For a car crazy teenager, the only thing worse than riding the bus to school is sitting in the back of that bus, and overhearing the geeks recount last night's episode of Star Trek. The intricacies of the Vulcan mind meld never sounded so lame. Not only did Greg Ducato suffer such a fate, the agony persisted all the way through his senior year in high school. Needless to say, potential prom dates weren't exactly impressed. It was all part of a grand scheme hatched by Greg's parents to keep him away from cars, and focused on his studies. Ultimately, it didn't work, and today he runs a successful transmission shop (www.phoenixtrans.com) and a savage stable of performance cars. Greg's finest machine is his '70 Challenger that's been blessed with a full Pro Touring rubdown. It packs a 555hp small-block, a GM overdrive automatic, and an Air Ride Technologies four-link suspension. What started out as a beater autocross project has morphed into a show-quality street machine that almost makes up for those days on the bus.
As a kid growing up in Ohio during the muscle car heyday, Greg got sucked into the fervent Midwest car scene at a very young age. At 14, he took a job pumping gas just so he could be around cars. By the time he finished high school, Greg saved up enough money to buy a '70 Buick Grand Sport. "When I got my driver's license in 1975, it was a great time to be into cars. It was right after the first oil embargo, and people were unloading muscle cars that were less than 10 years old for dirt cheap," he recollects. Much to his parents' dismay, the car fix never relented. "My folks didn't want me to go into any automotive field because they thought it was too low-class. Naturally, I got into the auto parts business, which was perfect because I always had cars that needed parts. I moved to Texas in 1982 to manage a transmission remanufacturing facility, and eventually opened up my own shop."
Two decades later, with full-time parenthood behind him, Greg had some more free time on his hands. Although he always liked Challengers, he never felt the urge to build one. That all changed when Greg's son-who had been faithfully raised as a gearhead since infancy-decided it would be cool to build an E-Body Mopar with his old man. "I'm more of an opportunist than a seeker, so I've never actually owned any of the cars on my short list," Greg explains. "My son kept hammering me to build a Challenger, so I agreed to buy one if he could find a decent car for under $5,000. I didn't think he could do it, but sure enough, the little bugger did. The next thing I know, we're hauling home a six-cylinder Challenger with a three-speed stick from Colorado."
Although many people associate Colorado with snow and world-class skiing, the Challenger spent most of its life in the arid part of the state. Consequently, the car was extremely solid overall, with immaculate floors and just a hair of rust beneath the rear glass. The original plan was to keep things simple, but as with many projects, that eventually changed. "Our goal was to get the car running as cheaply as possible, then go beat on it on the autocross. My son stripped the car down in our garage, and I bought a 340 small-block and a four-speed from a guy who was building a Hemi 'Cuda clone," Greg recalls. "The idea was to throw a cheapie paintjob on it and have a fun little beater, but the car ended up in body shop hell for the next few years. The first shop had it for six months and didn't do anything. The next shop sandblasted the car, then let it sit for the next eight months. I lost interest in it for awhile and started a few other projects, but after wasting two years and several thousand dollars, I rescued the car and took it down to South Coast Rides (Rosenberg, Texas). They only do super high-end work there, so at that point the entire nature of the build completely changed. I figured that if we're going to spend some money on the car, we might as well do it right and make it nice."
Since the Challenger was destined for chronic lateral abuse, Greg felt that a Pro Touring build combined with T/A-style aesthetics perfectly complemented the car's intended purpose. "I'm a car guy, not a purist, so above all else the car had to be functional. At the same time, I didn't want to go over the top with billet and chrome in order to maintain the original flavor," he quips. Greg doesn't have much tolerance for squeaks and rattles, and took painstaking measures to make sure the Challenger was as stiff as possible. All of the unibody seams have been welded, subframe connectors run the length of the chassis, and the stock K-member has been beefed up with a reinforcement plate off of a Hemi car. Likewise, custom braces have been added between the inner fenders and firewall, rear wheelwells and rear seat area, and in the radiator support. "This isn't the tinny, rattly Mopar of your youth. I was adamant about wanting the Challenger to feel as solid as a full-frame car, and we've definitely overachieved on that mark."
Making the most of the rock-solid chassis is a complete Ridetech suspension system. Ridetech's tubular control arms, air springs, and adjustable shocks attenuate body roll up front. At the back end, the stock leaves were ditched for an adjustable street four-link arrangement that swings a built Chrysler 83/4-inch rearend. A set of Boze 18-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin rubber rounds out the chassis, and 13-inch Baer discs at each corner bring everything to a halt. "I'm amazed at how well the Ridetech suspension setup rides and handles. The four-link hooks much better than the stock setup," Greg reports. "I'm still playing with all the different adjustments, but once I figure it out it's going to be a terror on the autocross."
Getting the rear meats to bite is no small feat, as the Challenger is powered by a beast of a small-block. Built by Hughes Engines (Washington, Illinois), the 340 has been bored and stroked to 416 cubic inches with a Mopar Performance 4.000-inch steel crank, Scat H-beam rods, and Keith Black 9.3:1 forged pistons. The short-block is topped by a set of ported Edelbrock Performer RPM heads, a Victor intake manifold, and a Holley 830-cfm carb built by Sean Murphy Induction. A custom Hughes 242/246-at-.050 hydraulic flat tappet cam actuates the valves, and exhaust exits through a set of TTI Performance long-tube headers that dump into dual 2.5-inch DynoMax mufflers. On the engine dyno, the small-block doles out 555 hp and a truly impressive 552 lb-ft of torque. "For a motor with such few inches and a flat-tappet cam, it makes a ton of torque. Hughes doesn't just take a Chevy cam grind, put it on a Mopar core, and call it a custom cam," Greg explains. "They said that going with a flat-tappet instead of a roller cam might sacrifice a few horsepower up top, but the lighter flat lifters would rev quicker and turn more rpm. I'm convinced. This car really moves, and it should easily knock off mid-11s in the quarter-mile."
Greg admits that he contemplated putting a stick behind the 416, but he couldn't see how he'd explain such a move to customers. His choice of a GM 4L60E, however, is anything but conventional. "Mopar overdrives are huge, and require hacking up the floors," Greg says. "The 4L60E, on the other hand, is smaller, lighter, and has better gear ratios. Plus, with the Compushift trans controller, I can precisely dial in the shift points wherever I want. The swap itself is pretty easy, and only requires a custom bellhousing adapter plate, flexplate, and crossmember."
On the surface, Greg's Challenger is just another sweet muscle car. In a more philosophical sense, however, it reflects his journey as an enthusiast and represents a culmination of everything he's accomplished along the way. Granted, the Challenger's all-around goodness isn't quite enough for him to forget about his days of riding the bus, but without those harrowing memories, he may have never amassed the means or inspiration to build it in the first place.
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