We couldn’t slap high fives around Chrysler Engineering on the morning of February 24, 1964—that celebratory gesture wouldn’t be invented for another 15 years—but exhilaration was in the air. Chrysler had gone nuclear the day before, dropped the 426 Hemi on Ford at the Daytona 500 as Richard Petty led Jimmy Pardue and Paul Goldsmith in a 1, 2, 3, finish of Hemi-powered Plymouths.
Ford had been advertising “Total Performance” for months. Buttons soon appeared on Chrysler chests saying “Total What?”
I was a fresh-faced fledgling in my first year as a Chrysler engineer. The Hemi wasn’t exactly a secret: work began in December 1962 on engineering project number A864. I never saw any parts in all of my walk-around recon but I had heard something huge bellowing on the dyno in the next building over. The scuttlebutt actually sounded grim; a month before the 500, blocks were cracking. Molds were being revised and the foundry in Indianapolis was pouring iron like Cokes down at the Rexall.
And then, KA-BOOM, the legend was born. That said, it was a racing legend, great for morale out there in Mopar land, but not something intended for sale to just anyone with financial throw weight. NASCAR claimed to be stock car racing. Was the Hemi really a stock engine? Naturally, Ford ordered one. Parts were scarce as hen’s fur; good parts, that is. I remember the snickering as all the rejected and out-of-spec Hemi parts were scrounged and a grenade was built for shipment across town.
Like politics, racing ain’t beanbag. Ford pitched a bitch. NASCAR, then as now disinclined to let any brand establish an enduring advantage, partially strangled the Hemi with a restrictor plate later in the season, then banned it for 1965. “Not a stock engine” was the verdict. Out, too, for the same reason, was Ford’s even more exotic SOHC 427.
Ford had designed itself into a dead end; locating the cam above the valves made the engine too wide to fit a production car. Chrysler, even though it always claimed it had no plan for road-going Hemis, had shrewdly designed the valvetrain so that the exhaust rockers would fit at least into the same county as the rest of the engine. The resulting piece was a humongous lump of cast iron, but it didn’t have to be buttered to slide into the engine rooms of B-body Belvederes and Coronets. And slide it did, just in time for the 1966 models.
We could keep talking about the legend or we could walk over to my other garage. 39 years ago I found a survivor hiding in plain sight, a 1966 Belvedere II two-door hardtop camouflaged in Michelin going-to-church radials, still quite presentable in its original merlot metallic paint, a pair of 426 Hemi fender badges secreted away in the glovebox. Somehow, it had lived to the ripe old age of 14 with its factory exhausts still intact. Now it waits for me next door, in its loneliness weeping a tear or two of 15W-40 onto its drip pan. This is an unmolested 53-year-old Hemi complete with its original dual-quad AFB carbs, breathing through the colossal chrome factory air cleaner. The odometer shows 54,847 miles.
Because I drive this car so seldom, I let it crank on the starter until the oil pressure light blinks off. It seems the merciful thing to do. Then a quick dip of the pedal to pump a squirt of gas down into the manifold and it wakes up instantly, as if to say, “Where ya been?” This old warrior has always lit off like that. I was a New York City cliff dweller when I bought it. Casually parked on the street, it would have lasted an hour max before it went on a one-way trip to a chop shop in Queens. So it lived in storage north of the city. When I finally shipped it to Arizona, it hadn’t run in about 10 years. After an oil change and a few minor repairs, it started right up on the decade-old gas in the tank. Hemis just want to run.
It makes a big sound in the garage as it idles, a patter of cold tappets, a hiss from the unsilenced air cleaner, and muted thunder in the exhaust. Chrysler had a very specific audio target; it was to be grown-up, disciplined, authoritative. That meant no tubing headers; too much shell noise through the thin steel. The Hemi’s cast iron manifolds have short, sweeping runners leading to 2.5-inch pipes with a crossover connection, then back to huge mufflers. The syncopated exhaust pulses at idle are menacing in their intensity. This Belvedere looks like mom’s grocery getter, but the threat in its voice suggests a different mission.
This is a four-speed car, the brawny iron-case A833, with a tall chrome Hurst lever rising from the tunnel, just the way it left the factory. As a young man I thought the clutch effort was on the stiff side, now I think it’s heroic. My left knee has been hiding from replacement surgery for years; it can hide another season only if I don’t drive this mutha very often. The big cue-ball white knob, as it finds reverse, gives the feel of sliding 15 pounds of well-oiled steel into mesh. No extra revs needed to start rearward motion. Seven liters is another way of saying irresistible force.
I keep the front tires at 42 psi, the poor man’s power steering. Assisted steering and brakes were available, but few ordered them; they added weight and cost to a car that was already a stretch due to the $907.60 price of the engine option ($7322 in today’s dollars). This garage requires a tight K-turn as we clear the door. The weight up front feels immense, and the low oil-pressure light glows red as I work out on the shiny plastic steering wheel—five-and-a-half grimacing turns lock-to-lock. Yeah, it’s a muscle car. First-year Hemi owners worried about the red warning, so the sensor was numbed down for subsequent years.
Once pointed toward the exit, we roll down the driveway and into the world, the still-cold solid lifters chattering happily, the exhaust rumbling up through the floor. It’ll take ten miles to warm up all that iron. The hood ornament leads the way, standing like a landmark at the far edge of the sheetmetal prairie, the numbers 4-2-6 slyly stacked on its backside where nobody who hasn’t already heard the voice will see them. This was 1966, remember, two years after the strutting Pontiac GTO had bluffed its way into the muscle car limelight. With the Hemi, Plymouth and Dodge packed much more heat, but it was concealed carry; only the chrome “426 Hemi” fender badge low behind the front wheel confirmed the armament.
My last assignment at Chrysler was ride-and-handling development on a broad variety of models, Hemi included. To keep that job from being too much fun, all evaluations were done at factory recommended tire pressure—24 psi front and rear. The Hemi’s extra-heavy engine up front made understeer the default cornering condition, rolling those soft 7.75-14s over so far the letters would be half scrubbed off the sidewalls. Hemi cars came standard with Goodyear Blue Streaks, an especially grippy tire in its day. But they couldn’t prevent the gotcha situation posed by manual steering; get sideways and the slow ratio meant you’d be half a turn behind in your correction all the way to the lock.
A little forensic nosing about will identify a Street Hemi even without badges or the engine. A skid under the front crossmember is an easy giveaway, there to protect the extra-deep five-quart oil pan; all of the Hemi’s forward thrust acts at the rear-spring front mounts, requiring a reinforcing plate I can feel by reaching my hand under the rocker panel; not so obvious is the extra reinforcement in the driveline tunnel where the axle’s nose bumper strikes during spring windup. Or you could just glance at the serial-number plate under the hood—for 1966 models, an H as the fifth character in the VIN indicates Hemi.
In normal driving the Hemi runs on the front two barrels of the rear carburetor. Dipping deeper on the pedal, I feel a detent, and if I push past the voice goes strong, threatening—don’t do this if you don’t mean it—accompanied by a hearty shove in the back. That was the front two barrels of the front four-barrel opening. Did I mention the Hemi option included upsized 3/8-inch fuel lines? Full down on the pedal and the voice explodes in rage—get outta the f’ing way!—as all eight barrels go WOT, fueling the beast into the full-hurtle mode, two tons of brute force and old-millennium rudeness rushing toward the horizon.
A 426 Hemi is not for those embarrassed about combustion—and nobody was embarrassed about it back in the sixties, unlike today. I’m not suggesting we turn back the clock, but when I feel like rewinding to my own days of raging hormones and low ETs, this old warrior Plymouth can make me think I never left.