This article on Charlie's Charger was originally published in the September 2018 issue of Street Machine
CHARLIE Saliba is a hot-rodder at heart, and in hot-rod building there are no hard and fast rules. Parts from any make or model can be interchanged freely to create one’s own personal Frankenstein’s monster. But what Charlie has done with his immaculately presented 1971 Valiant Charger R/T is the complete opposite.
“Bodywise it had a few bumps and bruises from being a daily driver during the 70s and 80s,” recalls Charlie. “The worst part was the left front guard where the previous owner had hit a No Standing post. My mate Norm Sultana filed up the two front guards and the passenger door, because that had taken a bit of a battering in car parks and stuff. So Norm did the big repairs and I fixed up the smaller stuff and ran a file over the rest of the car”
“Hot-rodding is a lot easier, because if you don’t have a certain part you can buy something else, improvise, or make something,” says the Swansea, NSW-based spray painter. “Finding the exact parts for a classic restoration like this is so much harder. Just trying to find a car that’s unmolested is a challenge. It’s hard enough to find a good GT Falcon, and Ford made plenty of them. Chrysler only made 1300-odd R/T Chargers and the survivor rate is low because they were just thrashed in the 70s and 80s.”
“I had the bumper bars tidied up and chrome-plated,” Charlie says. “I wanted them to be good but still fit with the look of the car. If you compare it to some of these show cars then it’s probably not as good as that. I just tried to do everything as it would’ve been from factory”
Charlie bought his genuine R/T E38 from its former owner in Ferntree Gully back in 1990 and made plans to bring it back to showroom condition. His mindset would be to place himself in the shoes of a 1970s Chrysler employee given access to the best parts in the factory. Little did he know that it would take so long, or that he would go to the lengths he did to ensure that every part was perfect, but not too perfect.
Charlie’s Charger rolled out of the factory wearing a coat of Hot Mustard, but was painted Magenta by its previous owner. A spray painter by trade, Charlie reapplied the Magenta hue but didn’t clear-coat over it, as this was how it was done originally. “All my life I’ve painted restored or concours cars for others, and finally I did one for myself,” he says proudly
“I didn’t want to over-restore it,” he says. “Having seen some cars where all the stainless steel is chrome-plated and all this sort of jazz, that’s just too in-your-face – these cars were never like that. I wanted it to look as close to how it would have looked on the showroom floor, but the best example possible.”
The R/T E38 was one of Chrysler’s homologation specials for touring car racing, and Charlie’s has the boot-busting 35-gallon (145L) Bathurst fuel tank. At today’s prices, Charlie says it’d cost around $290 to fill her up!
The Charger was originally a Hot Mustard car but had been painted Magenta by its former owner. The respray was rough, the body wore a few bruises due to everyday use, and there was a small rust hole in one of the inner rear quarters. Other than that, it was perfect for Charlie’s purposes.
“It came with the original Hemi-six, triple Webers, and three-speed manual ’box,” he explains. “They were in good nick because the guy had swapped in a 340 V8 and four-speed so he could tour around Australia. He put the original motor and ’box aside and they went back in when it came time to sell it.”
When Charlie got the coupe home, he stripped it back to bare metal and pulled it down to bare nuts and bolts, all except for the drivetrain, and the diff and front end to keep it rolling.
“Every panel was stripped and ready to take to the next stage, but it never happened,” he says. “It was in the corner of the garage in pieces for 20 years, and because the car is so rare I didn’t want anybody to know what it was. If anybody asked I’d just say: ‘Oh, it’s just an old project in the corner.’”
The original Hemi-six was in good shape due in part to the car’s former owner deciding to run a 340ci V8 and four-speed for many years. Charlie entrusted Daniel Kleinig with giving the inline six a freshen-up and tuning the triple Weber set-up. It was during this process that Charlie was rapt to discover that the motor still had the original pistons, as indicated by the famous Pentastar logo cast into them
Charlie finally found the inspiration to get cracking on it five years ago when his eldest daughter, Allison, announced that she was getting married. After discovering that Allison and her hubby-to-be were planning to ride to the chapel in an XY Falcon GT and an LJ Torana GTR, Charlie saw a gap in the wedding entourage for his VH Charger R/T. And so began an intense 12-month build, with the big coupe just barely making it to the church on time.
Charlie reckons he spent as much time working under the car as up top. “Because it had been a daily driver in its previous life, it needed a lot of work underneath; especially the K-member was a bit battered.” He went to extreme lengths to ensure the underside matched his vision of a brand new ’71 Charger. “There’s five different colours just in the drum brake assembly and I matched them all!”
No expense was spared in order to get the coupe back to as-new condition. Charlie readily admits it’s no show car, but that was never the point.
“I’d rather have something with a tiny imperfection rather than going to the trouble of having it totally redone and it ends up looking nothing like it should be,” he claims. “With what I wanted to achieve, shinier was not necessarily better. I wanted it to be authentic.”
Rayline Trimming initially patched up some minor tears in the seats, while Gary’s Motor Trimming was employed later in the process to fit the rooflining, carpet and vinyl coverings. “Ray Psaila from Rayline Trimming replaced the tear sections and I wrapped the seats up in sheets and they sat there for 22 years,” Charlie explains. “Ray then moved to Perth so I got Gary’s Motor Trimming to help with the rest”
Still, there were certain improvements that he needed to make in order to realise his vision. After another three-year break, he spent a further 12 months getting the car fully up to scratch for its show debut at the Sydney Hot Rod & Custom Expo in late May. His efforts were rewarded with a trophy for Top Authentic/Original.
“It was four years between the wedding and its show debut, but the show gave me a big kick up the arse to get it finished and get it to the level it was supposed to be in the first place,” he says. “I’ve never won a trophy before and that was never what this was about, but I feel it’s incredible to have achieved that and to have both those statements, ‘Authentic’ and ‘Original’, on the trophy – they just define what this car is.”
While Charlie had initially considered taking the coupe to a few more static shows, he changed his mind while driving it to and from the Street Machine photoshoot.
“I’m not a show car guy, and I just loved driving it to and from that photoshoot. That was the first time I really got to drive and fully enjoy the car, and it was so good. Now I’m just going to drive it.”
1971 CHRYSLER VALIANT VH CHARGER R/T E38
Brand: 265ci Hemi inline six
Carbs: Triple 45mm sidedraught Weber
Exhaust: Factory dual headers
Gearbox: BorgWarner three-speed manual
Diff: BorgWarner LSD 3.23:1 gears
WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: W35 14x7 (f & r)
Rubber: Nexen 205/70R (f & r)
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Street Machine is the bible of Aussie modified auto culture, celebrating wild muscle cars, customs and hot rods – and the incredible humans who create them.
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