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Hemi Cars Built For Drag Racing

Mr. Norm: Grand Spaulding Dodge.

In motor racing history, 1964 was a watershed year. The previous year, General Motors had pulled the plug on factory support of any type of racing, leaving Ford and Chrysler to battle in the heavyweight classes. Ford was refining the 427 for both drag racing and the oval tracks, and at Chrysler, the engineers reached back to a proven performer - the Hemi.

Development work on the new generation Hemi engine began in 1962 when a request was made to the Chrysler engineering staff to develop an engine suitable for both oval tracks and drag strips. The Hemi design was the obvious choice for many reasons. The positioning of the valve allows the intake charge flows straight into the chamber and straight out through the exhaust valve, which makes the design a natural choice. The combustion chamber's spherical design provides maximum volume with a minimum surface area. The spark plug is placed near the center of the combustion chamber for optimal fuel burn. The design of the cylinder head allows the use of large valves. The 1964 competition Hemi engine was similar only in basic design to the previous version last seen in 1958. The new blocks were extremely sturdy with crossbolted main bearings.

The new Hemi made an auspicious debut at the 1964 Daytona 500 by taking the first three spots. Although the Hemi was introduced too late for the 1964 NHRA Winternationals, soon after many Hemi-powered Plymouths and Dodges were breaking track records across the nation. These specially prepared cars were available to the general public on a limited basis. Race teams with proven records in competition were the favored recipients.

The first 1964 Hemi cars built for drag racing were built in the lightest two-door sedan bodies available, the Plymouth Savoy and the Dodge 330. A liberal use of aluminum body panels and the crafty removal of unnecessary extras (rear seat, sun visors, arm rests, etc.) reduced the cars overall weight. The battery was placed on the right side of the trunk for increased traction and weight distribution. The new Hemi cars were easily identifiable by their large hood scoop and by the absence of the inboard upper beams from the standard quad headlights.

The Hemi engines that powered these drag cars were similar to the Hemi that powered the winner at Daytona. Instead of the single four-barrel carbu retor dictated by NASCAR, drag racers were given multiple carbs. Chrysler engineers used the short cross-ram design from the successful max-wedge engines and adapted it to the Hemi. On top of the new aluminum manifold was a pair of Carter AFB carburetors. Only the early 1964 Hemi cars were equipped with the dual Carters. They were soon replaced with twin Holley carburetors. Two compression ratios were available: 11.0:1, which produced 415 horsepower, and 12.5:1, rated at 425 horsepower. Only two transmissions were available in 1964, a four-speed manual and the TorqueFlite, and it was the last year for the push-button shift.

At the two biggest drag racing events in the summer of 1964, the Hemi-powered Dodges of Roger Lindamood and the Ramchargers were dominant. The AHRA (American Hot Rod Association) held its Summernationals in Gary, Indiana, and there the Ramchargers were victorious against Lindamood. One week later at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis, Lindamood returned the favor, beating the Ramchargers with an elapsed time of 11.31 seconds and a speed of 127.84 miles per hour. Later at the Super Stock invitational in Cecil County, Maryland, a large fleet of Hemi-powered cars competed against the factory Fords and Mercuries in a 30-car field. The rules were relaxed, allowing cars that normally competed in the Factory Experimental classes to run against Super Stock entries. Here, the Hemi cars were running elapsed times in the high 10-second range at 130 miles per hour. At the end of the night, the final run pitted Bud Faubel's Hemi Dodge against "Dyno" Don Nicholsori s Comet. At the time, Nicholson was one of the best drivers and tuners around, and his Comet was running times comparable to the fastest Hemi cars. Nicholson won and ironically took home a Hemi engine as part of the prize package.

In 1964, some of the competitors found that if they altered the wheelbase of their cars, they could get more traction and thereby quicker elapsed times. These chassis alterations took the form of moving the front and rear wheels forward, while keeping the engine in the same relative location within the body. This change redistributed more weight to the rear wheels. In 1965, the alterations became more radical, and cars with totally changed proportions were not unusual. Due to the rule structure, classes that allowed chassis modifications also allowed engine changes. Soon the Hemi s dual four-barrel carburetors and large hood scoop gave way to Hilborn fuel injection units with 14-inch-long tuned stacks.

While fun to watch in competition, these cars could not be bought at the local Dodge or Plymouth dealership. In some cases, they lost most of their product identity due to the radical changes that were implemented in the search for speed. But there would be a Hemi-powered alternative available in 1965 - the A-990.

In the November 1964 issue of Plymouth Views, Chrysler Corporation's Lynch Road Assembly Plant employee newsletter, it was announced that the new 1965 Super Stock Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Coronet had gone into production that month in an article entitled "Plymouth, Dodge Dragsters With 426 Engines Built Here." The article covered the features of the special cars, and the fact that they were being built to meet the specifications of the major drag racing sanctioning bodies. The photo accompanying the article showed a veteran Lynch Road employee looking under the hood of one of the new Belvederes.

These specially built Dodges and Plymouths, all two-door sedans, came to be known by their engineering code - A-990. The A-990s were understated and audacious and built strictly for drag racing. For 1965, the NHRA dictated that cars designed for Super Stock competition could no longer substitute standard body panels with those of fiberglass or aluminum. In 1964, NHRA required Ford to remove the fiberglass front bumpers on the Thunderbolts. It was the NHRAs plan to stop the proliferation of exotic lightweight parts in the stock classes. In 1965, factory experimental classes allowed competitors to exercise their creativity in weight reduction. Chrysler's engineers came up with their plan to comply with the rules, but still lighten the car as much as possible. They removed everything from the car that was not required by federal or state law and made the exterior sheet metal as thin as possible. Special body panels were built that were approximately half the thickness of a standard steel panel. This sheet metal abatement plan also included bumpers. The windshield was the only piece of real glass. All other windows were acrylic and the door hinges were made of aluminum.

The body was devoid of any sound-deadening material or seam filler, and certain small body splash shields were deleted. The only modification needed to fit the Hemi into the engine compartment was a rework of the passenger side shock tower. This modification was also performed on the 1964 Hemi cars. There was no external badge denoting the engine size. The only giveaway that this wasn't an ordinary sedan was the oversize hood scoop.

All A-990 cars had a tan vinyl interior; there were no other choices. In the front were a pair of small bucket seats from an A-100 van. These seats lacked adjusters and were mounted to the floor with lightened brackets. The carpets had no backing or insulation. The quarter windows were fixed in place and there was no rear seat. A large piece of thin cardboard covered the area where the seat back should have been. The front door panels did not have even the smallest arm rest. They too were deleted in the interest of saving weight. The instrument panel had plates blocking off the opening where the radio and heater controls would have been on any standard Belvedere or Coronet. To even further reduce weight, the sun visors, coat hooks, and dome light were deleted, and only a driver side windshield wiper was installed.

The engine was the Race Hemi, which had proved itself so well in the drag races in 1964. Now fitted with aluminum heads, it was only available with a 12.5:1 compression ratio. The intake manifold for the A-990s was the same basic design as the one used on the drag cars in 1964, except now the material of choice was magnesium.

Other than the exterior color, the only other option was the transmission. The buyer had the choice of a heavy-duty four-speed manual with a Hurst shifter or a TorqueFlite that had a modified valve body, requiring manual shifting. In 1965, Chrysler abandoned the push-button control of the automatic transmission for a more conventional column shift. To facilitate trouble-free shifting during a drag race, all TorqueFlite equipped A-990s had their shift pattern reversed. The lever would be moved down one detent for the one-two shift and then down again for the final shift into third.

The exhaust system on the A-990s was also unique. The tubular headers swept underneath into 3-inch collectors where 2 1/2-inch pipes joined together and ran rearward to a single muffler, which mounted transversely under the rear bumper. The reason for a full system was a new NHRA rule for 1965. But the muffler was located to concentrate as much weight as possible over the rear wheels. The exceptionally large battery was mounted in the trunk for the same reason. All of the A990 cars came with a Sure Grip rear axle with 4:56 gears. The rear springs were heavy-duty and were configured to locate the rear axle 1 inch forward of the standard mounting location. This shortened the wheelbase on the Plymouth from 116 inches to 115 and on the Dodge from 117 inches to 116. Pulling the rear wheels forward changed the balance of the car, adding more weight on the rear wheels. These A-990 cars were eligible to run in the Super Stock class. At the 1965 NHRA Wintemationals, the Super Stock field was composed entirely of A990 Plymouths. Bill Jenkins, who ran an elapsed time of 11.39 seconds at a speed of 126.05 miles per hour in the final run, came out on top. Fast and durable, many A-990s were rebuilt into altered wheelbase cars. The few that survived are stunning examples of mid-sixties Super Stock technology.

In the mid-1960s, a peculiar show evolved from the competition in the Super Stock and Factory Experimental cars classes. A few smart competitors came to realize that there were other ways to make money at the drag strip. They saw the reaction of the crowd when one of the cars would pull the wheels off the ground at the start. If the reaction was good for a small wheelie, it would probably be fantastic for a big wheelstand. Before long, two Hemi-powered wheelstanding cars - The Little Red Wagon and the Hemi Under Glass - were thrilling crowds across the country. What's really amazing is that both of these cars were initially designed to be competitive race cars - not wheelstanders.

Little Red Wagon vs Hemi Under Glass

The Little Red Wagon started life as a docile Dodge A-100 compact pickup truck. Dick Branster and Roger Lindamood - the brain trust of the Color Me Gone Super Stock - took over a project started by two fellow Detroiters, Jim Collier and Jim Schaeffer. The concept was simple - put a big Hemi engine in the back of a light pickup. A small sub-frame held the engine, transmission, and rear axle. The truck's front suspension was the stock beam axle.

The other famous wheelstander, the Hemi Under Glass, was also conceived of in Detroit at the Hurst Performance Products engineering lab. The goal was to build an exhibition car that would display Hurst components. A 1965 Barracuda was selected. Only major surgery would have allowed the big Hemi engine to be installed in the Barracuda's minuscule engine compartment. Therefore, it was installed in the rear, fitted into a sub-frame similar to The Little Red Wagon's. Unlike The Little Red Wagon, the Hemi Under Glass was initially built with a four-speed manual transmission. What else would the premier builder of four-speed shift linkage install? Many of the components in the independent rear suspension were borrowed from the Corvette, as was the trunk-mounted aluminum radiator. In a fit of overkill, the Hurst engineers sent the front sheet metal out for an acid bath. They also replaced the large rear window with one fashioned of Plexiglas. It was designed to be easily removed to service the engine.

Because the short wheelbase placed most of the weight over the rear wheels, traction was phenomenal. From the starting line, both of these cars could snap the wheels off the ground and carry them clear through the traps. The Little Red Wagon and the Hemi Under Glass toured the nation, amazing drag racing fans with their aerial acts.

In 1967 Chrysler once again experimented with lightweight cars for the drag strip, but rather than using a race Hemi, these cars were powered by a modified street Hemi. Special lightweight versions of the Plymouth GTX and Dodge R/T were assembled. These cars assaulted the Super Stock B class, with Mopar drivers Ronnie Sox and Dick Landy leading the charge. Documentation confirms that 55 Dodges and 55 Plymouths were made, all of them white with black interiors. To run as light as possible, the heater, hub caps, sway bar, body sealer, or sound deadener were deleted. Customers buying one of these special cars were required to sign an agreement acknowledging that the car was not warrantied.

In 1968, Chrysler again went all out for the Super Stock ranks with specially built Hemi-powered Darts and Barracudas. These cars were the invention of Chrysler's Dick Maxwell. Maxwell, a Chrysler engineer and Ramcharger Club member, felt that putting the powerful Hemi engine in the smaller A-body Darts and Barracudas would create unbeatable drag racing cars. Within Chrysler there was a considerable amount of discussion about whether these cars should be built or not. Getting the approval to produce these special drag-race-only vehicles was a tough sell to management. The current musclecar boom and Chrysler's dedication to racing contributed heavily to the project's approval.

Chrysler engineer Bob Tarrozi developed the specifications and built a prototype on a Barracuda platform. Because both the Barracuda and Dart were built on the same platform, the modifications made to shoehorn the big Hemi into the Barracuda would be identical for the Dart. Reworking of the front spring towers and the special brake master cylinder (necessary because of the width of the engine) were the two most difficult modifications. The balance of the modifications lightened the car. The front fenders and hood, with its oversize scoop, were made of fiberglass. The body panels and bumpers were acid-dipped to reduce the thickness of the metal. The heater, radio, rear seat, all body insulation, and sound-deadening material were deleted to save as much weight as possible. The two lightweight bucket seats were added from a Dodge van. The windows were made from a lightweight polymer, and all the window mechanisms were removed. The door windows were raised and lowered with a strap.

Once the prototype was approved, Chrysler contracted with the Hurst Corporation to build 50 Dodge Darts and 50 Plymouth Barracudas in the initial production run. Later, it produced an additional 25 of each car. Some sources claim Hemi Dart production totaled 83. All of these cars were shipped to the dealers with primer covering the metal body panels and the fiberglass front clip components in unpainted gel coat. None of these cars met the federal emission laws, and they could not be legally licensed for the street.

Chrysler's famous race Hemi engine, which featured 12.5:1 pistons, dual Holley carburetors on a magnesium cross-ram intake manifold, an alu minum water pump, and Hooker exhaust headers powered these purpose-built drag cars. The Hemi Darts and Hemi Barracudas were built with either a TorqueFlite automatic or a four-speed manual transmission. These specially built Barracudas and Darts were the last purpose-built drag racing cars to come out of Chrysler. Many of these cars have survived and are still racing today because of the excellent overall package and the powerful Hemi engine.

Hemi musclecars continue to do battle on the drag strips, nearly 30 years after their creation. In addition to regular competition on the NHRA Super Stock circuit, many Hemi owners enjoy a little grudge racing at a local track. Every year since 1995, the Pure Stock Musclecar Drags have been held at the Mid-Michigan Motorplex in Stanton, Michigan. The cars participating are limited to musclecars built between 1961 and 1974, and the cars must carry the factory-correct components for their year of manufacture. This precludes the use of headers, special ignitions, and slicks. This event is designed to put cars on the track that are representative of a well-tuned showroom stock musclecar - the kind of car you might face off against at a stoplight.

As you can imagine, the competition is hot and heavy, with a respectable showing from all musclecar manufacturers. Reigning as some of the fastest cars on the track are the Hemi-powered Mopars. Each year a few courageous owners bring out their elephant-engined cars to compete. With stock tires and tons of torque, getting a good bite off the starting line is the biggest challenge. Too much throttle can turn the rear tires into a barbecue in a matter of seconds. With a light touch, the driver of a Hemi car can get a respectable start with stock belted tires. Once the tires have taken a set, the throttle can be eased down. Upshifts can also break the tires loose, even with a TorqueFlite. It's a balancing act all the way down the strip.

In 1998, two Hemi 'Cudas ran at the event. Both of these cars were equipped with a TorqueFlite and 4:10 gears. They both ran consistently in the high 13-second range with speeds as high as 105 miles per hour. Hats off to the brave Hemi owners who won the admiration of musclecar enthusiasts for wringing out one of the baddest musclecars of all time.

Photos by Gilchrist Photographic Collectibles

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