Few badges inspire as much lore as “HEMI®” V8. From its days stuffed inside a Dodge Coronet cruising Main Street in the glory days of the muscle car, the HEMI engine has thrilled generations with its power, torque and signature orange paint. But even though a HEMI engine of some form has been in production since the early ‘50s, its popularity didn’t really take off until 1964, when the 426 was unveiled.
The 426 HEMI V8 was not borne from the boulevard, it was a product of the crucible of racing, under the hood of the Plymouth Belvedere race car. It wasn’t until 1966 that a nearly identical engine was put on sale for street cars, sporting a lower compression and a “Street” HEMI engine name. And from that, the legend began.
In just five short years, from 1966 through 1971, the Elephant engine found itself under the hood of no less than 13 different models, from the Dodge Dart SS to the Dodge Charger to the Super Bee. The engine quickly became known for its massive horsepower, loads of low-end grunt and its physical size under the hood. Its 425 horsepower and colossal 490 lb-ft of torque made it the easy choice for those who wanted to make it down the strip as fast as possible.
The engine’s sheer dominance on the racetrack certainly didn’t hurt its image, either. Starting from its inaugural season in 1964, it propelled some of the largest names in motorsport to the front of the pack, leading many to championships along the way.
As with everything with high octane ratings, the HEMI engine was a victim of the increasing restrictions to pollution and fuel economy, but the 426 also had the added pressure of no longer being allowed in racing. In the new era of restrictor plates in stock car racing, teams were finding that the hemispherical design of the HEMI engine was allowing more air to enter the carburetor than competing engines, and other teams cried foul, leading to a ban of the engine in racing. Faced with the decision of putting all of the development on the shoulders of the street car division – and the budget that came with it – Dodge executives read the tea leaves from the impending regulations and stopped production of the engine so that it would never become synonymous with the mild-mannered engines the era would eventually produce.
The absolutely massive size of the engine also paved the way to it becoming a favorite of hot rod teams. Teams loved it for the unthought-of bore and stroke sizes that could be achieved with the casting. In fact, it became so popular that it still has quite the stronghold on the drag racing field, and is still the foundation of virtually all funny car and top fuel dragsters.
Over 30 years later, the HEMI engine name was revived, being put into production for the 2003 model year to power the Dodge Ram pickup truck. However, as Dodge saw its lineup start to change over to iconic nameplates such as the Charger and Challenger, it wasn’t long before the decision was made to power such nostalgic names with an equally venerable power plant. And so a new HEMI V8-powered muscle car era was born.
The new engine quickly earned many new diehard fans, but the 347 cubic inches of displacement it brought with it didn’t feel like a worthy successor to the storied 426. That all changed in 2010, when Dodge shoehorned the 392 HEMI engine between the fenders of the 2011 Dodge Challenger as part of the SRT8 package. To fans’ rejoice the world over, the 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque brought back fond memories of the Elephant engine’s ability to leave two black streaks wherever it went.
To kick up the nostalgia even more, starting in 2014 Dodge put a Shaker hood on top of the 392 engine, bringing back the glory days of big power and big theatrics on the streets of America.
But no comparison between the old 426 HEMI engine and the “new HEMI” engines of today would be complete without mentioning the new 6.2L SRT® Hellcat engine. Thanks to the help of some incredible engineering, a supercharger and 707 horsepower, the Charger SRT Hellcat has clocked a top speed of 204 miles per hour. This makes it not only the fastest Dodge sedan ever built, but the most powerful muscle car ever produced by any manufacturer*, and has proven itself one hell of a successor to the 426 in the process.
Dodge, Challenger, Charger, Dart, HEMI, SRT and Super Bee are trademarks of FCA US LLC.
*Based on Ward’s specialty segment.