Being raised on Mopar guarantees two things. One, you have a big chip on your shoulder because Ford and Chevy get all the love. Two, the Hemi is the grease-covered idol you pray to every night. But the Hemi engine’s story is one of glory and banishment.
Throughout its life, the Hemi regularly found itself on the outs. Whether it was on account of being too big, too fast, or having the rules bent against it, the Hemi had a habit of looking like a wild animal in an antique store. That perceivable personality is, of course, a huge part of the engine’s appeal. Hemis powered some cars that were sold with cartoon character stickers from the factory—that says a lot about the wacky energy the company was channeling. Its demise truly is the end of an era, as Dodge turns its attention to other means of propulsion for its legendary muscle cars.
As funny as it seems, the many unjust deaths of the Hemi are part of what makes it so special. So, while the news may bog us down for a moment, it’s something Dodge fans are accustomed to. All we can do is look back and admire the tragedy and triumph that is the Hemi.
Genetic Superiority: Birth of the Hemi
Dodge’s Hemi engine set its roots in absurdity. During the Second World War, the U.S. Government contracted Chrysler to develop a 2,000-horsepower airplane engine that could reliably produce power at high elevations. Its answer was a 36.4-liter turbocharged V16 outfitted with hemispherical combustion chambers. The war ultimately ended before it would see combat, but that’s just as well. Its genetic lineage would still have a chance to earn glory in battle, just in a much different, far better format.
This prototype proved the potential of the hemispherical combustion chamber. Its ability to deliver more power more consistently than similarly sized engines with other combustion chambers is something Chrysler would turn to just a few years later for its high-performance street engines.
The first generation of street Hemi was born in 1951. It might not be as well-known as its larger little brother, the second-generation 426 Hemi, but an early Hemi is a feisty ball of muscle. During the seven-year run, it set the stage for Hemis to stand as performance juggernauts. This generation hosted the first American engine to produce one horsepower per cubic inch with the 355-horsepower 354 cubic-inch engine featured in the 1956 Chrysler 300B.
It didn’t take five years for the Hemi to make performance waves, though. As soon as it arrived on the scene, engineers began working on a race version that would kickstart the controversial nature of these engines.
Chrysler engineers began the A311 project in 1951 with the intention to take on the 1953 Indianapolis 500. This project featured a Kurtis-Kraft stuffed with a 331 cubic-inch Hemi for propulsion. In testing, it turned average lap speeds of 134.4 mph, crushing the standing record set at 128.9 mph. At that time, Offenhauser four-cylinder engines dominated the circuit but this was proof that the Hemi would change that and officials worried it would lead to a lot of backlash. Before that could happen, a rule change was made to restrict engine displacement to 275 cubic inches. This did ban the Hemi from competing, but, luckily, that wasn’t the only trick up the sleeves of Hemi-brained scientists.
The first-generation Hemi was used in many forms of racing and would snag wins in all major formats. It’d even set several motorsports records that’d put Chrysler’s Hemi engines on top, well before the infamous second-generation could erupt onto the scene. A stock Coronet set 196 land speed records at Bonneville in 1953, and driver Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, would go on to put the Hemi on the top of the food chain in drag racing. He and his mighty first-generation Hemi would be the first to surpass the 170, 180, and 200 mph barriers in the quarter-mile.
Second Generation Hemi: The Tyrant
The first-generation Hemis were strong for their time but would eventually end their run in 1958. The torch was passed to the torque-commanding Chrysler Wedge engines. While it was sad to see the Hemi go, the Wedge would ultimately prove to be the better choice for passenger cars of the era.
Hemis were a lot more expensive to build than wedges, so it made sense to switch from a production standpoint. Wedges were no slouches, either. Though Hemis have the edge up top, the torquey low-end grunt of the Wedge is more practical on the street. In fact, the later 440 Six-Pack engines are notorious for their ability to beat the mighty street Hemi off the line, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The mid-1960s came in hot, and the competition among manufacturers to produce the most power was on. B and RB engines had their work cut out for them with Chevrolet, and Ford pumping out more and more powerful big-piston power plants that commanded the world stage.
Cars were the gladiators of the 1960s, and NASCAR was the Colosseum. Sunday races are where they could display their might to the world, earning loyal fans through their achievements. Dodge’s Wedge engines, while great for many things, had a hard time keeping up in stock car races. Desperate to prove it was truly the best in the business of high-performance vehicles, Chrysler once again returned to the technology that brought it much success in the past.
They took the bottom end of the 426 Max Wedge and forced it into evolution. Everything about the engine was made better. Hemispherical heads with valve angles that optimize flow were the start, the bottom end was bolstered with cross-bolt mains, and domed pistons to squeeze the fuel to no end were added. The result was an engine that was as tough as it was hell-bent on producing all-out power. This was the birth of the 426 Hemi.
While the 426 instantly showcased its potential in NASCAR, it’s not as though it was uncontested throughout its entire run. Dodge and Plymouth had formidable foes in battle that pushed the field to higher speeds. As cars went faster and faster, natural forces became as much of an obstacle as the Bowties and Blue Ovals.
Dodge’s ties to developing tech for the U.S. Government would once again shake the world to its core. The team pulled NASA rocket scientist, Gary Romberg, to develop the racecar to end all racecars. Romberg took the second-generation Dodge Charger to the wind tunnel, where rockets earned their shape.
A cone was added to the nose, and the rear window was brought flush to the sail panels. Out back, a wing was added that stood proud of the roof to keep the car down at high speeds. Under the hood, a NASCAR spec Hemi would push the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona around Superspeedways on which war was waged. With tail panels like afterburners, the Hemi rocketed these winged warriors to immortality.
On March 24, 1970, Buddy Baker displayed the might of a Hemi with wings. During transmission testing at the Talladega International Superspeedway, he went 200.44 mph. This was the first time anyone broke the 200 mph barrier on a closed-course track. It set a world record and made NASCAR history, but it was only a hint of what these cars were capable of.
The Daytona Chargers and Plymouth Superbirds reigned supreme on the Superspeedways. These cars were so fast that the competition once again decided to use popularity to leverage the against the Hemi, rather than beating them fair and square—even if Ford was building an aero car of its own. But ultimately, it was a displacement-restricting ruling that beat the Hemi. Wing cars would be limited to an engine size of 305 cubic inches, which took the Elephant out of the equation.
After this ruling, the driver of the legendary #71 K&K Insurance car, Bobby Isaac, loaded up his 426-Hemi equipped Daytona and headed to the Bonneville salt flats for Speed Week. He and his mighty steed charged into the infinite white salt and set an astounding 28 land speed records. This last magnificent display was a declaration to the world that the only thing wrong with this combination is that it was just too good for anyone to contend with.
Isaac wasn’t the only one to showcase the might of the hemi by pushing its limits, though. And its monstrous success isn’t limited solely to the oval. It’s an unmatched titan in the world of drag racing, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was a bit of a letdown to those who favored the first-generation Hemis in the circuit.
Don Garlits, who had much success with his first-generation Hemi-Powered Swamp Rat dragsters, found the second generation to be a total dog on the track. He was reluctant to adopt the new powerplant over his beloved first-generation 392, to say the least. Car and Driver’s Senior Editor, Elana Scherr, tells us about the iconic and humorous pivotal moment that changed everything.
“He [Garlits] didn’t really like the 426. Nobody liked it initially. They were like, “We can’t break it, but it also doesn’t go fast.” And so he was so angry with it because it ended up costing him some money … He was so mad at it and he decided he would just blow it up and then go back to the 392.” Explains Scherr.
When the 426 arrived, Garlits was among the first to run it at the quarter mile. He applied what he knew about the 392 and tuned it to run accordingly. Unfortunately, the affectionately named Elephant engine didn’t respond like the first-generation Hemi. Instead, it was as sluggish as it was large, pushing Big Daddy over the limit.
“He just cranked a ton of timing into it. Which would’ve cracked the earlier Hemis. And then it goes like 212 miles an hour or something. That’s 12 miles an hour faster than anyone had ever gone up to that point, you know?… [He] just kept cranking more into it and it just kept going faster. He was just astonished. No one had been going fast with it because nobody was really aware of what it could handle and that’s sort of the key to its success” Scherr continues.
This is the official time stamp of when second-generation Hemi became a full-on dominator in this format. The Hemi’s history in drag racing is long, controversial, and unrivaled. To this day, it is the only engine featured in top fuel cars. While aftermarket billet blocks are used to withstand the 10,000-plus horsepower those cars slam into the pavement, the basic design is still prevalent, serving as a testament to Chrysler’s masterpiece.
Third Generation: A Fitting Final Act
The 426 Hemi left behind shoes fit for an elephant when production ended in 1971. A few oddballs, prototypes, and lost causes attempted to fill them. Though the Hemi 6 and Ball-Stud Hemi stole the hearts of many, it would take over 30 years for something truly worthy of wearing the badge to carry on the Hemi legacy.
The third generation of Hemi is the longest-running of the batch. It may have first appeared as a truck engine of all things, but it wouldn’t take long for Dodge engineers to start squeezing the performance out of it. The 5.7 and 6.1-liter engines were the powerplants of choice when the Chargers and Challengers reappeared after a long hiatus. Dodge would eventually drop the hammer, and let history repeat itself. When the Hellcat engines arrived on the scene in 2017, it revived the spirit of the muscle cars from days past.
“I started off covering classic cars. I do new car stuff now, but I would cover the classic cars and there were the pony cars that were out and I just, I was not impressed with them. People would be like, they’re fast, they’re fast. I’m like, whatever, 12-second quarter-mile maybe. I can do that with, you know, this primer black Challenger, or whatever, and then the Hellcat came out” Scherr said.
She continued “That’s a big deal … I said twelves earlier for the regular cars, but they weren’t even twelves. They were running like thirteens, fourteens. All of a sudden these cars come out, and the average motorist could run twelves in them, and you could road trip them. It was sort of like the first new car that gave me the same sense of thrill that any of the old cars had given me. So, it’s kind of like a transition point for me to getting more interested in the newer stuff.”
Soon after, Dodge unleashed the Demon. Its 808 horsepower wasn’t just absurd, it was downright lethal. The Demon was immediately outlawed from NHRA-sanctioned events. A 9.65-second quarter-mile pass demands safety equipment this car didn’t have.
Competition rules aren’t what ultimately stopped the Hemis run, though. With the demand for improved fuel efficiency and alternative energy solutions on the rise, the Hemi, being a high-performance engine, would once again find itself riding off into the sunset.
The Hemi’s final act was the only way to send it off after a run that powered two decades’ worth of performance cars and trucks. Dodge knew that the rules would never let the Hemi be true to its absurd nature. Rather than run from it by dialing down the historic power to keep it around for just a little longer, Dodge embraced the Hemi for what it is and mustered up all of the ferocity to belt out one final mighty roar.
Dodge showcased the true potential of the third-generation Hemis with the Challenger Demon 170. This variant was outfitted with a 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi that delivered an insane 1,039 horsepower. The most powerful Challenger in history hurled down the quarter mile in 8.91 seconds.
Like a comet blasting through the night sky. All of its power, all of its absurdity, all of its majesty. It’s all only temporary, and we are the lucky few in history to have witnessed a time when it cut across our horizon.
Long Live the King
As amazing as a story may be, it does eventually need to come to an end. The Hemi will never die, though.
It’s fallen many times in history. Rules turned against it, budgets cut it out, and now efficiency standards command it be replaced. But despite these losses, the Hemi has proven time and time again that it is the greatest high-performance V8 of all time. The 426 is living proof of that. Despite Chrylser having ended production back in 1971, these are still the engines of choice for the most powerful cars in the world. Today’s 11,000 horsepower top fuel funny cars are bending physics with 500 cubic-inch engines based on the platform that powered iconic Mopar muscle cars all those years ago.
“Everything has its time. Everything has its lifespan. if you look at the Hemi now it’s far exceeded the lifespan of the 426 Hemi or the (first-gen) 392 Hemi … We’ll move on. There’ll be new stuff. Nobody knows what the future holds. There could be a complete turnaround and they’ll bring back gas engines when we all of a sudden discover some way of making totally clean gas or whatever. Who knows, right?” adds Scherr.
Go ahead and pull the plug. The Hemi will live on. Even if time replaces it with another internal combustion engine, jet propulsion, batteries, or whatever else, its impact on history will forever remain. 20, 30, or even 100 years from now, people will still look back in awe at Dodge’s mighty Hemi. The legacy that is pushing the limits and having the rules pinned against it for being too competitive will never be matched, never be snuffed, or ever be taken away.