Marty Broadrick (aka: Marty)
Hemi. Few words in the realm of
automobilia, evoke the same response as those four magic letters. Even
the total neophyte, or those with no interest, in cars, will connect the
word with speed. How many times have you heard the old, ‘My cousin had
a 440 six pack Hemi’ line? Obviously, the storyteller doesn’t know the
first thing about Hemis, but expects the mere word to impress.
But how did the legend of the Hemi
get its start, and what makes this engine so special, anyway? In the
following paragraphs, we will explore the origins of the 426 cubic inch
version, and look at some of its many successes, in the world of
The roots of the 426 Hemi go back
to 1962, when Chrysler execs identified the need, for an improved
competition engine, intended to dominate stock car racing, particularly
the highly competitive NASCAR series. At the time, Chrysler was locked
in battle, with Ford, Chevy and Pontiac, for racing wins, which were
felt to influence new car sales. While the then-current wedge designs
were competitive, Pontiac’s Super Duty, and Ford’s 427 were turning up
the heat, and the looming introduction of Chevrolet’s 427 CID Mk. IV
‘mystery motor’ (the precursor of the modern Big Block Chevy), promised
stiffer competition in the coming years.
Thus, Chrysler engineers went to
work, in January 1963, on an engine intended to provide the horsepower
to win, despite the increased competition from brand X. The designers
were given the daunting task, of creating an engine that would beat all
comers, and, worse, they weren’t given much time to accomplish the
feat. The target for introduction of the new powerplant, was February
23, 1964, just over one year away, at the year’s biggest stock car race,
the Daytona 500.
However, the engineers had an ace
up their sleeves. In the fifties, Chrysler had produced an engine,
featuring the most efficient cylinder head design, known for an
automotive engine. While the first generation Hemi had been shelved,
due to expensive production methods, the design represented not only the
traits required, for such a competition engine, but also a scheme
familiar to the engineers. The early Hemi, had a long and successful
track record, and the engineers had experience with it, in racing
situations, including an entry in the Indianapolis 500.
With this in mind, and given the
short schedule, the engineers decided to adapt the Hemi cylinder head,
to the then-current 426 wedge block. Although the project encountered
setbacks (namely problems with cylinder wall cracking, requiring changes
in block production) the results were an astounding success.
Hemi-powered Mopars finished first, second and third, in the 1964
Daytona 500, establishing a new speed record in the process. The legend
of the 426 Hemi was born.
The Hemi cars went on to dominate
NASCAR in 1964, but, due to the engine’s limited production, were banned
for the 1965 season. Several top Chrysler racers, including Richard
Petty, competed in NHRA drag racing, using the drag race version of the
Hemi. Meanwhile, Fords reigned supreme in a one-car show on the NASCAR
For the ’66 season, things would
change again. NASCAR rules now dictated that a certain number of
engines be produced, to become legal. To meet the requirements,
Chrysler initiated the Street Hemi program. Basically, this meant that
a detuned version, of the racing power plant, became a production option
in certain Dodges and Plymouths. The 426 Hemi returned to the NASCAR
ovals, and resumed its winning ways.
On the drag strip, the 426 Hemi met
with less initial success, however it would come to have far more
impact, in this arena, than in any other. In 1964 and 1965 the first
design Hemi, still ruled the fastest class of drag racing, the nitro
methane-burning top fuel dragsters. The 426 Hemi, despite its advanced
technology, was nearly a half second behind the pace set by its
ancestor. The answer came in the form of an accidental discovery.
Don Garlits, perhaps the most
famous drag racer, of all time, decided he had ‘had enough’ of the new
Hemi, and, attempting to accelerate its demise, advanced the ignition
timing far beyond what was considered safe, for the older generation
Hemi. To his surprise, the new engine did not fail, but ran
dramatically quicker times. After this discovery, the floodgates
opened, and within a year, fuel dragsters were running in the low
six-second range, nearly one and a half seconds quicker, than the older
design. Aluminum racing engines, based on the 426 Hemi design, still
dominate top fuel racing, regularly traversing the quarter mile, in just
over four and a half seconds, at speeds of over 300 MPH!!
In the years between 1966 and 1971,
the availability of the 426 Hemi in many Mopar muscle cars resulted in
some of the most outrageous machines ever offered by Detroit.
Perhaps the wildest of these, was a
special production run of the compact ‘A’ bodies, the Dart and
Barracuda, produced in 1968. As the 426 would not fit in the small cars
without special fabrication, the actual installation was farmed out to
Hurst industries. Along with the installation of the drag racing
version, of the Hemi, many weight saving tactics were employed,
including fiberglass hoods, and fenders, lightweight van bucket seats,
and even thin window glass. The result was the quickest (1/4 mile ET)
production car, produced in America. Initial track times in the
eleven-second bracket were the norm, with minimal preparation. These
cars still dominate the top class of NHRA Super Stock…with current
technologies, and rules, they run times in the eight second range at
speeds above 150 miles per hour!!
While these cars may have been the
supreme examples, any Mopar fitted with the 426 hemi, had the potential
to be a winner, both on the track and the street. Unfortunately, every
party has to end, and ever-increasing insurance restrictions, and
emissions regulations spelled the end of the 426 Hemi era. The last
cars factory equipped with the 426 Hemi rolled of Chrysler assembly
lines in mid 1971.
However, parts continued to be made
for racing, both by Chrysler, and ever increasingly, by aftermarket
racing suppliers. While Chrysler did stop producing blocks and heads,
for a time, they resumed in the 1990s, and today, racers, or anyone
else, can buy a complete 426 Hemi from their local Dodge dealer.