What eye-candy poster was pinned up on your bedroom wall when you were thirteen? A black Lamborghini Countach sprouting numerous spoilers? Farah Fawcett-Majors with blindingly-white teeth? Metallica? KISS? What I gazed lovingly upon– whilst sprawled across my bed– was a giant detailed cross-sectional drawing of a Chrysler hemi engine. Thus was the spell that the mythical engine had on me.
I spent days painstakingly making the icon myself, recreating an image from a library book unto the large poster board with nothing more than a ruler, pencil and magic marker. It was my masterpiece, my Mona Lisa. I had finally and fully unveiled the mystery beneath those giant valve covers. The hemispherical combustion chambers, complex valve train and gracefully curving ports were revealed in graphic detail, as explicitly on display as Miss April in the Playboy centerfold under my mattress.
In earlier years, I would peer endlessly into any open engine compartment. Although largely ignorant of the actual thermodynamic differences, I had intuited a distinct pecking order for the distinctive cylinder head configurations: flathead, conventional overhead valve (OHV) and hemi-head. Flatheads spoke old-school; big rectangular lumps of cast iron, almost lost in the depths of the deep engine compartments of the times. And once having seen that slab of a flathead cylinder head removed, the torturous path afforded the intake and exhaust gases was obviously inferior.
The usual OHV configuration– with valves lined up side-by-side under their narrow valve covers– spoke of modernity, efficiency and the ability to make decent power in Detroit’s postwar generation of V8s. But one glance at those huge wide valve covers perched on Chrysler’s FirePower hemi V8 inspired awe. I instantly knew that it was designed for one thing, and one thing only: power.
With valves canted some 60 degrees, they could be bigger. Intake and exhaust ports were both a straight shot into their respective manifolds, dramatically improving breathing. I knew Chrysler hadn’t invented the hemi. The 1912 Peugeot grand prix engine had them (as well as DOHC and four valves per cylinder). Hemis were common in Europe, and used on the Miller/Offenhauser racing engines. But Chrysler was the first to adapt them to the sedate, slow-revving Yank tank engine bays.
Starting with a mild 180hp in 1951, Chrysler quickly began to develop the hemi’s potential, and soon dominated the horsepower war of the fifties. The crowning glory was the 1955 Chrysler 300, the first production vehicle to sport the eponymous amount of horsepower. It would top 130mph straight off the showroom floor. The 1957 300C’s 390hp represented a doubling of power in just six years– and then some. It was a milestone. An instant classic.
Hot rodders knew a winner when they saw it. The hemi quickly became the ticket on the drag strip. With a giant blower forcing a nitro mixture into massaged hemi heads, thousands of horsepower could be extracted. That seemed miraculous to me, given that our elderly neighbor’s 1956 Windsor generated all of 225p. No wonder I stared reverently as he burbled down the street at 20mph; I knew the awesome potential that was waiting to be unleashed under that long hood.
Unfortunately, the hemi’s capabilities carried a penalty. The complicated engine was expensive to build, and heavy. By 1958, Chrysler pulled the plug. The company developed a completely new hemi– the 426 — for NASCAR racing in 1964. It was never intended as a production engine; Chrysler was forced to adapt it for civilian use when NASCAR threatened to ban it otherwise. The hemi was reincarnated, in even more mythical form.
Although 426 hemis terrorized the stock car circuits and drag strips, they were not exactly common on the street. But thanks to my first job at fifteen, pumping extra-high-octane Sunoco 260 gas, I had regular close encounters of the hemi kind with a Plymouth GTX.
I couldn’t wait to pop the hood to gaze reverentially on that huge orange and crackle-black icon. As an ex-altar boy, my instinct was to genuflect, especially when that heady incense of hot oil and crankcase vapors hit my nostrils. I felt privileged to check its vital fluids, and eventually, screwed up the courage to ask if I could check the air filter. The owner obliged, even though he knew it was just a ruse to see the two enormous four-barrel Carter carburetors in their naked splendor.
Tempus fugit. Those days of heady hemi horsepower are long gone. You know it’s a different age when Chrysler files a trademark on the hemi name– boldly emblazoning it on cars and trucks with oversized HEMI badges– even though the engine powering them isn’t really a hemi (it’s more accurately a “pent-roof”). It’s no wonder the wonder’s gone, genuine hemis are notoriously “dirty” but it’s sad nonetheless. That thing got a hemi? Not really, no.