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Mopar Muscle for Top Gear's Hammond
As most petrol-heads will know, Richard Hammond is a familiar face on the BBC’s Top Gear TV programme and makes informed, sensible decisions, advising motorists what cars to buy each week. This is all well and good, but we wanted to know what a key presenter of Britain’s most popular motoring TV programme drives himself.
Richard had already stated his fondness for the 1969 Dodge Charger in a previous programme and we’d heard a rumour there was now a big block rumble in the Hammond family household – so we went along to the Top Gear studios to find out.
As a level-headed sort of guy, how come you’ve got such an outrageous car?
I used to have an old left-hand drive Porsche 911 and that was my kind of silly car. I bought that at the time because I needed something that could be sensible as well as silly. Then I ended up with another car so the Porsche became my toy. It wasn’t daft enough for a toy and I’ve always loved the Charger – I just think it’s a beautiful shape – and so I thought, “Why not go for one of them?”.
You’re a big Charger fan then?
I have a bit of a Charger thing, really. When I did the feature on Top Gear about the Charger in an earlier programme, I said then I always thought it was a cool American car because the baddies always drove them – there is something sinister about it. It’s an enormous car but it’s quite a subtle design. There are lots of gentle changes in direction in the shape, and I think it’s gorgeous.
There's no denying the menace in that front end
Have you lived with it much yet?
No, it’s not going to be an everyday car, it’s going to be a toy. I’ll just be pouring in a lot of petrol and oil and rumbling around, having enormous fun and enjoying it.
So no speed humps or multi-storey car parks then?
No, nor width restrictions or narrow country lanes. I’m having to plan routes to and from work and, fortunately, I’ve scouted out some places in the BBC car park that are enormous enough to accommodate it, but it will spend most of its time in my home county of Gloucestershire.
Was it a difficult car to find?
It took me a long, long time, as there are not many in UK. I found it on e-bay, but purchased it through Alex Riley at MotiV8 Vehicles in Plymouth, who imported it for me. He has good contacts in the US and was able to check the car over for me to make sure it was good enough for what I was paying. I wanted a car that was a good solid start for a project and I wanted it in black. I think this one will eventually go black, but I’m enjoying the green at the moment. It will get resprayed, but it’s expensive and I want to do it properly. Some of the panels need attention too, so we’ll sort it all out then.
So you’re working through the car bit by bit?
Yes, it’s slowly evolving in to what I want, and I’ll keep tweaking and changing it until I’m finished. I wasn’t interested in going for the full classic look, and I wanted it to handle - hence the suspension has been uprated by Alex. It now has Koni gas struts, which have completely changed the way it handles – for the better, of course – the brakes are six-pot calipers, with ventilated discs, and the steering has a custom-made steering box to improve feel and weight.
We thought long and hard about the wheels. We went to the guys at South West Tyres and had a long chat. I wanted an updated look, but not with modern alloys, hence we went for wheels that are . . . yes, they’re bling, they’re chromey, but they’re quite a simple design. I took it back to South West Tyres to get them fitted and we were all a bit nervous because the wheels were made specifically for the car in Japan. We jacked it up, fitted them, and as soon as we dropped the car to the ground we were jumping up and down. I got goose bumps – it was just the look I wanted.
Is this car an original 440?
I think it is, but I am not totally sure. It may have had a different engine, but I’ll clone it to make it look like an R/T. It has a 440 engine, a four-speed, pistol-grip shifter, a Dana 60 locking diff, a new inlet manifold and cam, and the heads have been redone with new valves – all by Alex.
440 motor is fed by single 800cfm carb and massive K&N filter
If It’s an original 440, then I believe it’s quite a rare car
I am more interested in it as a shape, as a creation. I like the pedigree and history of how the Charger came about, but I just want it to be right for me, which is why I’ll paint it black next year – and I might remove the vinyl roof, too.
One thing I’ve found already is that people just love it. On the motorway, down the M5, I ended up with a flotilla of small cars around me. It was like being a shark with small pilot fish stuck to you. I’ve only filled it up with petrol twice and both times I’ve come back to it to find a crowd – and I mean a crowd – around it. I’m used to talking to people in petrol stations through my job on the telly, but this time they’d look up and say, “Is it yours?”, then they’d see it’s me from Top Gear, and they’d say, “Do you mind if I take a photo?”. I’d say, “no, of course not,” as usual, and they’d shove me out of the way. It’s the car they wanted to photograph, and they wanted to take pics of themselves with it, which is brilliant – I‘m being thoroughly upstaged by my car. I really enjoy that.
Did you buy the car as an appreciating asset?
I just love old cars. I’ve just bought an old Porsche 928 for next to nothing, which I use as a daily runabout. I would never buy a car to make money, but a viewer from Top Gear recently sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal, which said that a lot of people are now speculating on 60/70s American muscle cars and that it’s a safe place to put your money. That’s happening in the States with very rare muscle cars. I think values will stay the same or rise for cars like mine.
One of the nice things about them is that they are simple to maintain and parts are inexpensive. My colleague and friend, James May, has an old Bentley T2, and in terms of value, his car and mine are roughly similar. He recently had the headlight wiper motors replaced, however, and they are £300-400 each. You can get a lot more for your money with the Dodge. I’m a big believer in having fun with a car, but being realistic about your budget. If I ran some complicated Italian sportscar, it would ruin me in a year.
we resisted the temptation to rearrange the 'cool' board in the studio with photos of American cars
Does this car satisfy your craving for American iron?
No, this is the problem. My wife likes the car, but I’m not sure she gets it. She’s never objected to any car I’ve bought, but I know she wants a Mustang. As a compromise, I might look out for a convertible, as we don’t have a drop top. That would be nice, as we have a slot in the garage where it would fit, so next year I might be on the lookout for a Mustang. It depends if I’m still on Top Gear, though, and getting paid!
MotiV8 Vehicles background
You could be forgiven for thinking that 22-year-old Alex Riley at MotiV8 Vehicles would be interested in the current Max Power craze of modified motors, but you’d be wrong. Alex proudly states that he could tell the difference in the engine note of a Ford and Chevy V8 at the tender age of seven, and having been brought up on a diet of American iron, has remained totally immersed in the muscle car phenomenon.
Twelve months ago Alex created his business, which specialises in locating and finding rare muscle cars for customers and applying modern components to make them more fun to drive while retaining their classic shape.
On an earlier Top Gear programme, Richard Hammond ran a story about the 1969 Dodge Charger, where he outlined problems with steering, brakes and suspension. Alex sourced Richard’s car in Chicago, imported it and then set about resolving the problems highlighted by Richard, to make it far more enjoyable to drive. “The steering on the standard car is frighteningly light,” says Alex, so we got a new steering box custom made in the US to solve it. Alex then went through the entire suspension and drivetrain of the car, fitting gas dampers and powerful new six-pot calipers to bring the braking system up to modern standards. It didn’t stop there (no pun intended) as the engine has also been tuned with rebuilt heads, a new camshaft and inlet manifold plus a free-flow exhaust system - in the truest sense of the word!
The company specialises in Mopar products and Mustangs – as illustrated by the 1967, 390-equipped Fastback which Alex brought along to the studios. A more recent addition to the services offered is the ability to recreate complete Eleanor Mustang replicas using the original-style panels from the film versions, for the full “Gone in 60 Seconds” look.
Shelby inspired Fastback now sports a 390 big block and will shortly receive the full Eleanor treatment
If you are looking for a modern approach to a muscle car classic then MotiV8 Vehicles at www.motiv8vehicles.co.uk could be the answer. Call Alex on: 07865 266836.
Story & photos: Andy Kirk
Special thanks to Richard, Alex & the Top Gear team for making this happen