DAY 2 DART
STORED IN A BARN IN 1981, RON MERKEL’S ’68 DART GTS GOT A SECOND LEASE ON LIFE 31 YEARS LATER WITH A FULL DAY TWO RESTORATION.
Stored in a barn in 1981, Ron Merkel’s ’68 Dart GTS got a second lease on life 31 years later with a full day two restoration.
In previous decades, getting your driver’s license, like buying your first car, was a rite-of-passage into adulthood. It represented freedom, and in many ways became extensions of who we were. It was especially nice when your elders embraced that rite and encouraged it. That was the kind of environment that Pennsylvanian Ron Merkel was raised in, so in 1980 when he hit the ripe age of 16, he notes, “My dad suggested that I needed to buy a car, and my response was that it would have to either be a ’69 Road Runner or a ’68 Dart GTS.” While Ronald Sr. was agreeable to a point, he did say,
“No big-block.” That wasn’t a deal-breaker because Ron had a soft spot for Darts in general and the ’68 GTS model in particular. “There is just something about those side marker lights, those body lines, and that car that enamored me, he explains.” It didn’t take long for him to track down what he was looking for, and back in the cyber-free days that meant looking in the local paper and combing through the car ads. Two weeks and $900 later, he had found the Dart of his desires not far from where he lived. It was a ’68 Dart GTS decked out in Bright Blue with a black interior and backed by a 340 small-block and a Torqueflite transmission.
The Dart was daily transportation for the guy selling it. It had suffered the usual indignities that happened back then, like air
shocks, aluminum slots, and side pipes — otherwise it was bone stock. The paint was starting to show some signs of age and the habitual rust spots in the lower rear quarters were there as well. At that point Ronald Sr. stepped up to the plate and told
Ron that he’d have the car repainted by a friend who owned a paint shop, so it didn’t make the trip home the day it was put in his name. It was taken to a friend’s shop for a repaint. A few weeks later the Dart was wearing a fresh coat of blue — not exactly Bright Blue, but a generic shade that was close enough. It was at that point that it became his daily driver, which was around the middle of 1980. A big win for Ron right after getting the Dart on the road was that he was finally going to be able to use it to take his new girlfriend Brenda on their first date to the local Burger King — which later became one of the most defining moments in his life.
In December of 1981 Ron backed the Dart into the family farm as a new chapter in his life began when he entered into active duty in the military. His dad didn’t think that driving it across the country was a good idea. That meant buying another car, so he kept it in the Pentastar family with the purchase of a ’75 Road Runner for use while he was stationed in Colorado. After a stint in Germany with the military, he returned home to another Mopar. His dad was using the Road Runner, so he bought the ’74 Cuda his sister was selling, and that became the daily driver while he was in school. After the E-body, there were a number of other Mopars in his stable over the years while the Dart sat dormant in the barn. Ron freely admits, “I always just assumed that I would come home, fire it up, and drive it around town. There was nothing wrong with it beyond just being dirty.” As is the case with many cars that get parked, the responsibilities of life take precedence, and they get put on the backburner indefinitely. In his case that span would last 31 years.
The spark to get the Dart moving again is a testament to Ron’s supportive family as it was his mother, Carol, who planted the seed in Dennis Kohr’s ear to nudge
Ron to bring the car in. Dennis is the owner of Kohr’s Kustoms in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, and at his shop the only language spoken is Mopar, so that was the right place for it to go. Also stepping up on the motivational pulpit was his wife, Brenda — yes, the same Brenda. She encouraged him to “do it right” with a noexpense-spared attitude. With that blessing in place, in 2012, Ron pulled the trigger and sent the Dart off to Dennis for the rotisserie restoration he felt was overdue. The goal, however, wasn’t to bring it back to the day it rolled off the assembly line. He was looking for a tasteful period-correct Day Two mix that reflected his tastes as a teenager.
Once Dennis started ripping into the
Dart it became clear that all those years spent in hibernation gave the car a lifeline. As the paint was peeled back and the bare body exposed, all that original sheetmetal proved to be in exceptionally nice condition with very little rust — a rare occurrence on an A-body. As the months passed and the body came together on the rotisserie, Dennis eventually took it into the spray booth to lay down the two-stage basecoat/ clearcoat QQ1 Bright Blue PPG paint.
After that it was a slow process in putting the car back together. For the interior, the plan was to keep it stock so he cracked open the Legendary Auto Interiors catalog and ordered a fresh set of seat upholstery, door panels, and a headliner, while Auto Custom carpets supplied the carpet. The only deviation on the stock theme was the installation of the obligatory column mounted Sun Super Pro tach.
Day Two carried over to the 340 as well when it was torn down for a full rebuild. It was all original right down to the late 1967 date-coded bearings. For the rebuild on the 340 mill Ron had Hammaker Enterprises in Grantville, Pennsylvania, lined up to do all the machine work. Since
the vision was Day Two, that meant some changes would be taking place. Once they had the block ready for the rebuild, the plan involved utilizing the stock forged crank and stock rods with a .030-overbore to make sure everything was round and true, along with the installation of a set of Speed-pro 10.35:1 forged pistons. The camshaft would also deviate from stock with a healthier COMP Cams unit spec’d at .488-inch lift, 274/286 duration. Moving to the upper end of the engine, the X heads were resurfaced and given a new set of Ferrea 6000 series valves and COMP Cams springs. Those heads use a 2.02-inch intake valve and a 1.60-inch exhaust. A vintage Edelbrock LD340 intake manifold sits atop those X heads and a 600cfm Edelbrock Performer carb distributes the fuel, while the Mickey Thompson valve covers are vintage pieces Ron stashed away decades ago. The exhaust side of the rebuild saw the stock manifolds give way to a set of TTI headers running back to 2.5-inch TTI H-pipes and Flowmaster mufflers with Yearone repro tips. Keeping it close to home, Allen Kohr did the rebuild on the original Torqueflite with the addition of a 12-inch torque converter with a 1,800-stall speed. The same attention to detail carried over to the suspension. It was given a full rebuild but was kept bone stock right down to the drum brakes at all four corners. One change that was made was the replacement of the 3.23:1 open-end rear with 3.55:1 posi.
As the pieces for the car came together, most of the exterior trim was restored and used, however, the front and rear bumpers, along with the front grille didn’t make the grade, so new quality replacements from AMD were sourced. Visually, one of the defining elements on the ’68 Dart GTS is the Bumble Bee stripe, so that was also reapplied, but it wouldn’t be a proper Day Two restoration without the right set of vintage-looking wheels and tires. For that correct look and improved performance, Ron chose Cragar SS wheels and Bfgoodrich Redline radial tires. The front wheels measure 14x6 and wear P215/70R14 rubber. At the rear, 14x7 wheels run on P225/70R14 tires.
Bringing his Dart back to life took almost three years to complete, and he was finally able to drive it home again in October of 2015, however, it was hidden until July of 2016 when it was unveiled at the Carlisle Chrysler Nationals. “The Dart is an old friend,” Ron explains. “It represents my youth, my commitment to my wife, family, and job. It has defined me for nearly four decades.” It’s no longer a barn resident, and it has also made a return trip back to Burger King.