Mopar Muscle - Days of Thunder

By: CB, Photography by: Mecum/Chrysler Group/Unique Cars archives

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dodge challenger engine bay dodge challenger engine bay

A time when a whole generation got high on sex, drugs rock 'n' roll...and horsepower


Mopar Muscle

It was a time of big targets and brave words. You needed muscle to get things done back in the day. Muscle put two blokes named Neil and Buzz on the moon in 1969. Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket generated a stupendous 160 million horsepower (no torque or quarter mile figures available) and reached a speed of 40,000km/h. America’s missile arsenal packed enough muscle to obliterate everything with a heartbeat and did its thing to keep the Commies on ice during the Cold War.

And on American streets, muscle was what you needed to show that you had, well … muscle. Pontiac started the ball rolling with its GTO back in 1964, when it unleashed the 389cu-in coupe to thunderous applause from every red-blooded American male of the time. While the Tempest-based GTO was no lightweight, it set the formula of a big-inch motor in a comparatively compact, no-frills, two-door body. Before long, as sales and displacements soared, all the major American brands would follow suit.


At the same time, Ford’s relatively cheap Mustang pony car, initially with a baby 289cu in V8, captured the attention of the country’s restless youth, and Chevy followed with its compact Camaro. Its GM stablemates, Buick and Oldsmobile threw their hats into the ring with beefed up, big-engined coupes and suddenly everyone was at it.

By the late 60s, the highways and dragstrips of America throbbed to the cadence of unmuffled, big-inch, multi-carbed V8s. The fact that these factory-built street racers sucked ‘gas’ like Niagara Falls mattered little in a country where the average price at the pump was around 8c per litre. It would have been enough to send a modern day eco-warrior into hybrid hypoxia.

The Chrysler corporation, or ‘Mopar’ as it had become known, was a late-comer to the muscle era, at least in terms of producing smaller coupes to go up against the Camaro, Firebird and Mustang that were coming to dominate showroom sales. While it produced the iconic, all-conquering engine of the period – the 426cu in ‘Elephant’ Hemi – it didn’t put one in a compact muscle car until its Plymouth and Dodge subsidiaries released the Hemi-powered Barracuda and Challenger respectively in 1970.


Meanwhile, on NASCAR ovals and dragstrips, Chrysler’s Hemi became absolute king of the heap, so much so that NASCAR outlawed the big motor when it became obvious GM and Ford couldn’t flex enough muscle to compete.

On the quarter-mile, the Hemi still rules, albeit these days in much modified billet aluminium form. Ingesting vast quantities of liquid horsepower (nitromethane), today’s Hemi-based, supercharged Top Fuel engines generate more than 10,000hp from relatively simple pushrod engines that still bear more than a passing mathematic resemblance to Mopar’s original 426.


While the Hemi engine epitomised the muscle car era, with factory claims of 425hp scoffed at by those in the know (independent dyno reports suggested outputs well in excess of 500hp), Chrysler had more big-inch weaponry in its arsenal in the form of the sturdy R and RB series 383 and 440-inch ‘Wedge’ engines, not to mention its compact and proven LA series of 318, 340 and 360-inch small blocks.

High-horsepower options included as many carbies as you could fit under the hood, along with fresh-air intakes, big cams and drivelines tough enough to handle the abuse.

Four-speed manuals and Torqueflite autos were beefed up to take the 4-500hp on offer, while bulletproof Dana rear ends put the muscle to the pavement. While legendary full-body models with evocative names like Charger, Dart, Daytona, Superbird, Super Bee, GTX and Road Runner copped the lion’s share of the attention of performance enthusiasts in the late 60s, the Challengers and Barracudas (and more performance-focused ’Cudas) came to epitomise Mopar’s compact muscle era. The E Bodies, as they were designated, were the lightest and most compact models in both ranges to house the big Hemi and wedge performance motors.


Apart from dominating lucrative NHRA professional Stock, Pro Stock and Super Stock classes, they also spearheaded Mopar’s circuit track efforts over their all-too-brief run in the 70s, racing with some distinction against the other factories in the Trans Am series.

A combination of a global fuel crisis and nervous pollies saw the Miraculous Muscle Car Era killed off by the mid-70s, but thankfully there are enough remnants of these gloriously insane times to fuel the imaginations of tragics like me.

My own infatuation with the E Bodies, in particular the Challenger, can be traced directly to watching, gob-smacked, as actor Barry Newman outran the good ol’ boy cops on a relentless cross-country rampage in a pearl-white 1970 R/T Challenger in Vanishing Point, one of the all-time classic ‘70s car chase movies. The movie fired a primal nerve in a young and impressionable me that has continued to spark erratically and spontaneously in later life. I wanted to be Barry Newman, or Kowalski – he only ever had a surname in the movie – with a bonnet full of horsepower and still, in my opinion at least, the best and most elegantly styled muscle car of the era.


And so I now find myself lying under a tired and broken relic of a 1970 SE (for Special Edition) Dodge Challenger, stripping out the running gear, swallowing dust, rust and other assorted 70s toxicity, and fantasising about outrunning sirens across a stark desert landscape.

Project Challenger is a long, long way from the cars that were consumed and destroyed (rumours hint at up to six cars being wrecked during filming – including, intriguingly, a ’67 Camaro packed full of explosives and mocked up to look like a Challenger in the final, fatal scene after Dodge refused to supply one last sacrificial car) in Vanishing Point. In fact, a more apt title for our project might be Disappearing Dollars.

But in the not-too-distant future, Project Challenger will rumble out of the Vintique Moto workshop with a bunch of bad attitude and a score or two to settle. Hope you come along for the ride …


Project Challenger story so far:

Project Challenger build - part one

Project Challenger build - part two


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