Cars We Remember: 426 Hemi: Availability, history, teams, crate motors

Q: Greg, when did the 426 Hemi come out? Thanks, and I enjoy your columns, especially about MOPARS.

— Ken L., Massachusetts

Also: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only "Hemi" Chrysler engine in the Roadrunner and GTX was the 426 Hemi, right?

— Jerome Guthro

A: Ken and Jerome, I’ll give you a little Hemi history and also note that yes, the only Hemi available in the Plymouth GTX and Roadrunner line back then was indeed the 426 cu. in. Street Hemi.

Known as the "Elephant" engine due to its massive size and cylinder heads, the 426 Hemi arrived on dealer showrooms in 1966, available in several models in the Dodge and Plymouth full-size lines. Back then, the general public could just walk right in to a Dodge or Plymouth dealer and buy a Hemi right off the showroom floor or order one.

However, the original 1964 all-new 426 Hemi was produced by Chrysler for use in NASCAR and drag racing, and appeared on the tracks in the 1964 Plymouth and Dodge lines. Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 in 1964 in a Hemi Plymouth Belvedere and drag racers like Ronnie Sox, Bud Faubel, Dick Landy, and Jim Thornton made big names for themselves.

After dominating the races in 1964, Chrysler’s 426 Hemi was not allowed to compete in NASCAR's 1965 season due to its unavailability in production vehicles that are sold to the general public.  

This new race-only 426 Hemi also started a horsepower war with Ford that eventually led to Ford building a 429 Hemi to combat the Chrysler 426 Hemi. However, NASCAR stepped in and outlawed both engines from competition for 1965. To try and please NASCAR, the 426 race Hemi became available in the Dodge Coronet/Plymouth Belvedere line and offered the engine as an "off road" designate and not suitable for street use. One of my friends, the late Ken Montgomery, was one of the fortunate drag racers to acquire one and he went on to fame driving his "Triple Nickel" No. 555 Plymouth drag racing entries, winning countless class wins and several NHRA national events along the way.

Still, NASCAR said no.

NASCAR thus still outlawed the 426 Hemi for use on its tracks in 1965, which found all of the NASCAR Chrysler Hemi corporate sponsor team money moving over to the nation’s drag strips, where even famed NASCAR champs Richard Petty and David Pearson competed in Plymouth and Dodge Hemi drag cars, respectfully, for one year.

Even though the NASCAR Hemi fans were quite upset, things were really starting to happen on the drag strips. Everything from Hemi altered wheelbase fuel injected early MOPAR funny cars to top fuel nitro dragsters dominated the scene as the new 426 allowed racers who relied on the older style 392 Hemi an opportunity to switch over to the new, more durable and powerful engine.

"Big Daddy" Don Garlits led the charge in his nitro dragster, while teams like The Ramchargers, Color Me Gone, and The Honker (to name just a few) resulted in packed grandstands at weekly match races and organized national events. They all figured out that this new 426 Hemi could take more punishment than the 392 regardless of what you fed through the fuel lines, be it gasoline, alcohol or nitromethane. The pattern was set as the Elephant 426 was and in many instances still is the preferred choice in drag racing.

Getting back to NASCAR, Chrysler knew it had to make its 426 Hemi available to the general public, so it introduced what we all knew was a heavily detuned "Street 426" Hemi in 1966 for its intermediate cars. This resulted in the Hemi cars now being available to the general public and allowed Petty and many other NASCAR teams to get back to running the 426 Hemi on the nation’s NASCAR speedways. Not surprisingly, they won loads of races with the Hemi as Richard Petty nabbed the Daytona 500 in a 1966 Hemi Plymouth Satellite/Belvedere, which is perhaps one of the most iconic and beloved Petty race cars of all-time.

Looking back, those who purchased early production 1965 "off road only" race-ready A990 code 426 Hemi Plymouths and Dodges (including a few Dart and Barracuda models, too) are sitting on big money when it comes to valuable collector cars, while normal-production Hemis are also very valuable and popular on the auction sites like Barrett Jackson and Mecum.

Most of the 426 Street Hemi Plymouths came in the Satellite/GTX, Roadrunner and Barracuda line while the Dodge camp includes Coronet R/T, Challenger, Charger and Super Bee. Notable is that in 1966, a few Hemi engines were ordered in Dodge Coronet 4-doors and station wagons as you could order the Street Hemi in any of the Dodge-Plymouth full-size offerings. 

Forward to today, you find Chrysler involved with Hemi crate engines and offer not only the 426 Street Hemi, which can run on today’s lower octane pump gas. Several aftermarket companies now build Hemi crate engines, all the way up to a 605-inch street legal, pump gas Hemi that I call the "Super Elephant."

You can check a quick video I did at a recent Performance Racing Industry trade show with Kenny Lazarri from Indy Cylinder Heads, who build some of the most powerful street legal crate Hemis around. It lasts less than two minutes but sure whets the appetite of any MOPAR fan. Click here to view it:

Thanks for your letters and email guys and have a good week.

— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications.

Upcoming Events