ALL CHARGED UP
While the Mopar guys were cleaning up in NASCAR and the NHRA, Chrysler offered a street version of the Hemi for 1966.
Why is it that the ’66 and ’67 Chargers get less love than their ’68, ’69, and ’70 counterparts? Is it the styling, derived from the ’65 Dodge Charger II concept car? Is it because to many it’s obviously based on the more plebeian 1966 Coronet two-door hardtop? Is it its size? These questions will be debated by the Mopar faithful for as long as there are Mopar faithful.
Introduced on New Year’s Day 1966 as a 1966 model, the Charger was clearly not a direct response to the success of Ford’s Mustang ponycar. The Charger was a specialty car, a Coronet hardtop with a fastback roof, and a unique seating package with four bucket seats and an expensive to build (and repair) electo-luminescent instrument cluster — technology that first appeared in the ’60-’62 Chryslers. The first-generation Charger had an interesting, albeit short, gestation originally. The intermediate-sized Dodge Charger was planned as a limited production 500-unit sporty hardtop as a follow-up to Chrysler’s run of 55 Chrysler turbine cars. In the prior two years, these cars were put into the hands of 203 families before the program was canceled. The work on the potential turbine-powered car was handed off to Dodge. Internally at Chrysler, management was under pressure from Dodge dealers for some sort of counter to the Mustang. Chrysler management didn’t want a direct corporate competitor to Plymouth’s Barracuda. This was part of an overall marketing plan to have Plymouth compete with Ford and Chevrolet and Dodge compete against Mercury and Pontiac.
At the same time, Chrysler’s second-generation Hemi head engine dominated NASCAR in 1964 to the degree that it was essentially banned for the 1965 racing season. NASCAR’S
Bill France, seeing grandstands empty and Ford dominating the 1965 season, had the Hemi band rescinded and Chrysler returned for the 1966 season. Richard Petty won his second Daytona 500, and David Pearson won the NASCAR championship in a Cotton Owens–prepared Dodge Charger. The 426 Hemi featured dual-quad carbs and produced an advertised (but underrated) 425 hp. Technically available on all B-body Mopars across the Plymouth and Dodge models (including four-door sedans and station wagons, although no Hemi grocery-getters were built according to Mopar expert and Mopar Muscle contributor Geoff Stunkard) with Plymouth production commencing first in late 1965. And that brings us to the car you see here, an early build ’66 Dodge Charger Street Hemi. According to owner Joseph Stark, this ’66 Charger Street Hemi left Chrysler’s Lynch Road plant in Detroit on January 26, 1966. On February 14, it was shipped to Mobile Dodge Inc. in Mobile, Alabama.
Joseph’s fascination with cars started with his father, Doug, who grew up during the time of early muscle cars. “My father had a triple black Road Runner when he was going to high school,” relates Joseph. “Of course, as most teenagers would do, he beat the car up and tried to make it go faster. When he turned 19, he bought another car, which he still owns today,
an original survivor ’69 Hemi GTX. The car was a daily driver, which we drove everywhere. After my older brother and I were born, we were driven in the back seat strapped in our car seats to the grocery store. Of course, family life and bills put the car off to the side. The car sat for many years until 2004 when he decided to go thru the car and get it up and running again. I was going to a local junior college and spent time between school, work, and helping him put the car back on the road. Once the car was working, we would take it to car shows and to a local car get-together on Friday nights during the summer. Going to shows and making new friends, I knew I needed to own one myself.”
Joseph embarked on a quest to purchase and restore a car as a father/son project. He found a ’66 Hemi Charger on ebay. “I was interested due to, of course, it being a Hemi car, like my father’s, and the unique style of the vehicle,” says Joseph. “I contacted the owner, and after some discussions back and forth, I went to see the car with my father. The car was located in a city only about 15 miles away from our home. After looking at the car and checking to make sure the engine matched, I decided to purchase the vehicle. An interesting fact was that the car was being stored at a relative’s house, but the owner actually lived less than a half-mile away from our home.”
“After a deal was struck, we took the car home and the many boxes of parts, as well as a donor car. Once we got the car home, we realized there was a lot more to the story. The car was essentially a roller with no interior, no engine installed, a pure shell of a vehicle. After further investigation into the car, we noticed that it was once a race car. The fenders had been cut for larger tires, then repaired. The inner framerails had been cut and moved in to accommodate larger tires. There were signs of a rollcage that had to be repaired. It also seemed the car had not been registered since 1993, since the plates were Tennessee plates and had a 1993 registration sticker. There was evidence that up to four people owned the car before who tried to restore the vehicle and who knows how many owners before that. This was an early sign of what was to come and the issues moving forward.”
Joseph’s ultimate goal was to build a driver-quality car, being that this was the first time that the father/son team had attempted to restore a vehicle. So with the help of friends in the local car group and family members, the project moved forward. Once they started working on the car, everyone realized that there were other issues, including the poor paint and bodywork to contend with. Most of the parts that came with the car were either incorrect or needed to be rebuilt or restored.
“I remember the first time we pressurewashed the car the paint was coming off the engine bay in sheets,” says Joseph. “As a result, we decide to take the car down to bare metal and paint it. We used a local shop called Bay Auto in Concord, California, that was recommended by some friends. We assumed the car was very similar to other Mopar B-body vehicles, but we were very wrong. The main structure, frame, and engineering were, but in all other aspects very different than the other B-body cars.”
Joseph decided to do more research and investigation into the car before moving forward. He discovered that the car was an early production ’66 Charger. These vehicles had many specific and specialized parts different than other B-body vehicles of the same year. Parts were different, because for both 1966 and 1967 Chargers compared to other B-body vehicles there are specific parts only for early production ’66 Chargers (one part, Joseph noted on his car, was an antisway bar that came from the fullsize C-body chassis). The good aspect was that all the important parts that came with the car were correct and original to the car, including the engine. Joseph noted that there were complications, as there were very few Charger-specific reproduction parts available. As a result, Joseph had to purchase many NOS parts and original parts to restore. Joseph says that even today, there aren’t many reproduction parts and many are not actually 100 percent correct. The result was he was no longer
building a driver car, but actually restoring the car to a show car with the correct parts and date codes. Easier said than done.
“We worked on the car in our garage almost every day — after work, after school, on days off,” remembers Joseph. “Sometimes working on it for 10 hours a day, trying to complete it in the fastest manner possible. We tried to minimize the number of car parts littering the extra rooms in the house, the bane of my mom’s life. Friends would come by to help when available. Many times we had to do things two or three times to get it right. There were days when I didn’t even know if it could ever be done, and I wanted to give up. After about two and a half years, we completed the car and had it running on the streets. It was great to see the car up and running and completed. I remember hearing the engine for the first time when we started it, and many of our friends in the car group wanted to be there to hear it run for the first time and be part of the experience. It really showed the family atmosphere in the car community and the relationships we built.”
Once completed, Joseph started getting the car out to his Friday night car group get-togethers and car shows. “I was very proud of what we were able to do, and the work paid off,” says Joseph. “The experience of the restoration work is the most important aspect of the process and being able to say I built this car and did something not everyone can do. That’s what’s so rewarding. But, of course, winning awards isn’t a bad thing either. The car has won many awards and shows very well.”
One of the big takeaways for Joseph was the pride that comes from doing the work himself with the help of his father. It was a learning process, and he gained so much knowledge through the restoration. He was able to show off his mechanical knowledge, while expressing his artistic side. He learned to paint with a paint gun and do bodywork, skills he thoroughly enjoys and is now able to help friends with their own projects.
Needless to say, the Starks are a Mopar family. His brother, Doug Jr., owns several classic Mopars while Joseph’s daily driver is a 2013 Challenger R/T. His parents, Doug and Lisa, own several Mopars, including a Chrysler 300, Dodge Ram truck, PT Cruiser, and, of course, the Hemi GTX. Nothing can replace the experience, new friends, and extended car family he’s gained. Hopefully, a new project is on the horizon.
Our first encounter with Joseph and Doug was at the 2018 Mopar Spring Fling in Van Nuys, California. There we talked with Joseph and when the opportunity presented itself to photograph in early June in Northern California, we asked what might be a car-related location close by? Doug told us that there was a closed-down Chrysler-plymouth dealership in nearby Martinez. Arriving, we noted a brick building dominated by a vintage Chrysler-plymouth sign from the 1960s. With a little imagination (and some help from Photoshop) the blank panel — which Chrysler and Imperial expert Bill Adams thought could have been an Imperial panel — was “painted” red and a Dodge logo was added. It turned out to be the perfect location for what is a perfect car, a classic Dodge Charger that marks the start of the second-generation Hemi era.