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Weapons Grade

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by Steve Temple  More from Author

Transforming a Tired Pistol Into a High-Tech Cruise Missile

Some muscle cars are born great. Others have to be made that way. The debate about nature-versus-nurture as to which approach is better doesn’t matter so much as the end result. And in the case of John Payne’s ’69 Charger, the proof of the pudding is the car’s presence and performance, which this ride has in abundance. When it comes to muscle car projects, nothing succeeds like excess.

Payne should also score points for just how far he had to go with the car. That’s because it when acquired it about six years ago, this old warhorse was headed for the glue factory.

Not much is known about its original owner, but a few details did come to light. It came from the factory in green with a vinyl roof and bench seat, powered by a little 318 with a column-shift automatic. With this setup, it might have been a great commuter for the first owner, but one thing’s for sure—it had had a very rough life.

When Payne came across the car, the vinyl roof had been replaced with a white hardtop. There were huge slicks on the back and pizza cutters on the front. It wore R/T badges, a chrome roll bar from a pickup truck and more stickers than a Funny Car. There were also Hemi emblems, but there’s certainly no Hemi under the hood. Instead, a very tired 440 with headers and three-inch exhaust, which was so loud that Payne couldn’t hear the death knock coming from the bottom end. The transmission was fried and the Sure Grip was only grabbing on one side. Mechanically, the car was a disaster.

For some unknown reason, the previous owner had stapled a business card to the title. Payne didn’t think anything of it until he went to the DMV for the title transfer. That’s when he discovered the word “Salvaged” stamped in bold letters across the top, concealed by the card. Obviously the car had been totaled at some point in its past.

In spite of all the warning sirens, Payne couldn’t resist tooling around town, even at his peril. “I drove the car for a little while,” he admits. “It was a real handful with the slicks and the pizza cutters. It didn’t like turning, that’s for sure.”

Not only that, the engine would overheat in traffic. The interior had no insulation under the cheap carpet and every nut and bolt seemed to rattle. “It was like being inside a dumpster with steel wheels rolling down a bumpy road. The interior was always hot and acrid with the smell of exhaust and gasoline fumes.” (So what’s your point Payne?)

Every muscle car guy knows what came next. After the initial thrill of owning a 1969 Dodge Charger with a big block wore off,

Payne realized what complete wreck this car really was. “Rather than junk it or sell to the next fool, I decided to rebuild it,” he recalls. “It was in such bad shape that anything would be an improvement. Since it wasn’t an R/T or a rare color combination, I figured it was the perfect car to modify. I set out to build the car my way. It took way more time and way more money than I ever anticipated.” (Doesn’t this scenario sound a little familiar?)

This Charger wouldn’t be any ordinary restomod project, though. By day John Payne works as a creative director for a high-profile ad agency based in Los Angeles, handling giga-buck corporate clients. So he knows a thing or two about importance of style and presentation.

“I have always loved the second-generation Chargers,” he notes. “It’s the best-looking muscle car out there in my humble opinion. I set out to create something that would really show off the lines of the car. I wanted it to look more like the designer’s original vision.”

Achieving that vision required some careful research into the genesis of the Charger’s extravagant lines. “I remember reading that the designer was inspired by two diamonds coming together at their points to form the shape of the body [on the sides],” Payne says. “I wanted to boil it down to that raw form, nothing extra, nothing that didn’t serve a purpose. I wanted it took look like a weapon, purposeful and dangerous. More like a jet fighter than a car.” And that would include the mill under the hood, as we’ll see shortly.

First, though, some more about how Payne customized the shape. Treating it like one of those high-end Chip Foose rods, he had the body shop shave the whole car: door handles, drip rails, side-marker lights and the tail panel trim. The quarter panel extensions and the back corner pieces were then filled and blended. Altogether they imparted a smooth, aerodynamic look. 

Next was the color. Payne wanted a silver-bullet hue, but it had to be just the right shade, dark enough to accentuate all the lines and curves of the car. He had seen a ‘41Willys with just the right color down at Hot Rods and Custom Stuff in Escondido California. After seeing their work Payne decided to let them finish the bodywork and spray the car.

Now, about that explosive charge under the hood: Built by Vrbancic Brothers Racing, it’s a 440 stroked to 493 cubes, armed with Edelbrock heads and TTI headers. Although built for the street and high-grade pump gas, this high-caliber weapon makes just over 500 horsepower and 600 lb./ft. of torque.

The military flavor of this car wasn’t accidental. John Hopper from Blue Sky Dynamics, who was instrumental in the build of this car, also works by day as a high-altitude radar engineer for the Global Hawk program at Raytheon Aerospace. His engineering and military backgrounds are evident throughout the car. The plumbing under the hood is masterful. Everything is neat and tidy, with billet accessory brackets, March pulleys, A/N fittings and military-grade bulkhead connectors. Working with Blue Sky partner Robert Bernstein, they even routed the A/C and heater hoses inside the fender to keep them out of sight, and concealed the Classic Auto Air kit inside the dash.

Together they designed and fabricated the flat, one-piece aluminum dash, which would look at home in the cockpit of an aircraft. They used Autometer gauges for the car’s vital signs and modern pushbuttons for the controls.

As with so many project cars, the job isn’t quite done, and they’re kicking around the idea of adding a supercharger. For now, though, this weapons-grade Charger is ready to lock and load.

Blue Sky Dynamics


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