1969 Dodge Charger Project Update: Understanding That Better Is a Relative Term
As it turns out, your elders really do know what they’re talking about.
Lately, I’ve found myself in something of a loop. I’ve spent the majority of my free time over the past two years fixing what seemed to be the same issues over and over again on my 1969 Dodge Charger project car. And although the fixes involved improvements, it didn't really feel like I was getting anywhere. That’s the danger of driving a project car regularly: If you’re not careful with your mileage, you find yourself making more repairs than progress.
Thankfully, I'm learning to give myself the breathing room I need by using other vehicles while I give the Charger the time and attention it deserves. I've also been able to take inventory of the improvements I've made since the previous project car update, and I actually have accomplished quite a bit. It’s also helped me better understand what I’m working toward, and it’s beginning to feel like this project is really starting to take shape.
I ended the last project car update by saying that the Charger needed some basic maintenance all around and a new set of tires. I'm happy to report that all of that has been sorted out. The steering pump is no longer screaming bloody murder, I got the tires I wanted, and I even tossed in some new ball joints and brakes. Speaking of brakes, the car now has power brakes. It might not be a mod that screams race car, but it does make the thing a lot more enjoyable to drive.
I installed a set of 275/60R-15s on the rear and reassigned the 245s to steering duty. The 28-inch tall Mickey Thompson Sportsman STs with 3.55 gears put my desire for overdrive to rest. Cruising speeds of 65 mph at 2,800 rpm is fine, and there's still just enough low-end response to get around town. I do need to do something about that 8.25 between the rear tires before I can really start having fun with it. It's held up so far, but I've been careful not to disturb the peace.
I also made some changes to get a little better performance. I had an old single-plane feeding the 440, and although it worked, more bottom end is best for street use. Since a Torker II intake manifold I had sitting on the shelf would offer some low-end performance gains over the top-heavy TM7 intake, that's what I decided to move to for the time being.
The results are about what you’d expect from one single plane to another. Low rpm can still be a little choppy, but the Torker II did clean up the behavior some. Shortly after that, I swapped to an 800-cfm Holley over the 850 that came with the car when I plucked it from the field. The 850 needs some serious work, and I want to improve efficiency. The 850 is not officially retired just yet, though. Thanks to a company I recently stumbled upon, BLP Racing Products, I've been able to find some repair kits that I probably would have lost my mind without. If you're working on a Holley carb, I recommend giving BLP’s inventory a look.
I even managed to get in some exhaust work. Although I plan to eventually get a proper exhaust system, I did go ahead and add an X-pipe and Dynomax Super Turbo mufflers to my homemade setup. It’s got enough bark to let you know you’re driving when you get on it, but drone is virtually nonexistent at cruising speeds, and I can dig that.
Upgrades Aren’t Always Better
The two most significant changes I made to the car don't exactly qualify as upgrades. If anything, they’re downgrades.
The first downgrade I made was ditching the electronic ignition system in favor of a dual-points distributor. One of the first mods I made to this car was converting it to a stock-type electronic ignition system. I messed with an MSD system for a bit but wound up working with the stock stuff up until last summer. By the time I'd burned through the third or fourth ignition module, I knew something had to change. So, when the Carlisle Chrysler Nationals came to town, that’s where I landed a Mallory dual-point distributor.
My father has been barking at me to put a dual-point distributor back in the car since the first time a busted ignition system landed me on the tow truck. I should have listened. The points distributor has seen the car through all four seasons now and has never been the reason I called for roadside assistance.
What did give my AAA membership a workout was something else entirely. I should have listened to another elder who told me not to buy the tubular K-member the car's been riding on since I first started driving the Charger. It finally snapped on me not too long ago. Thankfully, nothing bad happened when it failed as I was driving on a quiet stretch of road with more than enough room to safely limp off to the side.
Now, before I make a blanket statement about tubular K-members and street use, it's only fair to say that some are built with that setting in mind while others aren't. In my case, I should have done more research before buying into marketing keywords and driving carelessly. I'm no engineer and can't really weigh in on the details. All I can say is that I won't be taking chances again on one in a street-driven car anytime soon. The stock unit might be slightly heavier and offer less room for headers and working on things, but I know for sure that Dodge built it for street use, and it's proven to be a perfectly viable design for nearly 60 years now. I wish I had thought about that before spending money on flashy aftermarket parts. At least nobody got hurt.
On the bright side, I think the car looks a whole lot better with the factory K-member tucked neatly into the belly. The tubular K-member, believe it or not, was hanging very low. In old pictures, you can see that there was a minimal amount of ground clearance under the front of the car with it installed. It’s something I really never noticed until swapping back. As soon as I did, the Charger looked like a Charger again. Even with the sway bar, everything looks nice and tidy.
What’s the Plan From Here?
So, the car turns, it looks good, and it’s running pretty smoothly. Yes, I am eventually going to make it pretty, but I need to get some highway miles on it first.
I recently took the car for an emergency trip to New Jersey. According to my math, I got about 7 miles to the gallon. I know many of you will say that sounds about right but not me. I know I can get close to double that if I make a few changes. I have another distributor with a vacuum advance I need to install, and I’m confident I can get more miles per gallon out of it with a little more tinkering with the tune. Also, the sending unit has a nasty leak that’s not helping the situation. Addressing that alone should make a massive difference.
The single-plane intake and cam combination I have aren't doing me any favors in terms of efficiency in this operating range. A good dual plane such as Edelbrock's Performer RPM should be sitting on top. And although I have an unopened Comp Cams cam and lifter set that’d be perfect here, I have yet to decide whether it belongs in this engine or another I'm working on.
Once I have that sorted, I intend to get out and explore a little. I have an idea of where I’d like to go, but I’m not saying anything until I build a little more confidence in this sucker. Speaking of which, I’m still undecided on whether I want to keep my tubular control arms. They have yet to let me down, but the entire way to Jersey I kept thinking about the possibility of something failing because of my experience with the K-member.
So, I’ve been playing around and tightening things up. I plan to finally start finishing up the cosmetics, but I intend to do something pretty major between then and now to make it possible—something that requires a considerable amount of money. I’ll keep you posted.