There are basically three camps in the Mopar world. On the one hill you have the hard-core restorers-date code this, correct finish that, polish it up and leave it sit. Another hill holds the rebels-they'd be the bore it, stroke it, hack it, and flog it bunch. Somewhere in the middle are the moderate-fix it up, put it on the highway, and cruise on, brother. Phil Painter of Las Vegas, Nevada, is a textbook study in eclectic Mopar behavior. A former standard-bearer of the restoration class, today Phil's philosophy, manifest in the '70 Challenger R/T seen here, is a blend of all three Mopar schools of thought-dressed to the hilt, obscenely modified, and always on the street.
"I found the car in the January edition of the Phoenix Auto Trader," says Phil. "It took me almost a month and a half after seeing the car for the first time to talk myself into another project. On the day that I purchased the car in late February, I called my wife to get her OK. Her response was, 'You have been in mourning ever since you sold the other two restored cars (a '70 purple T/A and a '70 B-5 blue Hemi 'Cuda). I'll have the garage cleaned out in the time it takes you to drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas if you'll promise that it will be a fun driver, and you don't go psycho and make it into another trailer queen.'
"Phil bought the car from Chris Gunthaner of Phoenix, who had already set the game in motion.
"Chris had done the initial paint work, retrofitted all of the wiring, engine, transmission, gauge cluster, and air conditioning from a '96 Dodge truck to a '70 Dodge Challenger," says Phil. "I think the wiring had done him in. That, in itself, was a major project. Overall the condition of the car was estimated to be about half done. As far as Chris was concerned, he was done. I, on the other hand, underestimated all of the work it would take to complete."
A truer understatement was never uttered. What Phil had purchased was a semi-restored Challenger that had been retrofitted with a 5.9L truck engine, four-speed automatic with overdrive, and the electronics necessary to make it all work. Phil says it's the first time he tapped a project car that actually ran from the get-go. Before the buy, he discussed his plans with the folks at Fastway Automotive, a company he sublets work to for his two truck dealerships in Phoenix. They gave the project the nod.
The first step was to evaluate the car. Right off the bat, the rear end was in need of help. Dan's Driveline went through the axle assembly, replacing all the bearings and seals, as well as installing a 3.91 Richmond Gear Sure Grip. This, it was calculated, would provide the best overall performance given the tranny's overdrive unit.
The next decision was to figure out what kind of car this already modified beast would end up being.
"What I wanted," says Phil, "was a car that had the '70s musclecar look, but had all of the benefits of modern technology. My two previous cars were restored to 1970 specs, and didn't get driven-partly because neither had A/C, and it gets a little warm in Las Vegas in the summertime. I wanted a car that rumbled, that if I stood on the gas pedal would make me smile. And when I was through imitating John Force, I could push on the overdrive, A/C, cruise control, hit the boom box and smile some more, and yet be mellow enough that my wife wouldn't be intimidated to drive it."
At this point, attention turned to the 5.9L Dodge V8. Fastway whipped up a hot combination consisting of a Comp Cam camshaft, Vortech supercharger, Dayco torque converter, and a TransGo shift kit, all purchased through Jegs and Summit Racing.
"Both," says Phil, "were able to put the desired results in their computer systems and come up with the perfect match that would make all of the pieces work well together. That is the beautiful thing about using an updated drivetrain. Most of the needed pieces have all been designed to work great together in the Dodge pickup line. And to top it all off, Brian Hileman, the Mopar Performance specialist at Earnhardt Dodge in Gilbert, Arizona, was able to get a custom-programmed Mopar Performance computer built to my specific needs."
Next, the Fastway boys fabricated custom brackets for the A/C, and worked hard to fit the truck gauge cluster in the Challenger dash.
"The gauge cluster was chosen so that the A/C switches could be used out of the '96 truck."
Phil then turned his attention to the handling and rolling stock, selecting a Firm Feel #2 steering box to complement the front and rear sway bars. As for wheels and tires, Phil let whiz Shawn Dickinson of Big O Tire Store in Las Vegas make the call. Shawn argued for Budnick wheels due to their numerous fitment options. The Mercury 5 model was chosen in a 17x8-inch configuration up front and 17x11 in back-both dressed in BFGoodrich rubber.
By now it was June, and Phil had decided to set the feisty Challenger on a leg of the Hot Rod Power Tour.
"The car got so many compliments on the Power Tour," says Phil, "that I started to get a big head and thought it was time to go further with the project."
Interestingly, Phil took on this project with an understanding with his wife that "One: It wouldn't go to any car shows. Two: It would never go on a trailer. And three: I wouldn't go psycho and make it too nice to drive." By late June, Phil decided to break one of those promises by entering the car in the 2000 Mopar Nationals. His wife thought it was a good idea, but there was a problem.
A nasty vibration had developed when the Challenger decelerated above 70 mph. Nearly everyone who had been involved with the project up to this point tried to find a cure, including swapping the tranny bushing a couple of times and replacing the torque converter. "Outsiders" were brought in on about six different occasions to see if a fresh set of eyes could uncover the problem. Nothing.
"This was the middle of July," recalls Phil. "If I was going to get the car repainted for the Nationals...I was growing very thin on time and patience."
Giving it one last shot, Phil put the car on a hoist and discovered that a self-tapping screw had protruded through the transmission tunnel and was rubbing against the transmission linkage. That was corrected, and the vibration changed, but didn't go away. Next, the tranny was shimmed upward to adjust the driveshaft working angle. Again, the vibration changed, but was still there. But Phil was onto something big, he felt, yet the tranny shimming created another problem.
"I was out of room underneath. It was determined that the tailshaft of the transmission would have to be removed, and the only way to fix the problem was to beat the crossmember torsion-bar support flat, starting in the middle and feathering the metal out from the center to the outside edges. This process took a total of eight hours to complete. Imagine the joy of swinging a five-pound sledgehammer reversed and upward, hitting a six-inch diameter punch to flatten the factory bend in the tunnel. This took three guys to do. One to swing the hammer (that's me), one to run the cutting torch to keep the metal hot, and one to sit in the car with a spray bottle of water to make sure we didn't start the whole thing on fire. When we had feathered the metal as flat as it would go, we reassembled everything and re-shimmed the transmission another half-inch. I had to send my nephew Roger to drive the car because by now it had ticked me off to the point where I couldn't stand to even look at it. It was now midnight, and when he arrived back at the dealership he informed me that the problem had been corrected."
Between July 25 and August 6, Phil and Jose at Glorified Autobody worked to sand and repaint the Challenger with a fresh coat of Lime Green. That was finished the Sunday before the Nationals. On Monday the car developed an injector problem, requiring an upgrade to 24-pound injectors and all new wiring. That was finished at 9 p.m., but then the check-engine light came on. Phil hit the sack at 6:30 a.m. and was up two hours later, heading for Chapman Dodge to get a DRB2 test. With those results in hand it was off to Fastway, where the injection and timing was tweaked to correct the problem. By 6:00 the Challenger was back in the detail booth, and by 8:30 p.m. it was Mopar Nationals or bust.
Because of the delay in heading out the door, Phil had to break his second promise of not putting the car on a trailer in order to go to a car show. Oh well. Phil made up for the trailer time by screaming through the Columbus area in the Challenger during the big Mopar Nats blow-out. He even scored a Second Place win in the E-Body modified class.
"My brother Kelly has been on my butt for over 12 years about not driving my projects," says Phil. "Now he has nothing to complain about. I can roast the hides like he can in his pro-street Road Runner, and I can cruise down the freeway like he can in his '68 GTX. I can do both without having two cars. Plus, I have fuel injection, programmable computer electronics, and cold A/C. I hope he doesn't try to one-up me on this one."
And how does Phil characterize his 5.9L beast?"No date codes, no paint dabs, and especially no matching numbers. Best way to describe it is 'one of none,' and proud of it!"