Sometimes you just have a bad year. Just ask Britney Spears or the 2004 New York Yankees. Such misfortune is no stranger to the Big Three either, and in the world of musclecars, every year after 1972 was a bad one. While it's understandable why the OEs had no further need for hot rodders inside their engine shops, it seems like every stylist who knew anything about styling was mysteriously replaced by a new crop of Art Center flunkies. Perhaps they went on to make better use of their talents by pursuing careers in women's handbag design. Who knows what really happened, but some models survived this deplorable era with their dignity intact. With its groovy post-'72 body style, far-out white vinyl top, and righteously smog-compliant (pre-mod) 360 small-block, Randy Gunter's '74 Dart Sport has three irrefutable strikes against it. Nevertheless, these idiosyncrasies make for a surprisingly competent 11-second street machine that's so unorthodox, it's cool.
Since Mopar made this all possible, it deserves much of the props. After fecal matter had already splattered everywhere in most GM and Ford vehicles by 1974, it was still mid-air in its ascent to the fan at most Mopar showrooms. Compared to contemporaries like the Nova, whose top-of-the-line 350 couldn't even crack 200 hp, the '74 Dart's 360 mustered nearly 250 ponies. And let's not even get into what happened to the Mustang that year. Furthermore, while it wasn't immune to the industry-wide styling dilution of the day, the Dart Sport still shared much of its aesthetic DNA with Dart Demons of a few years prior. Sure, Mopars may not have been as popular as their cross-town rivals, but the grade of its slope wasn't nearly as steep as the rest of Detroit's downhill tumble.
Taking advantage of this fact, at least subconsciously, Randy saw potential where others were merely blinded by the cloak of an atypical body style. "It was just a situation where I was driving down the road about four years ago, saw an unusual-looking car for sale, and decided I wanted it," he recollects. Understandably, it could conceivably take a loyal Mopar man to appreciate a '74 Dart in the first place, and this was definitely the case. However, having sampled an eclectic mix of Detroit iron in the past, Randy isn't your typical Mopar fanatic. "My first car was a '71 Dart Swinger, but I've also owned Camaros, Trans Ams, and Novas. From my experience, I've always felt that Chrysler offered the best motors per cube from the factory, so after the kids grew up and left the house, I decided to get another one."
While it takes a lot of explaining to justify spending $7,500 on a car Randy describes as "unusual," the story behind the madness confirms that he is indeed in his right mind. "The car's original owner brought it into the dealership to have some work done on it, but for some reason he never came back to pick it up," he explains. "After sitting in the back lot for seven years, one of the mechanics got a salvage title for it and turned it into a track car. Fortunately, he didn't hack the car up, and since it sat abandoned for so long and was then driven only occasionally at the dragstrip, it only has 24,000 original miles. The body panels are all original, and the only thing that's ever been replaced inside the car is the carpet."
The result of spending what at first seems like an absurd amount of cash on an "unusual" car is a project that required no bodywork, interior work, or any type of restoration whatsoever. That allowed digging into the good stuff right away and building the car on a brisk six-month schedule for under $25,000. Almost immediately after purchase, Randy drove the Dart to Mike Miller at Miller Performance (www.millerperformance.net) for a complete motor and driveline revamp. Although the factory 360 was running fine, Randy yanked it out and built a stroker with the intent of bruising some egos on the street. The block was bored .030-over and fitted with a Scat 4.000-inch cast-steel crank for a total displacement of 408 ci. The motor's larger appetite was addressed with a set of ported Edelbrock Performer RPM heads, a Mopar Performance M1 intake manifold, a custom 258/266-at-.050 solid roller cam, and a Holley 750-cfm carb. On the dyno, the combo puts out a respectable 565 hp.
The Dart's body is all original except for the addition of the rear wing. The car was repa
To ensure that the driveline could keep pace with the additional grunt, Miller Performance installed a 727 trans, and beefed up the factory 8 3/4-inch rearend with Moser 35-spline axles and a spool. Hook comes courtesy of a set of custom ladder bars, and Mickey Thompson 255/60R15 drag radials good for 1.58-second 60-foot times. Even with the camshaft's impressive duration specs, the factory power front discs and rear drums efficiently bring the Dart to a halt.
So far, the car has run a best of 11.37 at 117 mph, despite the fact that track prowess was never Randy's original goal. His intention was to build a stout street racer, but it ended up being a bit too stout after his buddies kept donating parts and the combo became more radical than planned. "When the car had the original 360, it had a nice rumble and I got a lot of challengers on the street, but after dropping in the 408, I couldn't get anymore action," he says. "I had never even been to the dragstrip before, and thought 'how hard can it be to pull up to the tree and hit the gas?' I found out there are about 10,000 things that can go wrong on each pass, and at least one of those things is usually happening. I was humbled very quickly."
Inside, the Dart is stock down to its bench seats and lap belts. The car's low-key overall
Not knowing what to expect as the Dart was being assembled, the car has exceeded Randy's expectations. Now that his target e.t. of 12s has been toppled, he's debating whether to keep pushing or take it easy for a while. "The racer in me says to go faster, but the other side of me realizes that going faster will require cutting up the car and adding more safety equipment," he explains. "Since I have no rollbar in it, I've been asked to put it on the trailer a few times. The good thing is, my windows have a nice dark tint to them so sometimes the track officials just don't notice."
Since Randy's original plan involved boulevard brawling, it comes as no surprise that cruising through town is what he enjoys the most. In the rare instance that someone has the audacity to put up their dukes, the Dart's 408 is ready to deliver a crushing right hook. "Compared to other cars I've owned, driving the Dart is like holding your finger on the trigger of an atomic bomb," he quips. "You know you can use it, but really bad things can happen if you're not careful. I've had the privilege of humbling many Camaros, Corvettes, and Mustangs."
Without question, Randy's built a formidable street/strip combo out of an "unusual" platform, a body style that's not fully embraced even by the Mopar crowd. That means that Randy's either an oddball or a pioneer. Perhaps it's too early to tell, but Randy's escapades make one thing certain. Despite its groovy post-'72 body style, far-out white vinyl top, and righteously smog-compliant (pre-mod) 360 small-block, Randy's "unusual" '74 Dart isn't almost cool-it is cool.