Hemi-powered 1968 Dodge Dart tribute

Ralph Biagi adds the crowning glory to his already bulging Mopar garage: a head-kicking, 540ci ’68 Dodge Dart tribute

Dodge Dart Clone 1422 B Jpg

WATCHING the door creep open to reveal Ralph Biagi’s garage is enough to send any Mopar fanatic insane with glee. First, a shiny chrome bumper peeks out, then a gleaming red tail-light, then a fat yellow arse, and, finally, it’s there in all its glory: a 12-second, 500-cube Dodge Challenger.

“The Challenger was my dream car when I was younger,” Ralph says. “I still enjoy driving it.”

First published in the February 2021 issue of Street Machine. Photos: Troy Barker

dodge dart clone

The wide scoop replicates the Hurst Dart item, which had to cover opposing four-barrel Holleys. “Being a Mopar guy, I didn’t want a reverse-cowl; that’s a GM thing as far as I’m concerned,” Ralph says. Down below, the fibreglass race bars are backed by a supporting beam between the mounts: “I fitted some roll-bar tube there, so they’re actually going to protect the car rather than just splintering into a million pieces”

Restored before it was cool, it presents as an immaculate streeter, despite Ralph having to adapt Celica stainless mouldings to the fat-arming zone and a wooden broom handle into a window runner. “You can get replacements now, but it still works perfectly,” he says of his bush-mechanic solution.

It’s not the car I’m here to see, though. But before I get to the main event, there’s another sideshow in Ralph’s Moparian wonderland. Strolling further into the shed towards a maroon VE Valiant sedan, he continues: “I’ve had this one since 1978, when I was 16 years old. It had a slant-six, so I put a four-barrel on it, a Wade cam and a set of headers. None of the 202 boys could keep up; my slanty would toast them all!” he laughs.

dodge dart rear

Ralph has an obvious affinity for the car of his youth. The VE now runs a 360 and, like the Challenger, returns high 12s on street tyres.

But the ride I’m really here for is Ralph’s breathtaking ’68 Dodge Dart tribute. Swathed in bright green paint with a hint of pearl, the car is an amalgam of everything he’s desired over the years in one angry package: part Detroit muscle, part Aussie Valiant, all race car. This ain’t no 12-second cruiser; it’s a thoroughly engineered, thoughtfully constructed quarter-mile track weapon.

dodge dart side

“I started with a VF Valiant coupe,” Ralph says. “From the firewall back, they’re fully imported Dart bodies anyway. I’d wanted a Hurst-built ’68 Hemi Dart with the L023 option (see breakout, p. 69), but the cost of buying a real one was prohibitive, as they were among the first of the factory 426ci race cars,” he says. Instead, Ralph decided to turn the VF into a Hemi Dart clone. “Then when I started the build, I couldn’t bring myself to cut the coupe’s guards the way they were on the original Hemi Darts.”

Ralph’s new plan for the hardtop was a simple flat-black blow-over and a 408-cube stroker, but a sudden tragedy changed everything. “Early in the build, my eldest son Jarrod was killed in a car accident,” Ralph explains, falling silent for a moment. “So the project was shelved for a while. The thing went into the shed and I forgot about it for about 18 months.”

dodge dart clone

Ralph credits both his mate Mark ‘Marshy’ Marsh and his late brother-in-law Mick Kelly for encouraging him to return to the garage and get the project moving again. “Getting together with your mates for a few beers and chewing the fat over your cars is a bloody great form of stress relief,” he advises. “Really good therapy.”

When Ralph was sourcing parts, a supplier revealed he was going to land a pile of aluminium Hemi blocks from World Products at a ridiculously good price. “I was sceptical, but I told him if he landed them as promised, I’d buy one. Well, he did, so I did,” Ralph laughs. “And the whole project changed – this time, all out; next level.”

dodge dart clone engine bay

You can thank Mark ‘Marshy’ Marsh for the neato-burrito presentation of the engine bay. “Marshy doesn’t like things rubbing, so he made up dozens of brackets to set things right,” Ralph explains. With two master cylinders hidden up under the dash, dual remote reservoirs are the only braking components in the bay. “The Hemi is a massive motor, and I didn’t want to disassemble the whole braking system every time I removed the rocker cover”

You can thank Mark ‘Marshy’ Marsh for the neato-burrito presentation of the engine bay. “Marshy doesn’t like things rubbing, so he made up dozens of brackets to set things right,” Ralph explains. With two master cylinders hidden up under the dash, dual remote reservoirs are the only braking components in the bay. “The Hemi is a massive motor, and I didn’t want to disassemble the whole braking system every time I removed the rocker cover”

dodge dart clone engine bay

The all-alloy World Products Hemi big-block displaces a significant 540ci, but the Valiant/Dart coupe body swallows it up no problems. Ralph even moved the rad support panel inwards to accommodate the US-spec Dart front. He fashioned the engine plate that replaces the mounts, making the block a stressed member of the chassis, along with a modified trans mount and engine travel braces. This baby ain’t moving, unless it’s towards a 9sec quarter! 

At home in his shed, Ralph cut the rear floor out of the VF, measured up his tyre sizes and clearances, then sent the info to Ray at McDonald Brothers Racing Products. Ray and the crew rolled up two rails and a four-link rear end to suit, with Ralph squaring it all up and tacking it before Marshy welded it in. “I’ve got a bit of a tremor,” Ralph says, jutting out a quivering hand, “so welding neatly is a real challenge. Marshy is a fitter and turner by trade, so his welding is superb.”

Despite a case of the trembles, Ralph’s craftmanship is evident throughout the rest of the car, as is his logical approach to modifications. “Inside, part of the rollcage runs up underneath the dash, so it’s welded to the cowl panel and to the firewall, triangulating the whole front of the car,” he says. “Stress-wise, these things can be a bit weak there, but now it’s super-strong. That just took about half a dozen beers and some sitting down and talking about it.” Great therapy indeed.

dodge dart engine bay

After jamming my head up under the dash to check out Ralph’s handiwork, I feel we need to give the engine bay its due attention, especially that World Products all-alloy Hemi. After parts had been sourced, basic assembly was done by Fury Romeo at Lonsdale Engine Worx, south of Adelaide. “Because it’s a sleeved aluminium block, Fury had all the appropriate tools I don’t necessarily having lying around here,” Ralph says.

Fury used a boring plate when machining out the block to ensure everything stayed true, and also handled the machine work on the Stage V heads. “The heads were all bare, with Severe Duty valves, smoothed, fitted and cut,” Ralph explains. “Fury also handled the three-angle valve job, blended all the ports and valve pots, and flowed them as well.”

dodge dart clone interior

Expected to return around 750hp, the Hemi is topped by a 1050cfm Quick Fuel carby bolted to a Ray Barton cast inlet manifold. Ralph’s contribution to the engine build was significant, farming out only the stuff he simply couldn’t do; he handled the rocker gear, timing cover, thrust button for the camshaft, sump, external oil system and pick-up himself.

Under-bonnet trickery isn’t just limited to the monster motor, with Ralph fashioning an engine plate to support the drag-spec donk. “This way, the block becomes a stressed member of the chassis, and the reason for that is reaction. The car reacts immediately; it’s unable to cant over first,” he explains. With the plate mount braced all the way down to the chassis rails and a set of high-tensile bolts with a rated breaking strain of 190,000psi, Ralph is confident in his set-up. “The engine plate is going to wear before anything else. And the engine plate isn’t going to wear.”

dodge dart clone seats

Ralph’s keen eye for quality is apparent not just in the parts bought off the rack, but also those customised for purpose: the bespoke Auto Meter gauges; the strengthened fibreglass race bumpers; the mid-plate that supports the gearbox while the engine is out. There’s literally nothing in this car that Ralph and Marshy haven’t considered, reconsidered, approved or improved.

dodge dart dash

With Ralph’s Mopar dream team assembled in the garage, all that’s left is for his latest addition to hit the dyno, then the strip, where he’s expecting high nines. Once that’s done, Ralph’s next job is to complete his brother-in-law Mick’s car, a VG Valiant coupe. Mick passed in 2018, but his widow Leone will drive the wheels off it. “She grew up with me for a brother; she’s got a Skyline, a VF Holden V8 ute and used to have an RX-7,” Ralph explains. “She can’t help it!”

Ralph and Marshy will then move on to another special project. The 408-cuber originally destined for the Dart is going into Jarrod’s burnout car, a 1977 Chrysler Lancer. “Marshy and I will do a bit more work to it and have a bit of fun on the pad in Jarrod’s memory.” Sounds like a plan to us. Mopar or no car, Ralph.

dodge dart shifter

HURST SO GOOD

THE 1968 Hurst Hemi Dart (option code L023) is lauded as one of the sickest special editions of all time. Dart bodies were shipped to Hurst Performance with no engine, trans, exhaust, driveshaft, fuel lines, shifter, battery, seats, seat runners, sound deadening, carpeting, radio or heater, and only one horn.

Once at Hurst’s facility in Madison Heights, Michigan, artisans would carefully sledgehammer the buggery out of the right shock tower before installing a cast-iron 426ci Hemi big-block.

Shipped from Chrysler’s Marine & Industrial Division, each engine was built off-line by hand-picked technicians and topped with a pair of alloy heads, twin four-barrel Holley carbs on a cross-ram intake, and a set of Hooker headers.

Hurst

Rated conservatively at 425 horses, the Hemi was realistically good for over 500, yet Hurst’s modifications didn’t stop with the ol’ bonk and donk. A fibreglass bonnet and guards, ultra-thin Chemcor side windows, acid-dipped doors and a thin-gauge front bumper were also installed. Hurst radiused the rear guards to fit massive slicks in an era before tubbation, while inside, a pair of fixed Dodge A100 cab-over van seats were added and a heavy-duty Mopar battery was chucked in the boot.

Backed by a choice of Torqueflite auto or non-synchro A833 four-speed manual, the Hemi Dart came with a sticker stating: “This vehicle was not manufactured for use on Public Streets, Roads or Highways, and does not conform to Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.” There was no factory warranty, either, but it could run a low 10-second quarter straight out of the box.

RALPH BIAGI
VF VALIANT/1968 DODGE DART CLONE

Paint: Custom three-layer pearl green

ENGINE
Type: World Products aluminium Hemi V8
Capacity: 540ci
Intake: Ray Barton Racing Engines single-plane Hemi
Carb: Holley Quick Fuel 1050cfm
Heads: Stage V heads
Pistons: Diamond customs
Rings: Total Seal
Crank: 4340 Forged
Rods: 440 Source H-beam with ARP 2000 bolts
Cam: Comp Cams custom roller
Pushrods: Smith Brothers custom
Lifters: Comp Cams roller
Valve springs: Comp Cams double springs
Valves: Ferrea Severe Duty; 2.25in intake, 1.9in exhaust
Oil pump: Milodon billet
Ignition: MSD Digital 6, MSD Pro-Billet distributor
Fuel pump: Aeromotive A1000 with electronic speed controller
Exhaust: Custom ceramic-coated headers, 4in collectors, 3in pipes

DRIVELINE
Transmission: Manualised 727 Torqueflite
Converter: Slingshot 3800rpm stall
Differential: Fully braced 9in with 35-spline full floating axles and 3.89:1 gears
Tailshaft: Custom 3.5in

SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front: QA1 coil-overs
Rear: McDonald Brothers four-bar rear clip, QA1 coil-overs (r)
Steering: Commodore rack-and-pinion
Brakes: Wilwood discs & calipers (f), PBR discs and calipers (r)
Master cylinder: Dual Wilwood with under-dash balance bar

WHEELS & TYRES
Rims: Center Line Convo Pro; 15x6 (f), 15x12 (r)
Rubber: Mickey Thompson LT Sportsman S/R; 26x8 R15 (f), 29x15 R15 (r)

THANKS
My friend and Mopar brother Mark ‘Marshy’ Marsh – this car could not exist without you; Dave Scholz for his work and encouragement – I brought him to the Mopar dark side during the build; Alex and Craig at Barossa Valley Collision; Stuart Croser at Tonkin Consulting for the engineering; Scott at Barossa Radiators; Fury Romeo at Lonsdale Engine Worx; my late brother-in-law Mick Kelly for his work – I’ll pay you back with a VG coupe

 

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