One of the greatest things America ever built was the Chrysler Hemi.
Now, we know that’s a bold statement. After all, we’re including the Empire State Building, the moon lander, the Golden Gate Bridge, the cotton gin, the light bulb, Levi’s jeans, the telephone and the double cheeseburger on that list. But the idea of America boils down to putting a certain amount of power in the hands of its people and there are few things as easily accessible, deeply powerful and equally beautiful as the internal combustion engine with the unmistakable valve covers first built by Chrysler in 1951.
In ’51, the Chrysler Corporation first squeezed a 331 cubic-inch Hemi with “Fire Power” stamped into its hole-punched valve covers between the fenders of the New Yorker and it was On Like Donkey Kong: the hotrodders who’d been spending their time figuring out how to go fast ever since they turned stateside from WWII got their mitts on that motor and promptly got to work uncorking all the brute power lurking deep within those domed-roof cylinders. The speed merchants of the day quickly got to work making all sorts of go-fast goodies for the Hemi and by the late Fifties, the 354 c.i.d. and the venerable 392 were formidable enemies of anything being built by Ford or General Motors.
Now, the early Sixties was when things starting getting really interesting for the Hemi. Drag racing was getting huge and the bare-bones Front Engine Dragster was the hero of the day. And the hot rods of the period were emulating what was going on at the drag strip. Suddenly, the Hemi was a gas-huffing, fire-breathing real-world dragon. A super hero with its masked pulled off. An earth-bound rocket grenade atop a bare frame and a set of magnesium wheels. A screaming Hemi with a pair of finned aluminum Mickey Thompson valve covers and a roots-type blower for a crown was something to be revered and coveted.
And that’s the hash mark in the timeline where we fell in love with this boss of bosses. There’s no other motor quite like a Hemi that deserves to be displayed like a crown jewel between the frame rails of a hot rod. There’s an enormous amount of respect it commands when one finds oneself in its company. Something exotic about it and the bald-faced, form-follows-function design becomes a work of natural beauty that a human being is inherently drawn to in the same unexplainable way he’s drawn to the shape and force of Angel Falls.
The Hemi is supposed to exceed its confines. It’s meant to not quite fit comfortably in its carrier. It’s most comfortable when it’s making everyone around it less than. It’s the biggest guy in the room. It’s the gun at the knife fight.
And even today, with the new Hemi neatly tucked under the hoods of cars like the re-imagined 300 and Challenger, the DNA of those old iron warriors from Golden Age of hotrodding is still woven through the electronically-controlled hearts of every domed cylinder power plant. We’re lucky enough to have one of the earliest Hemis next to one of the newest in the shop here at AUTOCULT hq: a ’53 331 with some nifty, period-correct goodies in a ’27 Model T and a new 5.7 liter in a 300C. The 331 was rebuilt by Bruno Gianoli – a national treasure who built some of the most famous dragster Hemis of the hey day of hotrodding. The 5.7 has been the literal and figurative vehicle of our new magazine, which has been no small feat. And there’s a new Hemi in our not-too-distant future, too. Turns out, we’ve got three of the greatest things America ever built.
This article has not been altered by Chrysler.