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Hemi Hunter's Top Fuel Tales

The Chevy Guys Buy a 331 Cubic Inch Hemi

By Gary Peters

For this little short story, we need to go back to 1961. We had just finished building our A/Dragster along with its trailer. After that little exercise, we were naturally out of money. Well now that I think about it, we were out of money when we started this project. But back in the old days, it was nothing to start a project like this just to get something on the drag strip to race. You would start building a frame, someone would come along with some parts you needed, another guy with an engine but no car, and before you knew what happened, a drag team was formed.

We needed a tow vehicle. I had a sports car and Tom had a Morris Minor. Will you guys stop laughing? I guess you're wondering what a bunch of Hot Rod guys did to deserve every day cars like those. Tom and I reach into our pockets and each pull out a five-dollar bill. What the heck could you do with ten bucks? The following week, I go down to the garage and Tom's waiting for me. "Let's go," he says. One of the guys who worked with him told Tom his grandfather had a car for us. I ask how much and Tom says five bucks. Jeez, we just saved half of our bankroll.

We pull up in front of the man's house, and there in the back yard is the car. A 1953 DeSoto 4-door with the big V8 emblem on the quarter fender and a powder blue paint job. We hand the fellow the five bucks and he hands us the title. We tell him we'll look her over, get what we need and move it out of his yard that Saturday. He tells us it's been there for about two years, but when he parked it, it ran fine. He also warns us that his wife wants it gone. If we didn't get it Saturday, he was going to call the scrap yard. Boy how can you figure out women? A nice piece like that to see out of your kitchen window while you do the dishes, and all of a sudden it's off to the scrap heap. We lift the hood, and there are those big valve covers from the Hemi engine.

We visualize a 6-71 blower on top, look at each other, and just smile. We go over the car and make a list of what we might need to get her running. Air in the tires and a fresh battery would be a good start. We'll change the oil and filter, check all of the other fluid levels, put some fresh gas in her along with about three cans of dry gas, and see if she will start. The transmission is a fluid drive type, and can be driven like an automatic or as a stick shift -- too cool. We get in the front seat and notice that the interior is in excellent shape. It smells a little musty, so an old bottle of after-shave should also be included on our list. Wow! How about a bottle of Evening in Paris perfume? Sounds exotic. A little wax along with white wall tires, and we could have a regular pick-up machine on our hands.

I wake up Saturday morning and it's raining cats and dogs. We had gotten the battery from a friend who owned a junkyard and we scrounged the rest of the goodies we needed. We bought Capitol motor oil in a five gallon can for $2.87 cents. Nothing too good for what had become known as the BIG D. I also realized that I had spent all my money and it was my future wife's birthday. Yes folks, the same one who has put up with all these stories and happenings for 43 years. I talk to Tom and ask him if I can give the Big D to her for her birthday present. He tells me why not, as long as she allows us to tow with it. After all, she has never owned a car; she just turned sixteen.

We are driving over to the next town were the Big D is waiting for us. It starts to rain even harder than we ever thought possible. We put on the ponchos we always wore to look around in junkyards on rainy days. Best time to wander through the goodies; even the dogs would stay away when it rained. We start working on the car and in no time are totally soaked. It just keeps on raining. Everything is completed except to check and clean the plugs, and check the points to make sure she'll start. We had even made a T-wrench to remove the plugs, just like the pros at the drags. Just how much fun can you have on a rainy day?

I'm checking the radiator and notice there is no water in it. No problem there, there was plenty of water all around us. I fill her up and replace the cap. The moment of truth is at hand. A cup of gas down the carb, and Tom turns her over. Slowly the Big D sputters and comes to life. And Peggy told me we would never get her present running until her next birthday. We check the lights and the wipers, and Tom puts it in gear. We slowly back out of the yard. The folks who gave away this perfectly good car wave to us as we pull away from the house. The wife is laughing like heck, but I thought I saw a tear in the old man's eye. Probably the rain. This is too good to be true. Everything works fine; even the radio plays. All we need to do is get it inspected, some day. We go about four miles. The Big D bucks and shuts off. No problem; probably some bad gas. We get out in the pouring rain again and lift the hood. We check everything over, get back in and it fires right up, and we're off again. A couple of miles and it shuts down again. To make a long drive shorter, this continues until we get to the club garage, about 15 miles away.

The garage is in an alley, and the open spot in the club garage is taken by another fellow who decided to tune up his car on this raining day. We park the Big D half on the pavement to get it out of the alley. We're wet anyway so what difference does it make? We start going over everything again. We find nothing that could make it lose fire. I open the radiator and see that there is no water in it. I'm scratching my head, because I thought I had filled it up. In fact, I knew I had filled it up. Oh well, probably an air pocket. I get the hose and start to fill the radiator again. I hear water rushing onto the ground. I look under the car and see it running into the gutter. I crawl under the car and see that a couple of the freeze out plugs are gone.

The reason the Big D was shutting down was that it was overheating. We were having such a good time checking everything out, we never noticed that when it came up to temperature, the plugs popped out. They had probably loosened from the block freezing over the years. Now what do we do? I see an old baseball bat in the corner of the garage. I measure the freeze out plugs hole diameter and cut some plugs out of the baseball bats tapered handle. We smutch them up with Permatex and I go under the car again. Now I'm laying in the gutter and the rainwater is going down my neck and out through my pants leg. I hammer the wooden plugs into the block. We fill it up with water, and start him up. We watch the temperature gauge and everything is fine. It comes up to temperature and keeps running. And there are no water leaks, great.

Two years have passed and the Big D is spectacular. What a birthday present Peggy got. We had added the usual equipment like a push board and a tow hitch for the racing part. The wooden freeze out plugs are still in place. We decide to go run a race at Numidia Dragway, way up in the mountains from were we lived. A long hard pull for the Big D. We get to a long hill and I start to hear a pinging sound from that faithful Hemi. Tom and his new wife are in the front seat; Peggy and I are in the back seat. Dale is following us in his car with a couple of other guys. The pinging gets louder. Tom and I say it at the same time, "Rod bearing." We pull over on the side of the road and check the oil. Right on the mark.

We get to the track and race all day. The Big D's pinging continues. The racing is over and we load up for home. We go down the road about 50 miles and the pinging becomes a knocking. Then the knocking becomes a sound rivaling the chorus from an anvil symphony by about five blacksmiths. The car is shaking and the hammering continues. All of a sudden, we hear a big bang, and the noise is gone. What a car, he fixed himself. Probably snapped the rod clean off. At lest he'll get us home. We look back to signal Dale with a thumbs up. Wow! There's a little smoke coming from the Big D. Steam starts to pouring out from under the hood. We pull over to the side of the road. We lift the hood, and the radiators boiling over, the exhaust manifolds are glowing red. The big Hemi is starting to hammer again. We take all the oil in the trunk and fill the engine with all we had.

We had about 35 miles to go to reach home. We slam the hood and start down the road. Floored, we could only get the car up to about 15 MPH. It sounded like someone was banging on every metal part in the car. Smoke is filling the car and both girls get sick from the fumes. I look back and red hot parts are flying out of the exhaust pipe. Dale's car is so full of oil that he has the windshield wipers going to see through it. We get to this little town in a valley between two large hills. The Big D keeps hammering along. We coast down one side of the town's hill, and slowly creep up the other side. I looked back again, and everyone in that town was standing on their front porch to see what the heck is happening. Let me tell you, there wasn't a bug alive in that town for two weeks. When I looked back, the whole street and valley was full of smoke. We keep going and finally get as far as Cooper's Speed Shop in Allentown. We take the trailer off the Big D and hook it up to Dale's car. We pull the Big D around the back of the speed shop and shut it off. We get out and just stare at the car in disbelief. How in the heck did it keep running for over three hours with no water and oil in it? Right then and there we had respect for that Hemi engine. The next day I get out of work and drive out to the speed shop. I walk in and the guys ask what the Big D is doing there. I tell them the story and ask if anyone could tow me out the road to one of the local junkyards.

One of the guys said he would do it for me if I couldn't drive it myself. I just laughed, I told him there is no way that that engine will even turn over much less start. Everyone walks out to the car; I get in and turn the key on. The starter kicks in and the Big D roars to life. Unbelievable. I wave to the guys and start driving out the road to the junkyard. One of them follows me to bring me back. I pull in and hand the title to the junkyard's owner and tell him I want to junk the car. What's it worth? He walks out and looks at the poor Big D. He asks how we got the whole back of the car so full of oil. I take a last look at the car and see that from the back doors to the back bumper, it's totally covered in black oil. He tells me it's worth fifteen dollars. He hands me the money and I tap the Big D on the hood and slowly walk away. I hear the guy from the junkyard get in, fire up the car, and drive away. I never looked back. I knew if I did look back, I would probably ask the junkyard owner if he had an engine for the old boy.

In the two years we towed with the Big D, we changed the oil and filter, did a couple of tune ups, put a set of exhaust manifold gaskets in for inspection, and that was it. What a deal: pay five dollars for a car, spend maybe a hundred bucks on stuff for two years, and get the dragster and us to the drag strips almost every weekend. Turn around and get fifteen dollars for her when we laid her to rest. Plus, it was probably one of the most comfortable cars we ever towed in. I have movies of the old girl tooling down the road with the dragster in tow. Sure wish I could find another one today for say, maybe a thousand dollars. Just a thought. After all, Peg's birthday is just around the corner.

Gary Peters


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