Joe & Sue Valenza's 1971 Dodge Challenger with a Late Model Hemi
(from Volume 24, Issue 285)

story by owner Joe Valenza, photos by Michael B. Kelly


I have always been a Mopar fan. I learned to drive in a 1964 Dodge and have been hooked ever since. About 14 years back, at the Mopars with Big Daddy show, I was getting gas for my ’72 Barracuda, and two 1971 Challenger convertibles drove past. I thought that they were the prettiest muscle cars I’d ever seen. I started looking for one the next day. I learned that they only made about 1,700 convertibles in 1971 and there were not too many to be found for sale. I wanted a project car so I could build it the way I wanted to. Everything I found was either too expensive or too rusty. Over the years I kept looking and finally saw one on the internet that was in reasonable shape and not too expensive. But it was in Iowa. 1,500 miles from home. The owner, Pete, sent lots of photos and info and after a few weeks of negotiations we made a deal pending inspection. My wife, Sue, and I pulled a trailer out to Iowa with high hopes. It was a four day trip over Labor Day weekend. The timing was not good for a road trip but I didn’t want to miss the deal. The car was exactly as described by the owner and we brought it home.

We learned the car had been disassembled for restoration and then stored for 10 years. The gentleman lost interest and sold it to Pete, who stored it for another 10 years with intentions of restoring it. A new house took priority so he sold it to me. It needed a total restoration with the usual rust in the quarters and floor, but the rest of the car was solid. It was still partially disassembled and we had a van full of boxes and extra parts to haul home as well.

I always wanted to build a Challenger convertible to look stock but use a modern drive train and suspension for safety and reliability. So the resto plan was to do just that. We called it the ‘Challenger Challenge’.

The car was disassembled, put on a rotisserie and media blasted to bare metal and epoxy primed. The usual surprise dings and rust were uncovered but all in all, it was not too bad. Quarters and floors were replaced and some small rust areas cut out and repaired.

I chose a crate 6.4 L (392 cubic inch) Hemi motor with a stand alone wiring harness and computer, Tremec Magnum 6-speed transmission and an 8-3/4 rear end with 3.73 posi gears for the drive train. The original K frame and torsion bar front suspension were removed to make room for the RMS Alterkation unit with double adjustable coil over shocks, power rack and pinion steering, and Wilwood disc brakes. The RMS Street Lynx four bar rear suspension was installed with double adjustable coil overs and Wilwood discs.

The front suspension, motor, bell housing and tranny were assembled and put on a cradle. The body was then lowered over the assembly for fitting. The transmission hump was enlarged to fit the 6-speed and shifter, and the cross member and supports had to be altered. Frame connectors and stiffeners were added. The inner fender wells and firewall were cut out and replaced with smooth metal. When it all looked good, everything was disassembled for body work and paint.

Dings were repaired and multiple coats of surfacer were applied and then lots of longboarding. My brother, Rick Valenza, applied four coats of Glazurit Hemi Orange base coat (brightened up a bit) and four coats of clear coat. I then wet sanded with 3,000 grit then compounded and buffed.

The drive train, suspension, and TTI headers and 3-inch exhaust were then installed on the painted body. A Painless wiring harness was used to replace the tired original wiring. Vintage Air replaced the factory air conditioning, and a Dakota Digital rally gauge package was installed in place of the old non-rally gauges. A Legendary interior replaced the worn out original. Mike Camp of Vero Beach gets credit for installing the front seat upholstery and convertible top. All stainless trim pieces were repaired and buffed.

The build took two and a half years to finish, and at times it definitely was a ‘Challenge’. I did all the work myself in my shop at home except where noted. With the drive train and suspension upgrades, the car drives and handles like a new sports car while still keeping the stock look we like so much. It is a blast to drive and we are enjoying taking it to shows and cruise nights. CN