When Billy T. showed up at the Sunoco station with a clean, black ’57 Plymouth Savoy one night in 1962, nobody looked twice. When he popped the hood, though, the excitement could be heard clear over in the next town. He had a big, fat 392 Hemi in there! With quads! The 800 pounds of iron over the front wheels meant that it was nose-heavy, but boy did that sucker roar on the top end. Though Billy had performed a fairly simple engine swap, the engine he swapped in was just like the one Don Garlits used to smoke his Fueler’s tires the length of the dragstrip. We’d seen that happen, and it was scary impressive. Billy had inadvertently tapped into an icon… and the intimidation factor that went with it.
Hemi. The name continues to elicit thoughts of a monster, an insurmountable foe, King Kong teasing Faye Ray in the palm of his hand; yes, it was the one to beat. In an effort to understand the cachet and the reasons behind the Hemi’s mythical status, we referenced “New Horizons In Engine Development,” written by James Zeder for the May ’52 issue of Hot Rod . Zeder was a VP and the director of engineering and research at Chrysler, and his division was responsible for the Fire Power Hemi engine, which was developed in 1948 and introduced to the public in the 1951 car model line (fall of 1950).
At that time, the spherical combustion chamber had been around for about 50 years, and perhaps even longer than that. With this configuration in mind, Chrysler examined the two popular schools of thought. The first was the classic chemical approach of improving engine efficiency and power primarily by increasing the compression ratio, which was then necessarily dependent on improvements in the fuel performance number. It had already surmised that such a dependency would stifle major advances in engine performance for some time to come.
The second argument was a mechanical approach in which increased efficiency and performance were sought through changes in the design of the engine without being dependent on fuel quality that characterized the compression ratio technique. As the engineering team went further, it became evident that the criterion of octane requirement at a given compression ratio was meaningless. The most important thing was the octane requirement for a given engine performance.
Originally, the team built a six-cylinder engine with hemispherical combustion chambers and twin, chaindriven overhead camshafts, but the cost and serviceability was not suitable for high production numbers. That idea was abandoned, but the Hemi project came back on line when the guys adapted pushrods to it. By doing so, they reduced the cost of production and restored servicing to the simple procedures of a conventional engine with no sacrifice to the fundamental attraction of the hemispherical combustion chamber.
They were quite enthusiastic about the Hemi’s exclusive qualities. The laterally opposed valves permitted large, unobstructed, cool ports and unequalled volumetric efficiency. Compared to the best conventional combustion chamber, the higher thermal efficiency of the Hemi head was equivalent to a substantial increase in compression ratio and accomplished without an increase in octane. The relative absence of carbon buildup over time in the combustion chamber afforded a low level of detonation and pre-ignition, thus improving valve life. Fourth on the hit parade was the fact that heat rejection to the cooling system was at least 20 percent less than the best conventional OHV combustion chamber. In all, they were assured that when high compression became desirable, this cylinder head would respond to the increased demands on it better than any other combustion chamber of their acquaintance.
On the matter of volumetric efficiency, Zeder wrote, “…we work with a hot-air engine, and in order to get power out we must get air in. Our hemispherical head was chosen, among other things, for its superlative ability to ingest air. Then we met with the ‘hot-rod’ boys—or rather they adopted us with all the gusto attending induction to any other tribe of wild Indians. The boys may not always have the solution to the differential equations, and are sometimes impatient of questions involving why, but they have had the opportunity and interest to find out how; and many of their answers are remarkably good.”
So c’mon, let’s get in the way-back machine to see just how well the “hot rod” boys did with the bitchinest raw material the hot rod world had ever seen.
John Mazmanian, Car owner
John Mazmanian, like Tim Woods (Stone-Woods-Cook), was a well-off businessman who paid to have his car prepped and his engines built by a professional, a rarity in the mid-’60s. He switched to Hemi power in 1964 and was the first racer of note in A/GS to do so. His supercharged 467ci engine, built by Bob “Bones” Balogh, produced 824 hp on the dynamometer. Bones was also the pilot, and he drove this ill-handling, high-powered, catastrophe-waiting-to-happen smack into 150 mph. Yeah, man! In 1965, Maz and Bones held both ends of the NHRA record: 9.71 at 152.28. Mazmanian’s homage to early Hemi power was “one of the most important events in the history of Supercharged Gas Coupes…” (Don Montgomery, Supercharged Gas Coupes). After seeing what Garlits and Chrisman were doing with the Hemi head, the team, at Bones’ insistence, made the decision to replace the Oldsmobile standard.
This event precipitated a near-universal acceptance of this superior power source. It also enabled the fans to root for the two biggest draws in A/GS world. As an historical note, the success of the B&M Hydro-Stick transmission and the latest (though still quite hard) 10×16-inch M&H dragster tires were almost able to absorb the hideous torque and maintain a semblance of bite; the wrinkle-wall slick wouldn’t be available for another year. Bones: “With a 5/8-inch stroker motor, the car smoked the tires like a Fueler.”
The new model (’64 426) Hemi didn’t come into use until the late ’60s; the early type was tons cheaper, readily available, and nourished, while the 426 was too new and too expensive to consider. Everyone had their combination set with the ’92. Eventually, Bones did use some late-model connecting rods that were shorter, thus giving the engine even more bottom end. He worked for Iskenderian at the time and had help from other quarters as well. They only thing he didn’t like about the early engine was its weight. “One day I was washing those damned heavy heads. I picked one up, slipped on the floor and chipped my elbow. I still feel it today.”
In its final form, Bones was getting 850 hp from 467 ci running 16 percent over on the blower (about 15 psi) and a compression ratio of 8.0:1 (with the pistons 0.125 inch in the hole). In the beginning, he used a stud girdle to secure the bottom end; as the racing progressed, he trashed the girdle and prepped the block with four-bolt steel main caps.
As graphic illustration of the Hemi’s capability, we offer this anecdote. In 1964, Bones Balogh and Gary Dubach’s ’33 Willys eventually ran 143 with a 364-inch Chevy. When third partner Joe Pisano offered to poke it with a 465-inch Hemi, there was celebration, but in fact the car wasn’t ready for the tectonic influx. It snapped six axles in a single day of testing. Then, at Lions, an axle sheared at the hub, and Bones rode the ’33 sideways into a pole. Six months later, their new (2,800-pound) ’33 ripped off a 9.38 at 155 mph.
Dick Maxwell, Former Dodge Motorsports manager
Dick Maxwell and his band of instigators (Al Adams, Tom Coddington, John Bauman, Ted Spehar, et al) were the scourge of Super Stock and Pro Stock from the early ’60s until the mid-’70s. Since Chrysler was overtly in racing and Chevrolet and Ford were not (officially, at least), the Mopar contingent definitely had the ear of the NHRA. It all made for heated politics and intense rivalries.
Maxwell more or less grew up with Chrysler Fever. “I was into Mopars way before they were fashionable,” he snickered. “I grew up in small-town Illinois, and there wasn’t much in the way of organized drag racing, so we did it on the street.”
Maxwell got hooked on the Hemi very early—the family car was a ’52 Chrysler. “I was allowed to drive it on occasion. I loved it because it was fast and because it had the baddest engine available!” Maxwell later built his own street killer, but had formed his opinions about the early Hemi when he was involved with the High & Mighty C/Altered Plymouth of the Ramchargers. Tom Hoover (the father of the 426) and Dan Mancini built the engines for the stepladder Mopar. The only thing they didn’t like about the Chizler was the overwhelming mass of the cross-flow cylinder heads and the heavy rotating assembly.
Was there a big learning curve on these engines? According to Maxwell there was not—until it came to pouring nitro into them. On exotic fuel, most of the 392-type engines were hampered by insufficient spark lead. Too much timing would blow the bulkheads of the block all over the dragstrip. When the 426 came on line, Mother Mopar’s Fuel dragster aficionado Dan Knapp (Ramchargers) learned something the easy way. When he’d had enough frustration to make a nun curse, Knapp simply began feeding the Elephant more spark. It responded so well, he cranked in some more. Again the engine made the car rip the air like a booster rocket. “If there was anything we didn’t accomplish, it was making steel connecting rods work in that environment. We tried and only got blue crankshafts in return. Finally, we caved and put in aluminum rods.”
Maxwell slid into the abyss with his own dark street machine. “It was my wife’s car, a stick-shift ’63 11.0:1 Max Wedge. Since I had some friends on the inside, so to speak, I put a 13.0:1 426 Hemi in it with an automatic and cleaned house on the street. It got so that no one would run me anymore.”
Art Chrisman, Legend
If we have to tell you who Art Chrisman is and what he’s been doing for the past 60 years, then you better go back to your nap. A father of the sport, Art is an original, one of the first bright thinkers to utilize the Hemi in its initial form. By 1951, he’d conquered the drags and the expanse of Daytona Beach, but was unsuccessful at Bonneville. “The next year (1952), I helped Chet (Herbert) with his streamliner after it blew its Tucker engine on the dyno. He even got me to drive the thing. We found a brand-new Chrysler in the parking lot. We yanked the engine and stuck in one of Herbert’s roller cams, added Hilborns, a Vertex mag, and went racin’.”
What was so special about this engine? Aside from the aforementioned aftermarket stuff, the motor was bone stock. The crank, rods, pistons, and cylinder heads were untouched, no blueprint, no nominal clearances, nothing. In Herbert’s ’liner it ran 238 mph. That’s what people liked about the Hemi. What they didn’t like was how heavy it was, but the hemispherical combustion chamber certainly made amends for that. In 1953, Art went to Bonneville again. After he raced Dawson Hadley’s Hemi-powered car with his venerable flathead, he realized that the valve-in-block configuration that brought the V-8 into popular hot rodding use was doomed. He never looked back.
In 1954, his ’30 Ford coupe had a mid-engine placement and windows the size of a mail slot. The ’30 had already hosted an Ardun and Art’s 304-inch flattie, but he gave it a hot beef injection with a 241ci Dodge Red Ram owned by Tony Capana (Wilcap) and a 276ci DeSoto Fire Dome that he’d built for Harry Duncan. As such, the car held the C/Fuel Coupe and D/FC records. The following year, Art laid a 331-inch Chrysler Fire Power in the back of it and nailed down the B/FC record as well. Though Art did more amazing Hemi things later on, this small history is a graphic illustration of the power of serendipity, and it’s how a lot of Hemi racers journeyed into uncharted territory with little or no preparation.
Gene Adams, Gene Adams Performance
In the days when people drag raced for the fun of it rather than the money, “Lean Gene’s” dad was a die-hard Oldsmobile fan, and naturally so was Gene. His favorite car was a ’50 Olds 88 slopeback, and he stubbornly denied the Hemi until 1962 (several years after the early version had been dropped from production). When the Hemi first appeared, though, he remembers his dad telling him it was an impressive piece destined for big things.
Indeed it was, and especially for Gene. Until recently, he was the man to see at Hilborn Fuel Injection, and he probably knows more about that equipment than anybody else on the planet. Over the years, his dragsters ran early Hemis in every known configuration: injected fuel, blown fuel, supercharged gas, turbocharged gas, and even two injected engines in tandem. Gene’s meticulous ways and expert (how about mystical?) tuning abilities combined with Don Enriquez’s superlative reflexes and cool head made their injected single-engine cars the absolute scourge of Comp Eliminator. “We did the best with the injected cars, but when we ran Top Fuel, we were just another one in the pack.”
Gene felt that Hemi was superior to the Olds for two simple reasons: the configuration of the combustion chambers and the fact that the back of the block was modern. The Olds had portion of the bellhousing as an integral part of the block (like the flathead), and in order to fit a clutch can to it, the offending portion had to be machined off. “For a long time, cars were tire-limited, so the normally aspirated Hemi car was just right for situation in a time when most of the Junior Fuelers were using the small-block Chevy. I never ran much spark lead, either, 28-30 degrees, but 92 percent was the hot ticket. I used a Milodon girdle for a while, then switched to four-bolt steel caps. I also used a Donovan block.”
When we contacted Adams at his Chino Valley, Arizona, shop, he was just plain high on the engine. “Of all the (production) engines built up to the late ’70s, the early Hemi displayed superior engineering and quality of workmanship.” He never considered using a late-model.
Don Garlits, Legend
“When the Chrysler Hemi came out in the fall of 1950, I was 18 years old. A friend and I carpooled to work in those days to save gas. One morning we were on our way to work cruising down Florida Avenue in Tampa, and we passed the Chrysler dealership. Real big on the front glass, they’d put up sign that said ‘180 Horsepower V-8.’ Whew, in those days, the hottest flatheads were making about 175 hp, so this new V-8 really got our attention. We went in and saw that thing, and I wondered right off where the spark plugs were. Truthfully, I was totally unimpressed.”
Now you’ve got to remember that Florida in the ’50s was all sweaty two-lane roads.
Interstate highways weren’t built until the government decided it would be the best way to move men and material in a time of national crisis. (America was hard into the Cold War then.) Garlits and friends flat-towed to various tracks in the area and often shared these threadlike byways with slow-moving vehicles. The flathead in Garlits’ tow truck was a scare ride; he needed more power to safely overtake the slow pokes. At that time, the engines of choice were a Cadillac or Oldsmobile—in rural Florida, the Chrysler Hemi might as well have been a Martian.
Garlits found a wrecked ’54 Chrysler (in the fall of ’53) that had the entire back end wiped out. Claude Major showed it to him, and in the midst of Garlits’ explaining that he really wanted a Caddy engine for his tow car, Major interrupted him. “Donald,” he said, “this is better than the Cadillac.” Garlits fell for it and paid him the monstrous sum of $400 on the spot. Don immediately slung the motor in his ’39 Ford and hooked it to an overdrive transmission, strictly for towing, not racing. Local boy David Phillips had the fastest flathead car in the area, running 15-flats at the dragstrip. While Phillips was having a burger and a Coke at the drive-in one evening, Garlits pulled next to him in his ’39 and suggested a contest. Smelling easy money, Phillips cranked up his flattie and met Garlits on a road that ran four string-straight miles into nowhere. The Hemi’s torque smoked the 8.20×15 skins for about 10 feet off the line, then ol’ Don shoved that yard-long shifter into Second and he held it to 70, when he was in the glare of Phillips’ headlights. “I didn’t see David around much after that.”
Garlits was still oblivious to the Hemi’s potential. As far as he was concerned, it was still new and unproven—until he ran it at McDill AFB. The Tampa town fathers got together to make a semblance of peace between the locals and the airmen (naturally, the contention was women). The clocks for this “event” read speed and time but only for single runs; competitive drag racing was forbidden. Garlits hurt the transmission in his rail on the first pass. While sitting around with a long face, he decided to run the ’39 tow car instead. The 3,300-pound coupe cranked the quarter off in 14-flat at 114 miles per hour—quicker and faster than his digger!
Finally, his wife Pat suggested that they transplant the Hemi into the digger (’31 Chevy rails). They pulled it up to Brookfield, Florida, and ran 128 with an elapsed time of 10.5 seconds. Garlits: “I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been.”
NASCAR racers got their first late-type 426 Hemis in December of 1963 in preparation for the Daytona 500 in February, and some time after that Chrysler shipped five 426 Hemi engines to the Swamp Rat’s shop in Seffner. “Right away I didn’t like what I saw. I was prejudiced: The 426 wasn’t a 392, so I really wasn’t interested in it. Soon Connie Swingle swapped one of them into the Swamp Rat VIII and put the 392 tune-up on it.” It wouldn’t run like the 392; Garlits was not impressed. In 1965, he took the 392-powered SW to the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona. He ran Top Speed at 204-205 and zinged the quarter-mile in 7 seconds. The quickest times for the 426 engine were in the 7.90s, thus confirming that the ’92 was still viable and superior to the late-model version.
A habit is often difficult to shed, and as it was with Garlits, he couldn’t deny his psychic connection to the ’92. He was comfortable with it, had nurtured it, and it always pulled through for him. He therefore ran the 426 with about 34 degrees spark lead—the early Hemi blocks were notorious for coming apart with any more timing than that. Out of frustration, he cranked in 40 degrees and noticed how strong the engine sounded. The car ran 214. Thinking that if some is good, a lot would be better, Garlits set the spark at 50 degrees, and people thought he was out of his mind. Poof! The digger went 219 and, Garlits became one the Elephant’s most enthusiastic disciples.
Bob Skinner and Tom Jobe, Two-thirds of the “Surfers”
Though these guys are rarely considered Hemi legends, what they did in 1965 remains the basic blueprint for all nitro- guzzlers today—a huge load of pop, low compression, and thin nozzles with outrageous pressure behind them. They were also iconoclasts of the first magnitude. When they saw the direction “professional” drag racing was headed and the politics and kowtowing they would have to endure for corporate assistance, they simply walked away from it.
Perhaps the most cynical and pragmatic Top Fuel racers of all time, Skinner and Jobe (with the late Mike Sorokin on the pedals) shared an intellectual camaraderie and had a great ability to work with one another. They were also pretty good at faking everyone out, and they made it look quite natural. If they had a secret weapon, it was their penchant for reducing everything to its essence. They were bucks-down and hungry, and they did spectacular things with minimal (used) equipment. Their tune-up was simple: 98 percent nitro and a little bit of alcohol as a “stabilizer.” They set up the motor to run like that all time, thus eliminating the fiery surprise others might encounter should they knee-jerk and add another 10 percent or so to their usual 70 or 80.
They used a 0.010- to 0.030-inch-over ’57 Chrysler 392 block fitted with a Reath crankshaft, M/T pistons and rods, a 540 B-3 Engle roller cam, and veteran ’57 cylinder heads holding 426 intake valves and Donovan exhausts. But fuel management was the key to it all. The Surfers were one of the first (if not the first) to employ two fuel- distribution systems. Half the load went through the injector hat, and the rest was fed beneath the blower via extremely high pressure (an unheard of 200 psi) through ultra-small nozzles.
Jobe made a detailed study of nitromethane and then applied that to Bernoulli’s equation (basically, the pressure in a stream of flow is reduced as the speed of flow is increased). They ran a Hilborn injector but fitted it with their own nozzles. Jobe amended this: “We found out that if we could up the ignition amps, we could take fuel out of it. You can’t burn liquid. The more you atomize it (with the fine nozzles), the less you have to put in to get the same amount of burnable, combustible stuff.”
Jobe’s theory called for lowering the static compression ratio while increasing the percentage of nitro to reduce the peak pressures that break parts. Indeed, the boys rarely had their motor down. Further, the sound of their engine was their signature. It was louder than anyone else’s was, and it had more fuel lines on it than anyone had ever seen.
Tom Hoover, Former Chrysler Race Program coordinator
When Hoover was just a rug rat, his father was working at the Chrysler dealership in a small town in the Pennsylvania hinterlands. Naturally, the family ride was a Mopar, so Hoover came by his predilection quite honestly. Eventually, he gravitated to Chrysler’s engineering department and became a member of the drag racing contingent. Though he and Dan Mancini built the engines for the Hemi-powered High & Mighty ’49 C/A Plymouth in 1959, Hoover’s historical spotlight goes much further than that.
By all accounts, he is called the father of the 426, the guy who rode the project through for his boss Paul Ackerman, then a VP in charge of engineering. All of it came about in an extremely compressed timeframe. Pontiac and especially Ford were ruling NASCAR. Smokey Yunick’s “Mystery 427” was somewhat of an anomaly and couldn’t go the distance. (It blew up 160 miles into the ’63 Daytona race.) So the edict went down from CEO Lynn Townsend to win the ’64 Daytona 500. “If the people who were running the 413/426 wedges had been more successful (e.g., better at what they were supposed to be doing), the Hemi engine would never have been an issue,” Hoover said, his voice tinged with scorn.
The 426 Hemi was the tool Chrysler needed to stop the opposition. By 1964, the Hemi cars were ready. In a pair of 50-mile qualifying races prior to the 500, Paul Goldsmith won the pole with a speed of 170.940 mph; Richard Petty won the second race and an outside position on the front row with an average of 171.919 mph. During an unofficial sprint, Petty’s Hemi had blazed the straights in excess of 176.
The Hemi effort was Herculean, accomplished in a matter of months not years, a truly outstanding feat for a Detroit automaker in electronicless 1963. Politics and protocol were pushed aside, clearing a path for the Hemi locomotive that would save Chrysler’s hide. To expedite matters, the redesigned cylinder heads were adapted to a reconstituted 426 raised-block Wedge cylinder case. To complicate matters, the major differences between the 392 cylinder head and 426 type included revised rocker arm geometry, sculpted surfaces to reduce weight, and a slight compression of all critical external dimensions. Chrysler assembly lines utilized a body-drop process where the finished body was lowered onto the engine. The extra width of the Hemi (versus the Wedge) wasn’t addressed with special Hemi-only inner fender architecture, but rather the cylinder heads were pinched downward. This satisfied the width issue but introduced a slight compromise in the short-turn radius of the exhaust ports and removed a small slice of the hemispherical chambers. The flaw hardly mattered, as the record books prove. It wasn’t until 1972 that Chrysler contracted Sir Harry Weslake to correct the exhaust port constriction in anticipation of the Pro Stock battle. But fickle rulebooks rendered the work (and the resulting D-2 through D-6 iterations) useless. By 1976, the Hemi had been legislated nearly to death and all factory development stopped. Back then, we could not have imagined its reappearance, but today anything (like a 528 crate engine, for instance) is possible.
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