Back in the day, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Chevy nut. Starting back in 1974 when I was a 16-year-old, I bought my first musclecar: a '67 Camaro. It was a good deal with a factory 327 and an automatic transmission for only $650. At the time I was taking an auto mechanics class at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington, and quickly went to work freshening up the 327 with new rings, bearings, and a valve job. From that first '67, several other Camaros would follow, as well as a '69 Stingray Corvette convertible. It would be the last Chevy musclecar I would own; I used the money from its sale to finance college.
After college, it was time for another musclecar. So in 1990, I purchased a '69 Charger with a 383. this was the car that gave me Mopar fever. But one musclecar was not enough, and I quickly began the search for another.
It all started in July 1992 with a visit to the local Mopar parts shop run by my friend, Steve Kruger. He had helped me get my first Mopar, the aforementioned Charger, up and running. As I walked into the Lancaster County Auto Parts shop, I saw Steve looking over the local Auto Locator. Always on the move for deals, he looks at me and points to an ad in the back of the weekly locator, saying, "You have got to get this car." Steve knew I was looking for another project car, and there in the ad section was a '70 Hemi Challenger R/T complete rolling body minus the drivetrain. He assured me this would be the best deal of my life. I was such a novice to the Mopar hobby that I didn't even know what a Challenger was. I took Steve's advice, along with his strict instructions on what to look for to verify it was indeed a true Hemi car. First on his list was to check the numbers on the cowl to see if they matched the numbers on the radiator support and VIN numbers on dash. Then I was to verify that the car had rear torque boxes, Hemi leaf springs, and, most important, a Hemi K-frame.
The car was located in Slatington, Pennysylvania, and was in the possession of a Mr. Paul McCartney, who had the car pulled out of a barn for the viewing. The E-Body was painted blue, but originally came from the factory in Go Mango orange. The car was a solid rolling body that required the usual restoration. Upon inspecting the car, I was able to identify the numbers on the dash as they matched the door. Initially, the numbers on the cowl and radiator support were not found. I took 150-grit sandpaper and kept sanding through the black cowl paint and into the factory orange, and after rubbing it down, the numbers became visible and matched. I was able to do the same thing to the radiator crossmember, finding the appropriate numbers. The car retained the original K-member along with the distinguishing features of a real Hemi car, including fenders, torque boxes, and front supports. After ensuring the car's authenticity, I had to negotiate the price.
Dennis Grabauskas is shown with the car in the spring of 1970 in Utica, New York, when the
During the time Russell Harris had the Challenger, it was converted into a drag car and us
In its most drastic transformation, Richard Dobbins would build a small-block, strip the C
Tom Lillis (right) came in person to deliver the original transmission to complete the res
The next day, I received a call from Paul accepting my offer, and I quickly arranged a pickup. After getting the car home, my first task was to document the car by trying to hunt down all the previous owners. I wrote several letters to the DMV with enclosed checks to cover searches spanning four states (Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania). The puzzle began to fall in place as the copies of previous owners' registrations and titles began to arrive on my doorstep. I then began to contact each owner. This involved searching phone books from different areas until I found my first hit for Robert McCallister. It was the fifth McCallister I called that confirmed he used to own a Hemi Challenger. One lead led to another since these guys were part of the same crowd that raced around town. I contacted every owner and got their story about the car. They were all more than willing to share a piece of history and send letters with information, photos, stories, and insurance cards. Eventually, I worked my way up to the first owner: Dennis Grebauskas.
The car was purchased new by Dennis on December 26, 1969, from Tidewater Dodge in Norfolk, Virginia, for the sum of $4,735. The car was ordered with a 727 automatic, 426 Hemi, front power-disc brakes, 4.10 Sure Grip in a Dana 60, and power steering. The Challenger came from the plant in Go Mango orange with white longitudinal stripes, bucket seats, center console, solid state AM radio, dual exhaust with chrome tips, and 15-inch Rallye wheels. Since Dennis was in the Navy, his address on the title was that of his ship-the USS Leahy docked in New York. He had the car for about a year and then sold it.
The car ended up at Valley Dodge in Waterbury, Connecticut. It was then purchased by Robert McCallister on October 20, 1970. he stripped off all the power units, steering, and brakes, and went racing. Rumor is, the transmission lasted only two weeks before having to be rebuilt. He sold it to Russell Harris in April 1973.
Russell loved to race as indicated by the Cragar wheels and hood-mounted tachometer. He racked up little mileage in those years because it was always trailered to the track. after grenading the engine during a street race, he sold the Dodge in 1974 with only 18,000 miles to racing rival Tom Lillis.
Tom repaired the car and drove it for about a year before pulling the driveline and selling the car with a small-block.
The car was then bought by Richard Dobbins, who owned the car from 1976 to 1984. He drove the car from Connecticut to Colorado and replaced the small-block 273 with a 340. He also installed traction bars and a B-Body 4.10 rear, and repainted the car blue. Richard confessed he never knew the car was a Hemi car until years later.
The Dodge then ended up with Paul McCartney who had intentions of restoring the car back to original conditions, but never found the time and financial resources.
In July 1992, I bought the car from Paul and began a long restoration that would take ten years to return the Challenger to the street and another three more to get it back to how it came from the factory.
Lost to the ages, the original 426 Hemi was MIA. Gary had to hunt down a correct date-code
The restoration began with a rotisserie job that would be done in sections by Tom Brooks of Brooks Auto Restoration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from April 1993 until June 2000. The body was sandblasted in the engine bay and trunk area, and everywhere else was media blasted. The undercoat was removed with a propane torch and wire wheel, with a DA sander used to smooth it all out. There was more than just restoring that needed to be done. During one of Russell's drag racing outings, it was necessary to get to an exhaust bolt fast, so a hole was cut in the front shock mount on the passenger side for easier access. This was repaired along with the original K-frame that bared some non-factory, poorly welded engine mounting accommodations for a small-block. The typical areas around the front window were also repaired. The next phase was the roof and doors, followed by quarters and decklid. The undercarriage was smoothed out and prepped for paint. Finally, the fenders were completed along with the hood, and the entire body was covered in primer. The trunk floor was in great shape except for the holes punched in it to mount the battery. A correct date code Hemi engine was then purchased from a collector. The motor would sit in the den of my house as an end table and conversation piece for five years before being rebuilt and installed in the car in 2002. The motor ran for almost an entire hour before it was sent back to Michigan for a second rebuild. Even after getting the motor back a second time, it never seemed to run like it should, so in February 2005, I had the motor out one more time and sent to Ray Barton Racing for a complete rebuild. The motor was rebuilt as close as possible to factory specifications and ran on the dyno at an astounding 590 hp at 6,300 rpm.
A part of the E-Body's allure is the Rim-Blo steering wheel. This one is the factory's ori
During the course of the restoration, several calls were made to Dennis, Russell, and Tom to make certain I did not miss any details. In 2004, my son suggested I ask the previous owners if any of them knew of the original transmission. I called Russell, and he informed me that Tom Lillis could still have the original transmission. After several phone calls, Tom confirmed the numbers on the transmission were right. A deal was struck, and Tom agreed to drop off the transmission personally so he could see the car once again. It was two weeks before Carlisle Chrysler Nationals in 2005, and we had just gotten the engine back from Ray Barton Racing. In a week's time, my sons, Stephen and David, worked around the clock cleaning and repainting parts before we could install the engine and transmission. On Friday, July 1, 2005, we put the motor in the car with everything freshly repainted. Everyone helped, including my wife Pam, who operated the cherry picker as we carefully lowered the elephant on the mounts without a scratch. We continued to work in the engine bay until Sunday, and then put the transmission in. It would take us until Wednesday before everything was assembled. Our initial attempt to fire the engine failed, and time was running short if we were to get the car to Carlisle on Thursday. We finally discovered a simple ignition timing error. We also found that we needed to resolve a power steering fluid leak and transmission fluid leak before we could go. we finished the car at 4:30 a.m., just in time to take the car to Carlisle.
The Challenger took first place in the Stock E-Body Hemi Class. In addition, we were chosen for a Celebrity award. All the long nights and non-stop hard work had paid off.
Fast Facts: '70 Dodge Challenger R/T
Gary Sigel * Millersville, PA
Engine: The original 426 block was yanked by Russell Harris (third owner), who blew it in an unfortunate street race. Fourth owner, Tom Lillis, would swap out the wounded elephant with a 273 and sell the Challenger to Richard Dobbins. The engine would vanish from the map, making current owner Gary Sigel have to purchase a correctly date-coded block from a private collector. The engine would be built and rebuilt three times before Ray Barton Racing Engines would finally get the Hemi built correctly. Working their magic, the engine would return to Gary's garage, making well over the once-advertised 425 net horsepower.
Transmission: It's not very often that a 426 Hemi was ordered with a 727 TorqueFlite. Though it's believed those who did order the combination knew exactly what they were doing since the three-speed automatic was the strongest factory gear box available on the market. Gary had the TorqueFlite rebuilt and restored once it was hand-delivered by previous owner Tom Lillis just a short time before the Challenger was ready to be debuted at the 2005 Carlisle show.
Rearend: As was mandatory with the Track Pack option, the Dana 60 came with a Sure Grip mated to a set of 4.10 gears. One of the strongest and most reliable rearends around, the Dana 60 is still the standard today.
Horsepower & Performance: Ray Barton's dyno racked up some pretty impressive numbers-the Hemi knocked out 590 hp even using nearly all stock equipment.
Suspension: Regardless of the roof, be it convertible or hard top, any car equipped with a Hemi came with the factory torque boxes to try to keep the subframes from twisting the body into a pretzel. Besides that, factory leaf springs, torsion bars, and shocks fill the bill.
Brakes: Along with the heavy-duty suspension and titanic Dana 60 rearend, the Track Pack also included front power-disc brakes, which were a necessity when it came to stopping the nose-heavy Challenger when it packed the 426 beneath its hood.
Wheels: 15-inch Rallyes with factory beauty rings and center caps. This is a restoration, so Gary wanted to keep the look right, and we don't blame him.
Rubber: BFGoodrich replacements.
Body: in reasonably good condition, only minor repairs were needed to return the Challenger back to its former glory. Some wear and tear and other rough modifications were made during the Challenger's more formative years as a race car, including the installation of a tachometer on the hood, cuts in the shock towers for header-bolt access, and a repaint to blue over the factory Go Mango orange.
Paint: Over 25 years ago, the Challenger was sold to Richard Dobbins, who covered the original EK2 orange with a dark blue. Gary wouldn't have any of that, so the car was put on a rotisserie by Brooks Auto Restoration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to be returned back to the factory Go Mango orange with the appropriate white side stripes.
Interior: From the factory, the E-Body was ordered with an AM radio master unit with rear speakers, and it still retains all that sound equipment. Legendary provided the carpet, headliner, and seat covers, which were pulled and replaced by Gary. A Rim-Blo wheel was the fanciest interior option, as the wood grain inserts were not available until later that year.