Bill Hartman has experienced a few twists of fate in the 15-year-long process of building his muscular 1971 Dodge Dart Swinger. Some were good, a couple went beyond disappointing to almost heart-stopping.
He found the car in what he calls "barn find condition" in 1997 in Abilene, Texas.
"The body was in fair condition … but there were rats living in it. We had to set rat traps in it when we brought the car home … the rats came with the car," he said.
But the attraction of the little A-bodied MoPar was undeniable for a guy who grew up riding shotgun in all the cool cars his dad got to drive as a service manager at a Dodge dealership just outside of Philadelphia in the 1960s and ’70s. He also remembers being "plastered to the seats" in his brother-in-law’s stout 1969 Plymouth GTX 440.
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"That … pretty much sealed my fate with `Dodge Fever’ at a very young age," Hartman said.
The Dart was a project that someone had started but never finished and it already had a MoPar big block engine, a 1976 440 cubic inch V-8 in it, so it was a natural point of departure for Hartman. He had a vision of what he wanted the car to be, but it would take time and a lot of patient searching for parts to make it happen.
He scoured swap meets and salvage yards looking for the right pieces.
While attending Air Force training in Montgomery, Ala., in 2000, Hartman remembers, "I came across a 1970 or ’71 Dodge Demon and there was simply nothing left of it. The car was an empty shell sitting on the ground, no doors, no hood, no fenders. It was stripped completely clean with only one remaining part on it, the front bumper."
Exactly what he was looking for. He wasted no time buying it.
"The irony of it all made it a good day," he said.
Three years later, preparing to move to Wichita from Texas, he found a much-needed useable grille in the little town of Dwight, Kan. "I asked the seller to simply hold the grille until we moved, thus eliminating the risk of breaking it by shipping it to Texas," he said.
That was another positive twist of fate. But then, with the car in storage in Wichita in 2009, Hartman got a devastating phone call over Thanksgiving weekend. A representative of the storage company called to tell him his unit was empty.
He rushed down to survey the situation, only to discover it was a case of "wrong number," as the empty unit was the one next to his.
"It turned out the renters of that unit had simply moved out unannounced so there was no theft, no missing car, only a misread garage number and I could now breathe again," Hartman said.
The Dart had been given a fresh white pleated vinyl interior at Lowry’s Trim Shop in Abilene before the move, with Hartman opting to keep the stock bench seat in the car.
He wanted to clean up the lines of the Dart, which originally was a vinyl top car. "It was `trim heavy’ and I said I wanted all of that gone," he said. Even the gas filler was removed and filled in by Vern Hammond and his crew at Auto Body Connection in Rose Hill. Only the Dart Swinger emblems and the passenger-side Chrysler Pentastar logo were kept.
When all of the sheet metal was straight again, the Dart was painted a bright Chrysler Electric Blue, with a Bright White tail stripe painted on the rear end, instead of using vinyl graphics.
A lift-off fiberglass hood fitted with an old-style MoPar hood scoop was chosen. Under that hood, the 440 produces somewhere between 400-450 horsepower, thanks to a Direct Connection Purple Cam, a high rise Edelbrock Victor 440 intake manifold mounting a Holley 750 cfm carb, and a set of ceramic-coated TTI exhaust manifolds.
A thick aluminum motor plate was used to offset the engine three inches toward the passenger side, to allow enough room for a fast-ratio manual steering assembly to clear. The Dart still uses factory style adjustable torsion bar front suspension.
Chrysler disc brakes are used up front, where a set of Weld 15x6 wheels mount a pair of skinny Mickey Thompson tires. At the rear, Chrysler Super Stock leaf springs and a set of mini-tubs house the much heftier 15X10 Weld wheels fitted with fat 29x12.5x15 Mickey Thompson Sportsman tires.
Inside the trunk, an RCI 16 gallon aluminum fuel cell rides in a square tube frame that Hartman fabricated for it.
With final assembly virtually completed in 2011, Hartman finally was able to fire the car up for a test drive. But the super-clean 727 automatic that came in the car wasn’t up to the task.
"I put the car in gear and nothing, no forward motion, no reverse, nothing," Hartman said. "But in another twist of fate, I’d struck up conversation with fellow MoPar enthusiast Mark Wise of Wichita on a MoPar forum and he offered his help in overhauling the transmission. When you’ve stretched the check book as far as it can possibly go … and something goes wrong, it’s good there’s so many enthusiasts here in Wichita that are willing to lend a hand and help out," he said. Co-worker Dave O’Neal also gets a vote of thanks.
Hartman said his wife, Diane, has supported his unswerving devotion to building the Dart the way he thought it should be built. "The MoPar blood runs deep," he said. Now he and his family can enjoy the fruits of 15 years of perseverance, as they look forward to cruising and taking part in Wichita’s car show scene.