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All-Original 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 Hemi Somehow Survived the Sixties Unmolested

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 7/30/2018 Hot Rod Network Staff
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"You're kidding, right?" That's generally the reaction most people have when they learn that Chris Stewart's factory-Hemified 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 wears its original paint. We asked the question ourselves a few different ways because the white paint job looks awfully fresh. But the car has been documented within the collector car world for at least 30 years, and the story—and the smooth finish—have been consistent.

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"I haven't done anything to the body or paintwork since I bought it a number of years ago," Chris says. "It's in remarkably good condition. I know it's hard to believe, but as far back as I can tell with the previous owners, the car has never been restored or repainted."

Credit goes in part to Chrysler's reliance on comparatively durable enamel (like the paint on your parents' old washing machine), which held up well, compared to the cracking and crazing that plagued General Motors' lacquer paint jobs. It's true that enamel was prone to fading over time, but it was less of an issue when the car was carefully preserved and garaged, as this one has been.

In fact, in the more than half a century since it rolled off Chrysler's Lynch Road assembly line, the Coronet has recorded only 20,900 miles on the odometer. It has taken nearly 30 years to rack up the last 1,000 of them.

Although the original ownership lineage is not well documented, the Coronet was ordered through a Texas dealership and purchased by an Oklahoma resident, who drove it sparingly. About 25 years later it rolled across the block at a Kruse auction in the Sooner State, where it made headlines for its $41,500 sale price. It was a record sale at the time for an original Hemi car, and it zoomed past a couple of noteworthy Mustangs at the same event, including a 1969 Mach 1 428 Cobra Jet that went for $10,000, and a 1968 Shelby GT500KR that hammered sold for a whopping $27,000. Those were the days!

But then, as now, an original Street Hemi car held a mystique that was as strong as the domination that originally got the racing version booted from NASCAR. Here's a quick recap: Despite some teething pains during development, Chrysler's forthcoming racing engine was a monster. The company tried to keep a lid on it for as long as possible, but when the top four starting positions for the 1964 Daytona 500 went to Hemi Mopars, the jig was up. When the clutch dust settled, four of the race's top five finishers were Hemi-powered Mopars, including winner Richard Petty, who went on to win his first Cup championship that year.

NASCAR banned the Hemi for 1965 because it wasn't offered in regular production cars. "Fine," said Chrysler. "We'll take our ball—and all-conquering Hemi heads—and go home. And you'll be sorry, too, because, you know what? We're going to send Petty to the dragstrip. How do you like them apples?"

NASCAR didn't like them at all. Fan interest suffered a sizable hit when NASCAR became essentially an all-FoMoCo show, thanks to General Motors' self-imposed motorsports ban. NASCAR didn't want Ford's SOHC engine, either, but the status quo certainly wasn't sustainable. Cooler heads prevailed later in the 1965 season, with Chrysler's pledge to offer the Hemi in production models for 1966. It was about time. Stock car racing was losing its edge, and for all his talent behind the wheel, Petty just wasn't a drag racer.

So in 1966, the 426 Street Hemi could be ordered in any Mopar B-Body in the brochure, except for the wagons. Savvy Dodge shoppers who leaned more toward the dragstrip tended to favor the lighter, less-expensive base-model cars such as the Coronet two-door sedan, but the vast majority went for the high-end Coronet 500, such as Chris Stewart's hardtop.

"Vast" is a relative term when it comes to the early Street Hemi days. The new elephant didn't exactly go for peanuts, and that "vast" majority totaled only 339 cars (204 of them with the four-speed trans and 135 with an automatic). Still, that's about 10 times the number who ticked the Hemi box in a fleet-special Coronet base two-door sedan.

Opting for the Street Hemi also added a unique version of the A-833 four-speed transmission, which would logically become known simply as the Hemi four-speed. Its beefier specs included specific gear tooth angles designed for strength, as well as a larger, coarse-spline input shaft. It was used with a heavy-duty 11-inch clutch. The Hemi's torque was sent to a bulletproof Dana 60 axle, which was new to passenger cars in 1966 and supported the output of the unprecedented engine.

Apart from the necessary driveline upgrades and discreet fender badges calling out the engine, a Hemified B-Body looked just like every other grocery getter in the shopping center parking lot, including elemental steel wheels. Dog dish caps came on lower-end models, while the top-line Coronet 500 offered full wheel covers, as delivered on Chris' car.

For all the car's originality, a couple of items are worth pointing out. The hood louvers didn't appear on the Coronet until the 1967 R/T model. The original owner reportedly purchased them over-the-counter at the dealership, and they've been on the car for the better part of 50 years. Also, eagle-eye Moparians will notice the dual-circuit master cylinder, which long ago replaced the car's original single-circuit system. It's an understandable and justifiable safety upgrade for a Hemi-powered muscle car with non-assisted four-wheel drum brakes.

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What's more, the original engine block was replaced at some point. It's a 1969-vintage block, but all the other numbers line up. This isn't a complete surprise—it didn't take much exuberance behind the wheel to send these muscle cars to the infirmary.

To be honest, cars like this leave writers like us in a bit of a quandary. It's amazing to find a 50-plus-year-old unrestored, low-mileage car that survived being drag-raced to death in the 1960s, avoided having its rear fenders flared and a tunnel ram shoved through the hood in the 1970s, didn't get wheel tubs and neon yellow roll bar padding in the 1980s, or experience one or more rotisserie restorations in the last 20 years. But that's also the problem. There's no warm, "pulled from the weeds after Dad raced it for 25 years" story to lean on, no "we found the original engine sitting behind a chicken coop across town" color to weave into the narrative. No conflict. No redemption. No triumph over adversity.

But we're talking about an original, first-year Street Hemi here. Few were made, and only a fraction made it to the end of the 1960s with their original engine intact. That this one has survived more than 50 years without common modifications or a restoration is the story.

"That's what I like about the car," says Chris. "Nobody messed with it, although the temptation over the years must have been great. There are no excuses to make with it, either. It's as honest as they come—and a blast to drive. "

That's good enough for us.

At a Glance

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1966 Coronet 500

Owned by: Chris Stewart

Restored by: Unrestored

Engine: 426ci/425hp Street Hemi V-8

Transmission: A-833 4-speed manual

Rearend: Dana 60 with 3.54 gears and Sure Grip

Interior: Red vinyl bucket seat

Wheels: 14x6 steel with full wheel covers

Tires: 775-14 BFGoodrich Blue Streak

Special parts: Original-owner-added 1967 R/T hood vents

 
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