"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."
What: '73 Dodge Challenger
Owner: Jonathan LaPaglia
Where: Los Angeles CA, where it is warm virtually all year.
Engine: The 6.1L Hemi is a crate engine from Mopar Performance with an advertised 425 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. It came mostly naked, so Jonathan had to source a lot of parts like accessory drives and headers for the swap. The sump from Charlie's Oil Pans in Ohio fits the original K-Member, so you can drop in either a 5.7L or 6.1L Hemi. In this case, John also had to notch the K-member to clear the A/C compressor. The engine mounts are from a company called Schumacher Creative Services that specializes in Mopar swaps. They are designed to accept Tube Technologies Inc. (TTI) headers.
Controller: The Mopar Performance controller is similar to an AEM race box, fully programmable with timing and fuel maps. You even get all the sensors and a cableoperated throttle. The 6.1L was always speed density so John didn't have to switch it from a mass airflow system. The kit comes with three base maps that include one for the 6.1L. When the time came, it fired up with no leaks and no problems, which impressed John, since he did all the fuel-system plumbing by himself. After that, he sent it out to DC Performance for fine-tuning.
Exhaust: The TTI swap headers feed a 2.5-inch system with a cross-pipe. Sounded stock to us. TTI also makes headers for A- and B-Body Hemi swaps, just in case you were getting any ideas.
Trans: The Tremec TKO600 arrived with everything Jonathan needed to swap from an automatic to a five-speed, including the clutch kit and driveshaft. Because the car was so low, the transmission tunnel had to be clearanced a bit and the headers needed to be moved up to stay off the pavement.
A/C: John used the original heater box and ordered the compressor, condenser, hoses, and all the other underhood parts from Chrysler for a 6.1L. "I couldn't bear to see the hoses, so I ran the A/C lines using hard line from Vintage Air," says Jonathan. "I had a quote to do the hard lines, but I ended up doing it myself using bits and pieces. Works great."
Accessories: The front dress is from Chrysler and is for a 6.1L. The Hydroboost (hydraulic brake booster) is pressurized by a Chevy power-steering pump that was installed back when he had the 340 with a big cam and no vacuum.
Rear: The rearend is an 83/4 with 3.91:1 gears. It's just about the only part on the car that's close to original.
Brakes: This thing stops on a dime. John used the Baer 13-inch Baer Claw Track system in the front and 12-inch Baer Claw Sport system in the rear with an e-brake option. With the old engine and cam, it wouldn't stop. With the Hydroboost, it stops. He probably doesn't need it with the smaller duration of a factory cam, but it's still there.
Suspension: When he bought the car, it was riding on the bumpstops. John added Firm Feel tube upper control arms, boxed lowers, 2-inch drop spindles, and a 1-inch sway bar in the front and a 3/4-inch sway bar in the rear. The adjustable shocks are from Koni, and he had a set of custom springs built in the rear. To get the car low, John found a spring-eye box that drops the body down over the spring for good looks without the kidney damage.
Wheels/Tires: To get the look that has become traditional, the Dodge is on American Racing Torq-Thrust IIs. It has 17x7s in the front with 225/45ZR17 Goodyear Eagle F1s and 18x10s with 6-inch backspacing in the rear on 285/35ZR18s.
Inside: The cabin is fully lined with Dynamat and a stealth 11-speaker stereo system installed with three-way component Focal speakers up front (whatever that means) in custom kick panels, two-way Focal speakers in the parcel deck, and a 10-inch JL Audio sub in a ported enclosure behind the rear seat all driven by JL amps in the trunk. There's an Alpine head unit with an Ipod connection, XM radio, a Bluetooth phone interface, and power windows (with remote roll up when the alarm is armed), power door and trunk locks, and a power antenna. Also interesting in such a swap are the gauges. The stock fuel sending unit is retained inside a Rick's Hot Rod Shop EFI gas tank conversion and there are available ports on the manifold and block for the stock temp and oil sending units (using thread adapters). The tach was converted with modern VDO internals and receives a signal directly from the Mopar Performance ECU. The ammeter was converted to a voltmeter.
Special tricks: The block needs a 45-degree oil filter adapter from a Dodge Durango and a shorter oil filter to clear the K-member.