VOLUME XIII,  ISSUE 2 - MAY- JUNE,  2018

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Bret Tassias Resurrects a 1970 Challenger

 

Text and Photos by Chris Holley

Everything on the Challenger screams hi-performance and race ready. The callout badges give an indication of the engine under the hood, while the hood pins keep the seriousness that lies beneath just out of view of engrossed onlookers. The blackout hood treatment and simulated hood scoops add to the performance look.

 

The all-new 1970 E-body Dodge Challenger made its debut in September 1969, and while late to the game, Dodge finally had a pony car offering for the public. Chrysler management had put the pony car plan in motion in 1967 with a target of completion for the dawning of the new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) side impact standards just around the corner for all 1970 models. The Challenger (and sister car the Plymouth Barracuda) design met the new standards, but it put the introduction of the Challenger a full five and a half years after the launch of the original pony car, the Ford Mustang. To meet the NHTSA standards, the bulbous 1970 Camaro gained 240 lbs when compared to the 1969 Camaro, and the bloated 1970 Mustang was no longer a lightweight having ballooned up 500 lbs since its 1965 introduction. Even with a fresh design, Dodge somehow managed to find a way to make a 110” wheelbase Challenger heavier than both of the competitors’ offerings. The Challenger weighed in at 3,437 lbs, which was 50 lbs more than the Camaro and more than 100 lbs heftier than the Mustang.

 

Adding insult to injury, the Challenger finished a distant third in sales to the Mustang and the Camaro in 1970. The Mustang and Camaro outsold the Challenger by almost 108,000 and 42,000 units respectively. The sales numbers for 1970 were well below the expectations of the Chrysler brass, and the subsequent years were even worse as the buyer demographics shifted and greater emissions requirements crushed the automotive industry and effectively ended the pony car market. After a five-year run and with little fanfare, the end came to the production of the E-body. The entire production run was a loss for Chrysler, and just a few years later, mirroring the failure of the E-body, Chrysler would have to file for bankruptcy protection owing to continued management and sales struggles.

 

Even with all the shortcomings of the E-body Dodges and Plymouths, they are now some of the most valued pony cars. The long hood and short deck look of the Challenger has aged well. The Challenger has an ardent personality, which developed a significant following over the years. The 1970-71 Challengers are by far the most popular and desired of all the production years. The 340 and the big-block Challengers garner most of the attention. The ’70 and ’71 models arguably signified the peak and end of the muscle car era at the same time. Originally, Dodge categorized the Challenger into one of three groups, which consisted of a base Challenger, an R/T, and a convertible (with or without R/T option). The Special Edition (SE) trim option was available on the base and R/T models. Just like all the Dodge products, the engine selection for the Challenger would comprise of options from the slant six all way to the big-blocks including the mammoth 426 Hemi. After the initial introduction of the Challenger, a mid-year unveiling of the Trans Am version of the Challenger increased the E-body offerings to the public.

 

Bret Tassias of Mystic, Connecticut, always wanted a Plum Crazy 440 Six Pack Challenger with a 4-speed transmission. One of Bret’s high school friends knew of this desire, and while flipping through the July/Aug ’95 issue of Hemmings Motor News, he spotted a Plum Crazy 440 Six Pack Challenger but with a Torqueflite rather than a 4-speed. He quickly shared the information with Bret. Mildly interested, Bret made a call to the number listed in Hemmings, and as the discussion meandered, the details about the Challenger became clearer and more enticing to him.

 

Bret was pleased to discover this car originally had a white top, white bumble bee stripe, and a white interior. A major concern arose with the Challenger when Bret discovered the Challenger was in Missouri while the owner lived in Huntsville, Alabama. This situation distressed Bret, but after additional calls, exchanges of photos via the mail, hand rubbings of the fender and VIN plates, corresponding rubbings of the stampings on the cowl and the radiator support, and contacting a friend in law enforcement to verify the VIN and title, everything did seem to be on the up-and-up, so Bret overlooked the automatic transmission and made arrangements to pick up the Challenger.

 

Bret and two friends, one who owned a body shop, made the trip from Connecticut to Sikeston, Missouri, purchasing the Challenger on July 29, 1995. Upon return to Connecticut, Bret did not take the in-primer Challenger to his house, rather, he took it to his friend’s body shop to store while developing a plan to get the Challenger back into shape. Although the amount of work required to restore the Challenger would be extensive, Bret had an original 440 Six Pack Challenger backed by a Torqueflite automatic transmission and an 8¾” filled with 3.55:1 gears. Of the 83,032 Challengers produced in 1970, Bret’s Challenger is one of 793 produced with the Six Pack and a Torqueflight.

While everybody wanted the Hemi, the cost of the Hemi pushed the 426 out of the realm possibility for many. However, the 440 was more affordable, and with the Six Pack optioned engine, the 440 could hold its own against the Fords and Chevys as well as the Hemi Plymouths and Dodges when pressed into a little streetlight warfare.

 

Bret, with help from friends, started the restoration almost immediately after the purchase. Prior to Bret’s ownership of the Challenger, someone had hung the passenger side quarter panel on the Challenger, but additional repairs were still necessary. The trunk floor and rear frame area is a common rust problem concern for all E-bodies, and Bret’s trunk floor did not escape rust damage. The floor had only a few pinholes, but the Challenger still required a floor pan replacement. Luckily, the frame rail extensions were still in good shape, and Bret was able to save and reuse them. The area below the windshield wiper motor had rust due to a blocked drain hole that allowed water and debris to accumulate and deteriorate the metal. Bret found a donor car with a pristine firewall from which he cut out a portion for a replacement patch panel that he welded into his Challenger.

 

Lastly, the replaced passenger quarter panel turned out to be a cheapo offshore panel and not an NOS piece. The panel had a problem with the reflector light hole, so Bret cut out a section of a quarter panel from a donor car, and he welded the patch into the quarter panel. With additional sanding and straightening of the body panels, the Challenger was prepared for the FC7 Plum Crazy toned hue. On August 20, 1999, with the Challenger sporting the Plum Crazy paint, Bret moved the Challenger to his home garage to continue the restoration.

With the Challenger at home, Bret and the friend that had found the Challenger installed a 1972 440 engine that Bret had dressed up to look like a 440 Six Pack engine. The cloned Six Pack engine with a matching 1972 Torqueflite transmission dropped into the Challenger’s engine bay with little fanfare. As the restoration continued, Bret found out about a real 1970 440 Six Pack engine that a local resident owned. The engine was originally in a Plymouth GTX, which had met its demise. The owner of the GTX pulled the engine from the Plymouth and stored it for several years until the current owner (local resident) purchased it and slipped it into a 1970 Coronet. Bret struck a deal to trade his cloned 1972 440 Six Pack engine and some cash for the factory 35K-mile 440 Six Pack engine.

 

With help from his friends, Bret pulled the cloned engine from the Challenger’s engine bay and swung in the factory Six Pack engine. Soon after the installation, the engine developed non-descript noises that became increasingly pronounced. The diagnosis of the noises exposed a valvetrain problem. Pulling off the valve covers revealed several bent push rods and damaged rocker arms. Bret was not satisfied with just installing new pushrods and rocker arms without finding the root cause of the problem, so he pulled the engine back out of the engine bay on March 16, 2002.

 

The engine was meticulously machined and reassembled, and Bret took a day off from work and with a friend accompanying him, witnessed the startup, subsequent warm up, and break-in period of the 440 on an engine dynamometer (dyno). Bret’s friend videotaped several dyno pulls performed on the 440 after the break-in. On May 5, 2002, the 440 was reinstalled into the engine bay. With the paint exterior done, the fresh engine nestled safely between the front fenders, and the interior restoration moving along well, Bret registered the Challenger in Connecticut on June 19, 2002, with hopes to have the Challenger on the road before the snow flew. That never happened. Almost another three years would elapse before the Challenger hit the streets. Bret put the final touches on the highly-optioned Challenger, and on June 15, 2005, the Challenger was finally together and ready to make its debut.

From the day Bret started taking the Challenger to car shows, he began acquiring class and event wins and trophies, and everyone was impressed with the restoration. Bret enjoyed the attention paid to him in the form of compliments and thumbs-up reactions, but all the while, he felt the 440 did not seem to have the power that he expected. He had terrible problems with the engine pinging and running hot, so Bret continually pulled the ignition timing back, and he eventually began mixing in 110-octane fuel to allow moderate ignition timing while keeping the pinging at bay. To find a resolution to the engine’s lack of power, pinging, and hot temperatures, Bret took the Challenger to several garages in area around his hometown.

 

Eventually, one of the garage technicians did a compression test and found the cranking pressures ranged between 205 and 220 pounds per square inch gauge (psig). There was not enough camshaft overlap to bleed off some of the cylinder pressure, and the 93-octane fuel could not prevent the engine preignition problems. After a decade of attempts to resolve the engine’s problems and with much deliberation, Bret pulled the engine once again on February 2, 2015. Upon disassembly of the engine, the camshaft turned out to be a mystery without any identification markings or indication of the manufacturer or the stock number. For the latest rebuild, Bret selected a factory replacement camshaft with a similar lift and duration to the original factory camshaft. Each cylinder received a fresh hone, and new rings wrapped the cleaned pistons. The machine shop cleaned the cylinder heads and treated each valve seat and valve to a fresh 3-angle surface.

Bret reassembled the 440, and he reinstalled it for the final time on October 20, 2015. Although a better camshaft selection most likely eliminated the overheating problems, Bret added a 26” factory radiator, which replaced the 22” factory unit. Lastly, Bret updated the factory dual-point distributor with Pertronix electronic ignition internals to provide a maintenance-free and more user-friendly ignition.

 

Since the latest engine overhaul, Bret states the Challenger has been a joy to drive. He noted, “The 440 has plenty of power, and the overheating problem is a thing of the past.”

To complete the just off the dealership sales floor look, the Challenger rides on the correct factory 15” Rallye wheels that are wrapped by reproduction Goodyear Polyglas bias-ply tires. Bret’s Challenger wears a SuperCar Shootout plate, which is an organization that races factory stock muscle cars. Bret does not race the Challenger, but he lends his photography skills to the sanctioning body.

The interior has stunning white seat covers and door panels. The dash, instrument cluster, and console are in great condition. The simulated wood grain on the cluster and console a gives the interior a little color and is beautifully applied. The gauges all operate correctly, and Bret did add two additional gauges (installed under the lower dash), so he can more accurately monitor the oil pressure and the engine coolant temperature.

Bret had all the gauges professionally restored, and they are clean, sharp, and easy to read. The restored AM/FM radio operates more effectively with upgrades that take advantage of the advancements in electronics that have occurred since 1970.

The attractive “pit stop” fuel filler was really a flip-top filler cap. The gas cap heightened the race-oriented appearance of the Challenger. The cap is an original in outstanding condition.

The NOS tips slip out just below the rear bumper of the Challenger. During the restoration, the chrome throughout the Challenger back to is former luster.

The simple name callout emblems affixed to the bumblebee stripe at the rear of the Challenger informs all bystanders that this Challenger is not a run of the mill 318, but rather, it is an RT with an engine bay stuffed full of a big-block Dodge mill.

 

With more than two decades of dedication to the Challenger, Bret now has one of those highly coveted pony cars, and all the drawbacks that kept buyers away from the Challengers over four decades ago have no bearing at all on his enjoyment of the car. So, if you ever find yourself in Mystic and you see a Plum Crazy Challenger in your rear view, please don’t be slow, because he has a Six Pack to go. 

-the Professor

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