Small car, big engine. It’s been a formula for high performance since the advent of the automobile, a hallmark of race car design, and the philosophy that ushered in the muscle car craze of the 1960s.
But the folks at Chrysler took this equation to another level in February of 1968 when they sent promotional materials to Dodge dealerships across the country detailing their intention to sell race-ready, factory built dragsters using the smallest coupe in their fleet – the Dodge Dart – and the biggest motor in the Mopar arsenal – the 426 cubic-inch Hemi.
The result was the Hemi Dart, a purpose-built dragster built strictly for the track which would go on to be considered perhaps the fastest factory-built high performance machine of the era.
Production code L023 denoted the model designed specifically for competition in Class B Super Stock racing. Reportedly only 80 Hemi Darts were built, and they differed substantially from standards in ways that went far beyond a simple engine swap.
In order to put the model together, partially assembled Dart chassis were shipped to the Hurst Performance facility in Madison Heights, Michigan, to undergo the transformation. Although the cars were designed to meet street legal requirements, each wore a disclaimer that stated the vehicle came without a warranty and was intended for “supervised acceleration trials.”
Beyond the inherent light weight of the diminutive Dart platform, Dodge tossed essentially anything in the car that didn’t improve performance in some way, ditching window regulators, consoles, carpeting, radio, heaters, all sound-deadening, and arm rests in the process. They also sent the cars to Hurst without any of the mechanical components that wouldn’t be compatible with the new power train, like the exhaust, fuel lines, drive shaft, and shifter. And since the battery would be relocated in the trunk, those were excluded as well.
To get even more weight out of the car, Hurst swapped out the metal fenders and hood for fiberglass pieces, acid-dipped the doors, installed thinner front and rear bumpers, and swapped out the glass windows for polymer-based ones that were secured by seat belt straps rather than the heavier traditional window cranks.
The standard Dart seats were also replaced by the no-frills buckets out of the Dodge A-100 van, yielding an interior aesthetic that was decidedly all business. All put together, the Hemi Dart weighed in at a fairly scant 3,000 pounds.
But getting the massive big-block V8 into the Dart’s engine bay was no easy task. The hand-built, notoriously underrated 425 horsepower 426 Hemi, which featured 12.5:1 compression pistons, 4.250 inch bore and 3.750 inch stroke, and a pair of four barrel Holley carburetors atop a lightweight Cross Ram aluminum intake manifold, took some ingenuity to install.
Along with moving the battery to the trunk – which also helped with weight distribution for more effective launches at the drag strip – Hurst technicians had to literally hammer out clearance for the Hemi’s massive valve covers by creating indentations in the passenger-side shock tower sheet metal. To accommodate the bigger racing slicks on the rear wheels, Hurst also cut out larger wheel well openings.
The Hemi Dart could be optioned with either a 727 Torqueflite automatic with a 4.86 gear set and a 2600 rpm stall converter or a three speed manual gearbox which utilized 4.88 gears, a heavy duty clutch, a Dana-built 931/44 heavy duty axle, and a requisite Hurst shifter.
Dodge engineers designed the Hemi Dart to reach 130 miles per hour in under 11 seconds, and dish out quarter mile times in the high 10-second range, but many racers were able to achieve even better results almost immediately.
Racers like “Dandy” Dick Landy quickly found their way into the nine second quarter mile times with very little additional tuning, sending shock waves across Super Stock racing and forcing the other manufacturers to scramble to create a solution in order to stay competitive with these beastly Mopars. The Hemi Darts would remain dominant in the class for years to come.
Just 80 examples were produced, and by 1969 the L023 production code was nowhere to be found on the Dart option’s sheet, making these models a one-year-only proposition and exceedingly hard to come by.
Although it wasn’t a bargain by the standards of the time – a Hemi Dart would set you back about $4200 in 1968 – the performance and rarity of these impressive racing machines has resulted in skyrocketing values for the cars in collector circles, with Hemi Darts selling at auctions for between $170,000 and a quarter million dollars in recent years.