Summer Driving Impressions

In the middle of this hot summer, my normal daily driver, a 1994 Camry, decided to have a transmission slippage problem. The final straw was when the old Toyota would not move, but at least we were only a block away from home. Amazingly, seemingly out of nowhere, two neighbors came out and helped me push the Camry back home while my wife steered the car.

While I am investigating solutions, including  getting a new car and/or getting the old tranny replaced, I’ve had to drive the white 440 manual transmission Challenger to work. The 45 year old muscle car becomes my daily driver.



Here is the Challenger as it sits in the covered parking lot at work. Better to keep it out of the sun during working hours., especially through the recent heat wave where temps reached near 100. Manual steering makes it a chore to get in and out of 90 degree spaces. A couple of muscle car enthusiasts spotted my car at work and now I have new friends at work.

90 to 100 degrees in the Bay Area, and how does it feel to drive a 440 Six Pack Challenger in traffic and boiling summer heat? How has the cooling system handled keeping the engine from puking coolant in traffic jams? How has it been driving a manual transmission with a CenterForce clutch? How has the Richmond 5 speed been shifting?How much gas am I sucking up? What kind of modifications would  I like to make to the car after using it to commute for several weeks?

Keep on reading for answers to these questions and more…


Adding a bottle of WaterWetter to my distilled water-filled cooling system. It’s good to mix it up with some distilled water in a jug before adding it to your radiator. You should drive the car immediately to normal operating temperature to ensure thorough mixing in your system.


I haven’t checked this home made coolant screen at my upper hose connection to the radiator for months. It was still there and this is the little crud that was captured by it. I replaced it with a new copper mesh screen.


In the underground parking lot of a Whole Foods Market, doing some grocery getting with with th skids and  the 440 six pack Challenger. Right before I was pacing a blue Cobra roadster going down El Camino Real. THe traffic was too heavy for me to catch up with him but it would have been a pretty sight for onlookers to see a Cobra and a Challenger lined up at a stoplight on a Sunday afternoon in Silicon Valley. Nothing like stalking a Cobra to keep your mind focused on driving.



Here’s we’re parked in downtown Menlo Park in front of one of my favorite restaurants, Vida Bistro, where my wife and I got engaged in 2000. But today, I just parked her to take the kids to the local Stone Cold Creamery for some ice cream. Good thing the reverse lights work on this car! And getting out of these spots is easier for steering the manual box.



How does it feel to drive a 440 Six Pack Challenger in traffic and boiling summer heat?

It is hot, especially wearing work attire. Although it’s nice to have the A/C from my other car, opening the windows makes the heat tolerable. Wear sunscreen to keep from getting burned!

I’ve got a little exhaust fume problem. Opening one window tends to suck in some exhaust into the interior, but opening both sides tends to keep keep the smell in check more. The fumes and for general performance I want to add a multiple spark ignition to the 440.


How has the cooling system handled keeping the engine from puking coolant in traffic jams?

The cooling system has worked admirably, quite admirably, despite sitting in traffic jams, stuck mostly in first and second gear creeping  along in near 100 degree heat. The temperature gauge tended to rise into the middle range on the temp gauge, which from my experiments with the laser thermometer means the temperature is closer to 220 degrees rather than 180-190. The engine never regurgitated any coolant.

When I changed the mesh filter in my upper hose, I noticed I was slightly low on coolant, but still covered the radiator core. When I topped the system off, I added a bottle of Water Wetter and mixed it first with some distilled water before adding it to the radiator and overflow jug. Putting it in right before driving helps ensure thorough  mixing. Adding it seemed to do a better job controlling the temps.


How has it been driving a manual transmission with a CenterForce clutch?

Survivable. The pedal pressure is reasonable for a performance clutch. What takes muscle is shifting the transmission when it gets moody. Sometimes coming out of 5th gear to down shift it feels like the shift pattern gets  a little confused. This problem would never occur with the 4 speeds I’ve had in the past.


How has the Richmond 5 speed been shifting?

With the 5 speed Long shifter on the Richmond, the 1st 2nd gate is spring loaded, where the natural alignment (unsprung) is the 3rd-4th gate. 5th requires pushing against a spring and reverse (under 5th) requires downward pressure which virtually eliminates the chance of accidentally going into reverse and thereby scattering your transmission across the highway. So when you’re coming out of 5th, sometimes the resistance going to the 1st-2nd gate is not enough to keep from missing a clear shot into 3rd or 4th. Does that make sense? The result is, you have to be more aware than you would normally like to make a well executed downshift. Usually the down  shift  goes hard into gear also requiring a momentary conjuring of The Incredible Hulk’s arm.

Getting into gear most of the time is like what you’d expect, a nice low effort throw and snap into gear, but sometimes it doesn’t go into 3rd with the  Midas Touch, it takes Rocky Balboa to ram it, but it goes.

My old Ford Toploader with a clean shifter and I’m sure a good 833 Mopar tranny shifts a lot easier than this monster. 3rd gear takes the most muscle as sometimes I just have to just have let that gorilla know who is boss. Actually, I think it would be nice to have a 6 speed TREMEC and be able to keep the RPM’s low on the highway and get better mileage. Right now, with the 2.94 rear axle gears, 65 mph (about) in 5th gear puts the engine at about 2300-2500 RPM, which is not bad, but the engine has so much torque, and in reality, typical cruising speed is 70-80 mph near 3000 RPM.

I’ve considered changing tranny oil from the Mobil 1 that’s in there now, to Pennzoil Synchromesh Fluid, which is similar to what’s used in Corvette transmissions. I’ve read is can help make shifting easier, but for now, I’ll opt for the added protection of the more conservative and heavier Mobil synthetic (which is what I used in my Mustang’s top loader).

Road and Drag Racing Tip: When performance driving, with the way my car is running with the Richmond, I plan to stay out of 5th gear. If I treat it like a four speed, shifting is a lot more predictable. 5th gear( which is a direct 1:1)  with the 2.94’s I’m running in back is just meant to be “cruise” mode.  If I’m in road course mode, pretend it’s just a four speed. Moreover, 3,000 RPM launches work out with minimal tire spin if I don’t mercilessly hammer the throttle right off the line .


How much gas am I sucking up?

I fill up once a week (4-5 days of driving) going to work. 30 miles to work and back, I’m estimating about 10-12.5 miles per premium gallon in commuter traffic. If I start stomping on it, that can change quickly. My old 71 Challenger with a 383 (2 barrel cam) got about 15.5 on the highway with 3.23 gears on regular gas.

It’s nice after I fill up because the fuel gauge stays on “F” for about a day, before it starts it rapid descent toward “E” (the 16 gallon tank). Quite frankly, it makes my want to opt for the 4 cylinder option (instead of the V-6) on my next daily driver, just to reduce the trips to the gas station, just to restore the Yin-Yang balance to life. That’s not to say it isn’t fun driving the big Mopar, it IS fun and it get’s attention from car enthusiasts in a way that a Honda Accord  would never get.


What kind of modifications would  I like to make to the car after using it to commute for several weeks?

So much time is spent under 3000 RPM when commuting, it is worth getting a multiple spark discharge ignition. I like the Pertronix Billet distributors. Despite retiring the Prestolite Dual Point, which was old and ran like hell, I used a Pertronix in my 1970 Challenger T/A and it worked like a charm, and that only had the basic Pertronix Ignitor. The one I’d get for the 440 uses a Ignitor III with has a hotter, multispark, and rev limiter unit inside. More power, better gas mileage – what’s not to like? That’s what’s great about modifying a driver and not having to adhere to the requirements of a show car.

I’d like to get my seats reupholstered because ever since I’ve had it, the driver’s seat right side is sagging, probably from the hard driving as a drag car. Plus I hate the “drug dealer” tuck and roll upholstery.  I like the stock looking Legendary stuff I have in storage. I’m getting used to that also, but I’m sure it’s not good for my back’s alignment.

It would be nice to finally get the exhaust smell removed from the interior. I have already reduced much fumes by, in the past, changing the trunk seal and the grommet that seals the gas filler tube to the gas tank. But it still can smell. I’m hoping the Pertronix ignition will help.

The manual steering is okay, and although it takes strength to turn that thing in a parking lot, what I would really consider fixing is removing the about 10 degrees of play in the steering. The excess play makes driving down a straight highway more of a conscious effort than it should be. It’s pretty tolerable in most circumstances. Driving the car on a regular basis helps a lot in getting used to how much muscle it takes to handle it. If you’re used to driving power steering most of the time, it can be a pain, but once you eliminate the memory of wimpy arm power steering, you accept the fact that having another inch on your biceps is a welcome addition to your physique.

Whether that’s just an adjustment or requires replacing the steering box, I have yet to figure out. It would be nice to have a faster steering ratio, ala, my old GT-350 clone (which had about a 2.75 turn lock to lock) or my old T/A which with a fast pitman arm had about a 3.5 turn lock to lock is something that is nice. I like the manual box because of the road feel, but steering can be a pain in the arm, literally. And between the Richmond tranny and the manual steering, driving this Challenger can be a real work out. Stay in shape if you want to drive a non-power assisted muscle car.


Reminiscing about the Mustang: I remember I actually liked using the 70 series (Michelin) tires in my Mustang on the street instead of the 50 series Comp T/A tires I used on the track since turning the 70 was a LOT easier with the manual steering box and fast arm. Handling with 70 series had much to be desired (pretty much mush), but nothing you couldn’t handle through slide control. The Mustang was lighter and had  a 289 which helped.





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The Dodge Kid in his youth about 1976. I think I wore this hat everyday through my Freshman year in high school. Photo by Nick Yee

The Dodge Kid in his youth about 1976.

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