Chrysler Hemi’s fiftieth birthday – or is it? – celebrated

Hemi I50th anniversary logoThe Elephant turns 50 this year. No, not a pachyderm, which normally lives fifty to sixty years (when they wear out their teeth and starve to death), but  rather the famous Chrysler Hemi V-8 engine. Which is still very much alive.

As in, you got a hemi in that thing? The Hemi engine of model year got its proboscidian nickname from its mammoth size, which wasn’t actually out of line with other large displacement engines of its era, but then nicknames aren’t typically admissible in a court of law as a technical description.

Actually, the Chrysler Hemi engine as a type dates further back than 1964. Chrysler introduced its first hemi-head automotive engine in 1951, at a time when some manufacturers were still making relatively primitive flathead engines. That Chrysler hemi V-8, appropriately marketed among other designations as the “Firedome” engine, debuted in 1951 and as the first passenger car engine to make 300 horsepower, spawned the Chrysler 300 “letter series” cars.

1957 Chrysler 300-C advertisement

A 1957 Chrysler 300-C advertisement made reference to the car’s 375 horsepower but not to the engine itself. (click to enlarge)

Nor was it the first engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, a concept that dates back to the first decades of the gasoline engine. Nor was it the first American V-8 engine with hemi heads, at least if one counts the competition Ardun heads used on Ford Flathead V-8’s. Nor the first automobile engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, which goes back at least to a prewar BMW model.

Nor was it Chrysler’s first engine with that combustion chamber design, that honor going to the  inverted V-16 aircraft engine developed for use in the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter (but not used, being eclipsed by the latest-thing jet engine).

This original Chrysler hemi series of automotive engines began with a 301 cubic inch displacement V-8, ending in 1958 with a 392 cubic inch displacement and rated at 390 horsepower. The advanced design of the hemi engine, however, was expensive to build, however, and was replaced by a “wedge” cylinder head design.

But as factory involvement in NASCAR competition heated up in the early sixties, Chrysler needed something to compete with Ford’s single overhead cam “Cammer” 427 engine that hit the track in 1963.

1966 Plymouth Belvedere Hemi 426 advertisement

One of the first cars to get the Street Hemi was the 1966 Chrysler Belvedere. (click to enlarge)

Chrysler pulled the hemispherical combustion chamber concept out from the back of the cupboard and the result was a racing-only 426 Hemi, and on February 23,1964, at their debut at the Daytona 500, the 426 cubic-inch engines powered the first through third placing Plymouths of Petty, Pardue and Goldsmith.

But NASCAR boss Bill France wanted to maintain some semblance to the “stock car” that’s its middle name, and summarily declared that all engines in the race series would have to be available for purchase in production cars, rather than just a handful of engines for racing. Chrysler, miffed, withdrew from the 1965 NASCAR season in protest of the new rules…while working on making the race Hemi suitable for public consumption.

Chrysler hadn’t only developed the “Circuit” or “Track” version of the engine used in NASCAR, however. There was also the “Acceleration” or “Drag” Hemi built for quarter-mile action, and Don Garlits took one and promptly went out and broke the 200-mph barrier in a 426 Race HEMI-powered car with an e.t. of 7.78 seconds at 201.34 mph.

While sitting out NASCAR, Chrysler also released the A-990 drag racing package for the NHRA Super Stock class  in Dodge and Plymouth. With lighter weight and altered wheelbases, 426 Hemi-powered A-990s helped established the popularity of Funny Cars. Today, Chrysler can brag that a version of that engine still powers every Funny Car and Top Fuel engine regardless of being badged by other manufacturers.

1969 Dodge Charger 500

The 1969 Dodge Charger 500 was a special street version of an aerodynamically enhanced Dodge Charger, with a flush grille and fastback roof. (click to enlarge)

Plymouth and Dodge returned to NASCAR in 1966. There was no longer a need to protest as the Street Hemi became available in an increasing number of Dodges and Plymouth, providing muscle for the muscle car era. The 440 Max Wedge engine may have been more popular in some circles, with low-rpm grunt instead of the 426 Hemi’s high-winding horsepower, but it’s the Hemi that most remember as the iconic Chrysler Corporation muscle car V-8.

Alas, a triple whammy of emissions controls, car insurance rates and the fuel crisis spelled the end of the Street Hemi in 1971, along with the muscle car era overall. Corporate resources were were switched over to emissions and fuel economy—though starting in the mid-eighties and into the nineties, turbocharged fours, most notably in the 1985 Dodge Omni GLH Turbo—while Hemi became just a memory.

That changed, however, in 2002 as the Hemi returned. Oddly enough, it was first offered in a truck, the 2003 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 pickup but it quickly spread to Chrysler’s new line of rear-drive automobiles. The new Hemi engine, however, originated from the need to replace the 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 truck engine—more commonly known by its 360-cubic-inch displacement–whose basic architecture dated back to the 1950s. It had become obvious that the old engine wouldn’t be able to meet the challenges of its rivals in the truck world. That the development led to hemispreical combustion chambers wasn’t predetermined. In fact, it’s code name as worked progressed was “Ram” rather than “Hemi.”

2009 Dodge Challenger R/T

There’s Hemi power under the hood of this 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T. (click to enlarge)

But the engine nevertheless had arrived serendipitously in time for the rear-drive automobiles, and the original 5.7-liter quickly found itself under the hood of the Chrysler 300C, Dodge Magnum demi-wagon, and Dodge Charger. The rest, as they say, is history. Generally speaking, the R/T models are powered by the 5.7-liter, the SRT labeled vehiles have a 6.1-liter version of the engine, and the Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 gets 470 horsepower out of 6.4-liters of Hemi.

Congratulations to Chrysler on the 50th anniversary of the Hemi 426, even if the first Chrysler hemi appeared  61 year ago and went with a five and with then 32 year hiatus. That’s one heck of a lost weekend, but who’s counting the years when an Elephant’s throwing the party.