330 was put into Charlie Allen’s care, moved by trailer from one display to the next. Allen eventually bought the car at a very low price, selling it a year later to raise money for his own project. That car has apparently disappeared from view, though the second car — the one with the dead engine that was to fight Jack Chrisman — reappeared some years ago.