GENUINE muscle cars are a rarity these days; hard driving, rust and natural attrition have thinned the herd. But when your car is the only one of its type ever made, now that’s rare. Like Stephen Gay’s R/T Charger automatic.
This Charger isn’t a Six-Pack car – it’s a whole lot rarer than that. It has the body number VH8S29, reflecting its auto R/T status, where you’d usually see VH7S29 that identifies every other Valiant R/T Charger on the planet.
Chrysler Australia never offered an automatic transmission with its R/T Charger range. If you wanted an R/T you were getting three pedals, and that was that. But Chrysler Oz was nothing if not flexible. Under the Special Order Accepted system you could get just about anything if you knew the right people to talk to. It didn’t happen a lot, but there are enough Six Pack-powered VH Pacers and 340 V8-powered sedans out there to prove that it did happen.
We reckon more than a few strings were pulled to get this car down the production line. After all, this particular R/T Charger was sent directly to the United Kingdom, which may help explain a few of its peculiarities.
Additional side markers, oddball Leyland Marina door handles and a dealer-fitted slide-back cloth sunroof would normally make the average Mopar enthusiast cringe, but they’re all part of what makes this car special.
Add the factory-fitted BorgWarner automatic transmission to the mix, and you’ve got a truly unique slice of Chrysler history.
Stephen has an equally interesting history. Born in Australia but raised in the US, he’s lived and worked in more countries than the average punter.
Growing up Stateside he developed a Mopar fever when he was still in school.
“I still own my first car,” he says. “It’s a Plum Crazy ’70 Cuda that I bought for $800 in the early 80s. It was a 383 car but now it’s got a 496ci stroker.”
That passion for the Pentastar continued while he was living in the UK, which was where a mate told him about this rare Charger for sale. While the car was as rough as they come back then, all the numbers lined up.
“A friend, Arnold Patch, called from Australia to let me know that this automatic car was for sale on eBay, so I went up there and took a look in person.
I had some reservations, so I called Gary Bridger – the co-author of the Hey Charger book – in New Zealand and we discussed the car’s features and numbers while I was standing in front of the car. That international mobile-to-mobile call cost me £170, but we agreed it was the one and only R/T automatic and I decided I just had to buy it,” Stephen explains.
The first step in returning it to its former glory was to have the Charger shipped back to Australia.
“The expertise was in Australia.
It was also where the interest and understanding of this car lay. It’s part of Chrysler Australia’s heritage.”
It’s a cool piece of motoring history and we’re glad he had the guts to restore it the way it was meant to be, especially when you consider how bad it was.
“It was in horrible condition,” Stephen says. “It was probably 70 or 80 per cent rust; it was pretty daunting. But given the fact that it is the only one in the world I just felt it had to be saved, and with the car’s heritage I felt this project needed the experts to get it done factory-correct.”
Colour: Hemi Orange
Engine: Chrysler 265ci Intake: Cast-iron 2bbl Carby: Carter 2bbl Heads: Cast-iron, stainless valves 1.96in (in), 1.6in (ex) Rockers: Yella Terra Pistons: Cast, 0.040 over Crank: Cast Rods: Stock Cam: Hydraulic Ignition: Points Exhaust: Twin-outlet manifold, single exhaust
Transmission: BorgWarner 35 Converter: Standard Diff: BorgWarner 78, 2.92 gears
Brakes: 11in discs (f), 9in drums (r) Springs: Torsion bar (f), leaf (r) Shocks: Standard (f & r)
Rims: Steel-styled, 14x6.5 (f & r) Rubber: BF Goodrich Redline, 205/70 (f & r)
Steering wheel: R/T three-spoke Seats: Buckets, black vinyl Gauges: R/T cluster Shifter: Console auto Stereo: Chrysler Radiomobile
My wife; Arnold and Val Patch; Brad McKenzie; Paul Norris at Elko Performance; Valiant Spares & Repairs; Black Edge Autobody
Mid-project Stephen transferred with work from the UK to Singapore, so Arnold – whose fault it was in the first place – acted as his agent in Australia.
The car was shipped to Valiant Spares & Repairs to tackle the job of bringing the body back from the dead. Every external panel was removed, including the roof turret and rear quarters. Even the driver-side front chassis rail – always a weak link on Valiants – needed to be totally rebuilt. The phrase ‘basket case’ may occasionally be thrown around too easily but not in this case.
“The first recommendation was that the car should be crushed and another body used,” Stephen says. “More than a few people said it was just not worth salvaging, but I didn’t see the point in taking another Charger off the road to save this one.”
Once the bones were sorted, the guys had to organise fresh skin. Stephen had the guys repair the existing sheet metal in most cases, because it was going to cost just as much to replace the panels with parts from another shell as to fix the originals. It took more than 1100 work hours to set the Charger right, and if you think that’s a lot, you’re not wrong.
“In the end it was about $70,000 to do the panel and paint but we managed to do it without sacrificing any other Chargers,” Stephen says.
The paint was handled by Black Edge Autobody and they’ve done a cracking job on the Hemi Orange. To make sure they got the bonnet blackout and the stripes perfect, Paul Norris from Elko Performance brought along his unmolested Magenta R/T Charger to park next to it for measurements.
Elko and Valiant Spares & Repairs were both involved in the reassembly.
As you’d expect after such an epic body job, no expense was spared on the rest. Every item was either replaced, refurbished or reconditioned.
The sunroof presented a particular problem. The cloth was easy enough to replace but the hardware was all junk.
Then by fortuitous coincidence, a guy came into the workshop with the exact same type of sunroof, which he was looking to get rid of in favour of a steel roof. Problem solved.
There’s no doubt Stephen’s very happy with the result. And that’s lucky, considering he wouldn’t even tell his wife what the car looked like when he started.
“She would have cried if I’d told her,” he admits. “She thought I was a bit mad to take on such a big project but now she’s seen the overwhelming response to the car she has become much more understanding.”
And now it’s finished Stephen says he’s cured of any desire to take on a project of this magnitude again. He’s happy to just cruise it to shows and share it with Aussie Chrysler fans. Debuting at this year’s Chryslers On The Murray, the car scored a Top Five award in the Australian cars. That’s a huge effort when you consider just how many cars turned out at Albury-Wodonga.
Now the Charger’s extensive and expensive restoration is complete, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s going to be a pamper pony. Stephen intends to drive it to every show he can.
“All that detailing underneath will take a beating,” he says, “but I’m a firm believer that cars like this should be driven to events, not trailered.”
Amen to that, we say.