Vince Russo is one of the good ol' boys from the red section of the country. Remember the 2000 election map? Reds occupy the interior states, blues live on the coasts? How do you tell the difference? If you painted your Mopar camouflage you may be a "red." If you think Hemi is a math term for half of a sphere, you're probably a "blue."
Russo restores Mopars in a small "cow town" of about 600 people.
"We've turned some really nice Mopars out of there," says Russo, referring to Tiffany, Wisconsin, and "Ozzie's Oasis."
Russo's latest find and restoration is a '70 Hemi Road Runner. Dennis Haldeman found this Plymouth in 1989, and over the next couple years located the engine and tranny. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Russo explained, "I met Dennis in 1991, and he told me about the car. We had a standing joke every time I'd see him. I'd say 'Uh, you ready to sell me my Hemi car yet?' So I always was on him about selling it to me. And he said he'd never sell that car. That was the statement he made.... He'd never sell it."
We visited with Haldeman and can understand why the Road Runner was a keeper. Dennis found the car from "a guy at work." The price was cheap, negotiated from $4,500 down to $1,500 because the car was minus engine, transmission, and other small parts. Immediately, Dennis began tracking down the 426 V8 and 727 TorqueFlite.
"At the time I saw [the car]," said Dennis, "it was parked by a guy's house in Edgerton. Then I started trying to track where it came from, and people said they had seen it at a coal bin in Janesville. I had a heck of a time tracking it. Now I guess Vince found out which dealer it came from."
Luckily, the body was in "real nice shape." There was a small dent in the left front fender and a minute spot of rust on the right rear.
"I finally wound up having to buy a Hemi," says Dennis. "I happened to be up at the Jefferson swap meet. A guy had a Hemi 'Cuda drag car for sale. He said it had been in storage for ten years."
Haldeman drove to Hebron to see the car, where a real shock awaited when he checked out the old drag car. "I crawled under it and [saw the stamping] 130785. My serial number right in the motor! I was shocked. I stayed there until that guy came home that night at 11. He was up to his eyeballs...you know...pretty well lit up. He said he had the motor sold. I said I wanted to buy the whole car, as is. And we went back and forth. He had no money down. He said the guy was coming the next morning to get the motor."
Haldeman did not break down and explain why this particular engine meant so much to him. Had he done so, the price might have gone up dramatically. "I stayed there and finally he agreed to it. It was on a Saturday night. Sunday morning I got the banker up. Got a check. I bought the whole car. Cost me $11,500. So I bought it. I got my motor. Once I had the motor, well, then I got a lead on the transmission."
This experience proved more pleasurable. Dennis tracked the 727 to Indiana. The owner had just rebuilt the TorqueFlite and was getting ready to install it in his '70 Hemi 'Cuda. Along comes Dennis.
"I asked him what the serial number was. I says, 'Wow, that's my transmission.' He says, 'You have the car for that transmission?' I said, 'Yes I do.' He said, 'Well, it don't pay for me to put it in.' He was a Chrysler nut. And I says, 'Well, what will it take for me to get to my transmission?' He said, 'You just find me another '70 Hemi automatic.'"
Dennis spent the next four months tracking a Hemi automatic. He finally found one in Waco, Georgia, sitting, of all places, in a milk house. "I went down there for a Talladega race in the heat of August. I pulled up that first day. He wasn't there. I pulled up the second day. He was in bed and they didn't want to get him up. I stayed the third day and here he came walking out of the house. I told him who I was. He said, 'Oh, yeah.' I said, 'You got a '70 Hemi automatic?' He says, 'Yeah, I think that's what it is.' And I had the part number. He went in the milk house and drug it out. Let it drag on the ground! You know? He dragged it out by the tailshaft and dropped it on the ground and says, 'There it is.' I checked the part number on it and it was correct. I said, 'What have you got to have for it?' He says, 'A hundred and a quarter.' I gave him a hundred and a quarter and I went right to Indiana, traded the guy [with 'my' tranny], and gave him a hundred and a half to boot, 'cause his was rebuilt and mine wasn't."
Plan A was to restore the car, but Dennis still had a '36 Buick coupe in the garage that he bought for the prom in '67. He decided he was not going to get things done, so why should the Road Runner sit and go to waste? He also had a house to build. So, he sold the car to his work buddy, Vince Russo. Russo did some further digging and found out that his metallic Lime Green Hemi Road Runner was on a used car lot in 1973. He contacted the former owner's son who remembered sneaking the car off the lot to drag race on country roads. He bragged about "blowing the doors off" a Yenko Camaro and winning $35. The Hemi had "cut-off" exhausts and snow tires. Originally, it came from a Chevy dealer in Chicago.
In the gas crunch of 1973, the used car dealer had a rough time selling the Hemi. The new buyer ended up selling the engine and transmission for $1,200. Apparently, the car went into storage, taking up residence in a coal bin, "probably about 1975," Russo believes. In 1989, Haldeman stored the Hemi in his pole barn in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Due to the diligence of two good ol' boys at work-actually three, counting the one Haldeman bought the car from-this Hemi is well on its way to becoming whole again. At the '02 Mopar Nats, Vince Russo and his restoration crew presented the Hemi to Larry Shepherd. They feel there is no better Hemi engine builder anywhere.
If you have any information on this or other unusual Mopars, please forward your leads to Jerry Heasley at Mopar2549@aol.com, or write Mopar Muscle, c/o Rare Finds, 3816 Industry Blvd., Lakeland, Florida 33811. Every letter is read with great interest, and remember, there's nothing more thrilling than The Hunt.