There are many dates in the calendar that celebrate holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and other significant occasions throughout the year. But if you’re a high-octane gearhead that lives and breathes performance, April 26, or if you will, 4-26, that is an important day. It’s those magic numbers that make it 426 “HEMI® Day” and even though Hallmark doesn’t offer greeting cards that celebrate this horsepower holiday, Mopar® fans across the globe get it and pay respect to the iconic engine that was the ultimate game changer in NHRA, NASCAR, and Main Street USA.
Born in an era that “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” actually had meaning and relevance to Detroit’s automakers, Chrysler pulled out all stops when the 426 HEMI was being developed for racing. It was a monster of an engine and earned the nickname “Elephant” due to the enormous size of the HEMI designed cylinder heads. Once the HEMI woke up and began to make noise in Dyno Cell 13 at Chrysler’s old world headquarters and engineering facility in Highland Park, Michigan, everyone knew this would be an engine to be reckoned with. Especially when the needles on the dyno’s gauges began to move north and bounced around the 500 horsepower mark. The dyno labs have never had an engine like the HEMI ever bolted on the test stand. And why “426” cubic-inches you ask, it’s quite simple, as most racing organizations had a 7.0-liter rule on max engine displacement.
The Chrysler old timers would later claim the whole engineering building would shake when the 426 HEMI made a dyno pull. For the Mopar NASCAR engine builders like Cotton Owens, Maurice Petty, and others that ran the HEMI in their fleet of Dodge and Plymouth Stock Cars, they’d put the 426 HEMI on their dynos, set it to 7000 rpm, and then go have a lunch for an hour. If the engine didn’t split a block, spin a rod bearing, or drop a valve, it was good to go.
So successful was the 426 HEMI in NASCAR that during the 1964 season, founder Bill France banned the engine the following year. Probably due to mounting pressure from the Ford and Mercury teams crying “foul” over the HEMI not being eligible for competition due to it wasn’t a regular production engine and available in a street cars. The Mopar’s sat out 1965 NASCAR race season but still scored victories in the USAC Stock Car series.
About this same time, the 426 HEMI was dominating the NHRA and AHRA drag races and quickly became the engine to beat. Validation came at the 1964 NHRA U.S. Nationals at Indy when a pair of Super Stock HEMI powered Dodges’ lined for the final round and won NHRA’s most prestigious event. Teams like the Ramchargers traveled across the country racing their red candy striped Dodges and destroyed the competition.
As the racing sanctioning bodies protested the 426 HEMI and its dominance, Chrysler decided they needed to build a tamer Street HEMI for 1966 and make this monster of an engine “legal” in competition. It also made good business sense to offer this engine to the general public as the muscle car wars began to heat up. Soon the 426 Street HEMI became legendary on many main streets and drive-in restaurants across the country including Detroit’s famous Woodward Avenue. When the guy in the next lane driving his Brand X muscle car looked over and saw “HEMI” on the hood or the front fenders of the car he was lined up against, he knew it was game over.
Because of the HEMI’s unique qualities, Chrysler’s Marine and Industrial division up in Marysville, Michigan, about 50 miles north of Detroit, hand built these engines. From there they traveled to numerous assembly plants for installation into a myriad of muscle cars like the Charger R/T, Super Bee, Road Runner, GTX, Challenger R/T, ’Cuda, and others. The 426 HEMI engine made these cars legendary and today, their super rare and collectable status that brings record prices at Barrett-Jackson and Mecum collector car auctions continues that legendary status.
The days of cheap high-octane gas and AM Top-40 radio may be over, but the HEMI lives on today and it’s even more powerful than the engineers ever dreamed of in the early 1960s. With the 840 horsepower 6.2-Liter HEMI in the 2018 Challenger SRT Demon, the 797 horsepower 2019 Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye, and even the 485 horse, 392 HEMI that moves a variety of Dodge vehicles very quickly like the Durango SRT®, Scat Pack Challengers and Chargers. This modern version of the iconic and somewhat infamous engine still shatters records, makes Mopar enthusiasts smile, and has the competition seeing red. Just ask Leah Pritchett who drove her HEMI powered Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak to a NHRA Factory Stock Showdown Word Championship in 2018. No wonder, just look under the hood of what powers Dodge’s Brotherhood of Muscle, you’ll still see some DNA from the original 426 HEMI.
If you’re into turning your own wrenches and modernizing your vintage muscle car, our friends at Mopar have the new, 1000 horsepower Hellephant Crate Engine. This masterpiece carries on the tradition of the 426 HEMI but is completely modern with some love from the Demon and the Drag Pak. It also packs a mighty punch that will shrink time and distance when you put your foot into it.
So, Happy HEMI Day and like old advertisement for this engine once said, “It’s not magic, it’s got to be Voodoo Baby!”