A roar for the ages: Chrysler celebrates five decades of Hemi V8 power

Car companies are very sentimental.

The people who make cars are always eager to celebrate the anniversary of a brand, model or, in this case, an engine.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chrysler’s 426 “Race” Hemi V8, by far the most iconic engine to ever come out of Auburn Hills.

“Hemi” refers to the engine’s hemispherical combustion chambers, which help produce more power. Chrysler’s first Hemi debuted in 1951, but the second-generation 426-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) version has achieved legendary status as one of the main motors of the 1960s muscle-car era.

The 426 Hemi debuted at the Daytona 500 in February 1964, powering Richard Petty to victory and, ultimately, the year’s NASCAR championship.

The Hemi was just as competitive on the drag strip as it was on the oval. That same year, Don Garlits became the first National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) driver to break the 200-mph barrier in a Hemi-powered dragster. He covered the quarter mile in 7.78 seconds at 201.34 mph.

However, the engine still wasn’t available to civilians; when NASCAR mandated that all race engines for the 1965 season be available in production cars, Chrysler simply withdrew and concentrated on drag racing.

A 426 “Street” Hemi finally made it to the street in 1966. Nicknamed the “Elephant Motor” it launched a golden age for Mopar fans that would include high-performance models like the Dodge Charger and Plymouth GTX, as well as countless “That thang got a Hemi?” jokes.

The second-generation Chrysler Hemi hung on until 1971; concerns over fuel economy, emissions, and insurance would kill the muscle car shortly after. However, Chrysler revived the Hemi was a 5.7-liter V8 for the Dodge Ram pickup truck in 2003. It soon migrated to the “LX” rear-wheel drive cars (Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger, Dodge Magnum) as well as the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Today, the Hemi still anchors Chrysler’s performance-vehicle lineup, with a 6.4-liter version powering the current 300, Charger, Challenger, and Grand Cherokee SRT models. At 392 cubic inches, it’s a bit smaller than the old Elephant, but who’s counting?

Chrysler will celebrate the 426 Hemi’s 50th birthday with merchandise, marketing events, and a new logo rendered in appropriate Hemi Orange.

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