Home » Should I Save This Rare Aussie-Built Dodge, Or Gut It?

Should I Save This Rare Aussie-Built Dodge, Or Gut It?

Aussie Dodge Phoenix Ts
ADVERTISEMENT

It’s good to have goals. They give you direction, something to work towards, and a point of focus when you’re deep in the process and are starting to feel a bit lost in it all.

Setting goals was very important in the restoration of my 1974 Valiant Charger. The journey from tear-down to the car returning to the road ended up taking six years, plus an additional two years to finally get the engine I had always envisioned installed and running: a hotted-up 265-ci “Hemi” inline six with triple 45mm DCOE Weber carburetors. 

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Charger Rotisserie

Just about all the decisions with that car ran to the template I had drawn up prior to tear-down. Restoring the body with custom touches such as deleting the panel seams in the rear, mechanical upgrades, tidying the engine bay by tucking the wiring away, even the interior specifications … all were laid out in advance.

20191225 100715

ADVERTISEMENT

This helped me keep focus during the seemingly endless evenings after work, where I would spend hours at the sandblasting cabinet or at the workbench reassembling components. Step by step, the project was completed. And now, I have a few new automotive goals to accomplish in the next few years: 

  • A 1960/70s four-door sedan for comfortable, air-conditioned long-distance trips with friends to events.
  • A later-model panel van (probably an XH) that I intend to set up for interstate trips with Bek that’s comfortable enough to sleep in between country towns. I’m no 4×4 masochist enthusiast and Bek’s not a great fan of camping.

Getting back to the sedan, I want it to be V8-powered because, whilst I have helped work on mate’s cars with V8s, I have not actually owned anything V8 yet and figure I ought to own something with a nice 8-cylinder rumble before it gets too expensive one way or another.

I want a solid, comfortable cruiser with air conditioning and a good interior that friends would want to sit in for more than an hour or two. Although the Charger is comfortable enough, being a coupe with a low rear roofline it gets a bit cramped and claustrophobic for any rear-seat passengers on a drive longer than an hour or so. I’m not looking to spend anywhere near the money I’ve put into the Charger, but I’m happy to put some money into what I think will achieve the goal.

I’m after something from the 1960s or 70s because that’s the era I default to, and know most of the potential candidates from that era are capable of relaxed cruising at 110kmh (68mph). 

As much as Bek and I love the wild styling of 50s cars, many of the local versions use suspension designs from before WWII and are less inclined to cruise at higher speeds, either due to gearing or directional stability.

ADVERTISEMENT

1957 Chrysler Royal 01

One particular case in point: I was looking into the Australian-only 1957-63 Chrysler Royal. It was ticking many of the boxes in terms of a good factory drivetrain (many had the Chrysler 313 ci ‘A’ or ‘Poly’ V8), nice interior, and unique styling.

I then discovered that under that Forward Look-alike front and rear treatment they were a Plymouth P-25 platform which dated back to 1951 and featured an even older suspension design, a system from the 1930s that runs on king pins as opposed to the torsion-bar suspension which was starting to come into Chrysler’s North America products in that era.

Without driving one, I couldn’t know for sure if it would have a tendency to wander at speed, but the age of the suspension design didn’t inspire confidence and I’m not interested in blowing the budget on hot-rodding a different front end into the vehicle as I want it to comply with NSW Historic Registration.  This car isn’t likely to see heavy usage, being that there’s four other cars registered in my name already!

Some of you may be shocked that I, an aficionado of all things 1960s/70s and especially Mopar, have yet to own anything with what in the USA is likely considered the default option for a domestic vehicle from that era: a V8. 

ADVERTISEMENT

A big factor in this path would be the P-Plate vehicle laws that came into effect just as I started driving. With anything 8-cylinder being off the table, even if it had less power than a modern Corolla, this definitely turned my attention to six-cylinder engines, especially the Chrysler ‘Hemi’ inline-six. This engine offered as much horsepower and torque than many of the smaller V8s available in 70s Holdens and Fords, yet was legal for me to drive.

From there I progressed to some turbocharged Japanese vehicles, and any subsequent Valiant was still Hemi-six powered because they gave me enough performance for a classic car to get up to speed on highways and pass trucks, plus I know the engine design intimately.

To further my V8-cruising-sedan goal, I’ve kept an eye out for suitable sedans and any listing for old-school V8 engines that could be good candidates for my plans.

A Possible Candidate?

My job has me on the road several days a week visiting farms, and just before Easter I spotted this on the side of the road, not far from Bathurst:

20230405 175905

ADVERTISEMENT

A 1963 Dodge Phoenix!

These cars were assembled by Chrysler Australia as four-door sedans only, via Complete-Knocked-Down (CKD) kits sent over from Detroit to compete in the fullsize senior-sedan market against other CKD competitors from Ford (Fairlane, Galaxie) and GM-Holden (Chevrolet Impala, Pontiac Laurentian/Parisienne).

N 1961 Dodge Folder (aus) 01

While the main action at the time in the sales race was focused on the midsize family car segment with Holden up against the Ford Falcon, Chrysler Valiant and also-rans from what became British Leyland such as the Austin Freeway, there was a sizable market amongst the chauffeur-driven set and well-heeled rural people for a larger, more comfortable and luxuriously-appointed vehicle than the mainstream models could offer in even their highest trim levels. This was reflected in the advertising, with later Phoenixes touted as the car for the successful businessman.

N 1965 Dodge Phoenix (aus) 01

ADVERTISEMENT

In some of the period advertising for this segment, it’s obvious that they just lifted the American brochures and manipulated the images so that the steering wheel was on the right-hand side:

N 1961 Pontiac Laurentian (aus) 02 03

For quite some time, this was also one of the few ways to get an American V8 in Australia, as the post-war midsize segment didn’t start receiving anything other than inline-sixes until 1965 with the AP6 Valiant, with Ford following in the XR Falcon in 1966 and Holden having to wait until 1968 with the HK series.

N 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 01

Because they came in CKD-form, these vehicles followed the US trend of changing the styling annually, something that the mid-size segment in the country only received slowly and often with dramatic styling changes only occurring maybe twice in a decade during the 1950s and 60s. 

ADVERTISEMENT

N 1962 Chevrolet (aus) 01

The Dodge Phoenix and their GM/Ford competitors were taken off the market in the early 70s, as the Falcon-based Fairlane/LTD, Holden Statesman and Chrysler by Chrysler took over the segment and offered similar luxury in a slightly smaller body but with a longer wheelbase than the family sedans upon which they were based, and at a lower price point and in greater volume than the full-size CKD kit-assembled models.

This ‘63 Phoenix is based on what in the US would be known as the Dodge 330/440/Polara 500, which had some popularity as a police vehicle and as the ‘Max Wedge’ big-block V8s in 2-door form with that were purpose-built for drag racing. 

63 Dodge Police

Aussie Phoenixes from ’60 to ’64 all came with the 318 cubic-inch ‘Poly’ V8 and push-button 727 “Torqueflite” three-speed automatic.

ADVERTISEMENT

This vehicle is on the Chrysler B-body platform, also shared with the likes of the Plymouth Road Runner and the first three generations of the Dodge Charger. From 1965-onwards, the Aussie Phoenix was based on the Plymouth Fury III which was on the C-body platform and had available the 383 ci “B” V8, the only time these engines were offered in Australia.

Sales of these niche market vehicles were small even by Australian standards, with 1963 Dodge Phoenix production estimated at 1,020 as per Great Ideas in Motion II by Gavin Farmer which, from what I could find online, appears to be on par with the Ford and GM competition in this segment for a possible market of maybe 4,000 units per year, compared with over 256,000 midsize Holdens in the ‘EH’ series sold from 1963 to 1965.

One cool fact I uncovered when I was reading up on the Aussie Dodge Phoenix: there was a ‘63 model that raced in the ‘67 Bathurst 500! Already nearly four years old, it was bought by a privateer outfit and driven by Lindsay Derriman and Barry Sharp for Johnny Barnard.

Reportedly, the only race preparation was to pop off the factory hubcaps and set up the push-button Torqueflite to be able to pre-select a down-shift to second gear to help preserve the front drum brakes at the end of Conrod Straight.

The Phoenix appears briefly in the ‘67 Bathurst highlights, after a spinout:

ADVERTISEMENT

The Dodge raced in Class E for cars over $4,500 and managed to finish 19th of 48 cars, competing against Alfa Romeo 1600 GTVs and beating the only other automatic in the race which was an XR Falcon V8 piloted by the Victorian Police Motorsports Club. Curiously, a Studebaker Lark managed to take 11th place!

The owner came out and offered to fire the car up, lifting the long bonnet to reveal a 318 cubic-inch Chrysler “LA” V8. The engine fired up immediately and sounded great!

20230405 175925

ADVERTISEMENT

He then told me that the vehicle used to be a charity-rally car, mainly for Variety Bashes over in Western Australia.

20230405 180106

This explained the faded sticker remains on the yellow paint, roll cage, off road tires, aftermarket gauges, and the myriad of switches on the dash, as well as the bullbar inside the cabin that was once mounted to the front of the vehicle.

63 Dodge Phoenix Bullbar

63 Phoenix Dash

ADVERTISEMENT

I didn’t take much of a look over the body, spending more of the quickly-dwindling light checking over the engine and asking questions about the drivetrain.

When I enquired about the price, the answer I received was about worth it for the engine and transmission alone!

I rang Bek and discussed it on the drive home, then contacted the seller a day or two later and a plan was hatched to deliver the cash and pick up the vehicle on Easter Monday. I was able to drive the yellow machine onto my trailer with no issues apart from the brakes not working, so the engine was shut off once the car was up the ramps and we rolled it to the proper position.

20230410 111909

Once I got home, put some fuel down the carburetor throat and the V8 spurred into life. The Chrysler 727 Torqueflite (which had been manualized with a B&M ratchet shifter) got into gear smoothly, and with some careful planning around the lack of brakes, my latest purchase was driven into the shed without incident. 

ADVERTISEMENT

20230410 183614

A quick look over the exterior revealed that the car had been to New Zealand at the dawn of the millennium:

20231218 182533

Now up on the hoist, a clearer picture started to emerge of the big Dodge:

63 Dodge Hoist

ADVERTISEMENT

The front valance was largely conceptual, and there were patches-upon-patches in the floor:

63 Dodge Floor Patch

There were signs of the rally life, such as the thick bash plate that protected the engine and transmission, the reinforcing done to the 8 ¾” differential, and a spare tire mount welded in where the fuel tank was originally placed.

63 Dodge Bash Plate

The rear suspension was interesting, with ten leaf springs per side! Were they smuggling moonshine?

ADVERTISEMENT

63 Dodge Tyre Carrier

Speaking of fuel tanks, it was now in the boot. The filler neck is located on the panel between the rear window and bootlid, which makes for an awkward stretch on a vehicle that’s nearly 2 metres (78in) wide!

63 Dodge Tank

I started to investigate what had happened to the braking system to render it non-functional, and came across this:

ADVERTISEMENT

It was clear that this big Dodge had been built with care to survive rallies, and subsequent work was either field-repairs or performed by someone other than the builder with less skill and/or patience.

20231210 102518

There is definitely some bad rust hiding under all the black paint on the firewall:

63 Dodge Phoenix Firewall Rust
If we take a look at this older video from Steve Magnante (get well soon!) we can see some of the differences with the dash and other small details in the US version:

ADVERTISEMENT

In many ways, all of the Big Three competitors in this segment Down Under were hand-built, with the dashboards often a mix of different divisions, such as the Galaxie having prior-year Lincoln gauges.

Flight Of The Phoenix

So let’s put together a list of pros and cons for this car as it currently sits, and how it aligns with my goal for a nice, V8-powered cruiser:

Pros:

  • Four-Door Sedan
  • Unique styling
  • V8-powered
  • Tough, manualized 727 Torqueflite automatic
  • Highway-capable
  • Suspension and most mechanical parts are available

Cons:

  • Very low production numbers makes sourcing some parts tricky
  • Body is a patchwork of shoddy repairs
  • No interior, and hard to source replacements in Australia
  • Not factory air-conditioned
  • Brake upgrades difficult in Australia
  • Many parts need to come from USA, at high cost

To dive a little deeper into my list of cons above, I think the bodywork and brakes would be the bigger of the obstacles.  

ADVERTISEMENT

I’m not afraid of putting some bodywork into a car that I think is worthwhile, what I am not keen on is a restoration on the scale of my Charger for a car that will only see a few thousand kilometres a year when I have more things I want to do with my life and savings than be tied down with another high-dollar, long-term project.

I’m sure the body on this Dodge is probably considered “mint” or “rust-free” in Michigan, but here it needs to pass roadworthy inspections every 12 months and a full-on rotisserie strip-down isn’t something I’m prepared to do … but a quick slap-up job will just result in rust popping back up later.

20231216 104541

The period road tests of the Phoenix all mention that the four-wheel drum brakes weren’t really adequate even for the period, which is even scarier today with modern distracted drivers.

Because these are the only B-body Mopars that we had in Australia, there are no local junkyards/Marketplace sellers with a front disc brake setup from a later model for an easy swap.

ADVERTISEMENT

Later Aussie Phoenixes that came with front discs are on the C-body platform, and from what I can gather based on reading US-based forums and articles, there isn’t the ability to swap the spindles or front suspension from a C-body into an early B-body. Compounding this is the harder parts availability here for C-bodies which could make refurbishing the factory calipers a bigger problem.

Likewise it does not appear possible that A-body (Valiant) disc brakes would swap in easily either.

20231216 104702

Putting the brake issues aside, I have front seats I could swap in from a Valiant, but the rear seat is proving difficult to source.

Again, this would not be as big an issue Stateside, but finding even a usable rear seat frame that could be reupholstered is coming up with nothing.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Okay,” I can hear you all saying, “just modify some other seats and make them fit.” Sure, custom solutions could solve the rear-seat dilemma. This, on top of all the bodywork needed and the possible need to import a disc-brake swap from the USA, is quickly pushing the likely budget for this build beyond what I’m keen to spend when there are vehicles out there with components that are easier to obtain locally.

20230410 190752

This results in a few options for the big yellow Dodge:

  • Make it roadworthy anyway
  • Race Car!
  • Gut it and use the drivetrain for another vehicle

We’ve already discussed the feasibility of getting it back on the road, but some corners can be cut if the air conditioned, interstate-cruiser goal is to be dismissed.

I’m not super keen on this route, as I have two rough cars already in the two Valiant Utes. And as Jason has argued, a beaten-up old ute/truck is much cooler than a crappy sedan.

ADVERTISEMENT

Let’s dive into the other two options.

Fangin’ Hoons

This car has been a rally car for at least a third of its life if the old stickers are any indication, so why not keep this going?

I had an idea if either racing or the above idea of just getting it roadworthy became a reality, a custom bonnet decal in the spirit of the 1970s Pontiac Firebird Trans-Ams, but with an Australian White Ibis instead. 

Sadly the purchase price was well over the $1,200 specified by the Shitbox Rally, so that event is out (and also counts out Project Cactus). The Chrysler ‘LA’ series V8s may be a dime-a-dozen over in North America, but they were only available here from 1965 to 1981, and V8s in general only sold in small numbers with most fleet and private buyers sticking to six-cylinders in the midsize market.

ADVERTISEMENT

There is the Variety Bash that this car used to drive in on the opposite side of the country, but there is a minimum fundraising target of $8,500 per vehicle to be eligible to enter. I support several charities privately and donate blood regularly, but this is a high bar to reach and will require a great deal of planning alongside preparing the vehicle so it’s a distant possibility for the moment.

20231210 102737

With the 727 transmission already being manualized and the interior stripped out, there is another potential motorsport category: drag racing.

There is local ⅛ mile drag racing at an airfield about 40 minutes away:

ADVERTISEMENT

Sadly, the proposed new track does not seem to be going ahead due to red tape, but the Bodangora drags still happen currently, up to six times a year.

The Phoenix wouldn’t be anything you would call quick, with an estimated 0-60 mph in the ten second range but it would be a great way to get into bracket racing and develop consistency.

The drum brakes once I had them functioning wouldn’t be a big deal, with likely trap speeds not exceeding 60 mph.

I’ve never competed in any form of motorsport before, so I would need to get a helmet and learn the intricacies of drag racing.

Where I live, there’s no autocross outside of Toyota Nationals each Easter, with limited entries for non-Toyotas. Any circuit or hillclimb events are several hours away which make them a trickier proposition.

ADVERTISEMENT

Which brings us to the third option:

The Honeymoon Is Over

Now that I have a seemingly decent V8 and transmission, why not harvest them from this worn-out body which was about the price I’d have paid for these two components anyway?

So far I have two possible options in this pathway, both of them are 70s Valiant sedans.

Chrysler Cm Regal

ADVERTISEMENT

I know of a 1979-81 ‘CM’ Regal SE that was a factory V8 that’s fairly intact except for the drivetrain that’s potentially up for grabs at a decent price.

I briefly looked at this vehicle several years ago when I was out at the property buying other parts, and from memory it appeared quite rust-free and was equipped with factory A/C and even had optional power windows, quite ritzy for the time!

The only potentially scary factor is that this is a factory vinyl-roof car, and when they were assembled on the line they only had a thin coat of primer under the vinyl. Being a Western NSW car for at least the majority of its life and tucked away in a shed for close to 25 years there’s a strong chance the roof hasn’t turned to iron oxide powder. Fingers crossed!

I also have heard of an earlier ‘VJ’ (1973-75) or ‘VK’ (1975-76) sedan that’s sitting in a paddock not far from my home in unknown condition.

Tunnelram Chrysler+(5)

ADVERTISEMENT

There’s a very strong chance that car is a factory Hemi-six car, but fortunately the ute body that became Project Cactus arrived with a V8 K-frame installed, so it wouldn’t be that hard a job to convert this to V8. I’ve got most of a factory A/C system in my parts stash, and being a VJ or VK means that I already have a good stash of spare parts because my Charger is a 1974 “VJ.”

Even if neither of these two sedans turn out to be good candidates, I already have much of what I need to convert any Valiant sedan I come across, or if something else interesting passes through Marketplace/etc I could still adapt the 318/727 to them.

The Phoenix body won’t be sent to the crusher. There’s plenty of good parts for someone such as the glass, suspension, trim, grille, bumpers and it also came with spare taillights. 

Or, it may be able to live on again with someone else as a rally car. I won’t be selling the shell for much over scrap value as I’d rather what it has left to give be put back into circulation amongst the Aussie Phoenix community.

So, dear readers, what would you do? Should his Phoenix should rise again, or is it a bin-chicken only good for what’s powering the wheels?

ADVERTISEMENT

(period advertising thanks to oldcarbrochures.org and tunnelram.net)

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
71 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Brooks Fancher
Brooks Fancher
3 months ago

Having been into the rust bucket game when I was younger, scrap that body and use the drive train for something else. Especially if you have a line on a good rust free body that will lend itself to a drive train swap.

My Dad and I worked on a 55 Chevy whose body that was so holey that it must have been blessed by God. We spent way too much time just trying to patch shit. Last time I bothered with a rust bucket. When we put the fuel tank into a rust removal vat, it basically fell apart. One thing after another it was shit show.

Nowadays, I would just turn it into a Rat Rod, but I am pretty sure that would probably not float over in your neck to the world.

Brooks Fancher
Brooks Fancher
3 months ago

Yeah, I figured. From what I know they are much stricter in Australia than in my neck of the States. Alabama does not even have a safety inspection unless you are rebuilding a totaled car.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
3 months ago

I do like the looks of this, but the Regal is the way to go. Always enjoy your articles Lawrence!

Ummagummibear
Ummagummibear
3 months ago

No idea if it’s worth it to fix this up, but! This car makes me happy. My grandparents had a 1963 aqua Dodge 440 4 door in rural Wisconsin that lasted a good 15 years or more. I even learned to drive on it as a boy in a farmer’s field. Those distinctive headlights bring back memories.

Also, this model (steering wheel on the left side – not normal for Japan) was featured in the Japanese crime caper movie Ah, Bakudan! (Oh, a Bomb!) from 1964.

Loudsx .
Loudsx .
3 months ago

as soon as I saw the pics of rust underneath the donor car I was thinking Regal, and there it popped up later in the article, that right there is 100% the answer to this question.

Side note that seems relevant to this site, those CKD cars a friend has a 63 Impala and the tail lights are a weird mix up of lenses compared the USA cars.

Studdley
Studdley
3 months ago

Sounds like you need to come stateside to come pick up some parts!

Myk El
Myk El
3 months ago

If you do go with the bonnet decal, might I suggest something the Autopian twitter account pointed out recently:

https://www.teepublic.com/sticker/4471548-king-ghidorah?store_id=211428

Just sayin’…

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
3 months ago

A Dodge Phoenix was definitely a ‘premium’ vehicle back then. I didn’t realise how much money my wife’s grandparents had back then until I was told what cars they owned – a 1947 Buick Straight 8, 1956 Customline, 1964 Phoenix, and a Parisienne from around 1971-72. Her grandfather was a dentist, owned a dental supply company and held a patent for manufacturing of dentures. Amusingly, there’s a picture of the Buick, which they had repainted metallic green, parked on his brother-in-law’s farm after he gave the Buick to them – at the time the farmhouse was literally a corrugated iron shed, and the Buick looked like a nicer place to live!
It’s not surprising you never had a V8 given licence restrictions and being into Chryslers, since locally Chrysler never got serious about using V8s in ‘sporty’ variants, so the Hemi ended up being the ‘hero’ engine in the lineup once triple Webers were hung off the side. I never had a V8 until I got into Leyland P76s, of all things.
The Phoenix would be nice, but having secondhand experience of someone rebuilding a 1964 model, the parts availability issue would probably put me off even if the body was good. If that CM has been shedded for long enough the vinyl roof is probably not an issue – just check it thoroughly with thumb pressure around the front and rear screens and along the gutters to check for rust bubbles.
It’s probably not a viable option given their rarity, and being only 2 door, but a left-field option for combining the 4 seater cruiser with the travelling van would be a CM panel van, converted to 4 seater. Since the van was effectively a ute with a roof, and the ute was effectively wagon with different rear quarters and turret, the mounts for a rear bench are already there, and there were even several vans sold as 5 seaters by Chrysler, plus several converted privately since then.

P.S I love the idea of a ‘screaming bin chicken’ bonnet decal – that idea might get stolen for my ute if I ever make enough progress on it!

71
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x