"That kind of stuff just doesn't happen anymore."
That's the response you would expect from a car guy, if you tried to tell him that your friend just found a 1970 Dodge Hemi Challenger in a barn in the corner of an Iowa farm field. But the story is true.
Chad Maskrey is a self-avowed treasure hunter. Like the scuba divers who found Captain Kidd's sunken treasure in the shallow waters off Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic, Chad is constantly on the prowl for muscle-car treasure hidden in dusty garages, and yes, even in cliché barns. These cars are rarely advertised. Often, they're not even really for sale. But if you're the right guy at the right time, with cash in hand, the treasures continue to lie in wait.
Chad's Challenger story started out much like all the urban legends you've ever heard. "My buddy, Jim Kinney, does repair work on cars. One day, he's working on this steering column, and he hears from his dad who is rebuilding a carburetor for this kid. The kid tells him, ‘I know this guy who has a Challenger for sale. He says it's a Hemi.'" The word gets back to Chad via the jungle drums that is every bit as fast as social media. Most of us would blow off a tip like this—but not Chad. He once set off in an Iowa snowstorm just to look at a Dickson lawn mower. "I'm known for that," he says.
It took some time to run down all the players in this automotive game of telephone, but Chad finally scores the Challenger owner's name and number. After a short phone conversation, he writes down an address and sets out "like a mad man driving 100 mph" to arrive at around 7 p.m. on what he half-expects to be a dead end. His GPS takes him about 20 miles outside Des Moines, down a gravel road that comes to—you guessed it—a dead end. He gets out of his truck, and there is the owner and his wife standing near a machine shed. The owner slides the door open, and there, partially buried amid farm implement tools is this silver/gray Challenger. A quick flip of the hood reveals a dusty eight-barrel Hemi. That's when Chad's pulse rate slipped into overdrive.
The Challenger's story went something like this. The original owner purchased the Plum Crazy car from a local Dodge dealer checking off the boxes for the Hemi, a TorqueFlite, and a Dana 60 with 4.10:1 gears. Owner No. 1 worked at the post office and at some point decided the 4.10:1 gears were not nearly as much fun as he first thought and had the dealership install an 83⁄4-inch rear axle with taller gears. The Plum Crazy was disguised with an innocuous silver/gray paintjob at some point and sold to a friend, who also worked at the post office. Years went by, and owner No. 2 is in the hospital with serious health problems. A friend stops by to visit and owner No. 2 asks him if he's still interested in the Challenger. Owner No. 2 says, "I don't think I'm gonna make it out of here alive, and I thought you'd like the car." The friend, the third in this string of postal workers, becomes Owner No. 3 for a mere $1,000. "He's not much of a car guy," Chad says. According to Chad, owner No. 3 told him, "I put a battery in it, and it just clicked." After several unsuccessful attempts to get the big Hemi started, owner No. 3 pushed it into the machine shed and let it sit.
Times are still tough, and owner No. 3 is now motivated to sell. Unfortunately for him, he didn't do his homework. A friend told him it was maybe worth $20,000. He told Chad, "I have a friend who wants to buy the car; he owns a dealership up in Minnesota." That's when Chad began to get nervous. Plus, the original price had suddenly grown to $25,000. But as any good car crafter knows, these Hemi E-bodies have been going for stupid money for decades. It was worth far more, even in its currently corroded and neglected state. After a few tense minutes, while owner No. 3 left to call the dealer to make a final pitch, he returned to tell Chad, "He wanted to trade me another car for it. I don't need another car; I need cash."
"That's when I decided to turn up the wick," Chad said.
The men settled on the $25,000 selling price, and Chad gave him a deposit and immediately left to retrieve his trailer. Chad says, "We were back with the trailer and the car was all strapped down by 11 p.m. As we were tying it down, the guy asked my buddy, ‘Hey, did I just get took on this deal?' My friend told him, ‘Well, you paid $1,000 for it, right? So you just made 25 times on your money. You did all right.'" According to Chad, owner No. 3 seemed to be satisfied, and Chad left with the deal of a lifetime.
If you're familiar with Chad Maskrey's idea of a street car ("The Deep End," Dec. '06), it has little to do with restored Hemi Challengers—it's more about turbocharged LS engines cloaked in primer or patina paint. Knowing Chad, we knew his relationship with the Challenger would be fleeting. But there was one thing that had to be accomplished first. It's like some kind of primal urge or car guy rite of passage—he had to make it run. "The next day, we went out and bought a nail file, some fresh gas, a Mr. Gasket fuel pump, a battery, and a can of Brake Clean—you know, Boy Scout juice. We filed the points, hit the carburetors with the juice, and had it running in 15 minutes."
Chad also went searching for the build sheet. Apparently, the E-body assembly line offered two, because Chad found them both. The first was hidden behind the passenger bucket seat in the plastic back panel. The second was tucked in under the bottom cushion of the rear bench. Both, incredulously, were in near-perfect condition. "That's the crazy part about this," Chad says "The build sheets are usually the first thing to go. Mice love paper, but these are nearly perfect." Besides the obvious cheapie '70s re-spray, the Challenger suffered very few modifications. Under the hood, it now sports an iconic '70s big, yellow ACCEL coil, and the distributor has a mechanical tach drive unit that spins a Stewart-Warner 8,000-rpm rev counter in the middle of the Rallye Pak dash. There's also a set of long-tube headers that are now more rust than anything resembling real steel tubing. Perhaps the most laughable part is the original exhaust that appears to be not much larger than of a pair of soda straws.
The word again emanated this time from Des Moines outward to the Chrysler faithful that the E-body was for sale. In a matter of a few days, a buyer from Phoenix flew out and arranged new ownership—we'll leave the selling price out to protect all parties from snoopy spouses. Then, Chad chimed in with this little anecdote. "How 'bout this? A few years ago, I sold a rare '67 Hemi Belvedere to a guy in Phoenix. I found out that the guy who bought the Challenger lives like 15 minutes from the guy with the Belvedere, and they didn't know each other."
Perhaps the vortex of the Hemi Mopar universe is now located near Phoenix.