Before we begin, we have to state up front that we've rarely – if ever – had more fun with a car than we had with the Hotchkis E-Max Challenger. And the loud yellow Dodge was in our possession for maybe five hours. Why are we cutting to the chase like this? Why not structure this review like any other and start with the basics, describe the vehicle and then state a conclusion? First of all, just look at the bloody thing: "dripping with sex" is the only proper description. But the truth is that this is more the recounting of an adventure than a plain old car review. Keep reading. You're going to have some fun. Though not nearly as much fun as we did.
But yes, we should start with the basics. Legendary suspension tuner Hotchkis took a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 340 six-pack and built themselves an autocrosser. The list of modifications is not only the stuff of which jealousy is made, but exhaustive. Though, Hotchkis claims the E-Max isn't so wild, "Even in Auto-Cross trim, E-Max is a relatively stock vehicle compared to many of the auto-cross competitors." Good to know. That said, it's still a long list.
Here's some of it: Custom Moroso oil pan, Be Cool aluminum radiator, Red Line synthetic oil, Optima Battery, MSD ignition, Classic 5-Speed Tremec TKO, Flowmaster exhaust, Stoptech brakes, Forgeline wheels and Yokohama tires, Sparco Milano 2 seat (as in just the driver seat), Hurst Shifter. Not bad, right? Then you got all the Hotchkis stuff that lies beneath, including tubular A-arms, front and rear sport sway bars, subframe connectors, sport springs, adjustable steering rods with a fancy Flaming River power steering unit and adjustable strut rods. Says Hotchkis of their handiwork, "The bolt-on system creates a proper negative camber curve, sufficient positive camber for high speed stability and full bump and droop travel without bumpsteer. Prototype Hotchkis-Afco adjustable stocks provide high performance damping." Got it? Good – let's get to the story.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
Considering my job is what it is, I get many cars delivered to my house. And some of them are pretty dang fancy. But the E-Max Challenger is the first vehicle I've ever heard coming from down the block. I should probably explain that I live four flights up in an isolated little bohemian bungalow north of Downtown Los Angeles – i.e. I can't hear anything. But oh lordy did this puppy rumble. Er, burble. Well, burble and rumble and bark and growl and just basically kick the dead out of bed. The seemingly 70-feet long Hooker Competition headers certainly contributed to the cacophony, as did the shortened side pipes.
The boys from Hotchkis handed me the keys and I just couldn't stop smiling. Really? Somebody just showed up and handed me the keys to this? What did I do so right in a former life? Climbing into the sport seat and buckling the lap belt brought me back. I've been here before, strapped inside old Detroit iron. But something is different. I can't put my foot on it – until I did. These are not your father's muscle car pedals. The clutch feels light and modern. The throttle is, well, responsive. And instead of the boot-in-mashed-potatoes feeling that most old Mopars give off, the brake pedal is firm and reassuring. Oh boy. Tooling around the 'hood a bit I'm slightly amazed at how much the bright yellow Dodge feels like a go kart. A gigantic go kart, but a go kart nonetheless. Blame the teeny diameter steering wheel, tight shocks and instant torque. Oh, and I never for one half second stop smiling.
Due to our ridiculous travel schedule, this day was the only day until early December that both myself and Drew Phillips would be in LA at the same time. Meaning that it was our only chance to drive and shoot the car together. Seeing as how standing around while Drew works his magic is thirsty work, I performed my now usual pre-photo shoot routine of stopping at the gas station/car wash to buy some Gatoraid. As I roll up (still smiling) everyone is just staring at me. OK fine – the car, but still – they're really taking a gander. Now, I've rolled into this same gas station in everything from a Nissan GT-R to an Aston Martin DBS and the masses' reaction is typically, "Meh." Not with the E-max. After hearing half a dozen, "Man, this thing is awesome!" I'm off, the big stupid smile still draped across my face.
To get to Drew's place in Pasadena I have to make my way up the old, curvy part of the 110 and it's an ideal place to check out a car's handling on some moderately twisty tarmac. What was going on here? This is a near 40-year-old American car. Where's the waft? The body roll? The wallow? The bad behavior? All of it is just absent. The big yellow Hotchkis car rides hard and its rear end makes some peculiar sounds over bumps, but this is unbelievable. Turn in is crisp, it goes where you point it and there's even a minor sensation from the steering wheel resembling feedback. Couldn't be, could it? Could they have done this good of a job? Let me also point out that every driver on the freeway is staring at me. Er, at the Challenger. And you'd better believe I'm still smiling.
I pull up and Drew pops his head in the cabin with an even bigger grin. The charm this E-Max exudes is intoxicating. Not only that, but it makes the driver feel incredibly special. Again, just look at it (and I wish you could listen to it). No matter what car pulls up next to you, your ride is cooler. End of story, there simply is no competition. And on a certain level, that's really what the muscle car zeitgeist is all about. Just cold cruising down the boulevard looking better than everyone else and feeling great while doing so. You simply don't get that sensation with the bulk of modern cars. You know what? Let's just say all modern cars. I mean, a Lamborghini Gallardo is cool and all, but let's not kid ourselves.
We blast down the on ramp onto the freeway and I can hear Drew giggling. Well, more like unable to control his hysterical laughter, which is all the more funny because I'm doing the exact same thing. The Hotchkis Challenger is no faster than say a WRX, but the excitement, the pleasure, the sheer titillation of the Mopar makes the Subaru feel like a busted Segway. And I own a WRX. This could be one of those you-had-to-be-there-moments, but we had more fun getting up to 80 mph than, well, let's just say ever. The sounds, the sensations, the electricity – it's simply overwhelming. Fantastically so.
Of course, being such a complete car, we do get the full muscle car experience. Our location is over 30 miles away and we're in a four-decades-old car in late afternoon heat on a not exactly glass-smooth surface. There's nothing even resembling air coming out of the vents and with the windows down, I'm unable to talk to Drew without shouting. Windows up and it's really hot. The rumble from the 340 is just outstanding, however, and I find myself downshifting into fourth just to hear it scream a little. And at modern freeway speeds, even with all the good chassis stuff underneath, this Challenger's a bit of a handful. But for the most part the two of us remain grinning from ear to ear.
We get to our spot and Drew tells me that he wants to do some panning shots. Translation: he wants me to drive back and forth on a nearly abandoned road as he snaps away. My pleasure, and as I make my first few passes wide open in third gear I can't believe how lucky I am. This is my job. I'm actually getting paid to act like a zit-addled teenager with daddy's ride (or at least, someone else's car). It's just unbelievable. Totally, amazingly unreal. Drew motions me in. He's having some trouble with his autofocus and wants to swap lenses. He gets new glass from the trunk and I give the E-Max a little gas, ready to restart the misbehaving when she stalls.
I twist the key and nothing.
No crank, no tick, no turning, no nothing. Dead. The Challenger is dead. Kaput. A non-starter. But mostly dead. What happens next is rather embarrassing and points to the old adage that those who can't (wrench), write. I'm convinced it's the starter. Or the coil. Or the distributor. Or the points (totally oblivious to the bright red MSD ignition pack bolted to the far side of the firewall). At any rate, in my mind it's something electrical and catastrophic. The dome light is still coming on and the headlights work, and a few of the aftermarket gauges are still getting juice – indicating to my know-very-little mind that the battery still has plenty of power. We try arcing the battery relay. We get spark, but no start. We pathetically try push starting it in first gear. Then, realizing that high compression motors need more speed, a little faster in second. Nada. Literally nothing.
After a series of seemingly never ending phone calls between us, Hotchkis and the PR agency that set the whole thing up, it's decided that the super friendly (and quite lovely) PR lady would come out and give us a hand. Why? She owns a 1970 Dodge Challenger and is therefor familiar with their quirks and eccentricities. She's at least 30 minutes out and Drew suggests we get in the car because the sun's down and it's getting cold up here at the edge of the desert. Naturally, we're both wearing flip flops. I point out that sitting in a busted car on the side of the road is not exactly safe. On cue, we hear coyotes begin their nightly howls. And in case you're wondering – yes, we're still smiling.
Eventually, Elana the PR person and her friend Tom pull up in a big, burly Cummins Ram pickup. I explain my electrical gremlin theory but they want to try simply jumping it. Five minutes later, the Challenger roars back to life. Tom whips out his multi-meter and checks the charge: 11.98 volts. We then test the alternator – not a single volt. Ironically, the only OEM part Hotchkis left mounted to the block had died after 39 years. Tom put the meter back on the battery and we watched in something resembling horror as the voltage ticked down. 11.96, 11.95, 11.94 and so on. "Think we can make it to Pasadena?" I asked. "Probably, but you'd better get going."
Long story made short, we got. Drew and I are now racing not only against a lame battery, but any cop that might yank us over for having pathetic headlights. Almost truthfully, we'd have had more light if I stuck Drew out on the hood holding a lighter. The ride back is tense (yet still fun) and I explain to Drew that this is the type of experience that as a journalist you undeniably have to go through. Sure, we could have wimped out at any point and called AAA for a flatbed, but for a litany of ineffable yet cosmic reasons, we have to see this one through. After all, it's our job to do so.
Beaten, exhausted and yet still fully giddy from the nerve-wracking ride home, we (finally) turn onto Drew's street where we decide that we'll stash the car until Hotchkis picks it up in the morning. Because of street cleaning we have to park the Challenger on the opposite side of the road, requiring a U-turn. I nose the yellow, crippled beast into a driveway for a three-point turn. "Wouldn't it be hysterical if it broke down right here?" Drew asks maybe two or three seconds before the car dies again. Still laughing (and now blocking two lanes of traffic) we jump out of the Dodge and begin heaving. A driver from a passing car that we've held up is kind enough to climb out and give us a hand. Five minutes later (you try turning that wheel!) and the Hotchkis E-Max Challenger is safely resting for the night.
On the ride home both Drew and I are still cackling like seventh graders, wistfully reliving the evening's events. We are in total agreement – this car is fun. And thankfully, for Drew at least, he'd get to do it all over again because we simply didn't get enough photographs. Speaking of which, when the E-Max first showed up I snapped a photo with my phone and sent it to Facebook. It's now about 10:00 pm and a gearhead pal of mine texts me asking if I will come give him a ride in the Challenger. I reply that no, sadly the alternator's dead. Not going to happen. He writes back, "Dude – Autozone is still open. Let's fix it!" Looking back, I really wish we had because man, what a wonderful, fabulous, outstanding machine.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.