Saturday, November 3, 2018

‘This Hellephant is a beast:’ FCA unveils 1,000-horsepower 426 Hemi engine at SEMA 2018. World so not shocked. World thinks it’s awesome anyway. World right.

1968 Dodge Super Charger concept car
Photo by Bill Hayward.
You’ve got to give FCA credit: they sure know how to put on one Hellephant of a show at a tradeshow.

A ginormous crowd was gathered at the FCA booth on the lower level South Hall at the Las Vegas convention center, well ahead of the traditional 4:26 p.m. start time, commemorating the 426-cubic-inch displacement of the original Mopar hemi engine.

Huge crowd gathered for the FCA press conference at SEMA 2018.
Photo by Bill Hayward.
Of all the opening day press conferences that the major automakers held at SEMA 2018 on Tuesday, this was, by visual estimate, the largest crowd by far.

The eager assembly of press and ardent Mopar fans among the SEMA attendees packed the sprawling FCA exhibit space beyond full capacity, anticipating a big announcement from Steve Beahm, who now wears multiple hats at FCA including head of Chrysler, Dodge, SRT and Fiat brands. And as of October 2018 he is also now head of Mopar North America.

Given that this is FCA, could anyone in the crowd have possibly imagined that the big announcement would in some way involve “more horsepower, more horsepower, more horsepower?” Of course they could—because, again, this is FCA.

And when he took the stage, Beahm did not disappoint the delighted-but-not-surprised audience.

After acknowledging awards received at SEMA this year across the Jeep, RAM, and Dodge brands and reviewing some updates on the lineup of Jeep vehicles, performance parts, and accessories, Beahm pulled the cover off the built-for-SEMA 1968 Dodge Super Charger concept, branded on the front fender with a logo that, for anyone who had not already guessed it, all but spelled out what was coming next.

It was a cartoonish “Hellephant” character, reminiscent of the classic logo decals of Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars from the glory days of the Road Runner, Super Bee, and Twister Duster.

The Dodge Super Charger fits right into the tradition as a glorious, show-stopping 2-door wide-body concept car built, in the words of the concept’s designer Joe Dehner, on “the good bones of the actual body design” of the 1968 original.

Dehner, who heads up Ram and Mopar design at FCA, adds that, for the concept car, those good bones have been modernized on the inside and out with many elements of contemporary Dodge SRT models.

Those modern embellishments range from Dodge Demon “Devil’s Rim” wheels and Challenger headlights with glowing DRL rings to interior components like the seats and instrument panel. The four round taillights of the 1968 original were converted to quad exhaust ports for the Super Charger build.

“It’s kind of current in the world of supercars today to do high-mounted exhaust above the bumper,” Dehner said, in a press video. “And so this all worked out perfectly.”

While the basic form of the 1968 original is clearly distinguishable, the end result, with so many modern elements integrated, looks like it could easily plug right into the current Dodge lineup. Dehner’s comment about being able to get hold of “the good bones” of the original 1968 Charger implies that FCA, if they wanted to, could still tool up for a production model based on this concept.

But for the benefit of those uninitiated to what SEMA is all about, it’s important to understand that the notion of a “concept car” at SEMA is something very different than a concept car teased at a venue like the New York International Auto show. Generally, you can look at a concept car at SEMA as a clear-cut one-off with none of the “will they or won’t they put it into production” tension that can follow concept reveals elsewhere.

SEMA is a show that celebrates the one-off build, and the concept cars serve as high-end aspirational benchmarks for what individual builders—customers, in other words, of the various aftermarket businesses who attend this industry insider’s show—can create with aftermarket parts.

So while it’s nice to dream about something like a 2019 or 2020 two-door Dodge Charger as modern reinterpretation of the 1968 original, the all-but-certain reality is that market for full-size coupes isn’t big enough to make both a Challenger and Charger coupe viable. If anything, it would probably create “segment confusion” within the Dodge lineup, with the Challenger and Charger Coupe competing for the same potential customers.

With the 1968 Dodge Super Charger concept unveiled, Beahm then proceeded to address, in his words, “the Hellephant in the Room,” which was under a sheet on the left side of the stage.

Hellephant Hemi crate engine reveal at SEMA 2018.
Photo by Bill Hayward.
“For the last few years Mopar has been exciting, with words like horsepower, Hemi crate engines, Hellcrate,” Beahm said, referring to rollouts at recent SEMA shows of high-performance Mopar Hemi crate engine kits that boasted ever-increasing levels of displacement, horsepower and torque.

Apparently, in the Mopar community, there is no such thing as too much horsepower. In the car-enthusiast media space, FCA's long succession of increasing horsepower started to become almost like the proverbial easy punchline for a stand-up comic or late-night talk show host.

It’s reminiscent of a joke that comedian Gilbert Gottfried told many years ago, perhaps on David Letterman’s old NBC show. I’m paraphrasing from an old memory, but it was something like this:  he said that he stepped out of his house for about 15 minutes, and when he came home he freaked out because author Stephen King hadn’t released a new novel in the in the interim.

In a similar vein, over the past couple of years it wasn’t that much of a stretch to fear that, if a week went by without another announcement of a horsepower increase on FCA’s media website, something must have gone seriously awry with the universe.

Yet Mopar enthusiasts seem to eat up the continuing news of horsepower boosts. As Beahm began to read off the technical specs of the 426 Hellephant Crate HEMI, the crowd didn’t quite react like teenage fans seeing a new pop idol arrive in the United States for the first time, but it wasn’t too far from that. Maybe it was more along the lines of how football fans in Philadelphia reacted to the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory this year.

When Beahm revealed that the new, lightweight, aluminum-block, supercharged 426-cubic-inch Hellephant RAM crate engine boasts a whopping 1,000 horsepower, approving screams of “Yeah!” were emitted from every discernable direction of the crowd. When he added that it produces a staggering 950 foot-pounds of torque, a Mopar dude standing somewhere near me emitted an ecstatic involuntary blurt of “Oh, shit!”

It’s all good. Honestly, in the age of vehicles like the Prius, it’s energizing to see car enthusiasts—and those in the business of helping performance manufacturers like Mopar put the products they crave into their hands—still get excited about true American motor muscle. It’s nothing to get snarky about, and that’s far from my intent here. On the contrary, it’s a sign from many different perspectives that muscle car culture still lives, and that FCA is betting that it has one Hellephant of a future.

Yes, as Beahm said, “This Hellephant is a beast.” And, according to Beahm, it’s a beast that offers a nearly plug-and-play solution for creating an insanely powerful build, to the enthusiast with sufficient means (pricing has not been announced, but we can anticipate that the Hellephant kit will exceed the nearly $20,000 price tag of the Hellcat crate engine).

“Combined with the Hellephant crate Hemi engine kit, a thousand horsepower can easily drop under the hood of a pre-1976 street vehicle or an off-road vehicle,” Beahm said.

Beahm ended the press conference with an announcement that the Hellephant crate engine on the stage would be given to consummate Mopar dude Mark Worman, known to TV viewers as the star of the Velocity series Graveyard Carz.

Worman joined Beahm on the stage to fire up the Hellephant and rev it up a few times, giving the crowd at the Las Vegas Convention Center a sample of the raw power of its exhaust note—along with a nice, healthy dose of CO.

“By the way, that engine’s yours,” Beahm told Worman. “You can use it in one of your project cars coming up.”

I’d say it’s pretty good odds that we’ll see that Hellephant featured on an episode of Worman’s show at some point.

But if you’re not patient enough to wait through the TV production cycle to see it, you can always go out and build your own gosh darned Hellephant Hemi hot rod. According to Beahm, the Hellephant crate Hemi engine kits will go on sale early next year.

You can watch for announcements on

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