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Car of the Month, March 2012: Crystalmarie Marzocchi's Dodge Neon SRT4

story and photos by Gene Yetter

Among Mopar's most highly regarded (by their owners) cars of the past 20 years are the popular compact and feisty Dodge and Plymouth Neon, produced in two generations between 1994 and 2005. They were marketed to young car buyers, a population that includes many drivers who want to get where they're going in a hurry. And hopefully, safely!

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After the models launched, Mopar and after-market companies were soon offering performance products that spawned a hot-rod culture among Neon buyers. The Neon SRT4, powered by a turbocharged 2.4 liter engine, were the fastest car sold for under $22,000; hot when stock, they are also capable of running the quarter mile in or near eight seconds, when modified for by top competitors.

One Rhode Island girl joined the party in 2004. Crystalmarie Marzocchi, age 26, purchased a brand new black Neon SRT4 with Viper seats, Kicker Audio, a sunroof, and other premium options from a Dorchester, Massachusetts dealer in July of that year. She got so into her car that she postponed nursing studies at Rhode Island College to switch to a two-year course in auto body and auto mechanics at New England Technical Institute, Warwick, to undertake major modifications on her new vehicle, doing the work herself. The car is finished except for a few pending upgrades to its engine, clutch and transmission, and Crystal is back in nursing at the Community College of Rhode Island.

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The pictures were taken on July 17, 2011, during a competitive car show held by Connecticut's Mopars in Motion (MIM) car club, at Lorenson's Old Saybrook Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in the southeastern corner of the Nutmeg State. It was the first time Crystalmarie showed her car at a MIM event, but the club holds several events at Mopar dealerships around the state each year. As of the day of the show, the car had about 128,000 miles on the odometer, including daily driver miles. Still, it looked every bit the show car and took first place in its class.

Crystal and her Neons were written up in the Providence Journal, Rhode Island's major daily newspaper, on June 30, 2007. The article praised the car's outstanding pizazz, as well as its owner's passion in tackling and completing the project, even during a period in which she had to undergo several eye operations. By 2006 she was showing her Neon and taking home prizes at regional car events. In December 2009, the car appeared among hot rods, customs and classics at the annual New England International Auto Show in Boston. In May 2010, it was featured with T Building cars at the annual Carlisle Events Performance & Style Show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Crystal's interest in cars developed in her student days after she had to drop out of extra-curricular soccer, due to a hip injury sustained in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. "After the accident I had nothing to do," she says. "That's when I got into cars. I started in 2001 with a Stratus R/T coupe. It had to be a Mopar because everyone in my family drives Mopars and I grew up with them. But I am first in our family to customize a car. I had a Miata for a while. Now I have two Neons.

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"I always remember the 'Hi!' advertising we used to see on television when the Neons came out in 1995. I really did say 'Hi!' when I saw one. I would tell my mom that I would own a Neon one day. 'No you're not!' she would say. Now look! My mother is always with me at the car shows.

"When I dropped out of nursing school to switch to auto body, I thought my parents were going to kill me. But they didn't. Until they came down to the body shop and saw the car had nothing on it but quarter panels and the roof! They didn't like that at all and they carried on!

"I had a job at our local Dodge dealership when I was 18 years old. They had a black SRT4 in the showroom that caught my eye every day."

Her styling ideas, once she bought the car, are based on a Panther Pink 1970 AAR Cuda Six-Pack that she saw during a televised Barrett-Jackson auction.

"In auto body school, I knew I wanted my car to be different. That 'Cuda on Barrett-Jackson -- learning it was the first Mopar sport compact that was factory-prepared for a racing series [Trans-Am] clicked for me. I got into adapting whatever Cuda styling element I could. I looked at the interiors of Seventies muscle cars and copied their piping on my upholstery. Interiors were mostly black with flashes of color here and there.

"I painted the stock chrome dash parts pink. Got a shifter with pistol grip. Side exhaust. 'Panther Pink,' was one of the high-impact color options on Mopar muscle cars. The black 'strobe stripe' along the side panels was special to the '70 Cuda. The badge on the deck lid is from a Cuda door panel. It's not as big as the full-size deck badge. I saw all of the Pink Panther movies so I had to bring in the stuffed panthers for my show presentation."

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Ms. Marzocchi credits one of her New England Tech instructors, Manuel Couto, for help with the strobe stripe. "She has a big heart and was very, very determined. We had our hands full with her. She's a loaded gun," Cuoto told the reporter for the Providence Journal. She replies only that, "I won't have anyone doing what I can do myself." The nickname on her license plate, "SPKPLG," given her by a friend, says it all.

Crystal did all the body work on the car including paint. Front end mods in the accompanying picture include the splitter, oval Cry02 sprayer bar behind the mesh grill, the headlights, rare mini-Cuda-style carbon fiber hood. Headlights were a "from-scratch" project consisting of Crossfire projectors inside BMW E46 shrouds that got painted black and pink. She drilled all the holes and wired the LEDs.

"Painting was not difficult," Crystal said. "But the scheme, mixing the black in with the rest of the body lines so that it fit with the way the Cudas looked, was the hard part."

Performance modifications make a long list: stock throttle body ported 55mm; Crane 14 cams with Unorthodox Racing adjustable cam gears; Mopar Stage III Turbo with 47-pound Forced Performance compressor wheel (replacing stock 35-pound wheel); Stage III turbofold; AGP cold-air intake and intercooler hardpipes; AGP oil catch can; Spearco intercooler with TiAL Blow-Off Valve; JMB performance aluminum radiator; TKMS billet CT14-treated oil pump; Boomba Racing fuel rail with 25cc injectors; Mopar Performance clutch; Stage III coil-over shocks; Mopar tower bar; cross-drilled, cadmium-coated brake rotors with carbon fiber pads; stainless steel brake lines.

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It wouldn't be strictly honest to say Crystalmarie did all the powertrain work represented in the above mods. The New England Tech program didn't cover advanced subjects. "My courses," she explained, "combined auto body and mechanics, including basic engines and minor repairs, heating and air conditioning, suspension, electricity and electronics, but not engine building and transmissions."

For major work, it helped to have a friend in the trade, a Chrysler master technician who is also her boyfriend. They met when she took the car into his shop because of a problem with the turbo. He diagnosed the problem, in which the unit was not getting oil, and made the repair, correcting O-ring position in the oil feed line. That was the start of a beautiful friendship! During the build, Crystal notes, he helped with some of the engine work, like cams and clutch.

"Other than that, it's been all me! I did a lot of research, especially online," she says. "I've had my hands into everything on the car except the engine block and the transmission. The Stage III turbo will handle 26 to 30 psi. The Mopar Performance clutch is only rated to 315 foot-pounds.

"We dyno tested at DynoTech Tuning in Seekonk, Massachusetts, this past May. I got together with a bunch of other turbo owners to finance a tuning weekend. Each of us got two hours on the dyno. We brought in a couple of professional tuners, Nigel Alexander, of TruDyno Sports in North Carolina, and Jay Engberg, of N2MB Racing in Florida. Jay tunes the 8-second 'Red Sled' Neon.

"I have a Diablosport Predator for tuning, but that was the first time the car was professionally tuned. The tune was completely successful, though we couldn't make any more power with the clutch. We had to stop at 348 wheel horsepower and 478 foot-pounds of torque. The only issue we had was a boost leak. The car is running fine. On the street. The Stage III is not for drag racing. It spools up at 3000 rpm. Not 8000 rpm, which is useless on the street.

"I have plans for a better clutch in the future but I'm just not sure when. Other expenses always seem to come up. I'm a full-time student and I work part-time in a supermarket. Right now I can't afford a thousand-dollar clutch plus all the other parts needed to upgrade. As it is my friends are needling me that I'm going to be driving a six-figure Neon.'"

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