Having the cool car in high school is usually just a dream. Many of us didn’t even have a car and were subjected to being dropped off in front of the school. We would even have our parents drop us off a couple blocks away to save us the embarrassment of the loving "Have a good day, sweetie!" and hug or kiss that were sure to follow. But those were the first couple years, when you count down the days on the calendar for your learner’s permit to become a driver’s license. For Craig Sacco, resident of the Garden State, this brought on a whole new traumatic world as he putted to school in a yellow AMC Gremlin. He began to dream of a little Challenger he would see on his daily commute and he got the "itch." This E-Body would sculpt his interest in cars, and save his dignity.

Craig probably wasn’t the only person on earth to drive around in a yellow ’73 AMC Gremlin in the ’80s. This was well before they were accepted as cool or respected as a novelty vehicle. "It was a total nerd car," he jests, "and it still mentally traumatizes me to this day!" There was, however, a single glint of hope for Craig. Each day he drove the little Gremlin to campus, he was teased by a white ’73 Challenger that sat in a driveway along his route. It had a Rallye hood and side strobes, he recalls, "It was tough, it was cool, it was my salvation."

"One day, the yellow nerd-mobile suddenly developed a stuck thermostat and severely overheated, ruining the engine," he says. As luck would have it, the ’73 Challey came up for sale shortly afterwards, and Craig was there with cash in hand to regain his self-esteem. This car changed everything for him but, as his life began to develop, things changed. "I got married, started a family, and my priorities changed." he says. In a nutshell, the Challenger was sold.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2003. He knew he wanted another car, and he also knew that it had to be either a ’70 Challenger or ’71 ’Cuda with a big-block and four-speed. Since a finished car was a little too expensive, he figured he would find one to restore over time. Within a few months, Craig located what he was looking for--a ’70 Challenger RT/SE with a 440 four-barrel, a four-speed, and a Dana 60. He spoke with the owner and verified the VIN and fender tag numbers before coming to an agreement on price. Then it was back home to begin the five-year restoration.

"Being an RT/SE car with the 440 and four-speed transmission combo, it was one of only 142 ever produced that way, with only about 50 known to exist yet today," he claims. "The rarity comes from the fact that it was an SE and four-speed car. Since the SE cars were 'more luxurious,’ 733 came with automatic transmissions." It did, however, lack in a few creature comforts that most SE cars came with. "It didn’t have power steering, power windows, or air conditioning," he explains. "It’s all business with the engine and trans combo, power disc and drum brakes, Dana 60 and 3.54 gears."

Several months into his ownership, he found a set of seatbelts online in Texas, and after talking with the seller about other parts, he found out that the man owned a body shop with a very good reputation. He arranged to have the car picked up and taken to Texas to begin the bodywork. Shortly after its arrival in the Lone Star State, the project was derailed when the shop began to fall apart financially. "He laid off his help, his wife left, and he was essentially a man with nothing to lose," he explains. "Great, I should have known better! I read stories about this happening to other guys, now it was happening to me."

Craig chose the most diplomatic approach to the scenario and spoke with the shop owner to determine how much time was needed to finish the car. "He said about a week’s worth of work, working day and night," he says. "So we set a week and I flew down to help him out and get the car finished." Craig says this became one of the best learning experiences of his life.

With the bodywork drama out of the way, the Challenger was back home in his garage and began to roll along smoothly. Craig quickly installed all the N.O.S. parts he accumulated in the time the car was away, and had the car finished, short of the drivetrain and interior. The engine was shipped off to Joe Robinson in Clayton, New Jersey, the four-speed was off to Passon Performance, and Craig kept the body at home to restore the suspension, re-cover the seats, and clean up the interior.

After five years of stress, the Challenger certainly lived up to Craig’s need to occupy his mind. "Just about every nut, bolt, and part of this car was restored," he quips. And, "after 300 line items on an Excel spreadsheet and two inches of receipts, I understood why some would feel a little nervous to drive their car."

Fast Facts

1970 Challenger RT/SE
Owned by: Craig Sacco, Hammonton, New Jersey

Mopar Power

  • Engine: Joe Robinson in Clayton, New Jersey, rebuilt the engine. It is the original, numbers matching engine to the car. Craig wanted the engine to appear stock on the outside while "having some fun inside." The bores were cleaned up .030-inch over to make room for a set of domed Keith Black hypereutectic pistons with stock rods and crankshaft -- final compression is 10.5:1. The cam is from Comp and it was ground to 228/228 and .500/.500-inch lift with a 112 LSA and uses supporting Comp parts. The factory cast iron heads were treated to a street/strip three-angle valve job, machined guides with Teflon seals, and porting and polishing. All the exhaust is forced out of a set of factory manifolds with a 2.5-inch TTI exhaust with Dynomax Super Turbo mufflers and X-crossover. The fuel is added through a Carter AVS carburetor sitting atop a factory intake manifold. The oiling system uses a stock pan with a Melling standard volume oil pump and the ignition is upgraded with Mopar Performance parts. The combo was good for 443 hp at 5,200rpm and 532 lb/ft of torque at 3,400rpm on an engine dyno. "A longtime friend, Joe, and my brother Brian came through for me when it was time to install the drivetrain," he says.
  • Transmission: The original transmission was long gone before Craig found the Challenger but, in its place is a correct, 18-spline Hemi four-speed with stock iron casing. Passon Performance, who rebuilt it, also installed overdrive internals. It features a Hurst shifter and Centerforce clutch.
  • Rearend: An original Dana 60 with 3.54 gears and SureGrip differential.

Sure Grip

  • Suspension: The suspension was restored to original, but the front utilizes polyurethane upper control arm bushings and sway bar bushings up front. The torsion bars are also one size higher at .960-inch. Monroe shocks were installed at all corners to modernize the ride.
  • Brakes: Stock power front discs and rear drums.
  • Wheels and Tires: Stock, 14x5.5-inch road wheels with 225/70R14 BF Goodrich Radial T/A tires.

High Impact

  • Body: There is a pretty crazy story pertaining to the bodywork, as the first shop didn't live up to its potential. During the restoration process, the shop hit financial troubles and most of the employees were laid off. This delayed the bodywork considerably and Craig even flew down to Texas as an effort to kick start the project. He assisted in the body repair before it was ready for paint.
  • Paint: The original shop that did the body repair also painted it back to its original color of Hemi orange with a black vinyl top. Craig wasn't satisfied with the work, and had it reshot by Action Auto Body in Hammonton, New Jersey.
  • Interior: Craig decided to test his skills by completing the interior restoration on his own. He sourced new carpet from ECS Automotive Concepts, and new seat covers were also installed with custom leather covers made for the front. The headliner, steering wheel, and dash are all stock.

  • «
  • |
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
  • |
  • View Full Article