Mopar Missile Builder/Mechanic Joe Pappas
From the start, car companies have supported all forms of auto racing to promote sales. In 1973, Chrysler Corp. was backing several Pro Stock-class drag race cars. One Plymouth Duster called the Mopar Missile, powered by a 396 Hemi engine, was probably the company’s best effort in coming up with an ideal Pro Stock racer for its day, a time when economic conditions were less than ideal and when Pro Stock rules were being changed by the National Hot Rod Assocation (NHRA) to give advantages to cars running small block motors. That was a shock to Chrysler, which dominated with its large-block Hemi engines.
The Missile was conceived and developed in Detroit, Michigan, in a vibrant atmosphere of small automotive shops and Big Three assembly plants. Its creators were a dozen or so Chrysler Racing Division engineers and drag race professionals, including Joe Pappas.
Drag race veterans and fans who lived through the early Seventies know Joe very well. He is also familiar to many contemporary enthusiasts who network via Internet sites dedicated to drag racing. Allpar has cited comments by Joe in articles about the Mopar Missile, and recently we had the honor of talking to him at length about his role in the car’s development. (We have already posted conversations with Stewart Pomeroy, owner of the Missile in 1975, and the car’s current campaign by present owner Ben Donhoff, of Melbourne, FL.)
Greetings, Joe. Let’s start with how you got involved in drag racing and with the Mopar Missile.
I got involved with racing and Chrysler through Mike Fons. I knew Mike from our school days. He was my best friend’s sister’s husband. We all went to the same high school. Mike was a couple of years older than me. He street raced; and he got involved in professional drag racing with an A-modified car which was very successful. Then he built a Pro Stock Camaro. On occasion I would go to the track and help him with his cars.
In the winter of 1970 he contracted with the Rod Shop, a big hot rod shop and seller of after-market parts in Columbus, Ohio, to build a Pro Stock Challenger to race in the 1971 season. The Rod Shop was under contract with Chrysler to build several competition cars, including the Challenger. I was doing construction work at the time and I had winters off. Mike hired me to help him build the Challenger. I was with him full-time for about 3 months. In the Spring I went back to construction, but whenever I could I’d help Mike out.
The Challenger was very fast and ran successfully in 1971. The first race we went to was the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, which would have been for the NHRA Championship. Lo and behold, we won Pro Stock. Mike beat Ronnie Sox in the semifinal and he beat Herb McCandless in a Sox & Martin car in the final. That was the start of my full-time career in Pro Stock racing.
I raced with Fons through 1971 and 1972. A few things happened at the end of 1972. Mike wanted to bring his little brother, Kenny, into racing – to take over my position in his shop. His contract with the Rod Shop was up for renegotiation at the end of the year. And Don Carlton got the contract directly from Chrysler to build and race the Mopar Missile. Ted Spehar had the previous Missile contract to build the 1970/1971 Missile Challenger and, following that, the 1972 Missile Barracuda.
Dick Oldfield drove the 1970 Challenger until Donnie came in as driver, and then Dick continued working in Donnie’s shop. Spehar’s arrangement with Chrysler changed at the end of 1972 to building engines for the Missile. I think I have to credit Mike with going to talk to Donnie to hire me. I then became an employee of Carlton Enterprises.
Fons went his way with his brother, Kenny, and they continued running a Demon for the Rod Shop. That deal only lasted about six months before it fell apart for Fons. On January 1, 1973, I went to work for Don Carlton at his shop.
I caught your remark about street racing. I’m shocked! You mean there was street racing in Detroit?
Let’s call it “testing.” I grew up right at 12 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue which was in the middle of everything happening in Big Three cars. Woodward was the main thoroughfare in Detroit. It was the place where all the Ford, Chrysler, and Chevy engineers would converge in the evenings showing off their wares.
If you go back in the history of this area you know that the rise of the muscle car happened on Woodward Avenue. Famous guys like DeLorean would show up out there and play off each other. Friday night they’d be out on Woodward Avenue testing and having a little fun.
Have you ever heard of the “Silver Bullet” car? That was Jimmy Addison’s car. He had a Sunoco station at 14 Mile and Woodward. We all used to hang out at Jimmy’s station. And Dave Kanners, who was Rich Maskins’ partner on the Maskin-Kanners AMC-Hornet. He had a station at 13½ and Woodward.
Okay, let’s put “testing” back in the closet. Where were the shops located that were cooperating in the Missile program? Set the scene for me.
Fons lived in a house on Everett St., which intersected West 12 Mile Rd. in Southfield. His shop was right behind the house. All work on the Rod Shop Challenger except painting was done right there behind Mike’s house. Teddy Spehar’s shop, where the Chrysler-owned Motown Missile cars were garaged, was on Fernlee Ave. intersecting West Mile 14 Road in Royal Oak. The two shops were just a few miles apart. You could drive from one to the other in 15 minutes.
We would go over there and Mike would take measurements and shoot pictures to use in building his Challenger. We would come back to Fons’s place and apply what we learned to Mike’s car, which was really a clone of the Motown Missile Challenger. This was all in keeping with Chrysler’s Pro Stock support program. Carlton’s shop was east of Teddy’s place and north of 14 Mile Rd on Elmwood St. It was two doors away from Trick Titanium, a major metals supplier in the area and one of many sponsors of the Missile cars. Eventually Fons had the chance to move his operation to a real shop a couple of miles east and north of Donnie’s place.
Did you ever run into problems with neighbors? You know, complaints about noise and such.
No, we never had problems with neighbors. [Laugh] I’ll tell you one story. Oldfield, Carlton and I would often work late into the night. I can’t tell you how many times we went home and left the doors wide open. The guy who had the shop next door, he used to grind carbide cutters. He’d come in at 5:30 a.m. and see all of our overhead doors open. Our cars were missing from the lot. The lights were on, the radio playing, with no one in the shop. He’d go ahead and lock the place up for us. That was 35 years ago. It was a different world!
What was the Missile development team’s mission?
The Missile program was a several year endeavor starting with the Challenger cars in 1970. It probably started before that, in fact, when Ted Spehar first became associated with Chrysler; they had a car called the “Iron Butterfly,” a 1964 Super Stock Hemi Dodge. The Dodge had been driven by Dick Oldfield, and Dick became driver of the Challenger.
The sole objective of the Missile development program was to research and develop technologies, processes, parts, etc., that Chrysler engineering would share with racers like Sox & Martin, Dick Landy, Don Grothier, Mike Fons and all the rest. For example, Chrysler engineer Ron Killen gets a lot of credit for crank-trigger ignition. Everyone had been using a magneto or distributor ignition. Ron came up with crank-trigger ignition and today every race car out there wants to use it.
Chrysler supported many Pro Stock at different levels. I think I’m safe in saying that the Missile team received the largest dollar support from Chrysler. Next would be Sox & Martin, Dick Landy, Don Grothier, Mike Fons, Butch Leal, Bill Bagshaw and others. The company’s own engineers were key players in building the Missile, not so with the other cars. Also, part of our program was to help the Hemi engine retain its dominance in Pro Stock that was shaken by new NHRA power-to-weight ratio rules.
What was the strategy for the Missile engine?
In 1971-72 the Missile program ran 426 Hemis. In 1973, the Duster motors had a smaller displacement. It was still a Hemi, the same 426 “30-over” block, but we ran a short-stroke crank. We claimed 396 CID. The car was actually 393 inches. Therefore we could carry substanially less weight and still expect the same performance out of the engine.
Then we looked for ways to lighten the car. We got an advantage using many light titanium, magnesium or aluminum parts. Trick Titanium was one of our sponsors and if we wanted something in titanium . . . strut bars, suspension components, nuts, bolts, whatever, we could call our contact at Trick Titanium and they would make it for us. That helped Trick Titanium, because it could then duplicate the parts and sell them to other Chrysler racers. The strategy was to ballast the car with weight to the rear, not the nose, and ballast weight left or right.
Had the Duster Missile raced prior to 1973 when you joined Carlton?
I’m not sure. Dick Oldfield can answer that question better than I. I know they were down in Florida for testing in late 1972. But I don’t know if the car competed prior to 1973. I think it must have made close to a hundred passes in testing, and possibly it raced. By January 1973 it was pretty well sorted out.
What was your role in the Missile program?
I had responsibility with Oldfield for everything except building motors, which was Spehar’s job. Although Teddy would have us doing things like lashing valves and changing bearings. The first thing Dick and I did that winter was to get ready to go out West for testing and racing in the Winternationals competition coming up around the end of February. We had 6 to 8 weeks to get ready. Actually about four weeks because we had to be there 3 or 4 weeks ahead of time. We fabricated and prepped parts. We were switching to a Lenco transmission, so we had to redo everything for the Lencos. I built rear ends and clutches. Dick built transmissions. Together we did engine maintenance at the track. We fabricated the transmission mounts, installed the Lenco, built new transmission tunnels.
We installed all the instrumentation and the data acquisition computer and sensors. The computer equipment was crude by today’s standards! But it was effective. Later on, when the car came back to the shop after testing at the strip or a race, it came all apart. We would always go through every nut, bolt and screw on the car. Make sure everything was correct, and then get ready for the next test run. We had our “tick list” that we worked from. We would write all of our tasks on a piece of paper, tape it to the car, and as we got them completed, we crossed them off to make sure we didn’t forget anything. Dick and I worked wonderfully well together. It was easy for us to communicate and we each had our own level of expertise
This was early use of computerized data acquisition in dragsters, wasn’t it?
The Missile program had actually been using it in 1972. But nobody in drag racing that I knew had data acquisition equipment. There was a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the trunk and a junction box in the passenger compartment. We had pre-installed sensors at various spots in the car to pickup different readings. If my memory is correct we could only record six channels at a time. But we were gathering real-time data on tape. When the run was over the tape would come off the deck and go to Ron Killen’s van. Ron was the Chrysler engineer in charge of electronics. He would transfer the data to a strip-chart printer. Then Killen and the other Chrysler engineers, Tom Hoover, Tom Coddington, Al Adam, John Baumann, would sit around and decipher the data off the strip charts.
Do you remember what data acquistion points in the car were monitored?
It varied. We might want to take a look at wheel speed, so we connected to the sensors on the front and rear wheels. We could monitor oil pressure, throttle position, shock travel, etc. There could only be six sensors connected at a time. So if Mr. Hoover said, okay today we’re going to be looking at engine data, we would connect to the sensors for fuel pressure, oil pressure, engine speed.
Killen’s van had a complete weather station. Before the first pass in the morning we would make adjustments for weather. Then Donnie would make a baseline run, followed by as many passes as necessary. Finally we would “close the loop” with a last run in baseline mode. This way you test one change at a time and you’ll know if a change makes a difference. This is known as design of experiments, “DOE” for short.
At the end of day, the engineers would study the strip charts to determine what were good and or bad results, and then plan the next day of testing. Oldfield and I would get the car set up and ready all over again, sometimes changing motors. We had a lot of motors, usually had 3 to 5 motors with us when we traveled. They’d be different. Like with various pre-installed camshafts. We could quickly swap motors for testing different camshafts.
Did Chrysler ever get patents on designs resulting from innovations in the design or engineering of the Missile cars?
I honestly don’t know. Tom Hoover would know better than I. There may be some patents for engine componentry. I don’t think anything Dick and I did would be something Chrysler would get patents on.
We know that Ron Butler built the Mopar Missile chassis on the West Coast. How did he get chosen for the job?
I honestly don’t know. Ron’s shop was in the very same building as Bill Bagshaw’s shop in Culver City, California. Bagshaw was also a racer under the Chrysler banner and got support from the factory. If you walked out the backdoor of Bagshaw’s place and walked to the very next doorway, that was Ron Butler’s shop. Maybe Butler got the job through his relationship with Bagshaw. Among the Chrysler engineers working on the Missile, Tom Coddington supervised the chassis and he could answer that best.
Butler was a phenomenal builder. He built the Andy Granatelli turbine cars that raced at Indy. The first time I was at his shop many years ago, I saw this low-slung car covered with a tarp. He pulls back the tarp and it’s the STP Indy turbine car. Ron said, “Andy gave it to me after it broke.” That was the car that broke down on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500, or it had two laps to go. It was going to win but instead it died.
So Coddington and Butler would get together on the chassis?
Dick Oldfield, who lives in Buffalo, and I see each other a few times each year. He was in Detroit recently [Dec. 2008] and we were talking about that. Dick was actually out in California for about eight weeks during the build of the chassis. He thinks Tom came up with the design and Ron made it to fit the A-body Duster. I think Tom would have gone out to California to meet with Butler and lay out his plan: this is what we want for a rear suspension, and here are the dimensions and the geometry; and here’s what we want up front, etc.
Understood that the Missile was already put together and running when you arrived at Donnie’s shop in January 1973, but do you know how long it took to build the car from start to finish?
Dick Oldfield would know better than I. I would imagine six months from start at Butler’s shop to the first pass down the track.
What was Tom Coddington’s background at Chrysler?
There was a large group devoted to racing with its roots in the circle of Chrysler engineers in the early Sixties known as “the Ramchargers.” The name came from the profile of the intake manifold in the first Chrysler drag race cars that those engineers worked on in 1959 and 1960. Coddington, and also Tom Hoover, were members of the original ramchargers group.
Hoover was all about the Hemi engine and he was our engine guy in the Missile program. The Missile ran with the 426 Hemi race engine. Hoover is one of the most brilliant engineers I know. He and Coddington are both phenomenally brilliant guys. Coddington made decisions about the chassis. Between them they were the principals at Chrysler engineering directing our testing. They are both retired now. Hoover, in his late 70s, was at the Performance Racing Industry conference in Orlando in December 2008. Coddington lives only a few miles from me and I see him half a dozen times a year. He’s a little younger than Hoover and he does consulting work now on occasion.
What are some of the features of the Missile chassis and suspension?
The Missile chassis used a 4-link rear suspension, as opposed to the ladder-bar type rear suspension that was prevalent on other cars. Ladder bars were considered simpler although they are probably not as effective as 4-link. Ladder bars have a single pivot at the front and two connections at the rear axle. They look like a long narrow triangle. Most Pro Stock cars used them and a lot of cars today still do.
4-link suspension basically uses two separate bars, an upper and a lower, creating like a box. They are much shorter than ladder bars and offer tremendous adjustability. You just had to know what you were doing to make 4-link work. You have some variability in how you position the lower bar, and that gives you different kinds of “bite” in the rear end. You can make the car rise in the rear, make it squat, make it remain neutral . . . as the car leaves the line. You can finesse it in smaller increments than with ladder bars. I think most modern Pro Stock cars run 4-link suspensions because they are just the best.
The stock front-end suspension on a Chrysler car of that era would include torsion bars, K-member, upper and lower control arms, manual steering box or worm-and-gear steering box (a Saginaw-type steering box). The original Duster Missile had frame rails that came forward. Its K member, aka a light-end crossbar, was highly modified and it had Pinto rack-and-pinion steering, with no torsion bars. The upper A-arms, so-called “clamshells,” were swapped side for side. That theoretically kept the front wheels “in the lights” longer as the nose lifted on launch. That is, the front wheels actually kicked rearward before breaking out of the staging lights. We used either a modified lower control arm, or a fabricated lower control arm. I think we fabricated the spindles and we used Koni-type “coil-over” suspension in the front.
The Missile’s wheels were positioned slightly forward compared to a stock chassis. Look at the front of Pro Stock cars in the 1970s . . . look at the distance between the edge of the front wheelhouse and the bumper. It’s only a few inches, and you know it’s not stock. I have to say, you never wanted to park your race car near a stock model so no one could see the difference and say, “Hey. What’s wrong with this car?”
As a matter of strategy, you wanted to “cheat” the wheels as far forward in the vehicle as possible, or shift the body as far back as possible, without breaking the rules regarding wheelbase measurement. There was a plus-or-minus factor you could get away with. The rear tires are huge and you have to have plenty of space so you can get them on and off the car. It was the common practice to section the rear quarter panels and open up the wheel housings. In the process you could actually move the rear wheels forward a little bit.
Did you ever run into any problems along the way that you remember?
We never had problems with the chassis, but there were some with the braking. We swapped out an Airhart master cylinder after we put the car off the track one time at Milan during a test. So we came home that night and got a new master cylinder. It was from a Chrysler taxi cab. [Laugh] We replumbed the braking system and were happy with that. We used disc brakes all around. But they weren’t the quality of brakes today. The front brakes on the Missile? -- today you might see better brakes on a snowmobile!
Are there detailed drawings or specs for all this? And what’s next after chassis fabrication?
A lot of that is up to the fabricator. There probably wouldn’t be detailed drawings or specs. Butler might have made sketches or kept notes. I was not around for mounting the Duster body on Butler’s chassis. Next for the Missile would be the “body in white,” the bare Duster body that comes from Chrysler. All of the supports that aren’t necessary are removed. It gets acid dipped in California and comes out as thin and flimsy as possible, minimizing weight. Then the car is built according to rulebook requirements regarding support bars and rollbars. At that point, it’s really just “connect the dots.” You need X-bars here, a support bar here, hang the steering wheel and pedals here. But the Missile was done with all that before I joined the team.
What’s so important about keeping the car longer “in the lights”?
In drag racing a light beam at the front wheels triggers the clock. When you stage the car, your wheels are barely up to the light beam. The longer you can keep those front wheels from breaking the beam, even while the back of the car actually starts to move, you have an advantage, even if it’s only a few milliseconds. You don’t want to “redlight,” or break the beam too soon. Actually the wheelbase could even be different from side to side; staggering the front wheels slightly, where you have one wheel slightly ahead of the other. In that case they stay in the lights longer. That’s approximately how it works, anyway.
Were there modifications to the body?
Besides the work on the wheel openings in the quarter panels, we took a section out of the nose of the car to make it narrower. We took maybe a couple of inches out of the width of the car at the nose, and we sectioned the grill. They didn’t use templates at that time and if the car looked okay, they didn’t say anything. I don’t know that they ever threw anybody out for doing anything special to the bodies. If you look at an old Landy car, they look like they were broken in the front, like they were pushed down in the nose, and the sides, pushed in. We used to kid Landy, “Hey, Dick. Who sat on the nose of your car?” He’d just ignore us.
Where did you pickup your automotive skills?
I started working on cars when I was a teenager. The first car I built was a ’55 Chevy with a tube axle, a roll-cage, an injected 427 engine. I never ran the car. I was starting to plumb and wire it, but I ended up selling it. I learned either on my own or by watching other people. Working for Fons on the Challenger helped. Every day you go to work, if you don’t learn something, you’re not working hard enough. At Donnie’s shop, the Missile program was an intense on-the-job training. We picked up a lot of new skills, perfected welding, fabricating, machining by doing it. We had pretty good equipment in the shop: a Bridgeport mill, a 10-inch lathe, drill presses . . .
Welding equipment? Congratulations on your admirable work ethic, by the way!
Tons of welding equipment! Sheet metal equipment: rollers, sheet metal brakes, beaders.. We could do everything right in the shop. There wasn’t anything that we had to go outside for. Though we did go outside sometimes, because two guys just can’t do everything! We utilized Trick Titanium to do a lot of machining for us. The shop was somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet.
Where did you get raw materials for your fabrications?
This is Detroit, the “Motor Capital” of the world! You can buy anything you need to build a car right here in town. Back then there were at least a dozen places where you could buy chrome-moly tubing, sheet steel, sheet aluminum, sheet magnesium, blocks of those metals, nuts, bolts, Heim joints, fittings. Detroit is an abundance of automotive supply houses. We probably had access to 6,000 to 10,000 automotive suppliers.
What companies do you remember from those days?
Our aluminum would come from a place called Factory Steel, Ryerson, the metals company, or Meier Brass & Aluminum. Those were the big places. Terminal Supply was where we would get our electrical connectors. Places like that, hundreds of them, and many are still around.
What about ready-made parts, things that you didn’t have to fabricate.
If it was a Chrysler part, all we did was make a call and go down to the Chrysler Performance Parts warehouse to pick them up. It didn’t matter if it was a performance part or a stock part. Other than that, if it was a component, we had other sponsors for spark plugs, oil, oil filters and things like that. We actually used big Mopar truck batteries. We had two of them in the car. Chrysler supplied our batteries.
Did the company’s “bean counters” keep a record of stuff they gave you?
I doubt it. If so, those records are probably long gone. I wouldn’t say their accounting was “loose.” We were the “in-house team.” I don’t know what our budget was. We were never denied anything that I’m aware of. At Don’s level, he may have asked for something that didn’t happen, but I doubt it.
Did the factory ever do fabrication for you?
No, we did all our own fabrication. In 1974, the test cars -- the “wire car” and the D-5 Colt -- were built by Dan Knapp. He had worked at Chrysler at one time and went out on his own. I think he was one of the original “Ramcharger” group. Dan actually built the chassis and then sent them over to our shop and Dick and I finished the cars. But that’s after the Missile project ended.
What kind of tolerances did you have to meet in your fabrications? I’m sure that would vary, but how about an example?
It wasn’t like machine standards today. Now we meet tolerances of a half-millimeter or tighter. Back then, when you fabricated a bracket for instance, you are making templates and fabbing stuff from sketches -- as opposed to detailed drawings. So I’m going to say fifty thousandths was about as close as we needed to get. Unless we used a surface plate. If we were just laying something out on the floor, I don’t know what those tolerances would have been.
What about the chassis?
Today you’d lay everything out on a surface plate and it would be within a couple of thousandths, or at least within a half millimeter, which is 20 thousandths. Those chassis were laid out to pretty close tolerances, but I’m not sure really how important that is. The chassis weren’t that critical. We could spend a lot of time on the alignment rack once the car was built. And every time we made a change we’d re-align. Then we would bump steer the front end, which is highly critical to the way the car goes down the track. That’s what you have all the suspension adjustments for.
What was the first clue that Chrysler would cut back on Missile Pro Stock support?
I think the handwriting was on the wall by the end of 1973. We knew by then that we weren’t going to race the Hemi Duster in ’74, that we would be doing R&D work related to the A-block. Dick and I had already started building the yellow test car, creating it out of the Stuart-McDade car that Donnie owned. We built that car at our shop in Troy, Michigan. We stripped the car just keeping the shell. Everything else was new.
As with the Missile project, our job was to develop stuff that other racers could use, and Chrysler wanted that to be the A-engine, to keep Chrysler competitive in Pro Stock racing. I think we actually built a pretty good engine, but we did have problems with the blocks splitting. Things looked lousy for us at the end of ‘73, but at the end of ’74 they looked worse. Donnie made a decision to close his shop in Detroit. He moved Carlton Enterprises to North Carolina. The wire car was almost complete except for paint. It was shelved. It and the yellow car with our 340 A-engine and all of our equipment were sent down to North Carolina.
Donnie came out owning the Mopar Missile under terms of his contract with Chrysler. He took it to North Carolina and finally sold it to Stewart Pomeroy, who transported it to Florida, where he raced it for about a year and a half. I decided to go back to college rather than move with Carlton to North Carolina. Oldfield ended up working at Chrysler Corp., eventually retiring from there. Donnie continued to test Hemi cars. I don’t know if he did anything more with the A-engine. He started match racing B/Gas cars. Another racer named Bob Glidden got involved with Chrysler toward the end of the Seventies, and he made the A-engine work really well in a Plymouth Arrow.
Were Hoover and Spehar involved with the A-engine?
Absolutely. All the engines that we used in 1974 came right from Teddy’s shop. And Hoover was intimately involved in developing them.
Did Chrysler in 1974 actually declare itself out of Pro Stock?
Not really. Guys were still running in Pro Stock. Chrysler still helped out Fons, Sox, Landy, etc. in ’74. They may not have officially announced they were walking away from the sport. But certainly our development of the Hemi race cars stopped. The turning point was the official focus on the A engine.
Did you ever drive the Missile?
Well, just from point A to point B. Never down the track. Driving wasn’t my job. I built rear ends and clutches and, at the track, I did engine maintenance.
You were present at all the races?
Yes, wherever the car raced and wherever the car tested, I would be there. The only time I didn’t go to a test was when we ran real intensive test programs here in Michigan, and Dick and I would have to do “two-shift work.” One of us would go with the car to the track at Milan during the day, while the other guy would not come into work until 5:30 or 6 at night. The night guy had to change the engines, change transmissions, change the rear end. Take the car apart, do all the maintenance, get the car ready, and get it loaded on the truck for the next morning. They’d take the car back to Milan and we’d do it all over again. Dick and I would swap shifts about every week and adjust our lives accordingly.
How long would it take to swap an engine?
Dick and I could change an engine, transmission and rear end in 30 minutes.
Do you know if Mike Fons in his Motown Missile ever raced against Carlton in the Mopar Missile?
The Fons Duster? The one presently owned by Kevin Christner? [Editor’s Note: Kevin Christner sadly passed away on Jan. 13, 2009] I don’t think so because the Mopar Missile technically ceased to exist at the end of the 1973 season. Fons at that time was running the Barracuda Motown Missile car which he had purchased at the end of 1973 from Ted Spehar. So the Motown Missile Barracuda and the Mopar Missile Duster basically ended 1973 together. Does that make sense?
In 1974 our Missile program went into 100 percent test mode. That’s when we built the “yellow car.” And the “wire car” was under construction. We did not competitively race the Mopar Missile at all in 1974. There was no Missile car ever run again from the Chrysler camp, officially, from that point onward. Don Carlton had some match race cars painted in the Missile black and gold colors, with his name replacing Mopar Missile along the side. They came out of North Carolina. He might have raced Fons in those cars. Meanwhile Dick and I continued with the test program for Chrysler. We worked principally trying to develop the A-engine as a Pro Stock engine.
And how long were you involved with the Missile project?
I was involved with it from January 1973 to the end of the 1974. I went back to college in January 1975. I needed to get my degree, which I did, in 1976 – a bachelor of science degree. I was in the Chrysler Pro Stock program for two years. When I finished college I moved to California and lived out there for a couple of years. Presently I live in Clarkston, Michigan, and I work for Johnson Controls as an engineering manager. On July 5, 1977, Donnie Carlton crashed at Milan Dragway and died. That was the end of our “Carlton era.” It was sad. Donnie was a good friend. It’s painful to think about to this day.
How did you all lose track of the Mopar Missile after Carlton sold it and it became a weekend racer for several owners, including Ben Donhoff?
We didn’t entirely lose track of it. We knew it was in the Garlits Museum. But think about that era. When you were done with a car it was last year’s news. You sold it and went on and built other cars. Think about all the parts we just threw in the dumpster. People would die for them today! When we were done with our development work, we were done. Period. Fast forward 30 years and see, “Oh, my God! That Sox & Martin car just brought $400,000 at Barrett-Jackson.” Or the Landy car, $500,000. Back then building and racing dragsters was a job. We happened to have more fun than line workers at, say, the Hamtramck assembly plant. Finally the old cars with wonderful history have become extremely valuable. With the Mopar Missile, I know Ben Donhoff is loving that car and enjoying racing it, as well he should. But my feeling is: “Please be careful not to wreck this car.” At some point in the future, he may want to restore it as it was in 1973. Put a 396 and Lenco back in. The Missile could represent an extremely valuable asset.
Does the Walter P. Chrysler Museum know about the Missile? Do they have an archive of its history, including its development by Carlton and company?
It does not! I’ve been over there and they didn’t even know what the Missile was. They keep racing memorabilia in the basement. They even had a car on display that I once worked on at Teddy’s shop. It was a mid-engine Dodge used by PPG Industries as a pace car. They hardly knew anything about that car, and it was sitting right there in the racing exhibit. The representative on the floor said he had never heard of the Mopar Missile. Even though they used to sell diecast models of the Missile upstairs in their gift shop.
What a shame! But I recently saw one of those models being auctioned on ebay with a $99 starting bid. Maybe I should pursue it.
Go for it!
Well, thanks for the very interesting discussion, Joe.
Spectators at the Super Swap got to hear some of Joe's memories during a Q&A at the swap meet. He described how the Missile's 396 cubic-inch Hemi engine in 1973 got its dual-plug heads, basically by having a second plug-opening drilled in the heads. The modification improved the Missile's ET by a fraction of a second, although the improvement never showed up in dyno testing, Joe said. The accumulation of many modifications to the car's powertrain and structure are what made the Missile a winner at the drag strip.