The automotive world is seemingly in a full-body tizzy over the return of the Dodge Challenger. Hitting dealerships now, the SRT8 version has been the darling of the automotive press for months.
I’ve gone on record plenty of times about Dodge’s horrible belated timing — just like the 1970 Challenger on which the lines are almost completely based. And though I haven’t yet had the opportunity to slam the Challenger SRT8’s sickening 4000-plus pound curb weight, I’ll simply say that it’s disgusting and move on to a more important topic.
Dodge says its Challenger is equipped with the “6.1 liter SRT Hemi® V8 Engine.” Hear this loud and clear: no SRT8 Hemi Dodge or Chrysler is a hemi. With full credit to former Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, I say: “I knew Mopar’s Hemi, and you, Mr. SRT8, are no hemi.”
In an effort to make it crystal clear, ladies and gentlemen, since 2002 there has been a difference between “Hemi” (the marketing brand name) and “hemi” (the technology from which the brand got its name.)
The word “hemi” (lower case) is short for hemispherical combustion chambers. Put into terms the average runway model might understand, a cylinder fitted with a head utilizing a chamber formed like a hemisphere makes the quickest, largest, and most efficient boom. Placing valves on opposing sides of a central spark plug provides maximum ability to introduce air/fuel, ignite it and remove resulting exhaust and heat. This means more power, a happier driver, and busy radar-wielding police officers.
Chrysler Corp wasn’t even close to the first producer of an engine with hemispherical combustion chambers. The famous Hemi engines of the 1960s and early 1970s weren’t even Chrysler’s first hemi engines in name or technology.
So let’s start the history lesson: Way back in 1902, the Welch brothers of Pontiac, MI began building cars with an overhead cam engine featuring hemispherical combustion chambers. By the time General Motors bought out Welch (then known as Welch-Detroit) in 1911, the cars had yet to go into production. Tragically, GM decided to do nothing with the engine technology.
Charles Knight built his 1904 Silent Knight prototypes, which used a sleeve-valve engine with hemispherical heads. Like Welch, Knight never went into series production, but unlike GM, Daimler purchased the technology and used in its later products.
Starting in 1908, Franklin started using a hemispherical design on its air-cooled production engines, making it the first true production hemi. A well-known manufacturer of cutting-edge luxury cars since 1902, Franklin made hemi-powered cars available to its well-heeled customers, which included Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
In 1912 Peugeot’s factory racer, featuring a three-liter hemi-headed mill, dominated European events. Other companies would soon develop their own competing hemis. The most notable company was Alfa Romeo, whose chief designer, Vittorio Jano, created four, six and eight cylinder dual-overhead-cam hemis (some were even supercharged) for race and road cars starting in 1925.
Possibly the most unorthodox early hemi came from BMW’s 1937 328 sports car. Engineers utilized vertical pushrods and rockers for intake valves, but to actuate the exhaust valves located on the opposite side of the head, vertical pushrods and rockers pushed a second set of horizontally placed rods and rockers. Although complex, it worked surprisingly well, plus the dual rocker boxes made the inline overhead valve six look like a dual-overhead-cam unit.
Three years after Jaguar’s XK DOHC six became the first post-war hemi, Chrysler finally got into the game with 331 cubic inch FirePower-equipped 1951 New Yorkers and Imperials. De Soto’s 276-ci FireDome appeared in 1952 and Dodge’s 241 ci Red Ram V-8 came in 1953. Mopar “baby hemis” could also be found in Cunningham sports cars and Facel Vega grand tourers.
The heavy, complex baby hemi engines ate valve springs for lunch and camshafts for dinner. In 1957, Chrysler decided to end production of the engine with the 310-hp 325-ci Dodges and 345-hp 345-ci De Sotos. Chrysler held out through 1958 with the 380-hp 392-ci hemi in the 300D.
Then came the 426-ci Hemi. Debuting in 1964 factory-supported racers, the engine redefined the reaches of performance in NASCAR and drag racing. Chrysler begrudgingly made the 425-hp street Hemi available in 1966 to meet homologation rules. (Homologation is the fancy word used to describe the requirement in a production-based racing series that anything offered on a race car is also sold in dealerships to non racing clients.)
Mopars powered by the so-called 426 “Elephant motor” became legendary purely on brain-bruising performance. Simple hot-rodding easily unleashed over 750 hp. Due to being as fuel efficient as a 747, environmentally friendly as Clean Air legislation penned in Houston, maintenance-free as a runway model, and easy to insure as a sky-diving octogenarian, it was killed off after 1971.
With original Hemi cars bringing over six figures at auction and a contemporary power war raging, DaimlerChrysler decided the time was right in 2002 to bring back the Hemi in modern Dodge, Chrysler (and gulp) Jeep vehicles. Consumers responded by opening up their checkbooks and lines of credit.
The ads might have asked “that thing got a Hemi?”, but in reality, none of the Dodge and Chrysler engines based on the modern 345-ci “Hemi” can be considered a “hemi”. Plain and simple, none of these engines, base and SRT8 Hemi offerings included, actually have hemispherical combustion chambers! Just because they have valves opposing central spark plugs does not necessarily indicate that there is a hemispherical combustion chamber formed inside.
It is easy to get lost in the technology and terminology. The bottom line is that the SRT8 delivers 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, which absolutely is better than the quoted statistics for the 426 when normalized for the difference between pre-1972 gross and ’72-on net SAE ratings. There is simply no arguing: the SRT8 Hemi is a fabulous engine, and the use of Hemi as a brand name was a stroke of product marketing genius.
But for me, when it comes to dropping this glorious 6.1 lump in a 2008 Challenger weighing more than a 1970 Hemi Challenger, the lack of Pistol Grip four-speed, and the lack of accuracy in marketing, I can only come to one conclusion:
The SRT8 Challenger might look like a Hemi Challenger…but really it’s just a semi-hemi.