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1964 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere Super Commando - The Second Coming Of The Super Commando

Rico Petrini's '64 Hemi Plymouth

Photography by , Rico Petrini

"The 426-III cu. in. engine . . . is designed for maximum acceleration from a standing start. Wide open throttle bursts with the 12.5:1 and 11:1 ratio engines must be limited to 15 seconds to prevent engine damage." Chrysler Service Bulletin No. 64-19, December 14, 1963

There are certain watershed marks in the history of musclecars that just can't be ignored. Bench racing sessions about when the first musclecar was built will continue until the last machine has slid into a pile of rust dust, but the popular vote skews toward 1964. GM was cranking out V-8 A-body cars like the 389 GTO, and Ford had its High-Riser 427, but if you want to talk image and sheer unadulterated mystique then we must speak in reverent hushed tones about the 426 Hemi. Those massive chrome valve covers and that dual four-barrel induction system were nothing less than testosterone ingeniously cast into a reciprocating mass of passion and horsepower. There are rare instances in American industry when the engineers are on the same page as the marketing guys. That's when great things happen. In this case, it was the '64 Plymouth Super Stock package called the 426-III.

Plymouth and Dodge were locked in an internal battle to crank out some of the most serious bald-faced race cars ever to leave the factory floor. The hero cars were the aluminum front-end machines. These flyweight Plymouth Savoys and Belvederes were built with a collection of lightweight aluminum stampings taking the place of stock hoods, front fenders, bumper brackets, and dust shields. They came with 12.5:1 compression 426 Hemi engines and were immediately given deity-like status by the Mopar faithful. But these princes of the pavement are not the stuff of our story.

Behind the media and enthusiast clamor for the aluminum front-end cars was barely a handful-the estimated number is 35-of quietly produced street cars without the lightweight pieces, but still stuffed with power. These were a bit of an enigma-a mystery that even many Mopar faithful know little about. They were equipped with the same race Hemi with 12.5:1 compression and benefited from stronger rods, as well as a wild set of factory cast-iron exhaust manifolds that fuel the debate as to whether they better suited the description of factory iron manifolds or true headers. All this fit under an aluminum hoodscoop and in between real steel fenders. To the unpracticed eye, even the interior looked stock, complete with a bench seat and the factory pushbutton shifter.

This is the world into which Rico Petrini entered. Best friends have a lasting impact on us, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Jim Bisetti was Rico's buddy during the late '60s and owned a '64 EE-1 blue 426 wedge-powered Sport Fury. The pair used to terrorize the streets around the San Francisco peninsula with the four-speed streeter, which included several trips to Half Moon Bay Drag Strip. But just as our favorite cars sometimes don't survive the test of time, so it was that Jim passed away in December 2000. That's when Rico decided to build a car in his best friend's memory and began the search for a '64 Plymouth.

The quest ended at the Mopar Spring Fling event in Los Angeles in 2001 when Rico came across a black '64 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere. After securing the car back in his hometown of San Mateo, California, Rico discovered that not only was the car originally the same color as his buddy's '64, but far rarer than it had been presented. The original Hemi was long since gone, but after careful investigative work and help from Greg Lane and many others, Rico learned that this car was indeed one of the rare steel front-end '64 Super Commando cars, a detail that somehow had evaded the previous owners. With a car this exceptional, there was no alternative but to restore it back to its original state. Anything else would have been, well, blasphemous.

The restoration demanded a full court press that included a rotisserie media blasting, meticulous cleaning, and painting of the entire car inside and out by Gordon Anderson at his shop in San Carlos, California. While this was going on, Rico commissioned Canadian Tim Banning, who owns and operates For Hemis Only, to build a properly configured and stock-appearing Hemi engine befitting the car's stature. The emphasis here is on "stock-appearing." While everything on the outside looks like it just rolled off the Lynch Road, Michigan, assembly plant in June 1964, Tim's engine buildsheet tells a different story. The major things missing included the stock block, heads, and headers, but the effort began after the appropriate castings were located. Stock stroke on a Hemi is a short 3.75 inches; Tim stretched that figure slightly with an Eagle forged-steel 4.150-inch arm, also adding a wider yawn with 4.313-inch pistons and Eagle rods to create a 485ci monster. This forged-steel version of male enhancement added to the engine's aural command presence, so it wasn't much of a compromise to pull the compression back from 12.5:1 to a more pump-gas-friendly 10.0:1, especially considering the massive iron '64 vintage Hemi head castings. This also gave Tim a little leeway with the camshaft, and he opted for a Comp Cams mechanical flat-tappet grind.

But for the true believers, it isn't the aluminum cross-ram dual four-barrel intake or the stock Carter AFB dual carburetors that make them take note. That's reserved for the dump side of the combustion process. It's those massive cast-iron exhaust manifolds that generate the most acknowledgements for factory-original star quality. Rico quickly discovered that these factory exhaust manifolds were not just original for the car and outrageous, but damn near impossible to find. So when the Hemi community began to beat the jungle drums in search of these cast-iron icons, it wasn't long before Jim Kramer of Kramer Auto had found a complete set of manifolds. That's when Rico found himself talking with John Arruzza of Arruzza's Performance in Trinity, North Carolina, who not only had the manifolds but was just waiting for the correct car to come along before he would sell them. It was as if the transaction were preordained.

Now that the Belvedere is completed and making the car show circuit, Rico finds himself retelling the story multiple times a day, much like a rock star who must bang out his signature song a couple of thousand times throughout his career. But Rico's OK with that, mainly because the car is both somewhat public and worthy of the attention, but also because it's a tribute to a high school buddy who helped shape his life. It's those highly personal stories that you never tire of repeating.

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