Though not terribly organized, we at Mopar Muscle do have an archive at our office. Sure, it's filled with old issues from long cancelled rags and periodicals, but they still hold within their pages cool old photos and original timeslips. While doing research we've come across all sorts of images of front-engine dragsters, flip-top funny cars, and coverage of vintage drag racing. As enjoyable as our little journey down memory lane was, we were disturbed when we came across press releases of some of the coolest musclecars in America's history. We like to think that original Hemi, four-speeds, and 440 Six-Packs were the fastest asphalt-pounders to ever hit the streets. But it turns out that in stock factory trim, these mighty Mopars were equally matched with Super Sport Camaros and Boss Mustangs. Even the smaller A-Body Dodges and Plymouths with the high-performance 340s and larger 383s did nearly as good. Sure, factors such as gearing, poor tires, and weather conditions need to be considered, but for the most part, most of the American selection in 1969 and 1970 were all pretty much the same--stuck in the mid-13s.
Of course, you know the story. As soon as the papers were signed and the keys handed over, those restrictive manifolds were yanked, gears swapped if they didn't already come with 4.10s or 4.56s, and those big ugly clocks were exchanged for a large diameter Sun Tach in the dash.
DaimlerChrysler's smallest contender--the '03 Neon--stood up against even the mightiest of 1968's best. The aluminum, 2.4L, four-cylinder, four-door passenger sedan was given a kick in the shorts with a factory restyled header piped into a turbo and waste gate, with an intercooler mated up to a short-throw manual shifter. The made-by-the-manufacturer tuner car was able to turn in quarter-mile numbers equal to Z28s and Mach 1s.
Since that time, kids and not-so-young kids have been wrenching on these 21st century hot rods. Mind you, the geometry of front-wheel-drive vehicles leaves much to be desired when it comes to hard acceleration. Wheel hop and traction plagues these domestic "rice rockets" and require considerable modifications to amend it.
Gary Howell of Keyser, West Virginia, knows all about that. He's a self-proclaimed "parts pusher" and proprietor of Howell Automotive. Gary started with a stock SRT-4 and dove straight in. wanting to keep the Neon planted on all fours, Gary had large Vogtland adjustable coilover shocks slipped in behind each wheel, with a larger diameter sway bar in the rear. Gary swapped out the stock differential and traded in a Quaiffe unit for positraction. Beefy Wilwood 123/4-inch rotors with aluminum calipers clamp the front wheels down to a dead stop. Massive 18-inch Velox rims with g-force KD rubber keeps the SRT in place on the track.
Gary opted to leave the interior alone because there were more important things to worry about. Gary pulled the plant and removed the balance shafts. Eagle rods were married to J&E pistons at 9.0 to 1 compression with dual roller cams on the single factory aluminum cylinder head that had been ported for improved flow. A Zzapp Motorsports throttle body was put in the place of the stock one. Gary kept the already stout factory manifold, but plumbed it into a Mitsubishi TD05LR turbo with a 3-inch collector. Mutually large 3-inch stainless exhaust tunnels all the way out the back through a Thermal R&D muffler. The manual was almost totally untouched save for a prototype Hurst shifter made specifically for the SRT-4. In addition, a 10-inch SPEC clutch was mated up. Howell Automotive build the 'banger's powerplant and kept most of the work in-house except for the striking paint and body work.
Mitch's Collision Center out of Keyser, West Virginia, was hired to repaint the little bomber. Since the Neon was pretty much brand-new, little bodywork was needed except for incorporating the custom rear wing into the deck lid. A slight variation of the high-impact blue was used, as well as an iridescent lime green provided by Sikkens Paint. The final combination of the blue with green makes for a striking sight.
The final product of all this work did not go quietly into the night. Rather, Gary put his SRT-4 up against some of the best local tuners in the area. In an invitational shootout hosted by Car and Driver magazine, Gary's Neon put out hard mid-13 quarter-mile times compared to other tuners, such as an Elise Lotus, a PowerWorks Focus, a Skunk2Racing Civic, a HKS Evo RS, and many more. Not too shabby for what was a once considered a "cute" commuter car.
Fast Facts Owner: Gary Howell, Keyser, WV Car: '03 Dodge Neon SRT-4 Color: Blue and lime green Engine: 2.4L, four-cylinder, aluminum head, ported, Eagle rods, J&E pistons, Crane roller cams, Crane valvesprings, SBI rocker arms, Zzapp Motorsports 60mm throttle body, Screaming Demon coil pack Transmission: Manual five-speed, Hurst prototype shifter, SPEC 10-inch clutch Rearend/Differential: FWD, Quaiffe positraction differential Suspension: Vogtland adjustable coilovers, larger rear sway bar, Wilwood 12-3/4-inch rotors, aluminum calipers (front) Wheels/Tires: Velox 18x71/2 rims Tires g-Force KD's P225/45R18 Quarter-Mile: 13.4