The Summer of the $35 Hemi

I am the youngest of six brothers raised in a suburb of Detroit. We lived just a couple minutes from Woodward Avenue and spent many a summer night driving the circuit between the various ice cream stands which lit up the night. A love of cars might come naturally to any teen in that environment but I had more inspiration than most: I had five older brothers who were really into cars. And one of them, Ken (in the photo), rebuilt a Hemi in our garage.

In his senior year of high school, one of Ken’s classmates mentioned that he had a 392 CI Hemi that he might be interested in selling. The engine didn’t run and was sitting outside, exposed to the Michigan elements. It was 1972 and Ken was about to graduate high school and start attending Lawrence Institute of Technology (now called Lawrence Technological University). What would be a better hobby than resurrecting an old engine? He went and saw the engine at his friend’s house. It was from 1957 – later confirmed when Ken and my father traced a serial number on the block – and the classmate wanted $35 for it. It had no intake manifold or carburetor but for that price, the seller would deliver it to our house in the back of his pickup truck. A deal was struck.

The Summer of the $35 Hemi

Ken cleared out one side of our two-car garage and got to work, dismantling the engine. He tore it down and removed everything. I was only 10 years old but I remember walking into the garage and seeing the block on the ground, surrounded by all the parts that went into it. The pistons were out, the crank was out. There were a lot of other parts I did not recognize at the time but I found the whole process fascinating. It didn’t seem possible these parts would ever get back together and form a running engine. I watched some of the activity but my memory of it wasn’t all that clear so I recently spoke with Ken about it. To get the engine apart took a lot of effort. The engine had sat outside for years before he got it. To get the pistons out, he had to put a block of wood under each one and whack the wood with a hammer. A few put up a fight. He managed to get out all eight without damaging them but found that many of them had badly rusted piston rings.

Ken built a stand out of two-by-sixes and put casters under it so it would roll. He bolted a piece of iron on one end to mount the engine to and placed wooden blocks on the other side to rest the engine mounts on. The bell housing surface would be secured to the iron plate at the back. The engine mounts were secured to the wooden blocks with heavy duty door hinges Ken had scrounged somewhere. Then, he began reassembling the Hemi. He didn’t have any plans to ever use the engine for anything so he threw away a few of the bad piston rings. The bad ones were top rings but the second rings were fine. He just moved the second rings up to replace the tops he discarded. The engine might smoke a bit but it should run. Doing the job on a shoestring, he recycled a few of the old gaskets.

The engine did not have an intake manifold or carburetor when he got it. He went to a junkyard and found a manifold from a 354 Hemi which looked like it would fit. Things were clearly different in 1973. If you wanted to find a Hemi intake manifold at junkyard prices, it would only take you an afternoon and $20. Ken had an old Holley four barrel lying around and slapped that on too. The old Hemi was complete. But one question remained: How to start it?

Ken bought a starter for it and rolled the whole thing out into the other side of the garage. He put a ladder to one side and a lawnmower gas tank on it with a hose running down to the fuel pump. He connected the starter to a battery with jumper cables but it didn’t seem to be cranking fast enough to get the engine started. Ken has never been one to stop at obstacles or think inside the box any longer than necessary. He had a go-kart with a McCullough 12-horsepower chainsaw engine. Maybe that had the necessary cranking power to fire the old Hemi?

Ken dismantled the starter motor so that all that remained was the shaft and gear which engaged the flywheel. He put the go-kart next to the engine and ran the chain from the go-kart sprocket to the starter gear. The go-kart had a centrifugal clutch on its crankshaft so it could idle without the sprocket moving. This whole setup took some time and I remember walking around watching and wondering if there was any way this could possibly work. He ran a garden hose to flush water through the engine. He had no radiator so the water would simply flow through the block and out the thermostat housing.

Then, he announced it was time to try lighting the Hemi up. My dad had his camera out, just in case it worked. Another brother of ours, Rick, was recruited to work the throttle on the go-kart engine. Ken and Rick discussed safety measures regarding the unorthodox setup: once the Hemi fired, Rick was to make sure he was leaning as far to the side as possible in case the chain flew off the starter. Inside the garage, the little chainsaw engine seemed loud. Ken then reached over, one hand to the Hemi and one on Rick’s shoulder. He gave Rick the signal and the go-kart engine revved up, to where the clutch engaged. The Hemi began turning over. Ken reached over and got his hand on the throttle of the Hemi and gave it some gas. It fired and it rumbled to life. The chain flew off of the starter and sailed across the garage, hitting the far wall.

This story happened 40 years ago but I can still remember a few vivid details. The Hemi did not have any exhaust. It wasn’t just missing mufflers and pipes, it had no exhaust manifolds. The Hemi was LOUD. I was standing a good ten feet away and I remember the sound hitting me like a solid wave. I swear it pushed me backwards. I wondered if the neighbors would call the police. Considering how loud this was, I’m sure there were neighbors half a block away who were wondering what was making the catastrophic noise.

Ken let go of the Hemi throttle and the engine shut off. He had not set the idle set screw so that he could kill the engine quickly in case anything had gone wrong. He adjusted it a bit now that he knew the engine would run. He reset the chain-start again and fired the Hemi. This time he just let it idle. My dad took the picture; in it, the engine is running. And no, that is not an Instagram effect. The garage is filling with smoke, the byproduct of a 15 year old Hemi being brought back to life with a few missing piston rings.

The Summer of the $35 Hemi

The grin on his face belies the fact that a few moments earlier, Ken had one of the worst scares of his life. When he had reached over to gas the Hemi, he hadn’t realized how close he was leaning in toward the bank of exhaust ports on the side he was nearest. The ports, not hindered by manifolds, were just inches from his ear as he leaned in and started the engine. The explosive rumble that almost knocked me over 10 feet away nearly took his head off. At least, that’s the way it felt to him at the time.

The Summer of the $35 Hemi

After the test runs, Ken pushed the engine back into the garage and moved on. He would go to Lawrence Tech and then work in the auto industry for a few decades, eventually working on - among other things – the suspension of the Explorer I drive today. As for the Hemi, Ken had no further use for it and placed an ad in the Tradin’ Times, the local Auto Swapper-style paper. It said something to the effect of “For Sale. 392 Hemi. Runs. $50.” A guy called and Ken told him the good news and the bad. It did run, but if the buyer wanted to do anything with it he would need to go back in and replace a few piston rings. The guy didn’t care. A short while later, I remember seeing the guy back his truck up to our garage to haul away the Hemi.

We have no idea whatever became of the Hemi after that. We like to imagine that it found a good home, in the engine compartment of a race car, or in a restored classic making the rounds of the auto shows or the Woodward Dream Cruise. Who would know that it owed its second chance at life to a kid who had just graduated high school?

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Steve Lehto is an attorney and writer. He wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device both published by Chicago Review Press