Say hello to the newest member of the Roadkill family, the Project Regretmobile 1978 Dodge Magnum XE! OK, so by “family,” I mean that distant cousin, both in terms of geography and actual relation to hooptie automobiling’s finest power couple, but hey, if this not-really-at-all-humble 24 Hours of LeMons writer is going to build a terrible car to run in the series, of course it must be a fine, obscure part of the history of Roadkill’s main partner.
You probably have a lot of questions, like “Who the hell is this guy, anyway?” I’m Eric Rood, a Chicagoland LeMons racer-turned LeMons writer-turned HOT ROD Drag Week writer-turned crazy. Here’s me at my first LeMons race in 2010 with the Team Resignation Ford Escort, which still races with Fireball Racing here in the Midwest. My hair and beard are much grayer now, but Nixon continues to live in my garage and oversee Project Regretmobile preparations.
You may follow that up with, “(A) Do Freiburger and Finnegan have anything to do with this car and (B) will it be on the Roadkill show?” (A) Not even Freiburger and Finnegan are absurd enough to attempt making anything of this horrible car, which occupies most of my two-car garage in suburban Chicago and (B) it will not be on the show, although Freiburger and Finnegan are certainly welcome to wheel it at Michigan’s Gingerman Raceway in October 2016, when it debuts at LeMons’ 10th Anniversary race.
Then you’ll want to know “Why is it called Project Regretmobile?” We’ll get into that more when I start failing to fix things on it, but mostly I want people to learn from my (many) mistakes when they’re building their first LeMons car (or any car, for that matter). You can find my first couple of tough lessons from the car’s introduction over on Hooniverse.
Finally: “I thought the Dodge Magnum was that mid-2000s wagon that I don’t see on the road anymore. What is this piece of crap?” The Magnum was the Charger’s extremely underachieving personal luxury coupe successor and was the last of the Chrysler B-Bodies. It’s no “last of the V8 Interceptors;” the Charger line went out with a whimper. The Magnum shares mechanical components and even most body panels with its Late B-Body compatriots—the Chrysler Cordoba and the bloated 1975-1977 Dodge Charger SE—and was replaced with the J-Body Dodge Mirada, a much smaller personal but equally atrocious luxury coupe.
Alright, enough questions for now. Let’s take stock of this Magnum through the tried-and-true method of comparing good and bad points.
GOOD: This Magnum was extremely cheap; I paid Drag Week competitor and occasional LeMons racer Chris Pinney $200 for the Magnum. Pinney had bought it from one of the few esoteric “Magnum collectors” with the intention of building for LeMons but he never managed to give it much attention. He eventually gave up on the idea of racing it, and after some bartering and a long Saturday of dealing with rental companies, I managed to nestle it (barely) into the confines of my quaint mid-century garage.
BAD: You get what you pay for, it turns out. We’ll examine this in detail momentarily, but suffice to say, the idea of scrapping it and coming out virtually even crosses my mind regularly.
GOOD: The aftermarket is huge and cheap for these B-Bodies. OEM replacement parts are still plentiful and aftermarket upgrades can be had for reasonable money. Chrysler churned out the small-block V8s for these B-Bodies in various guises for decades so one can’t swing a broken Plymouth Sundance around without hitting 4 or 5 potential engine donors.
BAD: Rust coats
almost every surface. Those in the rust-free regions of the world will declare it unsalvageable, probably, but Midwestern stoicism dictates this is “just the way things are.” If you own stock in some kind of penetrating fluid, you’re about to cash in big.
I’m not yet sure what to do with the moss growing on top of the rust, though. I was thinking of naming it Sterling.
GOOD: This particular car got the middling engine option, the 360 cubic-inch Mopar small-block V8. It wasn’t the hot Mopar engine—That’s a joke; no such thing actually existed in 1978—but the extra displacement over the base 318-cubic-inch plant means a tad more torque. Dodge offered an optional 400 cubic-inch big block, but the few Magnum customers rarely ticked that box on the Gutenberg-length purchase order.
BAD: Of course, the late 1970s meant manufacturers had to meet arcane fuel mileage and emissions goals. Chrysler’s way of doing this involved a maze of vacuum lines and this power-sapping was further enhanced by the notorious Lean Burn ignition module. Think “early solid state computer” and you get the general idea of the Lean Burn, though it wasn’t fuel injection. The Lean Burn attached to the air cleaner and only controlled ignition to improve engine efficiency, theoretically. Of course, attaching a solid-state computer to a vibrating 600-pound iron lump tends to wear the plastic-cased computers pretty quickly so that few, if any, worked right after 30,000 miles. Certainly, this one is completely useless.
The Lean Burn was originally paired with a Carter two-barrel carburetor. The two-barrel carb, Lean Burn, and vacuum lines mean that fresh from the factory, the Magnum made something like 170 horsepower at the crank and ran the quarter-mile in “eventually.” Its power-to-weight ratio is roughly the same as my wife’s 2011 Chevy Malibu with about 1/700th the reliability.
GOOD: The transmission is Chrysler’s ubiquitous three-speed 727 Torqueflite, which is renowned for being a pretty tough little gearbox. Sure, road racing an automatic transmission is suboptimal, but at least the trans shouldn’t be too stressed.
BAD: Of course, it won’t be too stressed because of the gearing, again a byproduct of having to meet fuel mileage targets. The Torqueflite itself carries pretty tall gearing internally, but the 8-¼” differential carries either a 2.42:1 or 2.73:1 ratio, both of which are insanely steep. Basically, second gear will redline somewhere around 80 mph, which means this car will seldom see third gear at Gingerman Raceway when it (hopefully) debuts.
The only upside here is that the driver can manually shift the transmission to keep the third-gear-happy gearbox from uselessly going right for top gear. Naturally, most of you will know there are better axle ratios available, but here’s the thing about endurance racing: Keeping the engine unstressed by running lower revs tends to keep your already-exhausted engine alive longer. Engines’ rights groups, however, insist this one has the right to a dignified demise even though…
GOOD: The engine (kind of) runs! With some coaxing of the starter motor and a lot of starting fluid, the tired old 360 sputtered to life just before we loaded it on the trailer.
BAD: The engine of course died irrecoverably just as I put the transmission in gear to drive onto the trailer. As mentioned previously, the Lean Burn module is almost certainly bad, which won’t be helping anything, so a regular distributor and a non-Lean Burn carb are planned.
After getting it home, I made the mistake of removing the rust-flecked valve covers and was rewarded with this automotive horror scene. Thick, crusty, black sludge cakes the valvetrain.
It seriously looks like someone started a fire there and attempted to put it out by filling the valve covers with petroleum jelly and slamming them back over the rocker arms.
I used the sludge-mired valve covers to test if soaking in automatic transmission fluid could loosen some of it and hold it in suspension so some of the sludge would (theoretically) drain out.
It did a reasonable job, I suppose: Top valve cover was soaked, bottom was not.
I have yet to attempt a complete desludging of the engine, which might take about 30 oil changes if any of the various methods I’ve devised actually can loosen this horrendous crud. Then there’s the likely possibility that sludge is all that’s sealing the piston rings and removing it will create a river of blow-by oil. That’s nothing that 20W oil can’t fix, though, right?
Why not just get a different engine? Because I’m cheap, stupid, and stubborn. Those are highly desirable traits in LeMons. [More on this soon…the engine, not my stubbornness.]
GOOD: The upshot of a fine motoring coupe like this is that in order to achieve real range on the highway—where a personal luxury coupe was in its true element—Dodge put a truly massive 28-gallon fuel tank on this beast. Even with a thirsty V8, that theoretically amounts to three-hour stints if the car were ever capable of running that long at once.
BAD: With old resurrected cars like this, fuel delivery is one of the biggest problems. Old tanks, even when they sit empty, accrue years of rust and varnish-like gasoline residue, which then make their way into the fuel lines, clogging fuel filters and eventually preventing any fuel from reaching the carb. Rusty fuel pickup aside, the tank looks pretty dang clean, but I’m still going to clean this up well just to be sure.
GOOD: Of all the great factory options this car’s original owner chose—and there were many like two-tone paint, long-deteriorated Landau-style top, thick green shag carpet, and eight-track player all offered ostensibly under some long-ago-faded “Special Edition” package—none is more Malaise Era than the T-bar roof. And don’t you dare call it T-Tops.
That should make it easier for the rollcage-builder to weld in the substantial cage, although it means drivers will need to wear arm restraints. Perhaps the most impressive (if you’re easily impressed) part of the Magnum is the T-bar roof glass came with the car still intact! Will they repel water? Hell no, but the glass is worth easily five times more than the rest of the car.
BAD: There is no floor. Like, none.
When we picked up the Magnum, the driver’s seat was leaning back at a 30-degree angle and the power seats didn’t move. This wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t figure out why until I donned my best anti-Hantavirus outfit and dug into the interior on a warm July 4 evening last year.
After ripping up the brittle, filthy shag carpet, it became pretty apparent where the problem was.
Midwest winters were extremely unkind and this is now a Flintstones car.
This pile of rust fell out when I simply pulled up the carpet. (Banana for scale)
The frame seems OK and the transmission tunnel floor looks solid, but the cage-builder will also be flooring the whole car.
Also, the windshield came with enough cracks to make it unusable in racing. I pulled the Magnum windshield out in one piece and had another one lined up from a local Cordoba being parted out, but in a rush to get the whole chassis to another buyer, the Cordoba’s owner cracked the windshield.
In the interim, no windshield should also make it easier (for someone with actual abiliity) to fabricate the rollcage.
GOOD: Should this decrepit, forgotten Mopar eventually come to life, the ancient-designed torsion-bar suspension’s super soft “tuning” (Pro tip: Spring rates are for proles) should offer a cush ride with proper Spec Land Yacht positive camber under loading and adequate Douglas Xtra-Trac squealing. This isn’t really a performance thing, per se, but more of an appeal to luxury-car gravitas in LeMons. This photo looks like some kind of rust-camouflaged octopus attacking the Magnum’s frame. I’m assured by smarter people than me that there’s a suspension in there somewhere.
BAD: Those are actually horrible things (especially overaggressive octopi) for road racing and with the likelihood of the rear leaf spring shackles making a bolt for freedom through the trunk floor, the Magnum should handle like a drunken pig at Uncle Gene’s house on Labor Day. I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sure sounds unpleasant.
GOOD: If the Magnum actually runs, it will be nice to make it stop. The rear drum brakes look robust and since most of the weight is in the front of the car, they probably won’t be overtaxed.
BAD: Naturally, the front disc-brake setup is smaller than the one on my 2,600-pound Focus and the single-piston caliper pushes down on miniscule brake pads. If I don’t upgrade anything on the brakes, this lurching beast will be completely out of stopping power in about 45 seconds on a road course.
So who wants to drive first?
GOOD: People have wrenched on this technology for half a century or more so there are plenty of resources, even with one in such janky condition. I got a Haynes Manual as a LeMons Supreme Court bribe and, aside from the whole “Installation is the Reverse” curse, it looks pretty helpful.
BAD: Here’s where things get interesting: I have been wrenching on this old technology for exactly none of that half-century. This is the first Mopar, first carbureted car, first rear-wheel-drive car, and the first 3,000-pound (actually, ~3,800 pounds) I’ve ever owned.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let’s do this.