Building a Hemi

When it comes to cars, what we love and drive is often a combination of nature and nurture. At least that was the case for Jay Sprecker of Farmer City, Illinois. With the exception of a single Rambler that was gone by the time he started driving in the early 1970s, the Sprecker family had a long series of Chrysler products. He learned to drive on his Dad’s 1968 Polara and just a few years later managed to get his hands on a 1971 383 Challenger.

Throughout his time in the Navy on nuclear subs and later building submarines after his discharge, Sprecker had a series of high-performance Mopars, including a 1968 Charger R/T. But his favorites were always the E-body Challengers and ‘Cudas (he’s had six). He’s also had small- and big-block cars but – as is the case for many of the Mopar faithful – he’s always dreamed of a Hemi, in an E-body and with a drop top. However, as an engineer at a nuclear power plant there was no way he was ever going to be able to plunk down $1 million or more for a convertible Hemi Challenger or Hemi ‘Cuda.

So Sprecker had an option: he could build one himself. Ever since he turned 16 he’d been working on his own cars, including welding, paint and bodywork.  Building submarines and working on nuclear power plants had also yielded many engineering and fabrication skills, which he was able to hone over the years and with courses at the local community college.

In 1996, Sprecker decided that it was time to build his dream car. He took the plunge by selling his Charger R/T and springing for a “plain Jane” 1971 Challenger convertible powered by a 318 and equipped with an automatic transmission, air conditioning and a power top. As he recalls, “it was pretty much a basket case, and if it wasn’t a convertible it would have probably been taken to the junkyard.” However, it was close to home and it was cheap. The only drawback was that Sprecker was well aware that there were no 1971 Challenger R/T convertibles built, and that the all-important Hemi engine option required the R/T package.  But, as he explains, the price was right and there’s no chance that subsequent owners will be able to pass it off as a factory-built car.

Every step of the way, Sprecker did his best to use all the correct equipment and trim. He replaced the engine-mounting K-frame with the part unique to the Hemi and he fitted the correct Dana 60 rear end and all appropriate R/T trim.  The correct dual four-barrels breathe through a shaker hood, although he admits that the car would be easier to maintain with a single carburetor.

With very few exceptions, Sprecker has done all the work on his Hemi Challenger. Good friend Jim Falbe took on the structural welding such as the frame rails and floor pans, although Sprecker handled the panel work and sprayed the base-coat clear coat in the original Citron Yellow in the community college spray booth.

Although Sprecker tackled most of the interior work, he just couldn’t get the bucket seats right, so he sent them out to Van Hook Upholstery in Bloomington, which he also tapped to install the new white convertible top. According to Sprecker “I assembled the engine, but Chenowerth Machine in Morton did the machining and balancing of the 426 Hemi.” The only other major tasks that he subcontracted were the rebuilding of the 727 automatic transmission and Dana rear end by Performance Transmissions in Clinton, Illinois.

As his Hemi Challenger Convertible nears completion, Sprecker figures that not only could he never have afforded an original, but he couldn’t have justified the $75-100K in labor he would have had to shell out to build his dream. And because he donated all the labor, he figures that he’d probably break even if the car sold for less than the $75,000 to $100,000 that similar clones have brought at auction.

Soon the Challenger will be back on the road and Sprecker hopes to hit “some local car shows and use the car for ice cream runs to Steak-N-Shake.” He has no plans to sell the car for the simple reason that “I don’t think I could afford to replace it.” When asked if he’d ever take on a similar project again, his answer was disarmingly honest. “Right now I’m going to say ‘no.’ But then again, I said that when I finished my ’68 Charger, too.”

Looking back at the project, Sprecker is thrilled to finally have a Hemi Challenger convertible. He’s always wanted a car with “the legendary engine” and he loves the attention Hemis always pull at shows. As he explains, “there’s just something special about it. It’s a real crowd pleaser.” Even more importantly, the bright Citron Yellow Challenger pleases Jay Sprecker.

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