Muscle Cars You Should Know: Mr. Norm’s ’68 Dodge Dart GSS 440

When Ford redesigned the Mustang for 1967, it retained everything that was great about the first-generation car but was updated to allow a 390 to be shoehorned in between those pesky shock towers. Chrysler responded in kind by stuffing the 383 in its A-body twins, but it wasn’t enough to compete.

Grand Spaulding Dodge at the end of the 1960s. Note the NASCAR-inspired Charger 500. Image: VW Vortex

However, an enterprising Dodge dealership in Illinois was instrumental in helping up the ante and influencing Chrysler in offering the most outrageous compact barnstormer the market would ever see: the 440 Dart GSS.

The story begins in 1967, a pivotal year in American muscle car history. That was the year every non-luxury Big Three brand had their “image” supercars on the market, giving the Red-blooded American Male (and some birds as well) more high-performance choices than ever.

It was also the year the Big Three introduced all-new pony cars, debuting two models in General Motors’ case. With the Camaro in particular, the 396 came with 325 horsepower but soon was available with the L78 375-horse big-block.

On Chrysler’s end, the Plymouth Barracuda was expanded to three body styles. As nice as it was, it was still more compact car than full-on pony car. Across the hall at Dodge, there was nothing pony car about the Dart, but it shared the same underpinnings as the Barracuda. While both cars were attractive and contemporary, they were lacking in the “go” department; the top motor was the 273/235.

The 1968 Dart GSS looked like any Dart GTS other than the badges. Images: Mecum.com

Norm Krause saw a problem with this. As the guy running Grand Spaulding Dodge on the northwestern side of Chicago, “Mr. Norm” was the go-to guy for Mopar performance in the Midwest, if not America (indeed, Grand Spaulding Dodge was America’s largest high-performance Dodge dealership in the US by 1966).

With the HEMI the newly-crowned king of the street, the Charger a successful NASCAR competitor, and the Coronet R/T equipped with the market’s biggest performance V-8, Mr. Norm had plenty to offer the enthusiast, except no pony car, and the 273 Dart just didn’t cut it.

The story goes that Mr. Norm expressed disappointment to Chrysler that there was nothing to compete with GM or Ford, and the engineers responded that the 383 wouldn’t fit.

Taking some initiative, Mr. Norm and his gang of mechanics shoehorned a 383 in a Dart and drove to Detroit to show the boys at Highland Park that yes, Virginia, it could be done.

A few months later, the 383 became a factory option for the Barracuda Formula S and the Dart GT. As installed in the Dart GT, it became the Dart GTS. Rated at 280 horsepower, it was a drastic drop from the 325 horsepower available for the mid-size Coronets and full-size Polaras and Monacos.

As the 383 was a tight fit, a special driver’s-side exhaust manifold, needed to clear the steering shaft, cut breathing considerably; also, power steering wasn’t available with the 383 (and, of course, air conditioning was out of the question).

So how was a potential Mopar customer supposed to reconcile 280 horses when an L78 Camaro was putting out almost 100 more? Fender well headers would have solved some of the problem, but the 396 simply outclassed the 383.

For 1968, the Dart GTS became a full-fledged model that came standard with the brand-new giant-killer of a small-block, the 340. The 383 was bumped up to 300 thanks to new cylinder heads, but the same motor in the new Super Bee was rated at 335 horses. Plus, still no power steering!

To make matters worse, not only did GM’s pony cars continue to outpower the 383, but also Chevy’s redesigned Nova could accommodate the 396. Again, the math: 300 horsepower versus 375. That’s when Mr. Norm decided to get crafty once again and install a 440.

The 440 Magnum had been introduced in 1967 for the Coronet R/T and Charger (and was available for Dodge’s big cars too). Consisting of a 4.32 bore and 3.75 stroke, it was an outgrowth of 1964-65’s 426-S “Street Wedge.”

With 10.1 to 1 compression ratio and a high-profile cam, the 440 Magnum put out a solid 375 horsepower and 480 ft.-lbs. of torque. This was high on the totem pole in 1967, surpassed only by the 426 HEMI and not much else. As installed in the Coronet R/T or Charger, low-14s were cake.

All 440 Darts received the engine code "M" in the VIN to signify special-order motor.

As installed in the Dart, however…ah, to install a 440 in an A-body. Grand Spaulding Dodge’s head of engineering, Gary Dyer, cut off ¼-inch of the K-member to clear the oil pan. A hole near the oil pump was drilled and tapped so a modified engine mount could be attached.

The driver’s side exhaust manifold was the same, compromised item used for the 383 Dart GTS. Due to the tight fit, two additional make-shift modifications were necessitated: a heat shield to keep the brake proportioning valve in check, and a snubber to prevent extreme U-joint angles.

Some cars were left with their 383 badges.

Mr. Norm then managed to convince Chrysler to build 48 (50 by other accounts – logical, as it would qualify the 440 Dart for NHRA) 383/automatic Dart GTSs but without the 383 and tranny installed.

The Darts then went to Hurst-Campbell – the same people building the Super Stock HEMI Darts and Barracudas – to receive the mods to accommodate the 440.

Torqueflite automatic was the only transmission offered because installation required less fuss plus the Dana rear required with the four-speed would not fit. Batteries were relocated to the trunk.

The piece de resistance was the name change to Dart GSS: Grand Spaulding Special.

Not only was Grand Spaulding Dodge the only place you could buy a 440 Dart in 1968, but Mr. Norm would also give it his patented Power Tune, which meant you’d have the honor of seeing his henchmen dyno your new GSS, then rejet the carb, recurve the distributor, and return to the dyno to show the power increase. With some decent meat out back, the Dart GSS was a capable high-12 stormer. Prepped for racing, they were in the 10s.

And, like the 1967 Dart GTS 383, the 1968 Dart GSS served as inspiration to Chrysler because, for 1969, Chrysler released the 440 as a regular factory offering for the Dart GTS (as well as for the Plymouth Barracuda). Dodge built 660 GTSs with the 440, giving the rest of America the opportunity for an overpowered compact. It would be another two years until Mr. Norm would offer another unique car with the 1971 Demon GSS, but the 340 Six-Pack didn’t inspire Chrysler the way the GSS did.

CHECK OUT OTHER MUSCLE CARS YOU SHOULD KNOW

About the author

Diego Rosenberg

Diego is an automotive historian with experience working in Detroit as well as the classic car hobby. He is a published automotive writer in print and online and has a network of like-minded aficionados to depend on for information that's not in the public domain.
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