Story and photos by Brian Earnest
One of the first things you notice about Buster Ferns’ spectacular 1968 Dodge Coronet R/T is the brilliant all-white paint job.
Long before the Brookfield, Wis., resident ever got the car put together and ready to roll, Ferns noticed it, too.
“Once the guys at the shop washed it and buffed it, this is the way it looked … That was a big thing. That saved me a lot of money right there,” laughed the affable Ferns. “It was all painted underneath, all the wheel wells and everything. I didn’t have to worry about any of that. That all turned out nice.”
It took a little elbow grease, some parts chasing and some patience, but the muscular Dodge is now a real show-stopper. It’s all added up to more than Ferns bargained for when he went looking for a retirement project car about five years ago.
“I was talking to my friends and was telling them I could go for a car again, because I am retired now and have some time to work on them and do some mechanical work,” Ferns recalled. “A friend of mine found this. It was his friend’s uncle who owned this. He had a bunch of cars and he had passed away and my buddy asked if I wanted to go look at some. I was initially looking at a ’64 GTO, but that was kind of ratty. But my friend said he’s got two more cars in another garage up by his house and the Coronet was one of them. I kind of liked it because you don’t see many of the Coronets anymore, so that’s why I bought it. It was licensed originally in North Carolina, and then I bought it from the estate of the gentleman who passed away, and he lived just out of Slinger [Wis.].”
The previous two owners had both planned to restore the Coronet, but neither was able to complete the task. The Wisconsin collector had rounded up many new parts, including new exhaust and interior, but the car was still a long way from finished when Ferns took ownership.
“When I looked at it it had no top and no interior, and the back end was way up in the air. I said, ‘Well, if I’m gonna buy it, does it run?’” Ferns recalled. “And he said, ‘According to my brother, the motor was supposed to have been rebuilt, and the trans.” So I said let’s put a battery in it and see if it starts. So it started and I bought it. I knew at least it ran.
“When I got it and started putting it all together and found out what he didn’t have, that’s when the search was on, but that’s part of the fun,” he said. “I didn’t realized it would be that hard. I ordered some parts from Stephens [Peformance] — they are an all-MoPar junkyard in Anderson, Ala. I went to an all-MoPar car show and swap meet in Columbus, Ohio, and found parts there. Then slowly but surely a few things I needed I could get from Year One.”
The Coronet had 46,000-plus miles on the clock at the time and had a 1967-dated 440 V-8 and four-speed manual transmission that both appeared to be solid. Most of Ferns’ efforts involved new suspension and electrical work.
“Since I was putting in an all-new interior, I re-wired the entire thing, all the wiring is brand new,” he says. “It’s got new carpet and headliner and everything … I had to go shopping for the console, but I found a console for it. I had to take the springs off the back because for some reason they were eight-leaf springs and we don’t know if [a previous owner] raced it or what. I’m a heavy guy, and you could sit in the back and you couldn’t move it, and you couldn’t get shocks for it because they weren’t long enough! I took those off and ordered original springs. I took apart the front end and put all new bushings in it and got rid of the drum brakes in the front because it wouldn’t stop. I put manual disc brakes on the front so now at least it stops. The motor wound up having a cracked head, so I had to take the heads off and put in a new cam, lifters, water pump, fuel pump, new manifolds… It runs great now. It really drives nice.”
The mid-size Dodge Coronet underwent a transformation for the 1968 model year. It was completely restyled from stem to stern. This was a high-volume series for Dodge and production rose from 159,781 units in 1967 to 189,500 in 1968. In the Coronet R/T line, 10,900 cars were turned out — up slightly from 10,181 the year before.
Two body styles were available in the R/T format. The two-door sport coupe was base priced at $3,353 and convertible prices started at $3,613. R/T equipment included bucket seats, dual exhausts, a stiff suspension, heavy-duty brakes and other goodies, including a 150-mph speedometer. TorqueFlite automatic transmission was the standard setup.
Bumblebee stripes — or alternatively no-cost optional body side stripes — were provided to set off the 1968 model’s appearance. There were R/T emblems on the grille and R/T medallions on the fenders and rear trunk latch panel. Coronet R/Ts used the same interior as Coronet 500s, but had a special “power bulge” hood with simulated air vents.
The standard 440-cid Magnum V-8 was the same as in 1967 with its 4.32 x 3.75-inch bore and stroke, 10.1:1 compression ratio and single four-barrel. Horsepower (375 at 4,600 rpm) and torque (480 lbs.-ft. at 3,200 rpm) remained unchanged. A four-speed manual or automatic transmission were also standard again. What did vary very slightly was the published performance numbers: 6.9 seconds for the 0-to-60-mph test and 15.1 seconds for the quarter-mile at 94 mph. The bad news was the 440-motivated Coronet R/T got produced 9.6 to 12.1 mpg fuel economy.
High-performance options for the Coronet R/T included a limited-slip differential for $42.35; custom wheels for $97.30; front disc brakes for $72.95; and a console for $52.85. High-performance tires and bucket seats were standard on the R/T. For 1968, the optional Street Hemi V-8 cost $604.75 and was ordered for 94 Coronet R/Ts with four-speeds and 136 with TorqueFlite automatic. Experts believe there was one stick-shift Hemi convertible and eight automatic convertibles.
Of course, not all Coronets were performance cars. By 1968, the Coronet was a long-running staple of the Chrysler Corp. mid-size lineup that included the Coronet 440, 500 and Deluxe, which were available as wagons, coupes and four-door sedans. The Coronet 500 was also available as a convertible. After the nameplate was discontinued for 1960, it was reintroduced in 1965 and joined the muscle car race in 1967 when the R/T package was introduced. A low-priced performance model, the Super Bee, with a 383-cid/335-hp V-8 as the base engine, was also added in the spring of 1968.
Ferns might not be so eager to roll up the miles on his own R/T if he was packing the rare Hemi under the hood, but he has no reservations about putting the 440 mill through its paces whenever the weather is nice. He doesn’t mind occasionally showing the younger crowd that flashy white member of the “Scat Pack” can more than hold its own in sprints between traffic lights.
“You get the kids roll up next to you and you have to show them a little something [laughs]. When you start, I like it because you can hear it. It’s a little quiet until you really hit and then you can feel it putting you back in the seat. That’s nice. That’s the way it was back in those days. You just beat ’em up, because you could just buy another one for $1,000. You don’t do it today because they cost too much.
“But I bought it just to go driving around with it. My buddies and I always said, ‘If we have to trailer ’em, we’re not going to have ’em.’ There’s no point in having them if you can’t drive them and enjoy them.”
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