Plymouth Belvedere - The Great Elephant Preserve
To call Merit Pennington the caretaker of an elephant graveyard would be misleading. First, the myth of elephant graveyards is only partially true, as aging and terminally ill pachyderms have been known to deviate from the herd to find new sources of water for nourishment, not to journey to some predestined animal resting place. Secondly, we're not talking about the four-legged, 10,000-pound mammal, but rather the legendary Chrysler-built street and race engine that powered so many of America's most iconic musclecars from 1964 to 1971. moreover, Merit's monster elephants are far from dead or dying as they're regularly fired up with all 426 ci roaring on a frequent basis. Merit's enormous collection of Hemi- and big-block-powered Mopars is so wide that a complete issue of our magazine could easily be dedicated just to it. Editor Bolig and this author went to Merit's paddock, where we were hard pressed to choose just two examples from his outstanding American muscle collection, which includes an A-Code '6911/42 440 Six-Barrel Road Runner, a '68 Hemi four-speed Charger R/T, a '68 Hemi GTX four-speed, a nearly finished '68 Hemi Super Stock Dart clone, a '69 Hemi four-speed Coronet, a '70 440 Six-Pack Coronet R/T, a '66 Hemi four-speed Satellite, a '72 383 Demon, and a series of Hemi-powered Road Runners (almost complete from '68 to '71). We picked two of the most striking cars-these gorgeous Hemi-powered, four-speed Plymouth Belvedere IIs.
All but the aforementioned SS/A Dart are either restorations or untouched survivors of the strictest sense. Years ago, the exclusive Corvette society-Bloomington Gold-copyrighted the word "Survivor," stating that a true Survivor would be judged according to its originality, and awarded for levels of preservation and patina. Cars would be marked down for new carpet, rubber hoses, paint, interior surfaces, and so on. Though most Mopar enthusiasts couldn't give a flying leap about what the Corvette "elite" does, Merit does take into account the levels of pride that other automotive conservationists take to keep these awesome machines preserved and on the road. But Merit is no stuffy collector. With a taste for big-block Mopar power, Merit enjoys nothing more than seeing these machines howl when the pedal is mashed into the floor. Nothing is quite like it. His collection exceeds the boundaries of his Clearwater, Florida, home and backyard shop. He has a handful of cars in all different levels of restoration throughout several states.
As a teenager, Merit's daily driver was the 383-powered '69 Charger. The Charger would survive under Merit's lead-foot for less than a year before the block was blown open. Unfortunately, while serving in the Navy in 1981, Merit suffered a near-fatal accident that permanently landed him in an automated wheelchair. extensive rehabilitation has allowed him limited use of his upper body. Moving south to the Sunshine State in 1989, Merit regularly accompanied his brother Jerry McDaniel, assistant general manager of a Chrysler dealership, to a local tire shop to pass the time. Talking as car guys do, Merit was put in touch with another 383-powered '69 Charger. The Charger was purchased, and the powerplant was quickly transformed from a two-barrel big-block slug into a fierce low-deck powerhouse. Merit wanted the reciprocating assembly as light as possible, so 440 aluminum rods were modified to allow proper pin height. Factory 516 heads were angle cut to take large diameter Chevrolet valves that are so tight in the closed chamber that they nearly touch. But it wasn't until a '68 GTX crossed his path that Merit got the real Hemi four-speed bug.
From that point on, all of Merit's automotive purchases have been either Hemi- or factory big-block-powered. It was over ten years ago when Merit first heard of this brilliant WW1 White '66 Belvedere II in Baldwin, New York. The Plymouth was purchased new in the northern New York area in 1966, never registered, and used solely as a trailered race car. The single modification to the 426 Hemi, four-speed Belvedere was a quick and dirty relocation of the leaf springs slightly inward to allow additional tire clearance. (Not to worry, the previous owner moved the springs back to the original location shortly after the Belvedere was retired.) Amazingly, the manual-brake, power-steering-equipped car was left nearly totally untouched. The owner never replaced the front drums nor added a tachometer to the dash or steering column, which were common swaps at the time. Once retired from racing, the B-Body would be stored in a neighboring body shop for years. Merit chased down the car and found its original white more of a faded pink since its location near the paint booth coated the Belvedere in a fine layer of red overspray. Merit had the car shipped home and promptly buffed out. Surprisingly, the original paint was salvageable, as well as the red interior. The bench seat still wields a small tear on the driver side were the seat latch had torn the material. Otherwise, the cabin's coverings are all the way the factory left it. The odometer still reads a little over 26,000 original miles, most of them accrued a quarter-mile at a time. Merit knows that at one point the mighty Hemi was pulled and freshened, but retained all of the original factory components. The original Dana 60 Sure Grip is loaded with 3.55 gears . . . making us wonder how quick the Belvedere was when it was competitively drag raced. The Plymouth still rolls on its original ball joints, torsion bars, and external trim. The quarter windows boast dated and fading decals of previous races at Islip Dragway during its heyday. The Belvedere was taken apart to be evaluated for its originality when first purchased; the only requirement for the restoration was a repaint of the hood and partial paint on the quarters.
The other member of this duo is a one-out-of-one '67 Plymouth Belvedere II. Built at the St. Louis, Missouri, plant on November 25, 1966, this car came off the line with nearly every available option, making this car as thoroughbred as possible. Only one of eight Hemi Belvedere IIs built, this car is only one of three four-speeds, and the only one painted in F7 Forest Green. In addition to the Hemi and four-speed 833 options, it has a Dana 60 with Sure Grip loaded 3.55 gears, power disc brakes, heavy-duty suspension (mandatory with the Hemi engine option), front anti-sway bars, extra-heavy-duty torsion bars and leaf springs, and the Police Handling package (which constituted most of the suspension upgrades).
It took one week for Geary Plymouth/Chrysler in San Francisco, California, to take delivery, and another two weeks for it to be sold to Mike De LePena for $4,100. The Belvedere was occasionally raced, but not competitively during the twenty-three years that De LePena owned it. In 1989, the car was sold to Scott Smith. Thankfully, it has not been in an accident in the forty years it has been on the road. In March 27, 1997, Merit acquired the Plymouth from Scott, and it was quickly given the five-star treatment. Merit asked Jim Drain from Pinellas Park, Florida, to perform all of the disassembly, restoration, and reassembly. While apart, the B-Body was taken to Creative Custom Cars in Clearwater, Florida, to be repainted the original color over the factory paint. pieced back together, the Belvedere is one of the most pristine examples of Hemi-powered Plymouth around.
Merit's personal philosophy is to try to preserve these last few existing cars before they vanish. Out of the 10,000 Hemi-equipped cars produced from 1966 to 1971, only 7,500 or so are accounted for. Merit's collection of 16 cars is a preservation of American history and heritage. Merit prides himself on showing these elephant-equipped Mopars at as many shows as he can attend. Sure, he might want to see the original blueline or redline tires boiled off the factory Magnum 500s, but he still takes joy in pumping life back into forgotten or abused Hemi cars.