Let’s be honest with ourselves. Every time you think of Mopar performance, the engine you link it to is the hemi, right? If could be the 318 or the 383, but whatever engine you still link it to the hemi.
There was only one small problem with the hemi concept as the 1950s drew to a close. It was great in concept, but really little help in performance. That’s because there were too many factory cooks spoiling this broth.
It took a semi-backed factory effort, led by three engineer-trainees (Chrysler relied heavily on the co-op style program where engineers spent their time either working the line or working the classroom. Northeastern University in Boston was a pioneer in that type of schooling.)
Still, if you looked at the way the performance situation stacked up at Chrysler Corp. in late 1959, it was little wonder that the hemi was moved to the backburner as three motorheads founded what was to become the Mopar Motor team. Indeed, most of the class of engineers studying then backed the plans that were afoot to make Chrysler the bone crusher of the dragstrip and the NASCAR circle track. The test mule, was, believe it or not, a 49 Dodge, that the team purchased with $30 donations from all the engineer-trainees.
Officially, the planning for the new engine design, based on a wedge head, rather than the official Chrysler hemi, began as early as 1957. Indeed, by 57 the factories were moving away from performance because of the outcry that was being raised as faster speeds, but poorer bodies, brakes, suspensions, steering, transmissions and engines sent cars off the track with annoying regularity. The results were usually brutal. So, for a while the factories actually pulled back from active planning for performance vehicles, but it was more like a nudge-nudge-wink-wink!!
Ford was still planning its campaign car for the 1960 season and Chevy/Pontiac were also planning their special designs – the ones that usually appeared at public auto shows to show the direction in which the factory might travel in a decade.
Ford, Chevy and Pontiac were farther along than that, though, but there was still no way you could perfect the running gear of the time. Let’s face it, one good hit with a set of even specially manufacture red brake shoes and drums and you had terminal brake fade for the rest of the race and, with three- and four-strip rear torsion springs and very loose rear wheel placement at all times – the fronts weren’t much better as were the front end pieces that made up the steering – the cars that Chevy, Pontiac and Ford were developing weren’t going to hold a candle to the product the “under-the-table” RamCharger Team was developing.
By 1960, in fact, Ford was openly defying federal regulators with its “Special Power” 352, while Pontiac/Chevy were working on a set of 409 “Tri-Power” engines.
In the face of this ongoing development, the RamCharger came up with the wedge design which introduced even more swirl into fuel-air mix and boosted the power. The “Wedge,” Stage 1, as it was officially called, also called for 17 head bolts and special grooves needed in the manifold to handle the oversized valves the RamCharger team were stuffing under the hood of their vehicle. Dick Maxwell, one of the leaders of this subrosa racing team, noted nearly 30 years later that they were “pretty invisible on the street,” but they had this habit of regularly eating Fords, Chevys and Pontiacs at the dragstrip and NASCAR ovals.
The Wedges, which also showed the rest of the Chrysler shop just how good scavenging was for the engine and which became a permanent part of the hemi repertoire by 1964, because the Stage 1 Wedges were 383s and they regularly were in the winner’s circle.
Even with their limited resources by 1961, the Stage I Wedge was ready for introduction. It was a sight to behold when you popped the hood. Instead of putting the air filters and carbs in between the manifold’s cylinder heads, the RamChargers decided to do something a lot more radical. They put one set of quad-barrel carbs on the front of one side of the engine, just behind the grille, while the second set of quad-barrel carbs, all under a single air filter cover, of course, was placed on the opposite end of the engine. Both of the carbs were above fender height and could generate more turbulence for the oversquare engines. Indeed, they solved the problem of keeping the fuel/air mix dense, retaining its power by using sets of long runners that ran in opposite directions.
They also realized something else while they were under the manifold and that was if they could run the carbs at either side of the engine, then the intake and exhaust manifolds which were about 2 inches (speaking of oversized) so that the the ram air criss-crossed under the hood, once it left the runners. This meant that they were maximizing the complete package and while it did look a little weird, to be sure, the 375 brake horsepower turned out by the 413 certainly had management’s eyes opened by 1962.
Indeed, large pieces of factory sheet aluminum, for lightweight front ends were beginning to make their way from the factory to the RamChargers.
This resulted in the most powerful of the Wedge engines, the 413 Max Wedge was also known as the Stage II. Apparently to keep the rest of the auto world happy, they had to move the four-barrels back in between the cylinder heads, but that still didn’t mean they didn’t make good use of what they had learned about the value of cross-ram air induction. Indeed, some of the cars in the field still had the slightly strange-looking mounting points, but no one was mentioning them.
Indeed, no one at the factory was mentioning also that the same engines were now appearing in big-engined Imperials, DeSotos, Dodge Polaras and Darts. Indeed, the real Stage II was not a streetable car, though it did tear up tracks and ovals (it is still said to be competitive today) as the 426 it had grown to was using a 4.25-inch bore and you could equip it with 11:1 or 13.5:1 compression ratios.
They also used more aluminum in various parts and turned special parts as well as moving the batteries in the trunk.
The real value of the Stage II Wedge from which today’s hemi was developed was that the science of cylinder head air flow was finally given its due and it was quite some introduction.
There was a Stage III Wedge in 1964, but it didn’t last long as the hemi engineers took over and used what was learned by the RamChargers to make their engines among the winningest of all engines of all times.
Not bad for a group of guys who began discussing what they could do at lunch just a few years before, was it.
By the way, the actual Wedge itself was to go one to have a life as a truck engine until at least 1979.