In 1966, the SCCA Trans-American Sedan Championship for Manufacturers Series (later known as the Trans-Am Series) was established, and the expectation of the sanctioning body was the auto manufacturers would race vehicles that were constructed on their respective assembly lines. Quickly, this belief was upended as the manufacturers began constructing “off assembly line” vehicles, which were made specifically for the Trans-Am Series. The reason the vehicles were special assemblies, rather than production vehicles, was to gain an advantage and increase the odds of beating the other vehicle manufacturers, with the hopes of seeing a sales bump on the bottom line due to the racing success. This was the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” theory that truly worked in the 1960s and 1970s.
As a result of the manufacturers’ actions, the Trans-Am Series introduced regulations to try to level the playing ground and keep the escalating costs under control. One of the regulations required the manufacturers to build and sell a specific number of vehicles to the public. These street vehicles were required to be comparable to the Trans-Am race versions to satisfy the requirements. By 1970, Chrysler management decided to challenge the Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros that had dominated the 5.0L class for years. A directive was announced to put forth a concerted effort to win the 5.0L class championship with the newest offerings from Dodge as well as Plymouth.
On February 20, 1970, Dodge released a bulletin to their dealership network, introducing the A53 T/A package for the Challenger. While the 5.0L Trans-Am Series required an engine no larger than 305 cid, the street T/A had a 340-cid engine fed by three Holley 2bbl carburetors atop an Edelbrock intake manifold. The 340 had a pair of modified small-block cylinder heads and a valvetrain that was altered to match the cylinder heads. The drivetrain consisted of a TorqueFlite automatic transmission or an A-833 New Process four-speed manual transmission connected to a 3.55:1 geared 8 ¾-inch rearend. The T/A was equipped with front disc brakes, a Rallye suspension that included sway bars on the front and rear and heavy-duty shock absorbers, and a low-restriction dual exhaust that had unique mufflers that dumped the exhaust just in front of the rear tires. The tire combination was one of the earliest designs of smaller front tires (E60 series) and larger rear tires (G60 series). Each bias-ply tire was mounted on a 15×7 stamped-steel wheel or steel Rallye wheel.
Tom Cannon of Glenside, Pennsylvania, has what appears to be one of those coveted A53 T/A package Challengers. In reality, his Dodge started its life as a B5 Blue Challenger with a 318 engine and a four-speed. Tom stated, “When I got the Challenger in 1996, it was a real pile. It needed quarters, trunk extensions, front aprons, the radiator support, and basically every bolt-on body part.” The restoration and transformation of the rusty Challenger was squeezed in during Tom’s free time between making a living and preparing a 1972 Charger for NHRA Stock Eliminator. It took Tom some time to gather the correct parts to convert the Challenger into a T/A, and during this time, Tom met some Mopar enthusiasts that were deeply involved in the YearOne FAST series (now called the FAST Racing Series). FAST stands for Factory Appearing, Stock Tire, meaning the vehicle must appear factory stock, and the vehicle must operate on the rolling stock of the era (bias-belted tires).
Once Tom found out about the FAST series, he abandoned the Stock Eliminator Charger project, and the Challenger project was moved to the forefront. “I like the look of a stock vehicle, but one that will go really fast,” Tom shared, “And the FAST series looked like it was designed just for me.” To get the Challenger ready to race, a 340 was machined to accept a 4.00-inch stroker crankshaft, resulting in a 416 cubes. A factory three two-barrel manifold was found, and reproduction Holley carburetors, matching hardware, and air cleaner assembly were fastened atop of the manifold. The front suspension was left stock with the exception of swapping of the torsion bars to Slant Six units, and the factory front shocks were replaced with 90/10 drag shocks. The front brakes were upgraded with Aerospace four-piston fixed calipers and cross-drilled rotors.
A pair of Tri-City Launcher leaf springs support the 8 ¾-inch rearend housing that’s packed with a 4.30:1 geared spool. The rearend multiplies the engine torque and passes it to a pair of 15×7 steel wheels wrapped by Goodyear Polyglas G60 tires. To help keep the Goodyears stuck to the tarmac, a pair of QA1 double-adjustable rear shocks have been slipped onto the factory shock mounting studs. For the transmission, Tom selected an aluminum A-833 four-speed, which doesn’t sound like a successful formula when working with traction-limited Polyglas tires. If you did an inventory of all the FAST cars at any event, you’d usually just find Tom rowing his own while everybody else utilizes some type of automatic transmission. Tom says, “The stick shift makes me feel more connected with the car, and every now and then it will produce a hero run, which makes it worth it. I have had everything ready to install for years to switch the Challenger to a TorqueFlite, and I would probably win an event or two, but I can’t pull the trigger — I just can’t do it,” Tom confessed as he chuckled.
Tom’s personal best with the Challenger is an elapsed time of 11.35 seconds at 122.97 mph, which he recorded recently at Atco Dragway in New Jersey. Tom has logged a 1.71 second 60-foot time, but usually 60-foot times in the 1.80 second range are the average. To maintain traction on mediocre tracks, Tom has to add weight (a lot of weight), and he has to finesse the clutch pedal and loud pedal to keep the Polyglas tires on the edge of breaking loose.
Since Tom’s first race in 2003, he has had two incidents that were real heart stoppers. The first occurred at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee on the third pass with his freshly built 416 engine. A piece of Mallory (heavy metal) broke free from the crankshaft, which caused a crescent-shaped opening in the oil pan, allowing the slippery stuff to spill onto the track. The oil-coated rear tires instantly lost traction, and the Challenger started to rapidly swap ends until the front end stabbed the opposite lane’s retaining wall. The Challenger continued to rotate, resulting in the rear corner of the Challenger tapping the wall as well. Tom hopped out of the Challenger, expecting the worst, but the damage was much less than he anticipated. Tom loaded up and headed home, but he got lost. He stopped for directions at a shop, and it turned out a professional welder was on duty. The welder fixed the pan, and was able to reweld the Mallory to the crankshaft. To reinstall the Mallory, a lot of hammering and grinding was necessary, which is something nobody wants to see on their new engine, but once the job was complete, everything was buttoned up, and the engine ran flawlessly. Tom decided to peel the damaged body parts from the Challenger and return to the track for the next day’s competition. The Challenger’s body was in need of a rebuild, but he was able to race.
Moving forward a couple of years, Tom was at Lebanon Valley Dragway in New York when he power-shifted the transmission into Third gear at the same moment the rear tires rolled into an undetected pool of coolant that had leaked from the prior competitor. The Challenger took off so rapidly that Tom had zero chance to recover, and just as before, he put the Challenger into the wall. Luckily, the damage was restricted to the rear of the Challenger this time. The Challenger was rebuilt (yet again), and Tom and the Challenger have been incident-free for over a decade.
Tom proves that these cars are meant to be driven, and for the last 15 years, the Factory Appearing Stock Tire class has provided an outlet for his multi-time restored and beautifully detailed Challenger to not just be driven, but driven hard. While Tom doesn’t race the Challenger in the same sanctioning body that Chrysler had envisioned, Tom has taken advantage of the factory performance parts Chrysler designed, and he has pushed the limits of those parts beyond any imaginable performance envisioned in 1970. How did Tom do it? Easy. He built it, rebuilt it, and rebuilt it again until the Challenger was a fast, FAST car.
1970 Dodge Challenger T/A
Tom Cannon; Glenside, PAENGINE
Type: 416-cid (340-cid block) V-8 Bore: 4.070 inches (0.030-inch overbore) Stroke: 4.000 inches Cylinder heads: cast-iron heavily ported 915 “J” heads, 2.05-inch intake valves, 1.60-inch exhaust valves, 11/32-inch valve stems Pistons: Diamond flat-tops Compression ratio: 12.5:1 Crank: 4-inch Mopar Performance forged steel Rods: Eagle H-beam Camshaft: Crane Cams solid roller Valve Lift: .630-inch intake, .630-inch exhaust Duration: 244 degrees Induction: stock, Edelbrock manifold with three Holley two-barrel carburetors Ignition: MSD programmable 6AL2 with factory Chrysler distributor Exhaust: stock, dual exhaust, cast-iron manifolds, X-pipe, 2.5-inch pipes Cooling system: stock, mechanically driven water pump, copper/brass radiator, 18-quart capacity Engine built by: short-block machined by Chase Machine in northeast Philadelphia Cylinder heads prepared by: Greg Gessler
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A FAST 1970 Dodge Challenger That Is Really Fast