Talk horsepower as it relates to Mopar muscle, and the conversation will naturally turn to the Hemi. The fact that the Chrysler 426 has achieved unique legendary status cannot be argued. Sure, there have been other special performance engines, some from Chrysler and some from other manufacturers, but none with the notoriety of the famed Hemi. Would the general public take notice if Ford decided upon a campaign based on the name Blue Crescent, or a F-150 truck emblazoned with call-outs proclaiming Side Oiler? How about marrying a Cobalt SS and the old-time '60s tag, Mark IV Mystery Motor? Yes, these terms have some meaning to hard-core gearheads, but mean nothing to the masses. The Hemi was always "The King" of performance; the term "Hemi" signifies something special and powerful. Its architecture is still proven in dominance of Blown Nitro drag racing, and its presence is enough to dominate the insane world of the collector car marketplace.
The Hemi lore really started in the '50s, so the legacy is a long one. The old-style Hemis set the standard back then, with various versions powering high-end Chrysler vehicles. Some, like the special Letter Series Chryslers or D-501 Dodges, set the performance world on notice. The last and largest of the early Hemis was the famed 392 Chrysler, the basis for serious drag engines of the era, including nitro burners. After a drought from 1959 to 1964, the Hemi returned with the 426-cube elephant mill smacking heads in the racing world in ways that had the competition reeling. It was the 426 Hemi, sprung from the architecture of the Mopar big-block wedge that cemented the Hemi's legendary status, both with racetrack domination and an unparalleled presence in street bound musclecars. Cancelled for production by the end of 1971, it looked like The King was dead.
Although the 426 Hemi was finished as a production passenger car option in 1971, it remained a force in the racing world. In the early '70s, a supply of Hemi engines was not really a problem for those that really wanted them. The factory had an inventory of engines and parts, and the used market was flush with street Hemis. Chrysler reportedly kept up with demand for blocks, casting small production runs through the early '70s for distribution as replacements, and, more importantly, to meet the demands of Chrysler racers. Chrysler hit upon hard times in the late '70s, with government bailouts and restructuring looming. At some point in the ensuing belt tightening, the 426 Hemi tooling was scrapped, and seemingly with it, the future of the Hemi as it was known.
Interest among the serious Chrysler enthusiast never let go of the Hemi. While the appetite for nitro-burning fuel blocks were met by aluminum aftermarket replacements from Keith Black, Milodon, and Donovan, availability of the iron 426 Hemi engines started to get pretty thin. The demand was still there in the ranks of drag racers, from the amateur bracket guys to the more serious NHRA class racers, particularly in the ranks of the top Super Stock classes where only Hemi power makes the field. As the nostalgia movement swept through the automotive scene, and interest in restoration of classic musclecars increased, the short supply became ever more acute. Add in the ever-increasing popularity of cloning or creating a Hemi musclecar from a lesser model, and the shortage of Hemi blocks reached a serious crisis. After a dry spell of two decades, there just weren't enough blocks to go around. The faithful carried on with what they had, salvaging cracked blocks, adding sleeves once the bores had been bored to where they couldn't be punched-out anymore, and even painstakingly converting wedge blocks to accept Hemi heads. Prices on anything remotely useable skyrocketed.