By Steve Magnante
The Dodge high performance world lost a pioneer with the June 2, 2014, passing of former Chrysler Corp. Race Vehicle Design Manager and Ramchargers race team member, Jim Thornton. Recently, we reviewed some of Mr. Thornton’s many contributions to the evolution of Dodge stock-bodied drag race vehicles. Now, let’s continue our tribute with a look at how he helped ensure that Dodge drag race package cars were ready to fully employ the mighty output of the 426 Race HEMI® engines that powered them down the drag strip.
Though Jim left Dodge in 1969 and joined Rupp to design high performance snowmobiles, he drove his last drag race on October 22, 1967, aboard this nitro–burning, Hilborn-injected Dart funny car. Naturally, he and the team were victorious over a match race contender on that fall day in 1967 at Detroit Dragway. For an entertaining career retrospective, get a copy of Dave Rockwell’s biographical book We Were the Ramchargers. (photo: Ramchargers Archive via We Were the Ramchargers)
Another Thornton achievement seen on 1964 and 1965 Race HEMI Dodges (and Plymouths), the lightweight bucket seats and aluminum mounting brackets shaved nearly 70 pounds compared to a conventional bench seat. The seats were borrowed from the Dodge A100 compact van parts bin but with red vinyl upholstery (1964) or champagne vinyl upholstery (1965). The aluminum seat brackets were non-adjustable, so taller racers found it necessary to remount them for better seating position. This sort of relentless devotion to vehicle weight reduction was Thornton’s trademark as manager of Race Vehicle Design. Similar seats and brackets were also used in the 1968 Hurst-built HEMI Dart SS/B package cars with black upholstery.
Perhaps one of Jim’s team’s most fanatical weight loss accomplishments was the substitution of steel door hinges with aluminum copies. Seen only on the 1964 and 1965 Race HEMI lightweight sedans (about 350 cars total, split nearly evenly between Dodges and Plymouths), these hinges are visually identical to their steel cousins, except for material. But get this; replacing all four hinges with aluminum units couldn’t have shed more than two pounds. Such was the ferocity of the battle to shed weight.
Perhaps Thornton’s crowning achievement, the 1965 Dodge WO21 Super Stock Coronet sedan incorporated extensive weight reduction tricks but was a fully finished automobile. Though the sanctioning body outlawed aluminum and fiberglass body panels in 1965 to contain construction costs, Thornton met with the Dodge body panel stamping plant manager and had thinner gauge steel front fenders and hoods made for the run of 101 Race HEMI Coronets (and another 101 Plymouth Belvedere I RO21 sedans). These cars also featured a single windshield wiper, no back seat and the familiar hand-modified single-lamp grille assembly pioneered on the 1964 Dodge Race HEMI sedans.
There is a long-standing myth that the 1962–1964 Max Wedge and ’64, ’65 and ’68 Race HEMI package cars were not legal for use on public roads. That’s not true. Each was fully equipped with a 50-state-legal muffled exhaust, functional lights, turn signals, door and trunk locks and windshield wiper(s). This street equipment was strictly required by the sanctioning bodies for acceptance into their Stock and Super Stock competition eliminator categories. That said, Dodge was not seeking to flood the highways with these special vehicles. Each carried a specific warning sticker to release Chrysler Corp. from liability. The sticker read: NOTICE This car is equipped with a 426 cu. in. engine (and other special equipment). This car is intended for use in supervised acceleration trials and is not intended for highway or general passenger car use. Accordingly, THIS VEHICLE IS SOLD “AS IS,” and the 12-month or 12,000-mile vehicle warranty coverage and 5-year or 50,000-mile power train warranty coverage does not apply to this vehicle.
A step above Super Stock, Factory Experimental was created by the sanctioning bodies as a factory playground where the most exotic equipment could be tested in battle. Applying his imagination to what the rule book didn’t specifically prohibit, Thornton ensured improved traction for Chrysler’s 1965 A/FX race fleet by altering the wheelbase. With the rear wheels repositioned 15 inches forward and the front wheels 10 inches forward from their stock location, static front/rear vehicle weight distribution worked out to 45/55!
Thornton and fellow Ramcharger Dale Reeker oversaw the conversion of 11 factory-fresh 1965 Race HEMI sedans (six Dodges and five Plymouths) into altered wheelbase hardtops, and the funny car was born. Unfortunately, the plan backfired when the sanctioning body refused the cars, calling them too radical for A/FX acceptance. But the cat was out of the bag, and these stormers were hugely popular on the match race circuit. In this June 1965 shot (above), Jim Thornton drives the Ramchargers team car to victory at the AHRA Championships in Gary, IN. (photo: Ramchargers Archive via We Were the Ramchargers)
Thornton also helped oversee the race parts division to ensure that all Dodge competitors had access to the latest goodies. This Dodge press release shows the lightweight fiberglass body parts offered to independent builders of altered wheelbase funny cars. Note how the wheel opening on the front fender is located all the way forward, against the grille. These parts were produced for Dodge by sub-contractor Plaza Fiberglass of Dearborn, MI. After Thornton left Chrysler Corp. for snowmobile manufacturer Rupp, he found himself at Jeep in 1972 as Chief Engineer of Vehicle Development. Undoubtedly much of what he learned about vehicle dynamics as a Ramcharger was applied to his many contributions at Jeep.