The Original Ramchargers
Ground Zero for Mopar performance
From the June, 2010 issue of Mopar Muscle
By Dr. Dave Rockwell
Photography by The Ramchargers Archives
Joe Gibbs wasn't kidding when he said "it always comes down to people." In 1958, the people in charge of Chrysler pretty much saw themselves in the family-car business except for a few high-end "touring cars" like the Chrysler 300D and the Dodge D-500. Enter a group of Chrysler Engineering Institute students, whose idea of an appealing car echoed those of the Dodge Brothers and Walter P. Chrysler. For them, affordable performance developed through great engineering, and team work seemed what a swelling post-war market was calling for. Quietly, at some risk to their jobs, they began to covertly fight back with technologies found on the Engineering room's cutting room floor. Eventually, proclaiming themselves the Ramchargers, they emerged from the shadows to build Chrysler's racing program, and rediscover cooperative ways of doing things buried with the deaths of Walter P. Chrysler and John and Horace Dodge.
Who the Ramchargers were is most easily understood if two things are kept in mind. First, they were always a free-standing group; financially and operationally from Chrysler. Members' activities were always after hours and off the clock from Chrysler. However, several members' day jobs at Chrysler did eventually involve developing its race program. Second, there were four phases through which the group evolved during its life: Phase 1) spanned 1958 and 1959, when a confederation of individuals working on their cars banded together to form an NHRA-sanctioned Hot Rod Club, the Ramchargers. Phase 2) spanned 1959 through 1961, with the group evolving from a confederation of individuals with separate interests to a group with a common interest. This federation built the first team car in the form of a '49 Plymouth C/Altered; "High and Mighty," followed in 1961 by the team's first Super Stock Dodge. Phase 3) spanned 1962 through 1967, where the team incorporated itself, raced Super Stocks, developed the Funny Car, and introduced the 426 Hemi to Top Fuel. After 1967, in Phase 4) a number of members retired to their day jobs at Chrysler, while four members opened Ramchargers Racing Engines, building engines. They opened five Detroit-area speed shops, while competing in Top Fuel and Funny Car through the mid-1970s.
The uphill battle Ramchargers members faced in changing Chrysler's attitude toward performance cars is dramatically told in their new book, We Were the Ramchargers. Perhaps a victim of their own success, Ramchargers members were successful enough in legitimizing performance at Chrysler, that they have been largely forgotten. Still, it should be understood Ramchargers members did not work in a vacuum, but were supported by able co-workers who also made contributions to their various projects. But, the list of their creations probably stands alone in automotive history and reads like the Chrysler muscle car encyclopedia including: The '60 Valiant Hyper Pak package, '61 Dodge Optional Super Stock, '62 Max Wedge Super Stocks, '63 Max Wedge Super Stocks, '64 Max Wedge and Hemi Super Stocks and Factory Experimentals, '65 A990 Super Stocks and Altered Wheelbase cars, '66 D Darts, '67 Street Hemi Drag package, '68 Hemi Dart and Barracudas, '69 440 Six Packs, '70 AAR Barracudas and Challengers, '70-'74 Barracuda, Duster, Dart and Challenger Pro Stocks and Motown/Mopar Missile program.
So, who were these guys? Actually, over a 20-year period spanning 1958 to 1978, 40 different individuals contributed as Ramchargers. However, in 1963, the Ramchargers became a Corporation with a "hard core" of about 11 members who would account for many of the group's greatest accomplishments. Several of them became founders of Chrysler's race group while continuing their after-hours activities at the Ramchargers off-campus garage. In an effort to help readers of Mopar Muscle connect the dots, we decided to expose individual names, faces, and accomplishments for several of this later group. True to the Ramchargers' one for all and all for one group structure, members are presented in alphabetical order. Nicknames that Ramchargers so relished bestowing upon one another are included.
Hartford "Mike" Buckel
Within three days of his enrollment at the Chrysler Institute, Mike was working side-by-side with Ramchargers members on the preparation of the group's first Super Stocker in the summer of 1961. A fresh graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, he arrived driving his graduation present, a new '61 Ford, which would also serve as tow car for Dodge's "factory" team. Within two years Mike had become the Chrysler Race Program's dynamometer development engineer, overseeing four dynamometer rooms including the high-speed units in rooms 12 and 13, where drag and circle-track racing development were conducted, respectively. Here he interacted with other Ramchargers in the Race Group, providing reliable data as well as a capable set of on-site hands for problem solving and adjustments. Demonstrating the Ramchargers' "whatever it takes" approach in getting the 426 Hemi ready for the 1964 Daytona 500, he even built a couple engines that were shipped directly to the track and bolted into race cars. He also claims to still hold the all-time Chrysler horsepower record when he recorded a 1,400 horsepower burst from a 426 Hemi on 100-percent nitromethane. During his tenure, he oversaw dyno work on most of the Max Wedge engines, the birthing and development of the 426 Hemi, as well as the small-block 340. And through it all, he was intimately involved in parallel development, maintenance, and racing of Ramchargers team cars. By 1964, he also had become a Ramchargers co-driver with Jim Thornton.
Tom "Ghost" Coddington
As the son of an architecture professor and descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, what else is there to do but become a drag racer? At least that's what high schooler Tom Coddington figured when he joined the Road Knights hot rod club in Worthington, Ohio. He was even surer of his choice after encountering Ramchargers members at the Chrysler Institute. Tom soon became involved with the 1961 Super Stock effort, while taking a full-time position in Chrysler's Fuel Systems Laboratory, overseeing high-performance carburetor development. This led to his appointment as engineering coordinator for development of the famed Chrysler/Hilborn fuel injection system in 1965. It was Tom's ingenuity that first allowed an automatic transmission car to be mated to a race fuel-injection system. In 1968, he became Chrysler Engineering's Drag Racing Coordinator, where he oversaw later development of the '68 Hemi Barracudas and Darts. These were followed by the '691/2 440 Six Packs/440 6-Barrels, and the '70 Trans Am Challengers and Barracudas. He continued in a similar capacity for design, construction, testing, and racing for Chrysler's Pro Stock program from 1970 through 1974, including the Motown Missile. Within the Ramchargers, he functioned as a fuel system specialist, motor consultant, rotating garage manager, and "doing whatever else it took."
Gary "Edgue" Congdon
The only thing agreed upon about Gary Congdon's nickname, "Edgue," is that it stuck. What was widely agreed upon was he probably knew more about Holley race carburetors than anyone else in the world. A third-generation Holley employee who could recall when the company still made complete cars and bicycles, he brought a wealth of experience to his assignment as field engineer attached to the Fuel Systems Lab at Chrysler Engineering. With a workbench next to Ramcharger Dan Mancini's, he soon joined the group and became its resident Holley expert. But, like everyone else in the group, he usually participated with whatever the next thing was that needed to be done. Gary asserts, "There were no prima donnas. Sure, Jim Thornton was a driver, but would also do whatever had to be done, just like anybody else." By 1963, he was also overseeing NASCAR applications, including the introduction of the 426 Hemi used at the 1964 Daytona 500 victory. He became the Chrysler NASCAR teams' trusted carburetor guy. "Because I worked in the dynamometer lab and was changing Holley carburetor calibrations for intake manifolds and such, I could work out all the calibrations for the racers. Pretty soon they hooked me into going to the races to give them support, and once you got to know them and earned their respect, you became like part of their team. It was pretty fun." It was also "Edgue" to the rescue when the new 426 Hemi refused to make good power at the dragstrip, and he turned the Holley carburetors 90 degrees on the intake manifold. Jim Thornton recalls, "It was like magic had happened! Suddenly, the motor really began to perform."
Wayne Erickson was joined by Ramcharger teammate Dan Mancini, along with his National Record holding C/Gas A311-powered Dodge. A founding father of the Ramchargers, Wayne worked side-by-side with Tom Hoover in the Fuel Systems Lab, developing Chrysler's electronic fuel injection system, but his real passion was drag racing. Following his passion is how he eventually mated the sledgehammer power of Chrysler's abandoned A 311 Indianapolis engine to a '53 Dodge for domination of NHRA's C/Gas class. Tragically, disaster struck at the 1960 U.S. Nationals, when an exploding flywheel severed a fuel line, resulting in a fire that would take Wayne's life. Tom Hoover, Wayne's best friend states, "Had he lived, he may well have become Chrysler's first engineering race coordinator."
Tom "Chrome" Hoover
To understand Tom Hoover, all you really need to know is that he chose to start a career in the auto industry. He knew Chrysler was where he wanted to be after he inadvertently overheard a Chrysler A-311 Indianapolis engine run. With a Master's degree in physics from Penn State, a Master's in Automotive Engineering from the Chrysler Institute, coupled to a passion for high-performance engine design, you have the makings for Chrysler's first engineering race coordinator. Recommended to then-Chrysler President Lynn Townsend after the successful development of the Valiant Hyper Pak, and the Ramchargers' success at the 1961 U.S. Nationals, Hoover hit the ground running. Bringing other Ramchargers in to assist, he coordinated creation of the Max Wedge, 426 Hemi, 440 Six Pack/440 6-Barrel, AAR small-block Trans Am cars, Hemi and small-block Pro Stock cars, along with numerous other projects. He also oversaw their field development through the efforts of sponsored racers nationwide. Through it all as a charter member of the Ramchargers, he continued to spend several nights a week building team motors and traveling to races on weekends. Appreciation for these efforts have bestowed upon him the moniker "Father of the 426 Hemi" and Car Craft magazine's coveted "Ollie" Award.
As a high school dropout, Dan brought a different type of resumé to the Ramchargers' roundtable. Hailing from Detroit's tough Downriver area, he developed a wealth of hard-won fabrication skills from working in gas stations and the garage behind his house. By the age of 22, he had built three dragsters, including the #2 Drag News-ranked Top Gas Dragster in the country. It would be the first of three, twin-engine dragsters he and driver Don Westerdale would use to rule the Midwest, regularly defeating racers on the caliber of Connie Kalitta. But, late in 1962, Dan was hired to work in the now-famed Woodward Garage, where he befriended several Ramchargers while extolling the virtues of racing a dragster. His responsibilities and accomplishments included the fabrication of too many vehicles to list here, but suffice to say they involved nearly every drag, exhibition, NASCAR, and muscle car prototype produced by Chrysler during the 1960s. This would even include cars like the Hurst Hemi Under Glass and the Little Red Wagon. But, his greatest contribution undoubtedly came from rescuing a scrapped prototype 426 Hemi and building a Top Fuel chassis to put around it. Having convinced Ramchargers members on the merits of folding the dragster into the team, they proceeded to introduce the 426 Hemi to Top Fuel drag racing. Persevering through monumental frustrations, Dan and company gradually unlocked the secrets of the 426 Top Fuel Hemi with record-setting results. Evidence of this in 1965 (its first full year of competition) was: setting track records at 93-percent of the tracks raced at, the NHRA Top Fuel National Record, and recording the first of three Low E.T.'s of the Meet at the U.S. Nationals.
Dan "The Nose" Mancini
Born to a family of racers, Dan was helping clean clay off of the family Sprint Car by the age of six. By his mid-20s, his immersion in the racing world was racing a string of highly-successful circle track cars, while becoming a carburetion and dynamometer technician at Chrysler. He soon befriended a number of Ramchargers (along with practically everyone else), bringing great mechanical aptitude and seasoned racing maturity to the group. He seamlessly assisted in cross-pollinating ram tuning research at Chrysler, and the application of it to the Ramchargers' team efforts, leading to the development of the first tunnel ram manifold. With expertise garnered in the carburetion lab, Dan also functioned as the Ramchargers' Carter carburetion expert, while assisting Tom Hoover in building team engines. Simultaneously, with formation of Chrysler's Race Group in 1962, Tom Hoover would appoint him "honcho" of the famed Woodward Garage, responsible for construction of Chrysler race prototypes and testing.
Dick "Broom" Maxwell
Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, the son of a Caterpillar engine designer and Chrysler enthusiast, Dick Maxwell wanted "nothing more than to work at Chrysler and design engines." Arriving at the Chrysler Institute with such a pedigree, Dick immersed himself in construction of the Ramchargers High and Mighty C/Altered car. He soon established himself as a dedicated Ramcharger with an appetite for racing, and he joined the Race Group at Chrysler in 1964. His responsibilities were as diverse as they were important to the success of the Chrysler program, including: interacting with sanctioning bodies and negotiating rules, selecting and writing contracts with racers for factory support across Plymouth and Dodge's 44 sales zones, dissemination and implementation of technical information to racers, and special projects like the Summers Brothers Goldenrod streamliner. By 1972, in response to racers' needs for a reliable parts supply, Dick developed the Direct Connection Parts program, which would eventually become Mopar Performance. He ascended to overall director of the Race Group in 1975, where he thrived until his retirement in 1998, but not before being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame. Through much of it, Dick spent weeknights and weekends with the Ramchargers pitching in wherever needed, while always maintaining a Mopar street racer to combat the latest North Woodward prowler out of the GM Tech Center.
Jim "BB Eyes" Thornton
As valedictorian of his high school and college mechanical engineering classes, Jim Thornton had a running start on having the right stuff when it came to the thinking end of drag racing. As a high school kid with the audacity to dirt track his daily driver, becoming a member, driver, and eventually president of the Ramchargers was just a matter of appreciating his blessings. Well regarded by Ramcharger teammate and Chrysler Drag Racing Coordinator Tom Hoover for his keen mind and ability to work with others, Jim became a pillar in the Chrysler race program as assistant drag racing coordinator. As a suspension expert, Jim was catalytic in the development of the altered-wheelbase concept. Experimentation began with the '63 Ramchargers team cars, moving the wheels about an inch, which they simply considered "production variation" and continued with the now famous '64, "2-percent" A/FX cars. This culminated with the '65 AWB "Funny Cars." Jim's fingerprints are also all over other '63-'68 Super Stock cars, like the '65 A990, sometimes called a Thornton "clean sheet" creation. A quintessential organizer, Jim's work lists provided daily direction for the team. "Dyno" Don Nicholson said of him as a driver, "He was very sharp, as tough as, or tougher to beat than anybody, but he was often overshadowed by the car because it was so well-known." Still, he was named the Professional Drag Racing Association "Driver of the Year" in 1965, and was at the wheel of Ramchargers cars when they broke Drag Racing's 9-second, 8-second, and 7-second barriers.
This is but a small historical reflection of some of the early members of The Ramchargers, and if you want the complete history, you need to check out
We Were the Ramchargers. There are 304 pages, of history accompanied with pictures filling the hardbound edition. You can get yours by either calling toll free 877/606-7323, or going to http://store.sae.org.