As a leader in the hot rodding industry, Popular Hot Rodding is in the unique position to notice--and act upon--various hot spots in the hobby. We're in daily contact with both the factories and the country's top car builders, and we can't remember a time when there's been more interest in Chrysler products than right now. You may or may not be a Mopar fan, but one thing is for sure: You have a strong opinion about the subject--and chances are, that's an opinion you probably didn't hold quite as strongly two or three years ago.
As far as we can tell, a confluence of things have combined to create all the positive attention on the blue pentagram. First and foremost is DaimlerChrysler's renewed investment in horsepower--specifically the new Hemi, and in building rear-wheel-drive cars. This is a recipe for performance, which when combined with world-class engineering from Mercedes and a sticker price the average joe can afford, makes for a grand slam on the sales floor.
Quite independent from the factory effort is the movement in the hot-rodding world toward building Mopars. Previously dominated by the '55-57 Chevy and the first-generation '67-'69 Camaro, the hot rodding hobby is turning to mother Mopar in ever larger numbers. Restorations and NOS parts are out. Custom g-Machines, aftermarket suspensions and repop parts are in. Mopars are fetching outrageous money on the auction block and rare Hemi cars are going under the knife to be built into max-effort performers.
To a lesser degree, GM and Ford have unwittingly played parts in Chrysler's success; GM to its own detriment and Ford to its advantage. For its part, GM has utterly walked away from "affordable" V-8 performance (and all the marketing opportunities it provides for an entire product line) by abandoning the Camaro and Firebird in 2002, but the damage started even further back with the demise of the B-Body rear-drive platform in 1996. Trucks, and to some extent front-drive cars, were supposed to be GM's meal ticket. We've yet to hear anybody pull up to a Cobalt and ask, "That thing got an Ecotec?" Plainly, GM opened the door, and Chrysler walked through it.
Right now, incentives on GM's full-size cars--including Buick's brand-new Lacross--are running three times that of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum. A two-point slip in market share from a year ago and an $855 million first-quarter loss in 2005 is proving GM's SUV-dominant strategy a big loser, particularly in light of current oil prices. Hemi-powered products from Chrysler enjoy fuel-saving multiple-displacement technology, but still aren't immune from high fuel prices. Nevertheless, people who drive Hemi-powered products don't seem to mind as much. (Lesson one: customer satisfaction beats a rebate any day.)
And Ford? Only a fool would deny Ford's grand slam hit--the new Mustang. In much the same fashion as Chrysler, Ford ignored good sense, took the risk and built the product they were born to build. The world now loves them for it, and seems poised to buy anything with the Ford label on it, so long as it looks like a Mustang. In the battle for dealership supremacy, GM seems to have picked up a bit of "aero push," as the NASCAR people say, and gotten hung out to dry. The whole "retro" aspect of the Mustang's success has aided Chrysler's use of the heritage theme, at least from a marketing standpoint (if not the styling standpoint).
If there's a fly in the ointment for Chrysler, it's the lack of a two-door and the lack of a manual transmission. In the opinion of most people we talked to, these two things are holding them back from the purchase of a new Hemi 300C, Magnum or Charger-styling notwithstanding. Beyond this, Chrysler seems reluctant to embrace the popularity and heritage of anything with a Plymouth badge. If Chrysler plans on taking full advantage of its momentum, it will need the 'Cuda (or Barracuda) name. If Chrysler right now pulled off all the Crossfire emblems and slapped on 'Cuda badges, the glut of Crossfires on Chrysler lots would be gone in a week's time. Hey, if they can put a Hemi in a Jeep, they can surely build a Chrysler 'Cuda. Hell, it even rolls off the tongue nicely.
That's all well and good, but what about our hot rodding universe? We tend to do what we like and aren't influenced by new car trends. Right? Maybe, but consider this: Nobody could've guessed three years ago that all the influential street machine builders would be building Mopars with budgets set on "kill." Some serious coin is being spent on 'Cudas, Challengers, Chargers, Road Runners and even Darts. You readers are just beginning to see it now, but by this time next year it will be so widespread you'll swear Hemi-powered 'Cuda g-Machines grew on trees.
So what do the top hot rod builders think about all this? Are they now all pawns for DaimlerChrysler, or are they marching to the beat of their own drum? Does Chrysler even care about what somebody like Troy Trepanier does? We recently took the opportunity to talk with six of the top builders in the hot-rodding world to get a consensus about Mopars. We spoke with Troy Trepanier, Alan Johnson, Mike Staveski, Steve Strope, Bobby Alloway and Matt Delaney. Some of them you may have heard of, others are known better in the Mopar world, but all six have built award-winning street rods, g-Machines and restorations.
In the coming year, look for all six builders to stand out with g-Machines of their own design. The one thing these cars will have in common? They will all proudly wear the Pentastar emblem, but don't expect our panelists to line up rank and file with the corporate types. They've got some interesting observations that DCX execs need to heed, from paying more attention to enthusiast's needs to supporting the burgeoning aftermarket. As good as the future looks for Chrysler, it could be even better with some tweaking!
PHR: What's driving the Mopar Interest?
Alan Johnson: That's a good question. The '70-'71 'Cuda is driving the interest for me. I can tell you it has nothing to do with the new cars or their pieces. Maybe they do with other people, but my customers all want the old Hemi, not the new one. Maybe the commercials are waking people up and reminding them about the old Hemi, I don't know.
"It wasn't long ago that you'd...
"It wasn't long ago that you'd say to a young kid that you had a Road Runner or a Charger and they'd ask, "What's that?" Now, they ask, "What color? What motor?"
Matt Delaney: I've got to give some credit to Dodge with the Hemi and their strong promotion. They've done wonders for people to have something to talk about. The Hemi is such an identifiable motor. It's brought everybody back into looking at the Mopars. People just needed a reason to look at Chrysler, and the ad campaign gave everybody a reason to look at the cars. It wasn't long ago that you'd say to a young kid that you had a Road Runner or a Charger and they'd ask, `What's that?' Now, they ask, `What color? What motor?' That's only been the last couple of years. My daughter's 23 and we go up to the church and the kids just swarm the Super Bee. Dodge's high-impact colors are just wild with the kids. It created a very fast learning curve.
Troy Trepanier: I think the awareness of the'70-'71 'Cuda stuff bringing so much at auction was a big part of it. A lot of it is the rebirth of the Hemi in the new cars--the 300C the Magnum and the Charger. If there's one name synonymous with performance, it's Hemi.
Steve Strope: In my opinion, there are three separate things coming together. One, I've been modifying them since '98 and since then, [my shop] Pure Vision has had three top 10 cars of the year and all three of them have been modified g-Machine-style Chryslers. That's not including the GTX-R and the Hammer. There's been a small influx of influential cars that happen to be Mopars, not Chevy or Ford. They got popular with the magazines and got lots of press. It's not the same old '68 Camaro. Multiply that by the television exposure and now you've got millions of people seeing it in a one-hour show.
Bobby Alloway: I guess just the musclecar craze. The Mopars are the king of the musclecars. I'm not really crazy about doing a Camaro, it's been done and done and done. I'm not saying I won't do one, but I would prefer to do the Chrysler. Now who wouldn't want to do a Hemi? And truthfully, it's not the Barrett-Jackson deal that's driving me. A Hemi goes in a hot rod, especially an injected Hemi.
Mike Staveski: The price of stock-restored Mopars has just gone through the roof, which has opened people's minds to saying, "Hey, let's make this really trick." It's not really sacrilegious like it used to be thought of. An original '71 Hemi 'Cuda is trading hands right now at about $750,000.
PHR: Dodge has told PHR they are trying to downplay the heritage card on their new cars. Why do you think this is?
"I think it's stupid of them...
"I think it's stupid of them to put the high-horse Hemi, big wheels, big brakes and good suspension on their sport sedan and not offer a manual transmission."
Johnson: They're putting higher horsepower engines in these cars with 340 hp, big brakes, big wheels; they're doing the same thing with these cars that everybody else is doing with the older heritage cars, the musclecars. To me they're not really downplaying the heritage. I think they're wrong in [downplaying the heritage] because they are making these new cars musclecars. Right now, they're the only ones out there generating the interesting pieces from the factory, but they could do better. I think it's stupid of them to put the high-horse Hemi, big wheels, big brakes and good suspension on their sport sedan and not offer a manual transmission. And they should be using that same platform, the LX, to make a two-door coupe.
Delaney: Ford took the heritage to the nth degree. They did the Mustang and shot us right between the eyes. Everybody looks at the new Mustang and says, "That's sweet." Dodge is going all new. They're not going the nostalgia route with the Viper or the new Charger, or even the new Firepower show car. People expected them to go retro after they built the Prowler, but they came back with all new designs. Dodge did get bitten when they went so deep into the two-door musclecar thing in 1970. It almost killed 'em. So I can see them being a little reserved. Remember, GM recently killed the Camaro and Firebird due to poor sales. That's a good call.
Trepanier: Everybody remembers the Charger as a two-door car, not a four-door car. I think they're trying to distance themselves with their mistake of not doing a two-door. They're looking for new ideas obviously. Everybody's trying to tie things into the heritage thing. They want to create their own new identity on that stuff, which will be a hard transition for the old die-hard Mopar fanatic.
Strope: If they're downplaying the heritage, then why do you have a four-door sedan named after one of the most popular two-door musclecars Dodge ever produced? Why does that Dodge Charger have an R/T and a Daytona option? That's total retro. Blacked-out hood, blacked-out grille, the whole thing. If they're trying to downplay it, why did they even name their new motor the Hemi? Why do their advertisements play on the old guys with the Hemi and the front-engine dragster? If you're going to call a car a Dodge Charger, first and foremost it's got to be a two-door. Number two, you should be able to purchase it with a stick shift. And you should be able to buy a stripped version--low dollar, high performance. And lastly, nobody cares what your demographic analysis is, because it's wrong. Go on the Web sites. Everybody is pissed. I'm surprised Chrysler doesn't have burning crosses in the front yard.
Alloway: They are nuts. Why would they want to downplay it? Look at Ford trying to play retro on the Mustang. I don't know. The best thing Chrysler could do is come out with a Challenger or a 'Cuda, or a GTX or a Road Runner. I think the market would really love that. Just look at how the public has accepted this Mustang deal. I mean what are we going to do for SEMA? Build a Polara four-door wagon and put a Mac truck grille on it? Don't those new Magnum wagons look like they've got a Mac truck grille in it? You take the Hemi out of that car and you're dead in the water.
Staveski: They're downplaying [the heritage] in my opinion because it's a four-door. The heritage of the cars is the two-door musclecar where the current models are four-doors. From a marketing standpoint, they're trying to play to the baby boom generation who grew up around the Chrysler 300, around the Hemi, around the Magnum, playing to what people grew up with, but at the same time trying to market to today's popularity of a four-door sedan.
PHR: Has the new emphasis on performance from the factory played any role in you or your customer's desire to build Mopars?
Johnson: I'd say no. The interest in these cars for my customers is coming from their childhood when these cars were new. Nobody I'm dealing with wants the new factory pieces as far as engine and driveline; they're wanting the 440s and Hemis. As far as the new cars are concerned, I think the new Magnum and the 300C are the best-looking American sedans out there, but that's not having any influence on what we're building.
Delaney: Well yes, as far as Dodge. The factory came out with the Hemi and started pushing it hard. This is fueling a big craze for the Hemi. A lot of people never knew they could buy a brand-new Hemi in a crate and stick it in whatever car you want. The hype of Dodge advertising the Hemi has made people come out of the woodwork asking me where they can buy an original Hemi car. I tell them you can buy one brand-new in a crate and they seem surprised. Most people aren't reading Mopar magazines and don't know this; all they know is that they used to want one when they were younger. The new Hemi has actually helped them sell old-style Hemi crate motors. Of course, now that the new Hemi has been introduced as a crate motor, I expect the demand to climb for them too.
"It seems to me Chrysler is...
"It seems to me Chrysler is more the hot rod brand. Back in the old days, the stuff was inexpensive and now the new stuff is too. You can get a loaded 300C for $38 grand, that's not a lot of money."
Trepanier: I think so. Just look at all the cars that are being built. Take our new car for example. It's a '69 Barracuda--it's a Bonneville salt flats car that we're building for George Poteat. He likes the '69 body and I like it too. We chopped the roof 3 inches and laid the A-pillars back and it looks stock. The fun thing about the car is we're running a four-cylinder Mopar block. This is based on the old Hemi design where it's been cut in half using one bank of cylinders. We're going to run it at 40 lbs of boost at 10,000 rpm. It's still a Hemi, but it's a four-cylinder like an import.
Strope: No. We have our own agenda. It really isn't based on what they're turning out now. We're more interested in what Mopar Performance is turning out for the older musclecars. Now we can steal the new Hemi--that's great--other than that I'm not too concerned about what Chrysler is turning out. Now if they made the Charger with two doors and a six-speed and did the same styling theme like Ford did with the Mustang, I'd be lining up to get one.
Alloway: No. The emphasis of the magazines has drawn me to do this. The craze now is the g-Machine. I'm excited that the factory has tried to get the horsepower back into these cars but that wasn't what made me decide to do this.
Staveski: No, I don't believe so. I think it's the baby boom generation reliving their youth and trying to have the car they had or the one they wanted to have, but couldn't. My clients are more apt to do modern updates to make them drive better. Rack and pinion steering, bigger brakes, fuel injection--just to make these cars drive better. They remember loving the cars, but also recall them not driving as well as a modern car.