Beginner's luck strikes only those rare few who, inevitably, are playing poker with you for the first time, or looking to build their first cool car. Mopar Muscle is rife with stories of guys stumbling across Hemi four-speed cars forgotten in the musty back corners of barns, when the ad merely said, "Old Dodge coupe for sale."
Todd LaMothe is one of those fortunate guys we all envy. Now, Todd as the proud owner of a black '65 Coronet, which he had occasionally raced and enjoyed regularly, was no novice to the ways of classic Mopars. What made Todd so lucky his first time around was the events that led him to the possession of this '80 Dodge Mirada.
Todd told us, "As I stood in my friend's machine shop, a silly, confused look appeared on my face. My buddy, Chuck Millen, had just made me an offer that I couldn't refuse. The offer was to trade cars-Chuck wanted my '65 Coronet and I was interested in his '80 Mirada."
Todd's Coronet was better suited to the hard labor of life on the drag circuit, and Chuck's Mirada was more tuned to handle both street and strip driving, though the Mirada currently ran faster passes down the 1320 than Todd's B-Body. So, the deal was agreed on.
As a friend of Chuck for years, Todd had watched the Mirada come into form, and knew what the Dodge was capable of. in his opinion, the potential for the '80 to soar had yet to be fully tapped. The Mirada sported a Wilwood four-wheel disc braking system that would bring the black hulk to a stop, a custom aluminum 11-gallon fuel cell, and a complete Aeromotive fuel system feeding the fuel to the carburetor. A high-flow, two-core aluminum radiator with twin electric puller fans and Mezeire electric water pump pushed the coolant through the block. So effective is the cooling system, the car rarely exceeds 160 degrees on the Auto meter temp gauge, one of a complete Auto meter cluster that reads off the vital signs in the ultra-black interior. A full NHRA-certified 12-point rollcage crafted by Racefab in Michigan, and a RJS five-point harness secures the pilot down to ensure a safe and enjoyable pass down the strip.
The J-Body's mechanicals were just as race-ready. A solid MSD 6+ digital ignition with a MSD coil and Moroso plug wires bring the spark on time. AVO 12-way adjustable race shocks balance the four corners, as the front suspension remains nearly stock, while the rear touts Tri-City Launcher Springs. The massive Dana 60 boasts a 4.56 spool-mounted gear and indestructible Strange Engineering axles.
The major catch in the deal was the lack of an appropriate engine and transmission. The interior, whose luster had faded from the first days of use in 1980, also needed some TLC. A quick resolution for the absent powerplant was found in a '76 pickup truck. By transplanting the 440 and 727 TorqueFlite into the Mirada, Todd had a complete car.
With the easy transition, the Mirada found itself at the local strips for the better part of the summer, making consistent 12-seond passes. That year, while competing at the Chrysler Classic in Norwalk, Michigan, Todd scattered his torque converter across the sticky asphalt. Todd pushed his black gladiator onto the trailer with aspirations for something more grandiose.
Chuck, coincidentally, is the proprietor of Best Machine Racing near Todd's home in Macomb, Michigan. The rebuild started with Todd withdrawing the stock 452 heads and swapping them for newly ported 516 performance heads that he had at Chuck's shop. Examining the returned 452 cores, Chuck asked Todd to bring in the short-block so that he could re-ring it and do a "poor man's" rebuild. Todd returned an hour later with the short-block in the back of his truck. As he began to take the engine apart, the number four main cap fell into two pieces in his hand. A shattered main cap spelled a diagnosis that a simple freshening up couldn't fix. Chuck then made Todd yet another unbelievable offer. Under the strict supervision of the Best Machine Racing crew, Todd would be instructed and granted full access to the facility's materials and resources to rebuild his engine.
The deeper Todd ventured into his engine, the more he discovered was in dire need of replacing. Todd dissected the block and its components, weighing and measuring everything that would be reused, repaired, or replaced. One piston weighed 27 grams heavier than the other 7, revealing itself as the cause of the severe imbalance in the reciprocating assembly. A new set of flat-top Diamond Pistons were purchased from a friend, while the block was stripped, oven-baked, and steel-shot blasted to ensure the quality of the material. The harsh process is much like media blasting for body panels, but the process actually stress relieves the block. Then the block was Magnafluxed to verify the block was free of fractures or cracks. Under the watchful eye of Chuck, Todd operated the Rottler boring machine, boring the block .040-inch over, and boosting the 440's cubes considerably.
The final step of the engine block preparation required a series of drilling and plugging to compose a foolproof oiling system that would reduce metal friction substantially. Chuck taught Todd how to apply nearly every trick he could to Todd's block, ensuring that his oiling system would be borderline overkill for his application.
Undoubtedly damaged from the splintered main cap, Todd replaced the cast crankshaft with a steel unit purchased from yet another friend, as well as a new set of roller rockers, Comp Cams springs, and titanium retainers. In addition, a Straightline Performance solid camshaft and lifters were accrued in the parts-gathering frenzy.
Countless hours began to rack up on a secret timecard that Chuck had been keeping for his friend, offering him a deal that in exchange for some shop clean up, he would set up a work-for-parts program with Todd. Spending his days as a data administrator for the GM High Performance Group (yeah, yeah, we know. He works for Brand X, it's OK), Todd devoted his evenings to the shop. Eventually, Todd's time and labor came to fruition when Chuck provided Todd's Mirada with a set of Eagle H-Beam rods, thus completing his engine's checklist.
with all the parts needed and the block prepped, Todd began file fitting the rings. The short-block was assembled with the new crankshaft, new main bearings and machined caps, and new rods and slugs in position.
Todd's attention was then realigned to the top end. The iron 516 heads received massive Ferrera stainless valves, and the heads were cut .090 inch to achieve a 65cc chamber, raising the final compression ratio to a less-than-street-friendly 12.5:1. A Holley Street Dominator single plane intake rests atop the engine block with an 850 Holley HP Race Carb completing the handbuilt hauler.
But locating a set of big-block headers for an '80 J-Body proved to be the most arduous search of the entire project. Left with no other option, a custom set of pipes were made with 2 1/4-inch primaries into a set of 4-inch collectors. Massive 3-inch tubes run into a Dr. Gas X-Pipe crossover and a set of Straightline Performance mufflers.
This shot is Todd honing the...
This shot is Todd honing the 440 to the finished size, .040-inch over. The main objective in this procedure is to make the cylinder walls as straight and round as possible. Using torque plates is a must during this process to ensure things are perfect.
The TorqueFlite was given to Todd's friend, Jim Santo, who assisted Todd in the rebuild of the automatic. A Griner reverse manual valvebody was installed along with an Art Carr 9-inch torque converter. The transmission is shifted by a Cheetah SCS race shifter. The slush box went from tired and lazy, to tight and strong in a matter of hours. Perfect launches are planned with the future installation of a Griner transbrake. With the purpose-built rearend, the massive 28 1/2-inch-tall Hoosier Quick Time Pro tires, riding on polished Weld Racing Pro Stars, leave enough rubber during burnouts to undercoat a school bus.
When finished, the 3,705-pound beast launched down the strip consistently in the low 11s, until recently when Todd clicked off a 10.98 at 122 mph. Having one of only a few '80 J-Bodies in the nation to run in the 10s, Todd has a reason to gloat. It would appear Todd's luck has yet to run out; he is counting on that handbuilt wedge to run deeper and deeper into the 10s as time progresses.
Beginner's luck, indeed. That, and with the help of Chuck and the crew at Best Machine Racing, we think Todd's decision to make an even trade landed him on the top of a really good deal.
Having one of only a few '80 J-Bodies in the nation to run in the 10s, Todd has a reason to gloat.
Who says a J-Body can't be...
Who says a J-Body can't be quick; especially a J-Body that sees street duty.
Here's Todd following instructions,...
Here's Todd following instructions, checking the spring pressure to determine the state of the springs. Obviously, it's a pretty important part of a good valvetrain. Todd checked the installed height at this point using a spring height micrometer. Having access to the proper tools is really the only way to do things.