By Angelo Van Bogart
This story was originally published in the September 8, 2005, issue of Old Cars Weekly. This car will now be offered for sale at Mecum’s 2015 Kissimmee, Fla., auction.
Owning a Hemi Challenger R/T since new and putting only 1,871 miles on it might be like buying a Playboy magazine and never getting past the table of contents. For Hemi Challenger owner Greg Hernandez, waiting to flip open the still-mint poster in the middle is even sweeter.
At the age of 29, the railroad employee and family man marched into Hendryx Motor Co. in Centerpoint, Iowa, on October 19, 1970, and ordered himself a 1971 Dodge Challenger R/T. The car was built Saturday, November 7, 1970, and was waiting on the lot for Hernandez by December 8 of that year. Hernandez drove down to the dealership on a cold, December day, laid the keys to his 440-cid-powered 1969 Dodge Charger on the salesman’s desk, and walked out with a Hemi-powered machine. And then the Hemi Challenger R/T sat. And sat.
“It was December in Iowa, and it was snowy,” Hernandez recalled. “To begin with, the Hemi Challenger was hard to start in the winter, and I had to commute 40 miles to work and could not see driving that nice car to work every day.” Plus, “the car is useless in the winter.” Driving to his job site through the debris-riddled rail yard also posed a problem when it came to keeping the car in nice shape, so to get to work, Hernandez bought a new VW Beetle for commuting, and used it for many years. “I drove the wheels off that VW.”
Thanks to the VW, driving the Challenger R/T was reserved for nice days when Hernandez didn’t have to work, a rare occurrence in itself. At the same time, Hernandez was raising a family, and since he worked weekends and holidays, the car rarely saw the road, aside from the occasional jaunt around the block or to the store. In its 34 years, the farthest the Hemi Challenger R/T has traveled is from Hernandez’ driveway to the dealership where the car was purchased.
But why trade in a two-year-old 440-cid-powered Charger for a Hemi Challenger R/T? Hernandez explained that after reading in hot rod magazines that 1971 would be the last year a Hemi engine would be available, he wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass him by. Hernandez’ only roadblock to his Hemi dream was at the dealership.
“The gentleman who sold me the car had only sold one other Hemi car, and he had a big problem with it,” Hernandez said. “The gentleman [who bought the other Hemi car] came back with a broken engine only months after he got it. The dealership replaced the engine, and pretty soon, he came back with another broken motor, but they didn’t replace it. The salesman wasn’t enthused about me buying the car with the Hemi, but I said, ‘I definitely want it.’”
When Hernandez placed his order for the Hemi Challenger R/T, he checked the boxes for the A833 four-speed transmission (D21), Super Track Pak (A34), power brakes (B51), console (C16), bucket seats (C55), Sport hood with “426 Hemi” nameplates (J54), and black longitudinal R/T sport stripes (V6X) on an unusual coat of Dark Gold Metallic paint (Y9) with a full gold vinyl roof (V1Y).
“I heard someone mention that it’s such a gentleman’s color; I agree with that,” Hernandez said. “It’s something that you love or hate. I didn’t know too much about the Hi-Impact Colors at the time, and the salesman showed me little [paint] chips, and I thought, ‘That looks like a great color.’” When Hernandez displayed the car at the MoPar Nationals in Columbus in the early 2000s, he reported that the unrestored Challenger’s color received high acclaims.
“Everybody just loves the color,” he said. “It’s unusual to see one of these cars in this color. A lot of people thank me for saving the car; it’s pretty nice of them.”
Since only 71 Hemi Challenger R/T hardtops were built, they are exceedingly rare, especially with such low mileage. And unlike most other extremely low-mileage, ultra-muscle cars, this untouched Challenger never saw a “Christmas tree” at a local race track, or even a street race in all its years. Ever. Heck, few people ever knew Hernandez owned the car, because it was out so little. Only his neighbors knew there was a beast lurking in the garage.
“Right after I bought it, I replaced the exhaust and put on headers and header mufflers,” he said. As he’s done for more than 30 years now, Hernandez would fire up the car to “keep things moving.” During the Challenger’s early days, the Hemi’s boisterous exhales through the headers could be heard by neighbors all around. Now appreciating the car’s collectible status, Hernandez replaced the headers with the original manifolds and has fit reproduction mufflers. He could have even put the original exhaust system on, but he tucked it under his mobile home, and when he moved into a house some years back, he forgot to take the parts with him. Hernandez tried to go back for the parts, but the mobile home had been bulldozed and the parts were long gone.
At the same time he fit the headers, Hernandez fit the Hemi Challenger with a set of aftermarket Ansen mag wheels that he had run on the Charger he’d traded in. The tires rubbed the Hemi Challenger’s fenders, so Hernandez put the original steel wheels and Polyglas GT tires back on the car.
As a kid growing up in Texas, Hernandez was heavily influenced by the car culture there, and he attributes his purchase of the Hemi Challenger R/T to the automotive lifestyle he loved. Hernandez considers his low-mileage and completely unrestored car to be representative of that legacy, and it’s a legacy he shares.
Now that Hernandez is retired, he has time to enjoy his nearly 35-year-old purchase. The Hemi Challenger sees many more miles, though from an enclosed trailer that takes it to MoPar events throughout the country. Thanks to a busy lifestyle, this Hemi Challenger remains pristine and ready to serve its owner, as well as muscle car enthusiasts who are lucky enough to see it.