By on December 15, 2007

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.

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27 Comments on “Autobiography: Hemi Love...”

  • avatar

    Bravo! Great piece! Sunoco gas station story is priceless :)

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    Are you sure you’re not me?

    I worshiped at the same alter.

  • avatar

    When the owner “Fred Sunoco” was not around, we would break the wire seal on the pump and dispense “280” to our friends.

  • avatar

    Nice piece Paul.

  • avatar

    Excellent retrospective, Paul. And thanks for pointing out the new HEMI is not a hemi.

    The old Mopar motor was the unquestioned champion, the new one is more of a GEN-III small block Chevy with funny heads, funnier ignition, and no extra power. (and I expect it spits out more emissions than the GM mill too)

  • avatar

    The 392 celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year.

    The folks that are still true to the original design are the Top Fuel guys in drag racing although the engines are 500 cu in with dual plug per cylinders all aluminum…they still look like a Hemi.

    For the street the Hemi was the killer package, although they were very maintenence intensive, and challenging to keep well tuned. In those days when someone starting talking about adjusting the valves on a Hemi(the days of mechanical lifters on the really hot engines) and having to remove a lot of stuff around the engine just to remove the valve covers…it was not fun.

    Just like the Hemi changes, Petty Enterprises is moving from Randleman to Mooresville.

  • avatar

    I don’t share the same engine interests, but I know what love for an engine type can be. Sorry to hear about its demise.

  • avatar

    I suppose that a TV ad with a dad trying to get his two-year-old son to say “Pent-Roof” wouldn’t be as poetic.

  • avatar

    The 426 Hemi is one of those automotive legends that is best remembered in myth. The reality (as someone else has already pointed out) was that they were not only expensive and difficult to maintain, they also had an alarming tendency to break regularly. That’s just the price one paid for trying to run a high-strung race engine on the street. It was not uncommon to see Mopars a few years old with original Hemi engine call-outs on the fenders or hood sporting regular wedge-head, big-block replacements in their engine bays. That’s why the smart Mopar street racers that actually had to drive their cars on a daily basis ran single four-barrel 440s, just like the savvy Ford guys preferred 428 CobraJets to the similiarly legendary Boss 429.

    Although it might not have had the same racing pedigree or caché as the 426, the 331-354-392 fifties’ FirePower was a far better example of a Hemi that could run reliably on the street.

  • avatar

    My neighbor has a ’56 Windsor in his driveway. 331 Wedge engine, it has a dry intake manifold and free flowing exhaust mans. It also can accept hemi heads, believe it or not.

    Big Daddy Don liked the Red Ram hemi engines. 6 main bearings and chrome plated cranks. They were overbuilt monsters capable of taking a lot of abuse.

    I was privleged to work on one years ago. It was in a 55 Dodge and not really modified. Oil leaks were common around the spark plug tubes so I helped replace the gaskets and seal it up. I had a religious experience when I removed the covers and saw the valve train.

  • avatar

    I thought I remembered reading in Wilkinsons “Gold Plated Porsche” that the 911 flat six utilized a hemi design.

  • avatar

    Another legendary hemi-head engine is the Jaguar XK. With a six-decade run (1948-1994) it powered everything from Le Mans winning race cars (C-type, D-Type), legendary sports cars (XK 120/140/150, XKSS, E-type), Luxury saloons and Limousines (Mark 1 & 2, VII-X, 240, 340, 420, Daimlers & Panther De Ville, and of course the XJ) and even military tanks, one of which was classified as the fastest tank in the world, namely the British FV101 Scorpion, which saw combat in the Falklands war.

    The XK is a timelessly beautiful engine with cathedral-like proportions, suitable for worship.


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    chuckgoolsbee: I have prostrated myself in front of the venerable XK.

    speedbrakes: Porsche, Ferrari, and just about any high-performance engine out of Europe for much of the 20th century. It was the gateway to good breathing and power.

  • avatar


    YES At least the 3.0L in my 1981 SC is of that design. Ask me how I know !! 11 broken exhaust side cylinder studs when I bought it. AND it ran…not well, but it ran.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    wow, 50 freakin yrs. Seems like yesterday. My 2nd car was a 53 New Yorker Deluxe with, IRRC, the 331 1st gen. The corner garage had a 57 300C convertable. AKA, “the Pink Pig” Much later, I bought the spousal unit an XJ 6 to celebrate our silver anniversary. The engine was great, but the rest of the car……..

  • avatar

    I never noticed her teeth.

  • avatar

    This “not a real Hemi” talk is straight out of 2004. It’s as close as we can get these days, and I say it’s close enough.

    The mid-to-late 1950s performance cars are always unrightly overshadowed by those of the 1960s. It’s a shame, really.

  • avatar

    Paul, a cross-section of the Mercedes 300SL’s straight 8 with desmodromic valve actuation had a similar effect on me. My own drawing of that image’s cylinder head section became my special project for Mechanical Drawing class.

  • avatar

    Even the 426 hemi’s chamber was not truly hemispherical, it was shallow. The original hemi was not truly a hemi, either. But both were close enough to be called a hemi, same as the gen 3 hemi.
    The new hemi design has nothing in common with the LS gm engine.  No extra power? Check out some of the hemi buildups being done. Try telling Mr. Norm, who sells challengers with up to over 900 horses.

  • avatar

    The 440 “wedge” usually dominated in stock class drag racing. Small block Chevys would often beat the hemis, at least in Ohio and Florida.
    Correctly, they are “rocker arm covers”.
    My 1950 Olds usually beat the hemi Dodges.

  • avatar

    I happen to live in ohio, which drag strips did you go to? Virtually all funny cars had a hemi, even the ones with ford and chevy bodies, as well as top fuel dragsters.

    • 0 avatar

      Akron, Howland, and Salem. Gainsville and Bradenton in Florida. Most of the STOCK hemis had fluid drive, or the early two speed, both handicaps.
      GM funny cars had GM engines. Talk to Bill Jenkins, or Jim Mattison; both have web sites.

    • 0 avatar

      @william442: I’m from the Youngstown area, Brookfield township specifically, I don’t remember a dragstrip in Howland township… How far back in time are we speaking? I’m 48 and only went to the 1/4 mile drags at Quaker City in Salem (mostly) or like Moparman, occasionally going to Dragway 42 in West Salem and Norwalk …
      I can’t think of one in the Akron area right now either…

  • avatar

    I happen to be 48 years old, and have lived in Akron my whole life, was born here. We have NEVER had a drag strip here.  The closest one we ever had was the aging dragway 42 in salem, which is an hour away. It’s been getting run down for about 20 years now, and hardly anyone goes there now except weekend bracket racers.
    Most people now go to the next two closest strips, which are both over 100 miles away. Those would be summit motorsport park in Norwalk, and National Trail Raceway in Columbus. Yes, Bill Jenkins ran chevy motors in his cars, they were not funny cars, they were pro stockers.

  • avatar

    Goezinger, forgot about quaker city. I went there once with my brotherinlaw when I was 14. We NEVER had a drag strip here in Akron. Like I said in my other post, dragway 42 was the closest, quaker wasn’t much further.

    • 0 avatar

      @Mopar: What part of Akron? I still have relatives and friends there. And what a coincidence, I was about 14 when I went to QC for the first time. In fact, I was helping to pit for a couple of brothers who had a pretty hot 1971 Duster 340/727.  We got through the first couple of elims OK, but redlighted further up against a Rat-motored Chevy II. I remember going to Dragway 42 a couple of times for some special events (must have been like Super Chevy weekend or something), but I haven’t been there since Reagan was in office.

  • avatar

    Small world. I’m in the firestone park area, archwood ave. near the high school.  Back in the day dragway 42 was the place to be.
    Racers like Don Garlits, Tom Mcewen and Shirley muldowney used to frequent the place, as well as many other famous racers, Like Gas Rhonda, and Bill Mavreick with the little red wagon.
    I was at Quaker city once in 78 with my brotherinlaw, who bracket raced a 69 camaro. It was 350 powered, with a th350, headers, mild cam, edelbrock intake. It did ok for what it was.

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