R/T Charger auto
A chance discovery in a Welsh wreckers’ yard revealed not only the rarest of all Australian muscle cars, a one off Charger R/T auto, but also led to a rescue mission and, ultimately, to an ambitious restoration.
A chance discovery in a Welsh wreckers’ yard revealed not only the rarest of all Australian muscle cars, a one-off Charger R/T auto, but also led to a rescue mission and, ultimately, to an ambitious restoration.
When it comes to barn finds, it doesn’t get much better than this. In 1989, Tony John, a Welsh car enthusiast serving in the British army, spotted an Australian Charger sitting on the top of a stack of cars in a wreckers’ yard in Wales. It had a broken oil pump and the body was in very poor condition, the victim of the UK salted roads, no doubt. It had 10 previous owners and 90,000 miles on the clock.
Tony bought the Charger with the intent of getting it back on the road, later purchasing a new crankshaft and camshaft from Australia. He never did get the Charger back on the road, though, and it remained in storage in his ownership for 13 years. He would have known that this was a genuine Australian Charger R/T, but he didn’t know there was anything else that was special about the car. That would be found out later.
It is most likely that the R/T Charger – which we now know was one of two imported new into the UK – would have been ordered by a customer to that specification, and the ‘Special Order Accepted’ or SOA number (see box) on the inner guard confirms that. It was delivered in 1972 via a Chrysler dealer in Clapham and a Tudor/Webasto soft-style sunroof was installed in London. Other unusual features include Lucas side indicator lights to comply with UK regulations, and different door handles from the standard fitted to all Australian Chryslers from VH onwards.
Then there’s the fact that it was sold new with an automatic transmission, making this car truly one-of-a-kind!
The next owner was Stephen Harrison, a UK Chrysler enthusiast who had actually seen the car in Gilford when it was 18 months old. Stephen recalled there were rumours of a Charger R/T in Cardiff and after a two-year search, he eventually tracked down the elusive Tony John and purchased the car in December, 2001. Stephen said he initially thought the automatic transmission was a modification carried out by a previous owner. He was a member of the UK Charger club and over the years has owned six other Australian Chargers. When other club members checked the body and engine numbers with the Australian factory build list, the astonishing discovery was made that not only was it a factory auto, but also the only R/T auto ever built. As with the previous owner, Stephen Harrison planned to restore the Charger but after a closer inspection, he conceded the cost of refurbishing this very special car was out of his reach.
When Gavin Farmer and I were writing the first edition of Hey Charger, I learned of this unique Charger in the UK.
A phone call later and Stephen sent me photos, which just made it before the publishing deadline. It was an unexpected and welcome scoop for our new book.
The appearance of this previously unknown Charger created quite a stir when Hey Charger was released in 2004. The car caught the eye of Stephen Gay, who at the time was the Charger Club of Victoria’s treasurer. Stephen has been an avid MOPAR enthusiast since buying his very first car at age 15 while in high school in the USA. This was an original and one owner 1970 Plymouth Barracuda with a big block 383ci auto and with original In-Violet (Plum crazy) FC7 paint. He paid $800 for the Barracuda and still owns it today, now restored and in storage in the USA. He also owned a tidy VJ Charger and was always on the lookout for a Magenta Charger R/T to match his Barracuda.
“Having read the Hey Charger book, I was very aware of the UK R/T auto’s existence and the fact that it was a ‘one of one’, but figured it was a pipe dream that I could ever own it,” Stephen Gay explains today. “Instead, I kept my eye out for a Magenta R/T up for sale in Australia, but this never eventuated.”
However, a transfer to the UK meant Stephen had to reluctantly sell his Charger. He remembers his club mates joking that while in the Old Dart he could find that elusive Charger R/T auto.
As fate would have it, fellow Victoria club member and good friend Arnold Patch noticed the Charger for sale on eBay. Gay was soon in contact with Harrison who had the car in Essex, just an hour and a half away from where Gay was living in Greenwich.
The car had some pretty rough panel and paintwork done to it – on first sight, Stephen said it was barely recognisable from the car he’d seen in images. But all the numbers matched confirming it was indeed the one and only Charger R/T auto. There was a curious one-digit anomaly with the engine number, which was for the standard 265 auto, not the HP 218bhp auto that came with the car (see box). Stephen contacted me in NZ to discuss the numbers and we put the anomaly down to the fact it was
a one-off auto. Satisfied that it was the real thing and despite its rather daunting condition, Stephen made a successful bid on eBay and the Charger had an Australian owner for the first time.
It would have been horrendously expensive to have the Charger restored in the UK so Stephen had it shipped back to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in June 2009. Total cost landed in Australia was $37,000 but the real spending had yet to begin! In December 2009 the car was moved to Valiant Spares and Repairs in Bayswater (now in Croydon) and placed in the care of Valiant specialist Brad McKenzie. Brad had the car stripped and assessed, parts collected and quotes sought from brave body shops.
The body was in extremely poor condition, very much in the basket case category. To restore the badly rusted body was going to be a massive task and just finding someone suitable to take it on was a challenge in itself. Fortunately Glenn Maggs at Black Edge Autobody in Bayswater stepped up to the plate. Glenn specialised in restoring Alfa Romeos, and so was used to seeing rusted-out wrecks arriving in his workshop... After taking a deep breath, Stephen instructed Glenn to go ahead.
The Charger’s rusted-out shell arrived at
Black Edge’s workshop in May 2010. The rust was particularly bad from the A-pillar and firewall rearwards, and it was suggested that a donor Charger be used to completely replace the rear of the car. But to do so would mean losing its authenticity, as well as costing the life of another Charger. It would cost an extra $12,000 to repair the badly rusted sections, but Stephen argued that it would cost about the same to buy a suitable rear section of a donor Charger anyway. So the decision was made to repair the original body and thus maintaining the Charger’s authenticity. It took just under five years for all of the rust repair work to be completed in what Black Edge Autobody described on its Facebook page as the biggest job they have ever undertaken.
In April 2015, the body received its final painting by Black Edge’s Allan Gibson, before moving back to Valiant Spares and Repairs for final assembly. Brad McKenzie and Jared Pich carried out the assembly work with a deadline of the Chryslers on the Murray gathering in March 2016. The original dual outlet exhaust manifold needed replacing and after much searching, another sports air cleaner unique to the HP 265 engine was found. Fortunately, apart from oddball items such as the door handles and side indicator lights, many parts were sourced off the shelf at Elko Performance Parts. After rummaging through boxes of parts that came with the car, the compliance plate was found, in very poor condition but enough to confirm its authenticity. This was cleaned up and fitted back onto the firewall. Fortunately the car still had the original inner guards with the body and SOA numbers clearly stamped on it.
Finally, on March 17, 2016, the restoration was deemed finished and the car was officially inspected and registered in Victoria. It had taken seven years and around 1150 professional manhours and $50,000 in parts to complete.
Its first public display was Chryslers on the Murray in Albury, making it part of the Chrysler Charger’s 45th anniversary celebrations. This coincided with the launch of the new edition of Hey Charger.
For those in the know, Stephen Gay’s VH Chrysler Valiant Charger R/T auto was the stand out star of the show, with crowds of admirers flocking around the car throughout the weekend. At the prize giving, the Charger picked up the Leo Geoghegan Memorial Trophy presented by Leo’s sister, Marie-Louise Howard, and was also awarded a trophy as one of the ‘Top Five’ cars at the event.
The rescue of this one-off Charger in the UK
and subsequent return to Australia must rank as one of the most significant Australian car restoration stories ever told. It’s a fitting tribute to Stephen Gay for his persistence and dogged determination to return this unique piece of Australian motoring history to its rightful home and then bankroll its massive restoration. A very special mention must also be made to Stephen’s wife, Fiona, who tolerated the lengthy restoration process and the eye watering, ever-increasing cost. Fiona was overwhelmed by the response to the car at the Chryslers on the Murray in March.
On behalf of AMC and all Australian motoring enthusiasts, we salute Stephen Gay and the skilled craftsmen who undertook this landmark restoration project, and congratulate them on a job very well done indeed.
Left: Aussie Stephen Gay liberated the Charger from an English garage with barn doors and the journey back home, half a world away, begins.
The original Tudor/Webasto soft-style sunroof is understood to have been installed by the first owner when the car was new. Restorers elected to replace the sunroof to retain its original UK-spec.
From left to right: Look Ma, no floor – and one bloody big job ahead of the team; stripped down and on the rotisserie in May 2010; new front-clip and firewall; body with primer applied; welding of the quarter panels.