Perhaps the most iconic three numbers in engine lingo, this April 26th we salute the 426 Hemi. Chrysler’s big-block Hemi V-8 entered the world as a race engine but made its real impact in the hearts of Friday night cruisers and street racers. The street Hemi was not the first of its kind, but it’s hard to argue about the elephant V-8’s impact on the automotive community as a whole.
The roots of the Hemi design can be traced back to the war effort of the 1940s, long before Chrysler was casting hemispherical cylinder heads for automotive use. The early design was used in the XIV-2220 engine, a V-16 Chrysler destined for the nose of the large XP-47 Thunderbolt aircraft. The wide angle between the valves helped exhaust cooling and optimized airflow. The design sat dormant until 1951 when the “FirePower” 331 cubic-inch models were settled into engine compartments of the Chrysler letter cars.
This status as the first production car rated at 300 horsepower is dandy, but the real history starts when the cubic inches rose to the much-lauded 426-inch displacement. The NHRA and NASCAR sanctioning bodies set a new displacement cap of seven liters or 427 cubic inches, and while Chrysler could have continued to play with its Max Wedge engine architecture, it instead chose to reformulate the first-gen Hemi cylinder heads to work with the already stout RB bottom end.
The result was a Hemi-powered first through fourth sweep of the 1964 Daytona 500. A juggernaut was born, and like any monster, forces were at play to bring it down. Mainly, NASCAR set a homologation requirement for the elephant engine to qualify and take the start line. After sitting out the 1965 racing season, the Hemi made a triumphant return in 1966 thanks to the appearance of the street-prepared Hemi appearing on the order form at Dodge and Plymouth dealers.
Those street cars became legend, not only due to their power and price, but also their scarcity. While the racing Hemis were racking up track victories, the Street Hemis were rolling off dealer lots, with just 468 Street Hemi-equipped Chargers finding new owners in 1966. Even today, a Street Hemi from the 1966-71 production run commands a premium—of both respect and dollars.
So with today being 4/26, we salute the Chrysler Hemi. If you have a 426—old or new—be sure to take it for a drive and if you don’t, burn a little 91-octane in the elephant’s honor.