Everyone knows that the Phoenix was a mythical bird that rose from the ashes. Well, the Phoenix was also a Dodge model that was marketed in Australia for about fourteen years, and one of those Phoenixes is the subject of a rebuild that will see it rise from obscurity as a rusting relic to fly on the racing circuits of the Wide Brown Land.
About 25 years ago, the popularity of road racing touring cars (or sedans) was growing so much, and the racing of Historic cars was becoming so popular, that it was decided that classes should be started for Historic Touring Cars.
At first it was pre-1958 models, then they allowed pre-1965 soon after. Finally, about fifteen years ago, cars up to 1972 were made eligible. And the classes have indeed proved popular, especially the era of the Mustangs and Camaros, which are now much more plentiful on Australian road racing circuits than they ever were in their heyday. There wasnt ever much in the way of Mopar products racing in the fifties and sixties. In fact, one classic old 1938 Dodge sedan was long remembered for its successes at Sydney circuits in the fifties, but between then and 1967 there was very little happening. Alan Caelli ran a Hemi Plymouth drag car on the circuits a few times, but that was about it apart from a few lonely Valiants. Until, of course, the Valiant Pacers arrived in 1968, followed by the Valiant Chargers in 1970. But they ran in the unmodified Series Production classes anyway.
With the introduction of the Historic classes, however, the door has opened for some bright young lad with a bent for Mopar performance to venture onto the circuits and show just how good the descendants of that 38 Dodge might be! Thats where Ben Simpson comes into the picture. A shy son of a farmer, Ben became a mechanic because he loves cars. And because the farm had a few Valiants, he loved them too.
But when he started racing, it was in a one-model class for Holdens. And he did well too. But he longed for the day hed be able to strut his stuff in a bit of Mopar iron. As Bens uncle, I spent time with him occasionally and we discussed his plans. We figured out that it might be good to run a Dodge Phoenix in the Group Nb category, the class for cars up to 1964. This would mean he didnt have to directly compete with the bulk of the Mustangs, which were allowed more modifications than the pre-1965 cars.
The rules demand that cars are essentially based on what came from the factory. So the scheming began. A four-speed gearbox was a good idea. That meant it had to be a car from 1963 or 1964. But the 63 four-speed was a testy Borg Warner unit, while the 64 came with the tough New Process box. This narrowed down our choice of car immediately to that one year.
Reasoning that the 62 to 65 Dodges were lighter than most full size American cars (Chryslers intelligence department made a mistake, thinking that Chevy were downsizing in 62, so they built smaller cars those years), we reckoned this was in our favour. Without a heavy separate chassis, these models seemed even better.
Now, you have to understand that Dodges were not big sellers in Australia. Being a big car, much bigger than the very popular locally made Holden, and also the Falcon and Valiant, the biggest sellers in this country, they were relatively expensive and regarded as an upmarket model. Their selling price of around $5,300 was over twice the price of the Valiant.
|So the search was going to be a tough one, but by diligently asking around everywhere I went I found out that a man named Tasman Bruce had one for sale in the little country town of Gunnedah in New South Wales. I phoned Tasman only to be told Id missed out by a couple of weeks. This after many months of searching.|
Ben gave up and decided hed build up a 1964 Valiant instead, buying one that was really better suited to restoration as a classic rather than racing. I urged him to be patient, and finally the breakthrough was made. I received a phone call from the Dodge owner whod put me in touch with Tasman Bruce, Chas Chapple.
Hey, that Dodge I told you about, Chas started, Robert Schumack wants to sell it again, hes done nothing with it, do you still want it?
I phoned Ben and told him, then the next time I headed through that region I called in on Robert Schumack and looked the car over. In some ways it was very sad, but its time now to look at the life of this car that was to become the centrepoint of Bens dream.
During August, 2004, I was working in the nearby town of Boggabri. Its about thirty miles from Gunnedah, where the car was still located as Ben was tied up and couldnt get down to get it right away. During my day there I walked into a house where there was a bunch of Valiants, so in the course of my talking to the young man there I said, Youre a bit of a Chrysler fan, are you?
He replied that his family had been the Chrysler dealers for many years before selling out. So I mentioned the 64 Phoenix Ben had bought and where it was from.
His father overheard this and joined in, I remember the day Mrs Bruce came to pick that car up, he began. Old Wallace Bruce had ordered it without her being there, and when she opened the door and saw the upholstery, she said to him Darling! I didnt know it was this colour! That matches my outfit perfectly! Ill never forget that.
Suddenly the car took on a life, to me and also to Ben when I phoned him and told him about this encounter. It had a soul, and we wanted to know more about its history. But the first thing to do was to get a photo of the dealership where Eileen Bruce had made that dramatic exclamation. Its a Mitsubishi dealer today, as Chrysler Australia sold out to Mitsubishi in the Iacocca years, but its still the showroom where Syd Bird and Wallace did the deal.
Wallace and Eileen, first owners
Dealership where Dodge was originally sold
I made contact with Tasman again and asked him to tell me more. He was excited to know that someone was going to do something with his old car and only too glad to recount the details. His grandfather was getting close to retirement when he bought the Golden Anniversary Phoenix and it only lived in the district for a little while before the farm was sold and Wallace and Eileen moved to a coastal resort area to live.
But there was still time for someone to back into it! Parked at the local showground, a Holden reversed two car lengths to smash into the front of it one day, and another time a reversing Nissan Patrol did some damage to the towbar. But apart from a little dent in the headlight surround, no harm done, no repairs needed. The Dodge could still look resplendent as they moved to their retirement home.
|Eileen died only a year or two later and Wallace remarried. His new wife was driving along the Pacific Highway and a wheel fell off a truck in front of them. Wallace was shocked to see this happen, and to feel the thump underneath the Dodge as they went over it, but it was only a dent in the rear seat passengers floor, nothing serious, no repairs needed.|
By about 1972, Wallace was ready for a new car again. He wasnt offered much of a trade on the Dodge so he decided to pass it on to his son, Arch. The Holden Arch had been driving was passed on to Tasmans brother, but as he still lived in the same house it remained in its regular spot in the typical farm type garage.
This was a 2-car garage clad in galvanized steel sheeting, and when the Dodge was driven in so that the front bumper just touched the back wall, closing the door behind it was just possible with a bit of a twist to the door as it pressed against the towbar. It had to have a towbar, of course. Pressed into service on a farm always means trailers have to be hooked on, and on holidays when Wallace had the caravan hooked up, it easily toured the countryside with an abundance of power that made keeping pace with the traffic easy.
To make it easy to get it right in the shed, Arch and the boys put some logs in front of the front wheels and staked them in place on the dirt floor, and being practical country folk they built a shelf above the cars hood so they could reclaim some of the garages storage space.
|Arch and Mavis delighted in driving around the district in the Dodge. It was a distinct improvement over the Holden, after all, and undoubtedly more comfortable and spacious. It was handy for the family weddings, too!|
What the heck if it cost a bit more on fuel? At least it wasnt costing anything to maintain as it was typically reliable in the Chrysler tradition.
In fact, Tasman assures me that no part of the car has ever been pulled apart. The heads havent been off the engine, the gearbox never serviced, just oil changes and an occasional wash. And no panel work either, despite what happened in Tamworth. Oh yes, what happened in Tamworth!
|See that little mark to the left of the rear numberplate? Well, it seems thats about all the damage that happened that day. Mavis had gone to Tamworth to pick up Arch after hed been flown back from Sydney where hed had a major heart operation. She was sitting at the traffic lights waiting for a green and looked in her mirror for some reason. Good thing she did! There, bearing down on the poor old Dodge was an EH Holden that just wasnt going to stop. Mavis took her foot off the brake, which probably eased the pain a little, but nothing could prevent the EH being totaled as it plowed into the back of the car.|
Some time following the operation, Arch retired. He moved off the farm and Tasman stayed, and the Dodge, well the Dodge stayed too.
At 25 years of age, it was getting to the point where it was tired, and the cost of rebuilding the engine and doing the other necessary things was considered too much.
|It sat in its shed, front wheels against the logs, nose of the car under a shelf full of accumulated bags and boxes. Then there was a mouse plague in the district and mice were everywhere, including up on that shelf. From there they dropped down onto the car, worked their way in through the air vents ahead of the windscreen and climbed through the windscreen pillars, along the channel above the doors and down into the trunk. There they made a mess in among the various leftovers that were lying on the floor. The left a trail of urine everywhere they went and rust over the door openings is the remaining evidence of their destructive course.|
Tasman hauled the car out of the garage after that, as this car meant a lot to him. He was only a kid when his grandparents bought it and remembers well the joy of riding around with old Wallace. Determined that mice wouldnt do any more damage, he left it out in the sun, But that made the paint fade! he finally realized.
He was offered a good price for it before the mouse damage became evident, but had ideas of doing the car up for himself. But as the rust worked its way through he gave up on that, and when Robert Schumack came along looking for a project car it was sold. Then it was our turn to come into this cars life. At this point it had reached the lowest ebb of its long life, with rust gently gnawing at it and no life at all in its neglected inner parts. But Ben is certainly going to make an impact on it hes the one whos going to make this Phoenix spread its wings and make a real name for itself.
When he finally got the car up to the Gold Coast we started chasing up the various bits hed need to modify it for racing. Id not long before this had to get my little sports car moved, and when the truck driver handed me his card it had reference to Mopar on it. You dont happen to know where wed find a 4-speed New Process gearbox, do you? I asked. Turns out he had two, one for his Coronet drag car and one without a bellhousing that hed sell us!
|In that moment I believed wed found the only spare New Process box in Australia, I couldnt believe how lucky we were. But we still had to find a bellhousing. Asking around, I got in touch with the Chrysler Owners Club and one of their members put me in touch with a guy who had one he didnt know what to do with. Again, only a little way from home, almost a miracle.|
|Now we began tracking down the 11 brakes that were listed as Police and Taxi options for this model. They were standard equipment on the 65 to 68 models, so it was only a matter of finding some that werent in use. Again, these cars were quite rare here, so it took a couple of months. Eventually I got a very badly rusted set from a wrecking yard in Grafton, this yard also yielding two sets of alternative torsion bars (1 and 1.125) from the 66 Phoenix (really a Plymouth) and the 58 or 59 Dodge Custom Royal that were stacked together with a tree lying over the top of them. This Phoenix (a rebadged Plymouth here in 65) also yielded a power steering setup so Ben can chase those wild slides more readily.|
More bits came when I made a trip to Tamworth, where Bill Roworth had a 66 one of his sons had bought to get the engine out of. No rear brakes, however, as the rear end was gone. I had to go to Stanthorpe for them, Dave Friend had some there among his dozens of Valiants. Because well need extra engine parts Ive been casting around looking for these too.
A hot-rodder at Cowra has donated a 313 bottom end to the cause and I came across a man who sells irrigation pumps and therefore travels around the farms in the Wagga Wagga area. Hes found a complete engine out of a 62 model for us, and while he was discussing it with the contact who put him onto it, yet another friend of his was listening in and mentioned he has a similar truck engine we can trade for a few cans of beer. This at least gives us some heads and cams to experiment with, and spares might one day be very handy to have.
And so it falls into place. At the time of writing were still looking for a Sure Grip and a lower rear axle ratio that well need on the tight road racing courses in Australia. But the time has come for some action in the building department.
Ben and Dodge
|Ben has allowed himself almost a year to get the job done. He works afternoon shift, so has a number of daylight hours every day to devote to this project. Hes been sorting out exactly which forged pistons to order, he has a friend who has a flowbench to test the porting hell do on those spare heads to get the right shapes, and hes been looking at different racing rods and rod lengths and pistons to match.|
And, as an aside, Ive been asking about ambulances.
You might well wonder why Im doing that, but its simple. Chrysler Australia built a batch or two of ambulances on extended Phoenix chassis in the sixties for the Australian Army and Air Force. They were fitted out, Im told, with gear that came in a special kit of parts from the USA. There are parts in those kits that we want for our Dodge! And what better towmaster could there be than a Phoenix ambulance with an extended wheelbase? Plenty of room for spares, to sleep in at interstate race meetings, and just the thing to show the Mopar flag at the Historic touring car races around as the Phoenix wings cast a shadow over all those lesser cars!
Well keep 62 to 65 Mopar lovers abreast of developments during the building phase and when we start racing the car -- but if youd like to start cheering us on, just e.mail your messages to firstname.lastname@example.org and well answer when we get a chance. Dont be afraid to ask questions either, well answer them all!
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