"The baby seat? It's for a real baby. This is my daily driver." La Paglia's car was built to commute from point A to point B (and point C on the weekends). You never hear that anymore. The car is tidy and usable inside, and from the outside, it looks like another clean version of Dodge's '73 Challenger. The low exhaust burble makes you think 318 until you open the hood and spot the 6.1L Hemi. That's what hooked us. This is the first 6.1L Hemi E-Body swap we've seen, and it's one of the cleanest around. Jonathan LaPaglia acts like it's no big deal.
Before 1998, Jonathan lived in New York City and never owned a car. When he moved to Los Angeles, he was forced to buy some wheels, and that's when the fever took him. "My first car was a '93 Bronco with a V-8, and I really liked the power," says Jonathan. He went through a couple more trucks with big engines but still couldn't satisfy his right-foot thirst.
"That's when I started looking at muscle-cars," says Jonathan. His first score was a perfect '67 GTO that was a little too mint to drive. "It was so nice that I got paranoid about it, I couldn't drive it. I started looking for a car with a few battle scars." Following an ad in the locals, Jonathan ended up in front of a clean-looking B5 Blue '73 Challenger. The owner was the shifty sort, and refused to let Jonathan drive the car around the block for "insurance reasons." That was salesman-speak for "needs lots of work and might not make it home." "My girlfriend told me to buy it! Buy it!," Jonathan admits. "So we bought it, and as we headed out on the freeway, everything started howling. Then the speedometer began to spin in the housing until the needle broke off."
The body and paint were original, and the 340 and 727 were cobbled together, but the combo moved the car and looked respectable enough to get by. So Jonathan worked on rebuilding the suspension with new bushings and lowered the ride height. "I like my cars to handle well before I get into the power," he says. "It handled like a dog, so I did the suspension first."
Jonathan drove the car for four years with reasonable paint, an adequate 340, and a stock three-speed transmission. "Eventually I got tired of the engine screaming on the freeway as some old lady in a Scion passed me." By then, Jonathan owned an '06 SRT-8 Magnum , which gave him the idea to swap in a modern engine and overdrive transmission. After doing a little market research, he realized there was no engine management available. Plan B was to rebuild the 340 with a stroker crank and add some fuel injection instead. That plan was derailed when the machine shop found several fatal cracks in the original block. While he was fighting a series of bad blocks and mathing out the other parts required for the build, Mopar Performance released an engine controller for the application. After hearing that, Jonathan had a 6.1L crate engine shipped to L.A., along with a five-speed kit from Keisler.
Originally, Jonathan dropped off the car and parts with a mechanic to do the job, but that proved to be time-consuming and costly. After a lot of back and forth, the mechanic just didn't have the time to finish the job. "If you want a car like this, you've either got to have a bunch of money or do it yourself," says Jonathan. "The motor and transmission were sitting in it but nothing else. Going back to the mechanic got old and expensive, so I just did it myself."
The experience transformed Jonathan from a guy who never had a car to someone who talks like he's been building Mopars his whole life. "I did it by using the Internet, buying a shop manual, and I pulled the whole car apart and put it back together doing one manageable section at a time and learning the car. It was totally worth it."