The Mid-Engine, Hellcat-Powered ’68 Dodge Charger of Fast 9

You can only ask this question in the context of a Fast and Furious film: How do you top a ’68 Dodge Charger with a jet engine in the trunk? Easy—a ’68 Charger with a Hellcat in the back seat. How does a Hellcat engine, even one tuned to Demon specification like this one, top a jet engine? Because it’s real.

That’s right, kids, the jet engine sticking out the back of the “Ice Charger” in 2017’s Fate of the Furious was just a prop. The car was powered by a Chevy LS3 V-8 pushed back under the dashboard to make room for an all-wheel-drive system. Cool stuff, but the mid-engine Charger is the real deal.

At least, two of them are.

“Now, when I say we built nine, they’re not all identical,” he explains. “There’s two of them that were built with the mid-engine design and the transaxle. The rest, the name of the company leaves me at the moment, but there’s a company that makes a plastic Hellcat motor. So the rest of them have the [fake] plastic motor in place. And we actually used an LS3 with a manual-shifted Turbo 400 automatic and a Ford 9-inch rearend for our stunt cars that we just use and abuse. But yeah, a total of nine cars, two different platforms. I’d say four and a half months, they were all done and headed off to different countries.”

The hero cars, the ones actors drive in close-up shots, have real Hellcats and actually run. Mopar provided the standard 707-hp crate engines, and McCarthy had them brought to Demon spec with a pully and a 110-octane race-gas tune from Performance Tech, the shop that tunes all the Fast movie cars. The now 800-plus-hp motors were mated to six-speed manual Graziano transaxles lifted from Lamborghini Gallardos.

“I feel that the clutch pedal is a key ingredient to the cool factor,” McCarthy says. “In my opinion, it just has to be that way. An automatic just wouldn’t have the same impact.”

Rich Waitas at Magnaflow built a full custom exhaust with custom headers that route up and over the transaxle and dump out of hidden tips behind the rear bumper. With no engine up front and no room left for the original under-trunk gas tank, Vehicle Effects mounted an 8-gallon fuel cell under the hood. The classic chrome gas cap on the passenger front fender is functional on the mid-engine cars, making trips to the gas station more like filling up a Porsche than a Dodge.

Also under the hood is a high-angle rack-and-pinion power steering setup to enable big drifts. That and the transaxle necessitated a custom fully independent suspension at all four corners, and it gives the front-engine stunt cars a tell: the live rear-axle pumpkin hanging down. That is, if you can get low enough to see it.

“I’m always into the lowest stance possible [for the cars],” McCarthy says. “I might have gone a little too far on this one. It’s definitely the lowest Charger we’ve ever put together, which is great. It looks awesome. But sometimes you get that high-center issue going in and out of the driveway with such a long-wheelbase car. But for a movie car, that’s great; for a daily driver, you’d probably want to raise it up a couple of inches.”

All these pieces are fitted to a custom chassis built by Wisconsin-based SpeedKore Performance, which also created the carbon-fiber widebody to go over the top. The Charger Daytona roofline and rear glass were chosen both to clear the Hellcat engine and to show it off. The body and chassis were modified to stretch the wheelbase nearly 6 inches by moving the front axle forward, mostly because McCarthy doesn’t like the big front overhang featured on early Chargers. Deep-dish HRE wheels fill out the fat fenders and hide modern Brembo disc brakes.

“It’s without a doubt the fastest Charger we’ve built,” McCarthy says. “There have been a lot of Chargers that look like they have 1,000 horsepower; this one in reality is probably the highest horsepower Fast and Furious Charger ever built.”

Replacing the rear seat with a supercharged V-8 requires a lot of interior modification. A metal and plexiglass divider helps reduce some of the heat and noise coming into the cabin, which is sparse but functional. McCarthy took design inspiration from the Ford GT40, going so far as to incorporate brass rings in the seat covers. The bucket seats are adjustable, with tools, and don’t have headrests for a period feel. Between them is, of course, a NOS bottle for the inevitable scene where even more acceleration is necessary to save the day. A flat instrument panel with simple analog gauges and toggle switches, plus a steel three-spoke steering wheel, completes the old-school look.

“The tricky thing is always trying to come up with something new,” McCarthy acknowledges, “because there’s only so many ways you can build a Charger, and we’ve done most of them. And on top of that, not only have we built numerous Chargers in different styles, but we’ve used the Nelson Racing Engines Charger, that unpainted Charger, we’ve borrowed other Chargers from SpeedKore, so there’s a long list of Chargers that have been featured in the franchise over the years.

“Like I said, it’s always trying to come up with something new. When I was at SEMA, the SpeedKore guys were showing me what they were working on, which looked pretty badass. And then, I don’t know who owns this car, so I can’t give him credit for it, but there was a Mustang—I want to say it was maybe a ’71ish Mustang—that had a mid-engine setup in it, which was very impressive. I don’t want to take credit for other people’s ideas, but I get a lot of ideas at SEMA. One thing led to another, and I just decided that’s something we haven’t done yet. Let’s move the motor to a new location.”

The work is surprisingly clean considering McCarthy and a team of seven had only those four and a half months to build all nine cars from scratch. And really, it was Jonny Miller and Brian Gogerty who did most of the work on the mid-engine cars while the rest of the team built the stunt cars or moved back and forth between builds.

“As always, our biggest challenge is just trying to get it done in time,” McCarthy says. “Guys are working on the car for sometimes 14, 15 hours a day, and trying to keep sane for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. But they have a lot of practice. And obviously these were extremely labor-intensive cars to build. You talk to a guy, for instance at SEMA, who built a car, they’ll go, ‘Oh, we worked on it for three or four years.’ We’ll build 180 cars in five months. It’s a whole different style of building cars, but the nice thing is you don’t have to get each door gap exactly perfect. So there are some advantages. But they do have to perform and be reliable. And they were very reliable; they had no problems during filming. They fired right up every time.”

It’s an important consideration when a custom star car can make or break a shooting schedule. At one point, the two mid-engine cars were simultaneously in Glasgow, Scotland, and Tbilisi, Georgia, shooting different scenes. These are places you don’t just buy Dodge parts at the local shop.

Despite all the travel and shooting, the hero cars came back in near-perfect condition.

“I was adamant with the guys,” McCarthy says. “Don’t kill the mid-engine car. They both came back unscathed. No damage, nothing. It was great. And that’s not normal. Usually even the cars I don’t want to get damaged end up getting damaged one way or another.”

That’s good for a lot of reasons, not least of which because the cars have a lot of traveling left to do. They’ll split up again and ship around the world on a promotional tour for Fast 9, then at least one will likely end up on display at one of the Universal Studios theme parks. Before they go, though, McCarthy hopes to get them out to a track and dialed in properly.

“The only thing I regret is, we didn’t have a lot of track time,” he says. “Normally we’ll build these cars, and we’ll head out to Willow Springs for the day and run them through their paces. With this car, we were just in such a time crunch to get them shipped out. I think I made one pass up and down the street in front of my shop, and everything felt good. Into a shipping container it went, and that was it.

“Hopefully,” he continues, “when we get a little bit closer to movie release time [on June 25], we can take this car out and put it through its paces and see what it does. I have a bad feeling it’s going to have a little bit of an understeer push characteristic to it, because it’s just a ton of power, real sticky tires, and we never even scaled the car. I got to believe it’s 62, 63, or 64 percent rear weight bias on the car. But hopefully with a little track time, we’ll get that tamed and see what the thing can really do.”

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