I was about 12 years old when I became Dodge Material (as the classic magazine ads of the ‘60s called Dodge owners). Though my (now) 51-year-old “neck top computer” has stored — and forgotten — volumes of information in the four decades since, I distinctly recall two hugely influential fan-making Dodge events as if they happened last week. First was a chance encounter with a Butterscotch Yellow ’71 Dodge HEMI® V8 Super Bee I spotted in the summer of 1976. I didn’t know it, but it was my first HEMI V8 sighting, and it lit inside me a lifelong devotion to all things Dodge — and all things hemispherical.
The fateful event happened during one of my summer visits to grandma Nan, who lived in Beverly, Massachusetts. Nan lived on Bridge Street and about a mile from her house was a huge articulated metal bridge that gave the street its name. The drawbridge traversed an inland saltwater bay and rose about 40 feet above the waterline, which ebbed and flowed daily, revealing all kinds of mucky, fascinating man-made objects at low tide — including the remains of an ancient vehicle. It was a fascinating place for a 12-year-old kid.
Bridge St. intersected Rantoul St. where a traffic light slowed cars to a crawl as they passed over the transparent mesh deck of the crusty bridge. Normally, the rusted beams and ancient cold-hammered rivets of the massive bridge held my attention, especially where the mesh construction let me look directly past my sneakers down at the murky water 40 feet below. But one day the sound of a loud V8 caught my attention and I turned around to check it out. About ten cars down, the low rumble was coming from a yellow and black two-door coupe with something weird stuck to its hood.
At age 12 I was no car expert, but I knew this was something out of the ordinary compared to dad’s ’71 VW Beetle and mom’s ’74 Dodge Colt. I turned my back to the bay and focused intently. From five cars away, I heard the deep thrumming sound of a big V8 engine. Closer it rolled and in the few seconds I had to absorb it all, my eager eyes noted the following life-changing details: a matte black power bulge hood with circular Super Bee cartoon, Air Grabber scoop fully extended with helmet-clad Racing Bee graphics, chrome and red “426 HEMI” engine emblems, matte black stripes flowing along the upper body line and a Scat Pack racing bee sticker inside the rear side glass. Whew, my head was spinning.
I was on the passenger-side as it idled past and got a quick glimpse of the driver’s hand clasped around what I later learned was a Pistol Grip shift handle. My final memory is of the dual bazooka-tipped exhaust outlets, burbling the Street HEMI engine’s spent exhaust gasses. I made an effort to grab a whiff of the sweet, rich aroma, and fixated on the red inner-pipes encased by the slotted chrome tips. The whole event lasted perhaps 60 seconds, but like a UFO sighting, it altered the course of my life. It really did. From then on, I zeroed in on anything related to the Dodge HEMI V8 — and haven’t let up since. I was — and am — a Dodge Boy.
I entered the seventh grade that fall, a time when growing kids fixate on “idols” to help form a sense of identity and independence from their parents. One manifestation of this is seen in what kids draw on their school notebooks (and classroom desktops). While my buddies all personalized their notebooks with hand-drawn metal band artwork, I drew Super Bee logos and HEMI V8 scripts, doing my best to replicate the exact font. These personalized notebooks and my sneaky desktop graffiti quickly gained me a reputation for being a “gearhead”. Unfortunately, my first HEMI engine ownership experience was still a full decade away, which brings us to model cars.
1978: While other kids doodled metal band logos, my notebooks were strictly Dodge Material. I built this Charger model in 1998 to replace the 1976 effort I’d lost years earlier.” width=”800″ height=”600″ />
My second most influential Dodge-branding life experience was the discovery of a 1/25 scale plastic model kit of the flip-top 1972 Charger funny car. After the HEMI V8 Super Bee ignited the flame in the summer of ‘76, I spent my $2.25 weekly allowance on model cars. The kit’s box art described the “426 HEMI” V8 contained within. I had to have it, and still remember eagerly cutting the clear cellophane wrapper, lifting the lid and examining its many red and chrome plastic parts.
Subsequent model kits with 426 HEMI engine depictions (the 1964 Dodge “Re-Charged” Polara for example) generally had factory-stock dual-quad intake manifolds. By comparison, this car’s HEMI engine had a weird box and scoop set between the rocker covers. That’s when a friend’s older brother told me about how serious drag racers only used the 426 HEMI V8, and that the ribbed box on top was a supercharger. He then told me (rightfully) that HEMI engines were a cut above all other V8 engines and “all you have to do is add a supercharger to win any race”.
More reading in vintage car magazines revealed his words to be true. By all accounts, Dodge was the only carmaker with the guts to offer a racing engine — with 425 horsepower no less — for street use. By 1980 I was well on my way to becoming an expert on Dodge cars and HEMI engines (though I am, and will always be, a student of those who Know More). In my professional career as an automotive journalist (begun in 1992), I’ve had the pleasure to spread the Dodge gospel in hundreds of magazine articles and television appearances.
The funny thing is, for the first two years of my Dodge and HEMI V8 infatuation, I was mispronouncing the word HEMI as “hee-mee”. Nobody in my completely non-automotive circle of friends and family ever spoke the word aloud, so I had no clue how to pronounce it correctly. After I learned that it stood for the eight hemispherical combustion chambers contained inside, it clicked and I began saying the word “he-me” correctly. That was around 1978. It’s embarrassing but I’m admitting it here.
I often wonder what became of that Butterscotch Yellow ’71 HEMI V8 Super Bee. At the time, muscle cars were totally out of vogue and could be had for a few hundred bucks. In the brief viewing time I had to absorb it all, I did notice some lower body rust and faded paint. I also remember the vinyl Super Bee hood logo was cracked from exposure. It is entirely possible the owner had no clue he was driving one of only nine HEMI V8 4-speed 1971 Super Bees built. Heck, it’s possible the HEMI engine was long gone and a 383 was rumbling under the HEMI engine hood emblems. It happened a lot back then.