We recently reported with sadness the June 2, 2014, passing of former Chrysler high performance vehicle development engineer Jim Thornton at age 77. Though you’d have to be a fairly devoted muscle car and drag race enthusiast to know his name, once folks learn he was a member of the Ramchargers, a bell rings, and Thornton’s place in the automotive firmament becomes clearer to many.
To briefly recap, the Ramchargers was a group of (mostly) Chrysler employees who met evenings and weekends to share their love of drag racing and go-fast engineering. Initial efforts in the late fifties were strictly independent of any Chrysler factory support. But by 1961, the success of the team’s High and Mighty ’49 Plymouth in NHRA C/Altered competition attracted corporate assistance in the form of parts and vehicles. Everything crystalized for the 1962 model year when Chrysler Corp. management decided to get serious and offer its first factory-built Super Stock drag race package car, the 413 Max Wedge.
Though Thornton joined Chrysler in 1960, by 1962 he was appointed Race Vehicle Design Manager. He worked in concert with Tom Hoover (a legend in his own right) and other Rams members to ensure that Dodge drag race vehicles held a competitive edge over the competition. Though many individuals pooled their talents to create these legendary Dodge factory race vehicles, Thornton was responsible for developing the overall vehicle package for peak efficiency on the drag strip — while creatively interpreting the letter and spirit of the sanctioning bodies’ rule book.
Here’s a quick review of Jim Thornton’s contributions to the Dodge Super Stock and Factory Experimental race vehicle program during his 1962–1966 tenure as Race Vehicle Design Manager. We’ll have more next time. —Steve Magnante
Your author must admit that Thornton’s thick-rimmed eye glasses inspired my choice of Ray-Ban frames up-fitted with prescription lenses. I’ve worn them every day since 1994. I was born in July of 1964, the same month and year Thornton debuted the 426 Race HEMI® at Detroit Dragway. Needless to say, Jim Thornton is one of my heroes.
This picture shows Jim cleaning the team’s first 1962 Max Wedge Dart during an April 9, 1962, match race at Detroit Dragway. According to Dave Rockwell’s book We Were the Ramchargers, this car was built on the Dodge Hamtramck, MI, assembly line on December 19, 1961. With their insider status, Thornton and fellow Ramchargers members Tom Hoover, Dan Mancini and Tom Coddington were able to walk with the shell as it was assembled to ensure that no weighty sound deadener or undercoating was applied. Hood scoops were still forbidden by the sanctioning bodies in 1962, so the hood skin is unbroken, and the engine inhaled hot, dense under-hood air. But notice the flat black paint applied to the underside of the hood and inner fender walls. Thornton applied it to attract hot air away from the intake manifold and carburetors to increase the density of the intake charge. The rule book said nothing about such tricks … always thinking, those Ramchargers!
For 1963, Thornton helped conceive an aluminum body panel package that was included when buyers specified the high compression (13:1) 426 Max Wedge. Removing nearly 150 pounds from the nose of the car, 26 gauge aluminum was used for the hood, fenders and splash pan. Fortunately, the normal production stamping presses and dies could process the lighter aluminum panels with no extra cost or time delays. Base, low-compression Max Wedge cars made due with conventional steel fenders, bumpers, hoods and were not fitted with scoops. The scoop shown here is a modern fiberglass reproduction. Also installed on high-compression 1964 426 Max Wedge Dodges, the original aluminum hood scoops are extremely valuable — and scarce — today.
Thornton’s no-compromise performance philosophy is seen in the 1962–1964 Max Wedge’s novel dual-mode dual exhaust system. Removing the bolt-on caps uncorked the twin 3-inch diameter head pipes and emulated the effect of open headers. When the first Max Wedge package was designed for the 1962 race season, the sanctioning bodies mandated cast iron exhaust manifolds and full-length exhaust systems for all Stock and Super Stock entries. But the rule book said nothing about removable caps to bypass the mufflers for extra power. Many states frowned on this setup and forced street users to weld the caps in place to prevent “accidental” un-muffled street operation. The 1964 and 1965 Race HEMI package cars used a similar system but feeding into an even lighter single exhaust system.
Thornton was also responsible for fine-tuning Dodge’s leaf spring rear suspension. By juggling the number of leaves, adding half-leaves to stiffen the forward segment like a traction bar, and adjusting overall arch, Thornton successfully cancelled the effects of engine torque to evenly load both rear tires for optimized traction off the starting line. Thornton and the rest of the Ramchargers often rented drag strips for private test sessions to ensure the best leaf spring configurations. The Super Stock leaf springs sold in today’s Mopar Performance catalog are a direct outgrowth of Thornton’s work.
When the 426 Race HEMI replaced the 426 Max Wedge beginning in April of 1964, Thornton adapted the vehicle platform to compensate for the HEMI’s extra 70 pounds of nose weight. The stock four-headlamp Dodge grille was replaced by this novel two-lamp unit, and (perhaps) three pounds were shed. Approximately 50 Dodge 330 series two-door sedans were fitted with this special grille, which was hand made by sacrificing a second standard grille to use as fillers for the deleted inboard high-beam lamps. Of greater note, these Race HEMI sedans were also built with aluminum front bumpers, bumper brackets, hoods, fenders and doors. In the end, Thornton’s weight reduction campaign cancelled the HEMI’s extra weight. Of note, approximately 12 non-lightweight Race HEMI Dodge 440 series hardtops were also built — with standard four-headlamp grilles and regular steel body panels. These cars were assembled on June 8, 1964, and carry an aluminum Race HEMI hood scoop as their only external identifier.
Thornton was responsible for Dodge’s fabled trunk-mounted Super Stock battery. Knowing the battery’s normal under-hood location put its 50 pounds on the wrong end of the chassis for effective rear tire loading, in 1963 he specified a trunk-mounted battery for Dodge Max Wedge cars ordered with the high compression (13.5:1) engine option and lightweight body package. This picture depicts an even bolder development, the use of an extra-large 90-lb. truck-sized battery for 1964 and 1965 Race HEMI Dodges. While the 1963 and 1964 Max Wedge lightweight batteries were normal sized and positioned lengthwise behind the right-rear tire, the Race HEMI cars needed even more rearward weight bias … thus, the huge battery seen here. For the Race HEMI, Thornton repositioned the battery rearward and mounted it widthwise to get as much of its mass to the rear of the body as possible. These Race HEMI battery kits are still popular today and a must-have among Race HEMI clone builders and restorers.
Tune in next time for even more of Jim Thornton’s greatest hits.