The 1978 Dodge Street Kit Car: The Mopar you forgot
There are those of us, myself included, who will defend the automotive travesties of the 1970s until we meet our demise. We’ll say that because of government regulations, the OEMs were choked in regards to what they could deliver to consumers, and they did the best with what resources they had. And even though most of the automotive populace was correct regarding just how shoddy American vehicles were at the time, every now and then a star found its way through the darkness and ultimately, made its way to the streets.
The 1978 Dodge Street Kit Car was one of those bright spots and while not impressive by today’s standards and limited in numbers (only 145 ever produced), it ended up being one of the great automotive mash-ups of the 20th century. From the outside, the Kit Car was a carnival ride for the eyes. With bolted-on fender flares, window louvers, custom spoilers, huge numbers, and fake hood-pins, the Kit Car employed every gimmick in Chrysler’s arsenal and tried its best to mimic a race car.
Tricks aside, the Kit Car did achieve a milestone that no other in 1978 could claim: with its 360-cubic-inch small block that sported Chryslers’ then-new Lean Burn System (one of the first onboard automotive computers), it was the fastest American car produced. Now I say “car” because there are those who will tout that the 1978 Dodge Little Red Express truck was the fastest American vehicle that year, and truth be told, it was. But remember, I said car, not truck, so keep that in mind when your friends try to correct you.
Not too long ago, during a shoot for The House of Muscle, I had the privilege of piloting a pristine example of the Kit Car. It belonged to Randy Dye, owner of Daytona Dodge in Daytona Beach, Florida, and not only was it a joy to look at, but it provided a driving experience that proved much more fulfilling than I’d imagined. With two-tone red paint and a triple-red interior that sported a center console and bucket seats, the Kit Car was surprisingly comfortable. The bucket seats weren’t what you’d call supportive, but thanks to good old-fashioned puffy-stuff seating, driving the Kit Car was akin to rolling around on a couch that utilized a small-block for an ottoman.
That ottoman came in the form of the 5.9-liter Chrysler 360, an engine that in my opinion is one of the great small blocks of all time. Overshadowed by its big-block brothers, the 400 and the 440, most fail to realize that with a simple set of heads, a cam, and some headers, these little guys can be built up to show many a big-block MOPAR a set of taillights. Our test car, however, was still equipped with the electronic Lean Burn System that was to provide early spark advance control, create smoother idling, and overall enhance engine performance. In reality, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it should’ve been when released. Therefore most owners were advised to remove the problematic system, as most local technicians did not have the proper equipment or education to diagnose problems with the new tech effectively.
Fitted with a transverse torsion bar suspension up front and leaf springs with a solid live axle out back, the Kit Car drove beautifully, providing a smooth compliant ride and an eerily quiet cabin with the windows up. The claimed 220 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque felt honest when you planted your right foot. It didn’t throw you back in the seat in as much as it provided a leisurely ride to 60 mph in about 7.3 seconds (about one second slower than a new V-6 Challenger).
As with most American cars of the time, the over-assisted power steering was vague and communicated very little in the way of road feel to the driver. Braking was accomplished by power discs with large single-piston calipers up front and finned drums out back. Overall pedal feel was firm, which may fool some into thinking that the brakes of old work great. What people must understand, however, is that the cars of this era generally take about 45-percent longer to come to a stop from 70 mph than their modern day counterparts, which means giving yourself some extra stopping distance is never a bad idea.
The 1978 Dodge Aspen Kit Car is an anomaly and one of the best expressions of American marketing during a decade when superfluous add-ons meant performance. With such low production numbers, seeing one in person is an event; driving one is an event on steroids. This thing draws attention. It is Lightening McQueen before Lightening McQueen ever existed—a true sheep in wolf’s clothing. Yet in a time when Saturday Night Fever was in theatres and Jimmy Carter was President, the 1978 Dodge Aspen Kit Car with Lean Burn computer system seemed to make perfect sense in a world that was about to enter a decade of technological change.