Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! Smell the fuel, hear the thunder, feel the ground shake as these wheelstanding, fire-breathing, asphalt monsters scream down the quarter-mile. See Detroit's hottest iron compete head-to-head in what can only be described as Match Race Madness. Be there! Everywhere Drag-O-Way USA! This, or something very much like this, was the battle cry that crackled over the nation's AM airwaves in the mid-'60s. The message was always delivered as an urgent, controlled scream that demanded the attention of the listener. It was never a request; it was simply the place to be if you were young and hip in 1965. It was a wild time in American history; chaos seemed to be the name of the game. Several regions around the globe were at war, most notable to Americans was the Vietnam conflict. Domestically, the civil rights movement was in full swing. It seemed that no matter what else was happening in one's daily life, the underlying drumbeat of war and civil disobedience drove our collective actions.
In the midst of all this activity, the auto manufacturers were preparing themselves for another record year. In the end, nine million cars would be sold to a youth-oriented public. Like everything else at the time, there was an urgency about the cars-they had to be bigger, better, or faster than the competition. One of the most involved was the Chrysler Corporation. Their success with the new 426 Hemi in 1964 had them excited, and that excitement would boil over into two very special projects in 1965: the A990 sedans and the A/FX hardtops.
Now that we have a glimpse at the times that spawned powerful, intriguing, factory-built "race cars," let's focus on one in particular. The '65 Plymouth you see here spent its entire life doing battle on dragstrips across the country. Since the day it was built at the Chrysler facility, it had no other purpose in life. But life on the dragstrip can be harsh, and the beatings these cars took left them "used up" quickly. Luckily, this one was never "used up" and tossed aside. The storied past of this car leaves one to wonder how a race car could be brought back to look better than new. Well, first, we have Lee Smith, the man who originally took the controls of this A/FX car in 1965 and was involved in every step of its restoration from day one. It can't get any better than having the guy that originally built the car on hand to tell you what's right and what's not. Next, we have Jim Welch, a long-time automotive enthusiast, Mopar musclecar collector, and, in this case, preserver of a historical treasure. He was the one owner who was able to assemble the team it would take to put this car back together after it had bounced around the Midwest for forty years. The two major players on the restoration were Larry Pontnack and his crew at Mo-Par City in Oregon, Illinois. They handled the mechanicals build, and came up with many of the really hard to find parts. And when it comes to autobody restoration (or fabrication for that matter), Terry Getzelman and his knowledgeable crew at Getz's Hot Rod Innovations in Hampshire, Illinois, can either fix or fabricate whatever it is. Now that we know who all the players are we can get on with the story.
When Lee Smith first saw the all-new altered wheelbase cars in December 1964, he knew he was looking at something special. These were all-out, down and dirty racing machines that were intended to dominate at the dragstrip, and for the next two seasons that's exactly what these eleven cars would do.
The drivetrain had been pirated from the soon-to-be famous A990 cars. According to research by Jim Schild, author of Authenticity Guide 1965 Dodge and Plymouth Hemi Super Stock, the A990 donor for the Smith A/FX car was VIN RO51188807. The heads on the engine were aluminum, the intake manifold was magnesium, and the headers were all new S & S tubing items. The cam had been reground, but most outwardly noticeable was the 15-inch forward set of the rear wheels and the 10-inch forward movement of the front wheels. The fenders, doors, hood, hoodscoop, bumpers, decklid, and the dashboard were all fiberglass. the factory claimed the total weight of the parts was a scant 80 pounds, netting a 200-pound savings. The windshield was Lexan and the remaining windows were plexiglas; the frames around them were either constructed of aluminum or stainless steel. The interior, like the drivetrain, came right out of the A990 cars, as did the aluminum door hinges and whatever other specialty parts could be scavenged. Specialty items specific to the A/FX cars included a high-strength stainless-steel K-member that reduced the weight by almost 40 pounds, and an unitbody in white that had been acid dipped to reduce its weight by roughly 200 pounds. The finished product weighed around 2,800 pounds, really light for a midsize '60s hardtop.
When Lee picked this car up in Detroit, it was pure white with a tan metallic vinyl interior just like the ten other A/FX hardtop cars that went to factory-backed teams. The AHRA Winternationals at Bee Line Dragway in Phoenix, Arizona, would be the first outing, and, during that appearance, it would be lettered with its first short-lived graphics scheme. Bee Line would be the first time the altered cars (seven would be in attendance) would appear, and the place where Lee Smith heard one of the Ford engineers exclaim as they looked at the new Chrysler creations, "man, those are funny looking cars." from there it was a short step to simply funny cars. So there you have it, another story about how the name came to be.
During the '65-'66 seasons, Lee's car would see five different stages of development (one and two are listed above). During this period, Chrysler kept the mule (purported to be the sixth Plymouth) and the dyno busy in Detroit, so there were constant updates passed along to the eleven guys that had the cars.
The third stage in the evolution came just prior to the Chicago Auto in 1965. In preparation for this exhibit, Lee had the familiar blue-over-white paint scheme with gold-leaf lettering applied to the body. This is also the point where the Satellite stainless trim was added to the body for that bit of additional flash that separated it from the rest of its Belvedere brethren. At this stage, the car was so fresh that the mechanicals were still as delivered by the factory. The real change was under the car where Lee had tied the front and rear subframes together with some 11/48-inch-thick wall 2x4 tubing in an effort to keep it from twisting itself into a knot. Then to further stabilize the structure, he tied the four-point rollbar to the new subframe connectors. he also welded brackets to the subframe that secured the seat because the acid-dipped floor just didn't seem substantial enough for the task.
Then came the fourth stage, and some of the major mechanical changes that would be made to the car. During this stage, the Chrysler-engineered 426-CH-8 Hilborn injection and the parachute were added, and the front brakes were removed. Naturally, along with the Hilborn injection came a new hood, sans the large scoop that had originally been in place. you'll notice when comparing the various A/FX cars that the parachute that Chrysler issued was mounted in a manner determined by the team-that could mean anything from a flat mounting plate at the back of the car to neatly set into the trunk area. To Lee's credit, he and his team chose to build it into the trunk area so the installation did not compete with the lines of the car.
Then there was the fifth configuration where the four-speed transmission and the Dana 60 rearend were added to the mix. This fifth and final configuration is the one Jim Welch decided to duplicate when he took on the responsibility of putting the car back to its "as raced" state.
Unlike other race cars that have been put back together, this car retains the bulk of its original body parts, many of its original mechanical pieces, and came with several file drawers full of documentation that Lee kept over the years. It is without question one of the most documented race cars to ever be restored. The paper trail is so meticulously detailed you can literally trace the car's mechanical and on-track history from the time Lee picked it up in Detroit until the day he sold it in late 1966.
Over the years from 1966 till 2004, there were seven owners that held the car for periods of time, but in the end it was Jim Welch who finally assembled the right team to finish the project. More incredible is the fact this team put this rare piece of history back together in ten short months. Plans are to take it out and share it with the public this coming season, so keep an eye out for it.
Original owner-Lee Smith, Moline, IL
Second owner-Len Peterson, Moline, IL
Third owner-Al Close, Moline, IL
Fourth owners-Ken Snyder and Larry Brinkman, Rockford, IL
Fifth owner-Tolley, Fort Dodge, IA
Sixth owner-Mike Guffey, Hartford City, IN
Seventh owner-Eric Lindberg, Elk River, MN
Eighth owner-Jim Welch, Wayne, IL (2004 to present)