Project Car Diaries: The Dark Art of Dialing In My ’69 Charger’s 440 V8

The core elements of combustion engines haven’t really changed since my ’69 Charger was new, but ignition and other things are handled a bit differently than today’s cars.

byHank O'Hop|
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Hank O'Hop
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If you thought I'd spent the last eight months focusing exclusively on revitalizing the appearance of my 1969 Dodge Charger, you're wrong. I carved out some time to get this 440 engine into fighting shape and make this Charger the hard-running driver it was designed to be. That includes more than a new coat of enamel and a fresh set of core plugs. I've found and fixed some serious issues and made some slight tweaks to dial in the tune to finally make use of all the goodness we’ve already thrown at it.

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A Chrysler 440 is nothing to scoff at. It's the successor of the mighty Max Wedge engines of the early '60s. With that pressure on its shoulders and a production run that began under the reign of the titanous 426 Hemi, the engineers behind it really had to come up with something special as not to be the laughingstock of the golden age of high-performance domestic V8s. And that they did. In fact, a 440 6-pack could run toe to toe with a Hemi off the line, as it could more easily produce big power down low. 

That's not to say all 440s are great, though. While it might always have displacement in its favor, low compression, poor flowing heads, and the usual Chrysler production woes held many back. In my case, the sheer age of my engine has proven to be a huge limiting factor along with some of the aforementioned setbacks. Still, the potential is there and I’m already ahead of the game thanks to some serious upgrades already in place. A strong runner has been well within reach for some time now. All I’d have to do is some light massaging to grab ahold of it.   

What’s The Rundown?

To recap, I'm running a 1973 440 under the hood of my 1969 Dodge Charger. It's a cast crank unit with the pistons sitting nice and low in relation to the deck. I scored a set of 516 closed chamber heads that were worked over by the right guy. They've been milled, ported, polished, and equipped with some oversized valves—2.14 intake and 1.84 exhaust—and some dual springs to match. According to my math, these heads bring the 440 to a compression ratio of about 10:1, which is pretty much ideal for the intended use of this engine. 

As far as induction goes, I landed an Offenhauser dual-quad split-plenum intake at a swap meet last summer. It's equipped with two 625 CFM Carter AFB carburetors, and I took the whole package home for $350. While making some thread repairs to the intake manifold bolt holes, I found some serious casting imperfections in the intake manifold. I spent hours smoothing them over and working it over prior to shutting it down. 

The engine exhales through a set of unknown headers with 1.75-inch primaries that run down to a homemade shorty exhaust system. The exhaust diameter measures 2.5 inches, includes a cheap X-pipe, and some turnouts that direct the spent fumes to the outside of the vehicle just before the rear tires. I have it equipped with Thrush Turbo mufflers, and I’m pretty happy with the note.

All in all, this recipe is enough to wake up any 440-cubic-inch V8. I know. There are more potent formulas, but this gets the job done. This particular engine also has a date code that matches my mom’s birthday, making it the perfect match for my dad’s old car—in case you were wondering why I’m sticking to the cast crank engine. 

Addressing the Slip 

Let's start our discussion of upgrades and repairs by talking about how I took a big gun and shot myself right in the foot.

I've made it no secret that this 440 hasn't run quite right. It's decently strong, but never fully there. That's why I've spent so much time troubleshooting, messing with intake combinations, and fiddling with timing and fuel. I won't say any of that work has gone in vain, but blatant ignorance certainly kept me from getting the most out of those modifications. You veterans already know exactly what I did wrong. 

I took it on faith that the harmonic balancer that's been on the crankshaft since 1973 is perfectly fine. Big surprise. It wasn't. 

As I removed the engine from the car to make repairs to the firewall, I found that the motor mount on the driver's side was coming apart. Upon closer inspection, I found loose bolts on the bell housing and elsewhere. My gut told me there was a balancing issue, and I decided to take a leap of faith by ordering up a new harmonic balancer and flywheel.

It's hard to find these parts for cast crank 440s, but thankfully, there are still some killer businesses you can work with. I grabbed a harmonic balancer from 440 Source, a flywheel from Brewer's Performance, and a replacement input shaft bearing retainer from Passon Performance. I paid for all of these parts with my own money and this is not a sponsored plug. These are just excellent businesses my fellow Mopar nuts need to know about. 

When the new balancer arrived, I compared it to the old one and immediately confirmed my suspicions. It turns out the old balancer had slipped a considerable degree—about 5 degrees, by my estimations. 

How does this happen? Simple. These old elastomer balancers are of a two-piece design. There's an inner and outer ring with a rubber-like material marrying the two. Over time, that rubber breaks down, and the outer ring will slip, throwing off the timing and balance. No matter what you do, you will never get an engine in tune once this occurs, which is why you should always start by replacing the old balancer if you're unsure of its condition. 

I opted to replace the flywheel while I was at it because I never liked the old one. I scored it used from eBay a while back. After learning that so many listings are flat-out wrong and so much wishy-washy information regarding 440 cast-crank flywheels, I decided not to burden myself with the loose thread any longer. I did have to buy a new Centerforce Clutch because this flywheel is smaller than the old one, but going the extra mile to make sure it's all right makes it a worthwhile investment. It will impact the behavior of the engine, but it's my only choice in the price range I'm working with. 

Dialing the Cam In 

Should I have stopped there, considering the engine ran pretty decently, all things considered? Nope. There was yet another loose thread I needed to address. Though I had documented it in the past, I lost the information, and the camshaft in that 440 was unknown. The only thing I could say for sure is that it's a Crane Cams piece that was run in a ‘66 or ‘67 Coronet for drag races. It only made sense to pop the rear plug off and get a look at the grind.

The 440’s bumpstick is a Crane Cams 312 Grind. According to the catalog, this cam has an advertised duration of 312 degrees on the intake, 322 on the exhaust, with 242 degrees intake and 252 degrees exhaust at .050 inches of lift with a 108-degree lobe separation angle. With stock rockers, it offers up .525 inches of lift on the intake, and .552 inches of lift on the exhaust. It’s set to produce power from 3,200 RPM out to 7,000 RPM.

The cam is overkill for street use. Then again, so are most things I’ve done to this carit. And since I’ve gone as far as to port the intake to match the heads, and even installed various length pushrods in it, and a custom linkage between the carbs, all to make it breath better, it only made sense to advance the cam a bit to try and make it all work a little better down low.

Advancing a camshaft is simply changing its position in relation to the crankshaft so that valve events happen sooner. This helps the engine to produce power early on at the cost of top end performance. Since I’m not revving out to 7,000 RPM, I’m ok with that tradeoff. 

My timing gear set allows me to add up to 8 degrees of advance, and that’s what I went for. The common theory is that every 2 degrees of advance brings peak power 100 RPM sooner. In that case, I should be looking at a peak power range of 2,800 RPM to 6,600 RPM. There is the risk of running a piston into a valve with this much advance in high-compression engines, but the beauty of a low-compression 440 is that the pistons are far enough down the hole to avoid it altogether. 

You camshaft wizards are right. There's a chance that these cams already have 6 degrees of advance carved into them, but I have no way to confirm that. Unfortunately, Crane Cams is one of the many amazing companies that went dark during the pandemic and I don’t have the right tools to degree the cam properly. So, we’re going to roll with it. Thankfully, there’s more than enough engine room to make any changes later on if I’m unhappy with the performance. 

So, why not just get a better cam for the application? Well, there’s a legitimate reason for that. And it’s not just because I’m poor. I actually have another cam, brand new, still in the box with a more appropriate grind for this application. I just don’t trust it. Unfortunately, a lot of flat-tappet cams are junk that are going to be wiped out in no time. I’ve personally run into it and a lot of folks in the industry have been talking about it for years now, and until things straighten out, or I can afford to upgrade to a roller cam, we’re going to work with what I’ve got. 

Trying New Oil 

Last year, the folks at Motul offered to send me some oil to try out for this project. Up until that point, I, like many classic car owners, was running 15w40 high-mileage diesel oil that was absolutely loaded with additives to help protect the engine. It works and it's cheap, but it's not really designed for use with this application. So, when Motul reached out and let me know about its line of semi-synthetic classic oils, I was totally on board with giving it a shot. 

Motul's line of classic oils is a line of various oil viscosities and blends designed to work with engines produced in 1990 and earlier. There are different options depending on the year range,  as each places a different set of demands on the engine. I was recommended and sent its Classic 2100 15w50 oil as it's meant to work with engines like my 1973 440.

I did have some concerns regarding the quark gaskets and zinc content. However, the reps assured me that this blend will work with older gaskets and is designed specifically for use with flat tappet cams. They specifically stated that I do not need to add anything to protect mine, which is great because having to spend an additional $20 every oil change does suck. 

It's still early on to give any feedback on this oil's performance, but I have high hopes for it. It's a semi-synthetic blend, which should offer better oil life and stability under the abuse of running through an older engine. We'll have to wait and see, though. At the very least, it's a solid option to stand alongside the fairly limited existing line of oils designed specifically for obsolete machines. 

The Cherry on Top: New Points 

The last stop I made in this journey was upgrading the distributor. 

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: one of the best things I ever did for this car was ditching the electronic ignition and moving back to points. I've put thousands of miles on this car. Along the way, I've had dozens of faulty ignition boxes, and pickups leave me stranded. Even upgrading to a new wiring harness has failed to prevent the issue.

Moving back to points has put those problems behind me. That's not to say I hate electronic ignition systems or am opposed to the idea. I've just had terrible luck with them, and this is the fix. As a matter of fact, I was pretty opposed to the idea initially and I'd be lying if I said otherwise. It took hearing it from veteran hotrodders both on the internet and in my personal life on top of the many headaches to consider returning to points in favor of their reliability.

There are some big differences between points and electronic distributors, but I'll give it a quick and dirty rundown for folks who are wondering what gives. 

An electronic distributor is equipped with a reluctor wheel attached to the shaft of the distributor and a magnetic pickup. That reluctor features a number of peaks that correspond with the number of cylinders the engine has. Those peaks are in time with the rotor, and as they line up with the magnetic pickup, a signal is sent from the ignition control module to the coil, which sends spark to the engine. The benefit is that it's a relatively maintenance-free system that's more precise and more resilient to the elements than points. I'm not here to argue with that logic. I am, however, here to say that the modules and pickups I've run into are most likely meant to power a car to and from the occasional show it's not being trailered to. I've been lucky to go more than a few hundred miles before having to replace one or the other. 

Points distributors get their name from the fact that they use breaker points in place of a magnetic pickup. The breaker points are driven by a cam that's fixed to the distributor shaft, much like the aforementioned reluctor. This cam has high points that correspond with the number of cylinders. As the distributor spins, those ramps open the breaker points, causing the field in the coil to collapse, sending a spark to whatever cylinder the rotor directs it to. The benefit of the typical dual-point is that it allows the charge to build longer in the coil, creating a stronger spark. There are variations, but that'd take us way off-topic.  

Points get a bad wrap because they're high-maintenance. You need to keep the points clean and adjusted to spec until they eventually wear down and need to be replaced. Of course, there's also the issue of having to worry about the condenser, which can be the source of heartache. However, points are very easy to work on once you spend enough time with them. If there's a problem, I can always pinpoint the issue and get back up and running within minutes.

I can't say the same for electronic ignition system failures that almost always lead to a ride home on the tow truck. In my experience, points distributors are more reliable. You just need to be willing to do a little bit of work. 

Anyway, while at a swap meet this year, I stumbled upon an absolute gem— an old Accel dual-point for my 440. 

While I love my Mallory distributors, this Accel is an upgrade in most ways. It uses the GM style of points adjustment screws, which allows me to more precisely adjust the gap. It's also easier to find stronger sets of points to better tailor it to my performance goals, which is complemented by a trick timing curve adjustment system I wish more distributors offered. Lastly, it places the condenser under the distributor cap, protecting it from nearby heat sources. 

The only thing it doesn't have is a vacuum advance. However, I do have a Mallory dual-point that does. The plan is to set that Mallory up a little more conservatively for long highway runs and reserve the Accel for shorter and harder drives. All I need to do is come up with a wiring system that allows me to quickly change between the two. It might seem like a total pain in the neck, but it's this type of engagement with your vehicle that gets me excited about classic cars. 

Now for the Road Test 

At this point in the game, there's very little to do other than setting up that quick-change distributor system and getting out and driving the car. Believe me, that's what I need most. Sitting behind a computer just talking about the Charger after working on it for months on end is driving me up a wall. 

I do foresee making small adjustments, but not much as far as the engine goes. I really think this combination is going to impress me out there in the real world. Between the potential for more economical tunes, better means to make more power as needed, and overall improved reliability, I think I'm in for some awesome times. There's really only one way to find out.

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