Hemi: Still Popular & Profitable After 59 Years

Mar 1, 2010

There are some potent and provocative four-letter words that can frighten the fainthearted. And then there’s Hemi.

“Nothing looks like a Hemi,” noted Russ Flagle, owner of Indy Cylinder Head in Indianapolis. “When you raise the hood, it’s an awe-inspiring situation.”

“It’s a household name, and Chrysler pushes it hard,” said Bill Mitchell Jr. of World Products in Ronkonkoma, New York. “Even kids know what it is.”

Now closing in on its 60th anniversary, this truly classic engine is as popular today as it ever was.

“Nostalgia is in now,” observed Mark Campbell, owner of Street & Performance, Inc. in Mena, Arkansas. “It wasn’t 15 years ago.”

“We used to say that every customer who bought a 440 would rather have a Hemi-but they could afford a 440,” added Flagle. “Now those same customers are older, they make more money and they want a Hemi.”

Who Wants a Hemi?

The popularity of the Hemi may be due to the fact that it allows for the user to measure more than horsepower and torque on a dyno, or even down the quarter-mile. If you want to go fast-really fast-with a Chrysler-badged engine, you can do it more cost-effectively with a 440.

“There are still 440 blocks around, and over the years there was a lot of R&D put into the 440,” said Flagle. “Edelbrock and other companies make good parts for them. We do, too. That’s why most bracket racers would rather run a 440.”

So who are these rodders who’d still rather run a Hemi? “It’s the guy who was around them when he was in high school,” Flagle answered. “He’s the one who’s spending the money to refurbish a Hemi-powered muscle car now.” And, as he noted earlier, “we have customers taking their 440s out and putting in Hemis.”

“It’s older people who remember those days, and now they are reliving their past,” said Campbell. “One of our customers is building a replica of the car he had when he was 16.”

More than that, they “are a hands-on, hardcore, hot rod bunch,” reported Bob Walker, owner of Hot Heads Research & Racing, Inc. in Lowgap, North Carolina. “They want something different from the norm, and are willing to go through a learning curve to get it. Many are former hardcore Chevy people-”and others are building the first engine they’ve ever built. Talk about a challenge.”

“They are a cult,” added Mitchell of World Products. “They tattoo it on themselves. They are generally older; the expense of a Hemi keeps the younger generation out until they are a bit better funded, but their kids grow up living the lifestyle.”

And that younger generation will build a Hemi if they can. They are building cars and have the desire to be different, commented Tom Lieb, owner of Scat Enterprises in Redondo Beach, California.

“They haven’t got a lot of money, but they still have the desire to build their own Picasso, so they build a radical driver out of junkyard parts, like we did when we were kids,” he said. “They don’t want to dump a crate engine in it, because then they have no bragging rights.

“But pull in with a Hemi-or a Nailhead Buick, for that matter-and that is cool, because traditional hot rodding had all these different engines.”

Heavy-Hitting Hemis

Hot Heads built this 1954 Chrysler 331 and entered it into the 2007 Engine Master Challenge.

The Hemi has ridden the current trend toward “putting a Ford in a Ford and a Mopar in a Mopar,” said Campbell of Street & Performance. “But we’ve also seen people put Hemis in ’55 Chevys and older Chevy pickups, because that was done in the early years.”

“The installation I liked best was the 331 we built for Ron Raffi,” said Walker. “It [went] into an original 340 Six-Pack car. We bored it to 340 cubic inches, and cut down and installed our Hot Heads Six-Pack setup with an original 340 Six-Pack air cleaner. Ron had the first 340 Six-Pack Hemi.”

Lieb of Scat noted that there’s more interest now than ever in first-generation Hemis for street rods.

“There’s a transition going on,” he said. “People have seen enough of the small block Chevy and even the small block Ford. It’s not only Hemis, but early Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks that have become popular with people building nostalgia hot rods.

“These are the people who dare to be different,” continued Lieb. “They will buy a complete car-for, say, as little as $1,800-” to get the engine they want, and scrap the rest of it.”

It’s important to remember, however, that nostalgic Hemis still represent a niche within the total hot rod market-”and probably always will.

That said, Lieb questioned whether an early Hemi is really such a high-cost engine to build. “If you’re going to build a stroker and add a lot of aftermarket parts, then a Hemi is going to cost more than a small block Ford or Chevy built the same way,” he said. “But I don’t see younger people doing that. They are building these engines nearly stock. A single four-barrel is just fine. The Hemi engine itself is nostalgic enough.”

Whereas a 426, Lieb allowed, is most likely to find its way into a muscle car clone. And it will be expensive.

“If somebody has an original, numbered 426, then they are going to go looking for a car to put it in,” he said. “They can get a lot of money for that. Even building a 426 from scratch will cost a lot of money, but that’s the price of admission.”

Further, the sheer physical size of a 426 limits its applications.

“It’s a big and heavy engine, so you need space in order to install it,” Lieb said. “With a small block Chevy, Ford or Chrysler, the physical size of those engines lends them to a lot of applications. That’s why to a traditional hot rodder, an early Dodge or DeSoto Hemi is so appealing. A friend of mine has a ’32 Ford Highboy with a Dodge Hemi, and it’s really sweet-looking in there. It’s about three-quarters the size of a Chrysler Hemi, and Hurst once made all the mounts, so it’s not hard to install one.”

Parts & Pieces

As much as anything, it’s been the availability of parts that has kept the Hemi a viable hot rod power source. The Hemi, especially the first-generation, hit its all- time low in the mid-to-late 1980s, said Walker of Hot Heads. “We attended shows about every weekend in our hot rod Ford pickup with a 354-”and we were lonesome everywhere we went. Everyone admired it, but told us that ‘you can’t get parts.'”

That began to change in the 1990s. In 1996, journalist and engine builder Doc Frohmader wrote a series of articles for Street Rodder magazine about building a blown 392.

“Hobbyists such as ourselves started making accessories,” Walker said, adding that when parts and accessories became more readily available, the Hemi’s popularity rebounded. Then Mopar released the third-generation Hemi, he said, and reintroduced the legendary name and expanded its following to a new generation of fans.

“We are constantly developing and introducing new parts for all early Hemis,” said Walker. “Most recently we released a magnesium blower intake and belt drive for race applications, as well as Dodge accessory mounts and several intakes for Dodges and DeSotos. We’re also working on an aluminum street block, as well as a billet crank.”

Likewise, said Mitchell, the 426 “may have fallen dormant for a spell, but now that we’ve resurrected the block, in both aluminum and cast iron, people are actually able to get their hands on one.”

And Scat can make a Hemi crank-”early, late, or in-between with different strokes, said Lieb. “We make Chrysler rods, and if we don’t have a forging for what you want, we can make it out of billet,” he said. “And you can pretty much buy everything else you need to build an engine from scratch, just like you can for a small block Ford or Chevy.”

As for products, Street & Performance offers fuel injection and serpentine belt kits for the 426 Hemi, and is developing similar products for first-generation Hemis as well.

Indy Cylinder Head makes a complete turnkey 572cid street engine that develops 650 horsepower on pump gas. Variations are available with a single four-barrel carburetor, two fours, or three deuces, “so we can custom-make it to look however the customer wants it to look,” said Flagle.

Best of all, the new Hemi is a true retro-fit that bolts in wherever an original factory 426 was offered, added Flagle.

“For years, we built some equipment that was not exactly stock replacement,” said Flagle. A relocated exhaust port, for example, would improve performance, while complicating a muscle car restoration, “but our new 572 puts everything back exactly as Chrysler designed it,” he said.

In addition to the complete crate engine, Indy Cylinder Head will also offer the heads individually, with either the stock 200cc intake ports and 2.250 valves; or with 266cc ports and 2.400 valves, for blower applications up to 900 horsepower. Indy also makes its own all-aluminum Hemi block.

World Products’ all-aluminum 572 Hemi provides 735 horsepower, said Mitchell. “We’ve been involved in a few interesting installations over the past two years, but the one we’re in the middle of right now is probably the coolest,” he said. “Ted Dzus-”’Mr. Quarter Turn,’ of Dzus Fasteners-is building a Henry J with one of our 572cid Hemi crate engines!”

Bringing these hot Hemi engines to your customers will achieve what they want most: to look and sound cool.