The Roots Of The Hemi Engine
While the 426 Hemi gets all the glory, it wasn’t the first hemispherical engine that Chrysler created. During the close of WW II, Chrysler developed an inverted Hemi V16 engine for the P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft. The XIV-2220 was never put into production (due to the war ending), but Chrysler took the lessons it had learned and, over the next few years, adapted the concept of the Hemi to their line of full-sized automobiles.
When it debuted in 1951, the new “Firepower” engine, the 331 ci engine produced 180 hp, began to appear in Chrysler vehicles. Before long, every division (except Plymouth) produced their variant of the Hemi engine. The hemispherical engine continued in various displacements until 1958 when Mopar abandoned the Hemi to work on its family of B-block Wedge engines.
But in the early sixties, Mopar needed an engine to outrun the Ford 427, which was being added to the racing scene in 1963. Having had success with the Hemi before, Chrysler turned to the tried and trusted motor, but this time they gave the engine some serious attitude. The Hemi was dubbed the “elephant” because of its size, weight, and power. The engine was built on 10.72 deck height with more than adequate bore spacing (4.04) (which would allow it to be stroked for higher displacements that race cars needed).
The design of these Chrysler engines relied on hemispherical combustion chambers with modified cylinder heads that could create a more dynamic force for power outputs. Mopar increased the size of both the intake and exhaust valves (2.02 and 1.94) and equipped a cross-ram manifold to provide additional airflow into each combustion chamber. Other racing components were added, like a front sump oil pan to keep the engine from overheating, and larger steel long tube headers made the exhaust blow out of the back with an aggressive growl.
The Hemi Goes Racing
The rise in popularity of stock car racing spurred Chrysler to resurrect the Hemi engine for use in Nascar in 1964. In the inaugural Daytona 500, Richard Petty won by driving a Plymouth Belvedere equipped with a race Hemi. (Cars with the 426 Hemi placed first, second, third, and fifth). The engine's success forced Nascar to ban new engines due to a lack of homologation requirements. (Ford and Chevy were clamoring against the new motor, which may have influenced the decision-makers). Chrysler spent the next year trying to figure out how to offer a street version of the Hemi for general production. (The result was a “Street Hemi” with lower compression that appeared in Dodge and Plymouth cars for the ‘66 model year).
When Mopar charged back into racing for the 1966 season, the 426 returned with a vengeance. Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 again, and David Pearson won the season title in a Mopar customized Dodge Charger. (Pearson won 15 races with 26 top-five and 33 top-ten finishes). The wins elevated the presence of the 426 Hemi and put the racing world on notice as the engine to beat.
The success of the 426 Hemi would continue into the 70s when Buddy Baker set the racing world on fire with a more than 200 mph run in a Dodge Charger Daytona. The King, Richar Petty, driving the No. 43 Plymouth, would dominate the circuit. Richard Petty would win the Daytona 500 again in 1971, and repetitive wins in 73-74.
The Hemi also made its way onto drag racing in NHRA and AHRA. The engine’s design made it easy to bore the cylinders, reaching displacements off the charts.
The “Hemi” Comes To Main Street
When Mopar unleashed the Hemi for the general public in 1966, the production motor was much more tame than the racing version. With a reduced compression ratio of 10.25:1 (vs. 13.5:1 for the race car), a lower-lift camshaft, and a 2 x 4 bbl carburetor, the Hemi made its debut as an option for the Dodge Charger/Coronet and the Plymouth Belvedere/Satellite models. The Hemi produced 425 hp and 490 lb-ft of torque. The sales brochures touted the V8 engine as part of the new “rebellion” and encouraged young buyers to “take it home and stir things up.”
Even though the motor was not as powerful as the racing version, it was still quick. The Hemi was capable of 5.8 seconds in the 0 - 60 mph stretch, which made them faster than most everything on the road. There was a definite growl to the engine that could intimidate the best Ford Mustang owner and make them quake in their boots when the Hemi pulled up alongside.
Both Dodge and Plymouth charged extra for the Hemi engines, which prevented many young owners from purchasing the Hemi beast. The added expense often raised the price of the vehicle to nearly $4,000 (which was a lot of money in those days). In addition, the new V8 required owners to use premium with they went to pump gas, which only added to the expense.
In just a few years, the Hemi was offered as a part of iconic muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger, ‘Cuda, Road Runner, and Superbee. While 1970 would be Hemi’s best production year, the cars were made in such limited numbers that today, they are among the rarest classic cars and fetch top dollar at auction.
The Hemi Gets Kicked To The Curb
Hemi production continued until 1971 when it became clear that the muscle car era was closing. When the government announced impending emissions regulations would soon be enacted, Chrysler abandoned the Hemi. The engine was expensive to build, and with such a lack of demand, Mopar thought it best to abandon it. In 1972, automakers detuned their other engines with lower compressions and power ratings. (A habit they would continue during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, in what classic car lovers often call the “malaise era”).
The Hemi Today
Due to the scarcity of engines, any classic car with a 426 Hemi is a valuable commodity. (For example, a ‘71 Hemi ‘Cuda with manual transmission failed to sell in 2021, despite having a 4.8 million dollar bid. Another sold in 2014 for $3.5 million). While there is a strong Hemi community, the Hemi 426 is considered among the rarest collectible cars on the planet.
If you are planning on trying to find a 426 Hemi for your classic car rebuild, good luck trying to find one. You should plan on spending close to $30k for a Hemi crate engine for a 426. (We found one on Ebay for $28k).
The Specs of the Hemi Engine
The following is a listing of the specifications of the 426 Hemi engine.
About THE AUTHOR
My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.Read More About Matt Lane