|1970 Dodge Challenger T/A
|Original List Price:
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|Any in-period Trans Am racer, including Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, Ford Mustang Boss 302, and AMC Javelin
This car, Lot 248, sold for $170,500, including buyer’s premium, at Hollywood Wheels’ Amelia Island, FL, sale on March 15, 2015.
It all seems so long ago: It was 1970, and our team was in L.A. building the Challenger that would be Dodge’s entry in the Trans-Am, which was to become famous as the most competitive road-racing series ever.
Delays in our contract with Dodge meant that the car — we were only building one — wouldn’t be ready for the first race unless the crew worked night and day. We were holed up in an industrial park next to the Long Beach airport where the first DC-10 was being built. Typically, our guys worked until 10 p.m, then drove to a topless bar (bottomless, too, on lucky nights) where copious amounts of beer provided a break from the nagging fear of not finishing the car in time. One memorable night, our fabricator, Ray Stonkus, dove into a pool that didn’t have any water in it. Another night, we had an earthquake, the phone lines soaring and plunging against the smog-filled sky.
In another sense, that summer seems like yesterday.
The car, after all, is still around, unchanged except for the way it’s perceived. The Sublime paint job is now distinctive and memorable rather than ugly, and the cheater fuel tank under the dash seems quaint. The flawed rear suspension that cost us a win at Elkhart Lake, the only race we could have won, has never been put right.
Parts become whole
I remember the first day the car ran, there at Willow Springs in the Mojave desert: the intense light, the still air, the dry heat a shock to the men who had worked for weeks in the dimness of the shop. I had been the first to drive a new car before, and it is something you don’t forget.
You’re in the car when the frenzy of last-minute work is suddenly over and your chief mechanic is giving you the signal to start the engine. There’s a solemnity to that pause between when he twirls his finger and you push the starter button, and maybe I prolonged it a couple of heartbeats. Then I was rolling down pit lane and the car felt strange — sluggish, the steering slow to react, the throttle travel too long, a mixture of jounce and wallow as the shocks and springs worked together for the first time.
The car was coming alive, expressing itself, and even as the season went by and we improved it, its essential character didn’t change. This car would always seem too heavy, too big, too loud, too lime green. In its first race, at Laguna Seca, cracks opened up in the transmission tunnel, and glancing down, I could see the track below. But we finished, and the car showed us something else: It was fast. Probably not fast enough to win, but we could run with guys like Peter Revson, Jim Hall and Jerry Titus — good company. We finished 3rd three times. Pretty good, except that what Dodge cared about was that we never won. And the pony-car market was drying up even as we were racing our hearts out that summer. So there never was a second year. No chance to build a Challenger with a chassis that didn’t crack apart or brakes that didn’t lock up.
But fans — Mopar and others, too — admire the car, which stands out in vintage races thanks to its color and impeccable provenance.
A second Challenger, #76, was built later in the season as a backup car to #77. That’s the car that sold here. It was driven by Ronnie Bucknum in Seattle and Tony Adamowicz at Riverside. But it is my #77 that was the real workhorse.
Racer turned collectible
In its second life — on the vintage circuit — #77 became a regular winner in the hands of its owner/driver Ken Epsman, a driver so fast he would have been competitive in 1970. Today it is owned by Richard Goldsmith, an adventurer who has skied to both the north and south poles and who gave our family a thrill when he invited my son, John, to drive it — a car built 12 years before John was born — in a practice session at Lime Rock.
Our feature car, #76 — mechanically in every way identical to #77 — brought $170,500 when it sold this past March — a price below what some other real-deal Trans-Am cars have achieved at auction. It seems that those missed first-place finishes have also affected the two Trans-Am Challengers’ values in the current market. But, should the #77 car ever cross the auction block, I’d think the price achieved here for its counterpart would serve as a benchmark for its value.
This car has been well restored and is no doubt the real thing. But if you had to choose between the two, I would think most buyers would pick #77 because of its history — it went wheel to wheel with the likes of Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, and George Follmer on the great tracks of this country: Road America, Laguna Seca, Lime Rock.
How much is that history worth? A car’s dollar value is an abstraction, but the emotions a car generates — frustration, joy, pride of ownership — are real. So is the sense of history it invokes as an authentic connection with another time. For me, it’s the Trans-Am of 1970: a loud, lime-green summer 45 years ago that seems like yesterday.
(Introductory description courtesy of Hollywood Wheels.