Dodge Ramchargers racing team
Billy Shope (quoted by John Gunnell) said that the Ramchargers started with a 1959 lunchtime conversation between classes at the Chrysler Engineering Institute (CEI). Someone suggested pooling their finances, and they formed committees to help build a Mopar that could outrun the big-block GM vehicles that were on top at the time. Dick Burke and Dick Maxwell were co-chairmen of suspension, traction and steering, and Skip McCully and Maurie Leising were co-chairman of engine.
Thus, in 1959, around 20-25 engineers and support people banded together to form the Ramchargers, to really see what they could do on the track, using a scientific, collaborative approach. The band started out with a bang, and brought Dodge to dominance in the Super Stock and Pro Stock. Some of the members became well known outside of the engineering community, including Tom Hoover and Tom Coddington.
The Ramcharger club went through several evolutionary stages. ... Chrysler had an introductory program for entry-level engineers hiring into Chrysler engineering. It was called the Institute program. Basically it was a co-op type thing, and about half the time you went to classes, and about the other half of the time you’d go to various laboratories and cycle through them. And at the end of all this you got a master’s degree. So by and large, the Ramchargers were made up of Institute people.
And in the beginning, it was a very casual – underline casual – proposition where guys who were interested in higher performance than normal would gather together at lunch time in the lunchroom at Chrysler Engineering. And after a while, it became common for one table, or against the wall sort of where the windows were – this was up about three or four stories in an old brick building – we’d gather there and talk about stuff. And as things evolved, several of us had become pretty deeply involved in actually modifying our cars to the point where we could do respectably well going to the drag strip. There was myself, Wayne Erickson and a couple other guys and I call this beginning stage a confederation, much like the Confederate States of America where all the people operated independently.
We each had our own project and in concert we enjoyed getting together, going to the drag strip and talking and whatnot. But there was no combined effort, and ... the formal organization of the whole thing began in the Fall of 1958. Several of us gathered in Wayne Erickson’s apartment for the first meeting in the evening. We didn't have officers or anything like that to form the club. So we did, but again, it was entirely independent. Strictly for fun and so forth.
Then after a while, even in those days, it became evident that if you really wanted to get serious about setting some national records, participating at the big meets and so forth, you couldn't do it in a car that you drove to work every day in the winter of Detroit. ... the first joint project where people didn't operate independently but rather got together to achieve an overall objective was the High and Mighty cars... It was a super low-budget operation. Various interested people contributed largely in what was becoming their field of expertise. For example, the first engine for the car was put together by myself and Danny Mancini. It was a 354 Dodge Truck engine, truck-like, big truck, which had dropped an exhaust valve, sodium-cooled exhaust valve. The only money we spent on it aside from gas and so forth which we could liberate at Chrysler was a set of pistons and we had a camshaft ground for it.
... Ramchargers was a group of drag racing enthusiasts that just naturally developed in Chrysler engineering. They actually worked like a research and development crew. They drag raced for the fun of it but they actually took what they learned drag racing and brought it back to the corporation.
Major changes regarding the image of the product had to be made. And the decisions were made and the finances were lined up to do it and so forth. We were at the ready; I mean there was this group there that was a natural.
Their first car was a 1949 Plymouth business coupe named the High & Mighty, probably chosen for its weight and price; their first budget was low even by standards of the day. Each of the roughly 25 Ramchargers put in a little over $30; they paid for the engine by doing warranty engine teardowns over at Dodge Truck. The engine was a 354 Hemi, with 392 Hemi heads for better breathing (in 1960, they put a 392 block underneath the 392 heads; the car was cleaned up and painted white for its sponsor, Mason’s Plymouth-Valiant of Ferndale). In these pre-Torqueflite days, they used a manual transmission - a three speed. Neil Newman, a friend of the Ramchargers, designed a racing cam for it.
The car, owned by Herman Mozer (officially in charge of coordination), ran under the C/Altered class, and featured the first “high ram” intake, later copied by many others; the use of the special intake to develop a supercharging effect at certain speeds was eventually termed ram induction. The low-cost car set the class speed record on its first outing at the National Hot Rod Association Nationals in 1959.
The current High & Mighty car is owned by Bob Less, a retired Chrysler employee and member of the Chrysler Employees Motorsports Association (CEMA). Bob is the Team Leader and driving force for the High & Mighty II Club project car and RAMCHARGERS appearances. The car is currently being prepared for appearances at select 2009 shows. The first appearance will be the 20th Annual CEMA Charity Car show Saturday, June 13 at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.
Bill Shope wrote:
I was one of the original Ramchargers and, at that time, we were in the planning stage for the club's first car, "The High & Mighty" C/A 1949 Plymouth. I can vouch for George Wallace’s willingness to help in such endeavors as he helped me to make valid performance predictions for the car. Calculated results were essentially identical to the car's actual runs on its first appearance at the NHRA Nationals in Detroit.
George also developed the empirical relationship between quarter mile speed, vehicle weight, and horsepower which was universally used by the Ramchargers to both predict performance and to evaluate the competition. In preparation for the 1960 NASCAR compact car race on the road circuit at Daytona, George calculated the average speed for the winning car. I can't remember how many tenths of a mph off he was, but I distinctly remember the amazement that a calculated value could be so close to the actual!
Jim Thornton, engineer and driver of the Ramchargers SS/A drag car, spoke at a Mopar Alley conference. He said:
In addition to all the work that went on at Chrysler, inside the dynamometers and on test tracks, there was a lot of work done by people outside of Chrysler.
The Ramchargers ... did most of the development of the cars for drag racing, and in fact were instrumental in getting Chrysler involved in drag racing by appearing at the ’61 Summer-Nationals with a Dodge that was competitive with Ford, Chevy, and Pontiac. ... The Ramchargers continued to race in a stock car, and had the first Chrysler product to win in a Super-Stock class and a Stock Eliminator title, which we did in 1963. We continued on racing in stock classes, and in Factory Experimental and then Funny Cars. We decided as a group, after the 1967 season, that we had other responsibilities, and stopped racing Funny Cars at that time.
Tom Hoover continued:
Beyond the High and Mighty stage, it finally reached a point where – how should I say this? Dodge Public Relations in particular became interested in improving the performance image of the products that they offered for sale. And actually, there became a combination then between the Ramchargers group and Dodge. We talked with Plymouth also. Plymouth wasn't really interested at the time.
you've got to realize that although Chrysler bought into the performance passenger car sales market in 1955, these weren't drag racing cars. They were gentlemen’s high-speed touring cars. Great for going across Texas, you know, and so forth at high speed. Not good on the drag strip. The transmissions, there were only two speeds. They had very tight torque converters. The cars were heavy and so forth.
About 1960 there was a very major change in the management of the company. There had been some hanky-panky at very high altitudes financially among the vice presidential and higher levels, and some new management was brought in. A Mr. Thompson took over the company and luckily he had some teenage sons and quickly was informed that the products that he was offering for sale weren't the kind of thing that were interesting Chevy lovers that like to drag race up and down Woodward Avenue.
So my God, he did something about it. This allowed people like the PR people at Dodge then to become very much more active than they had been. They could operate kind of under the radar, you know? And I'm not saying that the gentlemen’s touring cars weren't successful. They were ... A deal was made between the Ramchargers group and Dodge Public Relations. They gave us a car, and they had the capability of releasing parts if you will that weren't really in production. And the bottom line is at this point, then, the Ramchargers became what I call federated as opposed to being confederated in the beginning where it was individuals with separate projects, entirely independent, just for fun.
... I look back on those days and think about how many hours a number of us committed – highly committed people – you know, to make the things work. ... I found it somewhat frustrating because although the ’61 car that we put together for Dodge and took to the nationals in ’61, I think everybody was onboard by then.
In 1961, the Ramchargers built up an engine for Frank Wiley’s new car; Dodge created the first factory package cars in that year. A 1961 Dodge Dart 413 was used by the Ramchargers at the 1961 NHRA Nationals (driven by Eckstrand and Jim Thornton).
In 1963, the team toured the nation with two white and red factory-sponsored cars, named Candymatics, thanks to the paint scheme and automatic transmissions. They were driven by Herman Moser and Jim Thornton; both were champions, and eventually faced each other for the Super-Stock Automatic (S/SA) championship. Thornton and Moser each won one race against each other; Moser eliminated Thornton and Lawman driver Al Ekstrand to be the Top Stock Eliminator for 1963.
Tom Hoover explained that the racing operation was separate from the now-hierarchical engineering operation, where communication was slow and somewhat ineffective due to the need for information to go up and down the ranks.
I had the liberty of going through the various departments and really giving them a clue of what we needed to get a package out based on the experience that I and the other guys had had. So that’s the reason, I think, that the ’63 package cars were as good as they were. They were the kind of thing – the ’62, it wasn't what I wanted it to be. All we got out was the engine and just enough of them to qualify the engine to run a few races. The ’63 was the first real car, and those cars were I think – the guys of you who were around in those days, man, they were something else. If you went down to the store and bought one, you’d go out around 108 right off the bat just by turning the key.
In 1964, the Ramchargers started using the new 426 Hemi, and were runners-up at the Nationals to Roger Lindamood in another Hemi-powered Dodge. Chrysler was using the Ramchargers in national advertising campaigns; the name was eventually trademarked (in 1970) by an organization of the racers, officially Ramchargers Racing Engines Inc., in Taylor, MI. The trademark expired while owned by Thumb Company (Partnership). Tom Hoover continued:
So in ’64, the proudest moment to me was the first time the R car went 130.06 at the Nationals to set the record. So ’64 was a good year, then things started to get funny. You know, yeah, it was more work too. Then the wheelbase change, we went through fuel injection and to nitromethane fuel. And finally, by ’67, a matter of having family commitments and being the long weekend and all this stuff, it came to a point where all the Ramchargers just kind of shut down. Some of you may be aware some of the techs got into an aftermarket parts business around the charger. I think they just closed the doors.
It’s been a life’s frustration to me. It’s very difficult for people on the outside to understand that the Ramchargers, although heavily supported by Dodge ... it was not a formal Chrysler Engineering race effort.
By the mid-1960s, professional teams were running with factory support — the most famous Ramchargers, perhaps, including Dick Landy and Sox & Martin. The racing success might not have mattered to Chrysler’s reputation on the street, but the company was also making hotter cars and engines — including the famous Road Runner and, later the 340 Duster, which went even further in making performance affordable. The same engineers were working on both — the racing designs and the street designs.
The Mopar men had an advantage aside from being involved in both parts of development; they were trained to analyze results as a matter of course. If they did especially well, they learned how. If they had a problem, they learned why, systematically. The racing might have helped them more with the stock cars than modern racing campaigns would, since the cars were mostly stock at the time.
Many cars raced under the Ramchargers banner, but only one is known to survive, a 1970 Hemi-Cuda. Campaigned by Dean Nicopolis until 1986, it won 37 national class championships, and was Super Stock Division III Champion as late as 1980. The car was restored by Dean Nicopolis and Jack Ottino.
Ramchargers with a replica of their first club car The High & Mighty on display in the 2009 SAE Mobility History Committee booth in Cobo Hall, Detroit on 4-22-09. The car in the background is a 1909 Hudson, whose company was discussed in the session that included the Ramcharger’s history. The High & Mighty replica was built by members of the Chrysler Employees Motorsports Association (CEMA) in tribute to the Ramchargers’ accomplishments after it was determined that the original car had been scrapped. The car contains the original first tunnel ram intake manifold and tachometer hand marked with a “SHIFT! (dammit)” note with skull and crossbones at 5,500 RPM.