Car of the Week: 1969 Dodge Charger 500 Hemi

Story and photos by Al Rogers

While organizing a special “Icons of Design” category for the annual Eyes On Design car show in 2016, I caught wind of a special Hemi-powered MoPar hidden away in the Great White North. Apparently, a private individual has quietly built up a world-class collection, the Manny Collection in Ontario, Canada, that consists mainly of unrestored MoPar muscle cars from the 1960s and early 1970s.

Among those cars is a red 1969 Charger 500 that, as it turns out, was the first Charger 500 built. It was originally used by Dodge at major auto shows and for promotional purposes. “It’s pretty much an original, unrestored Charger 500 with the 426 Hemi engine and four-speed Hurst shifter,” the collection’s owner told me. “I’ve known about this special muscle car for a very long time.”

  

It was early in 1969 when he saw an article in Hot Rod magazine about the Dodge Charger 500. “The article went on to rave about the car and its powerful Hemi engine,” he said. “In 1969, between publicity appearances and special events, the Charger 500 spent quality time roaming the streets of New York looking for opportunities to show what it was made of. I was only 15 years old at the time, but seeing it in Hot Rod and reading the story really made an everlasting impression on me.”

He also remembers reading in one of the articles “how the driver-side quarter-panel struck a light pole one night during some high-speed driving. The car was taken to a local dealership, which worked on it during the night and into the early morning hours so it could be ready for an appearance at a previously scheduled event.”

Three decades later, in yet another example of how small the muscle car world can be, he had the opportunity to purchase that same Charger 500 from then-owner Harold Solomon. “During a previous visit to his collection a couple years before, the car caught my eye. It rekindled my teenage infatuation and put butterflies in my stomach. To keep my emotions in check at the time was challenging. I asked Harold to keep me in mind if he ever wanted to get rid of the car. Little did he know how much I really wanted it. One can always dream, and I hoped that one day I’d get my chance to own it.”

Then, one day, the phone rang. “Harold asked me if I’d be interested in buying the Hemi Charger 500. He gave me his price and two hours to decide if I wanted it. If not, he was going on to the next person. I didn’t waste any time; a deal was reached.”

For those not familiar with the Charger 500 and how it came to be, here are the facts as we know them per the Chrysler Corporation archives and Chrysler Registry.

The Charger 500 was developed specifically for NASCAR racing. The 1969 Charger’s standard sheet metal — particularly the concave grille opening and the shape of the back window and rear roof section—created aerodynamic problems at high speeds. Chrysler designers addressed those issues by replacing the Charger’s stock grille with a Coronet grille mounted flush with the leading edge of the car’s nose, and reshaping the backlight and its surrounding sheet metal into a fastback-like form. According to a letter Chrysler sent to this car’s first post-Dodge owner, the changes were good for an “increase of 3 to 7 mph…on the super speedways.”

(Those modifications, however, didn’t make the Charger 500 as competitive as Dodge wanted in NASCAR, leading to the development of the winged Charger Daytona. But that’s another story.)

To qualify a car as “stock” for NASCAR racing at the time, a manufacturer had to produce at least 500 automobiles for private sale. The task of turning a standard Charger into a Charger 500 fell to Creative Industries in Detroit, which took Charger R/Ts from the Hamtramck Production Plant, performed the front grille and backlight modifications, and then shipped them to a second location where they were repainted and prepped for dealer sale.

How many Charger 500s were actually built? Some sources state more than 500 were produced (559 or 548, depending on the source), while other experts in the hobby put the number at 392. That’s shy of the 500 required for homologation largely because production of the Charger 500 and the Charger Daytona — both built at Creative Industries — overlapped, and more attention was being paid to the winged car, since it would be the one raced.

The paperwork that the Manny Collection has on this car is extensive, including the aforementioned letters from Chrysler and the Chrysler Registry and documents from Galen Govier. They indicate that this was the first Charger 500 ordered (by the Dodge News Bureau) and the first one built. It is one of 15 Charger 500s equipped with the Hemi engine and A833 four-speed manual transmission, and the only Charger 500 with the Hemi, four-speed, R4 Bright Red paint, C5X black cloth and vinyl interior, and power windows. The option list on the car is extensive, which makes sense given its promotional intent.

From 1968 through 1995, it appeared in 20 automotive publications, with many of the editors doing some serious road “testing” on the streets and highways in and around New York City.

The current owner has never driven it on the open road or race track. It was driven at the Indianapolis and Talladega Speedways not long after he bought it in 2003, but he decided to ride in the passenger seat, leaving the driving to an expert who knew the tracks and how to get the most out of the Charger 500 without doing damage to it or the passengers.

When asked how he got into the muscle car hobby, the Manny Collection’s owner told us it was a “family thing” that started with his grandfather, who owned a body shop, then to his father who designed grilles, trim components, and emblems for the automobile industry. In fact, his father had a role in the design of the iconic Ford Mustang “running horse” we’ve all become accustomed to seeing affixed to the grille of the ponycar since 1964.

Then with a chuckle he added, “There was my uncle John with his 1950 Ford coupe. One day he showed up at my parent’s house with a raccoon tail attached to the top of his radio antenna. It was the thing to do back in the day. He was the ‘cool cat’ who’d put his own twist on his automobiles. I wonder if he ever realized how much of an impression he made on me with that raccoon tail.”

 

At a Glance

1969 Dodge Charger 500

Owned by: The Manny Collection, Ontario, Canada

Restored by: Unrestored original

Engine: 426ci/425hp Hemi V-8

Transmission: A833 4-speed manual

Rearend: Dana 60 with 3.54 gears and Super Track Pack

Interior: Black vinyl and cloth

Wheels: 15×6 Stamped steel

Tires: F70-15 Goodyear Polyglas Red Streak

Special parts: First Charger 500 built

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