On Monday, June 2, 2014, the drag racing world and fans of Dodge drag racing history lost Jim Thornton to an autoimmune disease and a rare form of cancer. He was 77. Thornton was the man behind the Super Stock and Factory Experimental Max Wedge and Race HEMI® vehicle platforms that carried racers to victory in the early and mid-sixties. Born in Richmond, Missouri, in 1937, Thornton — who served as race vehicle design manager at Chrysler from 1962 to 1966 — can honestly be described as the Father of the Funny Car for his brilliant realization that starting line traction can be enhanced by moving the wheels forward under the body of a race car.
Thornton graduated from the University of Missouri in 1960 summa cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering. A budding hot rodder with his own Dodge Coronet D500, Jim then enrolled in the Chrysler Institute of Engineering as a work/study participant, which led to a master’s degree in automotive engineering. From the start of his education and employment at Chrysler, Jim immediately became involved with the Ramchargers, the legendary group of Chrysler employees devoted to weekend drag racing. Knowing that the booming sport of sanctioned ¼-mile acceleration contests was gaining national credibility as a sales tool for new automobiles, Thornton and the rest of the Ramchargers convinced upper management to become increasingly active in the sport.
By 1961 the team succeeded in attracting the help of Frank Wiley, the head of Dodge public relations. From there, a fast-paced series of events ensured that Dodge products would evolve rapidly into a fearsome opponent — on the track as well as in the show room — for anything offered by competing automakers. With help from Dodge public relations, the Ramchargers were supplied with a new 1961 Dodge Dart Seneca, and the guys — including Tom Hoover, Dale Reeker, Mike Buckel, Dick Maxwell, Dan Mancini, Jack McPherson, Gary Congdon, Al Eckstrand and Dick Jones — transformed it into a worthy drag strip performer.
Though its balky three-speed manual transmission ultimately proved to be a major obstacle to victory, the big Dart Seneca sedan lit the fuse on the team’s exploration into the advantages of ram tuning, weight distribution and the potential superiority of automatic transmissions over stick shifts at the drag strip. Best of all, while the guys weren’t racing, their daytime activities as Chrysler engineering employees mirrored their weekend efforts. Many tricks learned in the heat of battle were soon applied to regular production Dodges sold to the public.
For Thornton’s part, as the race vehicle design manager within the Chrysler Corp. Race Group, one of his many tasks was to conjure the vehicle packages to be motivated by legendary engines like the 413 Max Wedge in 1962 and 426 Race HEMI in 1964 and 1965. Hindered by the hard rubber compounds and stiff sidewalls of even the best drag racing slicks of the day, Thornton applied his experience to the task of getting as much power to the drag strip as possible. Though newcomers to the world of drag racing are impressed by billowing clouds of tire smoke, successful racers shun smoke since it’s a sign the tires are spinning. And when they spin, engine power is wasted and the opponent wins.
Thornton knew weight distribution was both the cause — and cure — for the tire spin problem. So for the 1963 and 1964 model years, he was responsible for the decision to offer an optional aluminum front sheet metal package designed to shed over 100 pounds from the nose of the race car. While lower overall vehicle mass made the engine’s job easier, Thornton’s insightful mind recognized that when this weight was removed from the front tires, there was a side effect that effectively increased the mass carried by the rear tires for even better traction off the starting line.
Thornton’s skills at weight juggling were put to the ultimate test when the 426 Race HEMI arrived mid-way through 1964. With its double rocker shafts, laterally opposed valve angles and massive ports, the new HEMI heads were nearly twice as heavy as the wedge heads they replaced. Thornton’s solution was to increase the application of lightweight aluminum body panels to include the doors and the substitution of plastic for glass door windows.
But even those drastic measures weren’t the complete answer. For the 1965 race season Thornton was tasked with creating the ultimate vessel in which to fully realize the 426 HEMI engine’s capacity as an acceleration maker for use in the exotic Factory Experimental drag racing class. Tom Hoover and the guys in the engine design lab pitched in with new aluminum HEMI cylinder heads and a new magnesium intake manifold, but the cars were still too nose-heavy to be fully effective.
Thornton again supplied a revolutionary solution by moving the rear wheels forward 15 inches from their stock location and also moving the front wheels 10 inches forward from their normal position. The result yielded a 45/55 front/rear static weight distribution, an unheard-of result at the time. Immediately, the small fleet of 10 altered wheelbase Dodges and Plymouths began destroying the competition, thanks to Thornton’s imaginative trick.
Though the primary sanctioning body (the National Hot Rod Association) decided the cars were simply too “funny” to be considered stock and outlawed them, the altered wheelbase funny cars flourished on the exhibition match race circuit. The funny car was born.
More impressive was the fact that in addition to maintaining his day job at Chrysler, Thornton also raced these wheel-standing, 170-plus mph cars at regional and national events. Known as a fierce opponent on the match race circuit, he drove the Ramchargers Candymatic team cars to numerous victories over the best factory-sponsored and independent competitors the sport had to offer.
We must remember to appreciate those who inspire us and achieve greatness while they are still with us. R.I.P., Mr. Thornton. To read more about Jim Thornton’s life and his experiences with the Ramchargers, pick up a copy of Dave Rockwell’s fantastic book We Were the Ramchargers.
– Steve Magnante
A truly hands-on racer/engineer, Thornton and the Race Group rented Carlsbad Raceway in California for a week of testing in January 1965. This test session was held to evaluate Hilborn fuel injection and the use of alcohol instead of gasoline. This Plymouth was the prototype for the entire altered wheelbase program and ran 10.62 at 131 mph. (Photo: Chrysler Historical Collection via We Were the Ramchargers)
Jokingly nicknamed “B.B. Eyes” by fellow Ramcharger Mike Buckel because of the effect his thick prescription lenses had on his eyes, Thornton’s signature eyewear was the inspiration for your author’s choice of eye glasses. I got my first pair of Thornton-esque thick-frame eye glasses in 1992 and have worn them ever since. (Photo: Chrysler Historical Collection via We Were the Ramchargers)
Wearing a respirator mask to repel noxious nitromethane fumes, Thornton piloted the Ramchargers’ altered-wheelbase ’65 A/FX Coronet to numerous victories and records. He was at the wheel when it became the world’s first naturally aspirated F/X car to break into the eight-second zone (8.910 at 148.66 mph) at Cecil County, MD. Fellow Ramcharger Mike Buckel shared driving duties with Thornton. (Photo: Chrysler Historical Collection via We Were the Ramchargers)
Your author was thrilled to meet Jim Thornton (right) during the 1993 Chryslers at Carlisle car show. I was there to write a feature story about the HEMI Reunion for Mopar Action magazine and was 28 years old, Thornton 56. I was tongue-tied meeting one of my true heroes.