Chrysler Kit Car

This isn't exactly a car, wasn't manufactured in the traditional sense, and its bodywork wasn't of a single model. The editor of the Weird Cars book, Nicholas Maronese, is an exceptional guy in every single way…except, maybe, for his love of Mopar.

I kid, of course, but if he ever decides to go racing, I can see him trying to find one of the Chrysler Kit Car…uh…kits. And I think that would be a brilliant idea.

Short track racing is a big deal in the U.S. (less so here in Canada, but there are many teams), and if you haven't already been to a dirt track, it's highly recommended. One 1/8th mile lap on a typical track has the potential for more passing than you'd see in an entire Formula 1 race, and as each facility has its own quirks, a lot of the fun is trying to figure out exactly what is happening. One of my first tasks given to me at my first internship was to help format short track results from around North America—a task I dreaded initially, but ultimately enjoyed. (I passed the time by tracking a driver or two from each series.)

Anyway, in the mid-'70s, Chrysler dropped a bomb on the amateur racing world, one that (to my knowledge) other manufacturers haven't yet copied. 

The idea was simple: Chrysler would sell you all of the parts needed to build a fully-engineered and ready-to-race car, sort of like a gigantic Lego set. Available in various stages of completion, from chassis to complete car, the idea was that amateur racers could, say, over a few weeks, build their very own ready-to-go stock car.

It's a great idea, and while the chassis were all pretty much the same, engines, tires, bodies, and that sort of stuff was up to the car's owner. The idea came after years of big block dominance in NASCAR, but after speeds had risen to uncomfortable levels for the governing body, the Big Three had to start pushing development resources to their small block engine programs. Moreover, amateur racers had been calling Chrysler all the time asking for parts in order to build race cars—so why not put a bunch of parts in a crate and ship out a "complete" kit car?

Even better, Chrysler tried its hardest to design a vehicle that would slide under the rules in various racing organizations—the Kit Car even came with a variable wheelbase. Capable of racing on dirt tracks as well as on road courses, in a Hot Rod Magazine article, former Chrysler Performance Parts employee Bill Hancock is quoted as saying, "The Chrysler Kit Car was a scaled down Winston Cup car. It had all of the features that GN racers had. It was our goal to give the racer a car for less than $10,000. We built the prototypes down at Petty's and tested the combinations on both asphalt and in the dirt."

With a list price of about $8,800 in 1974 for a complete Kit Car kit, it was certainly a great way to get a fast, reliable, and well-engineered race car. Even better: Petty Enterprises was contracted to make the kit go as fast as possible, right out of the box. 

Well, after everything was put together…

The development prototypes wore Challenger bodies—making them seriously sexy short-track machines. My favourite part of the story? The Kit Car had to be tested, of course, and a Dodge crew chief by the name of Harry Hyde suggested a local fast-but-struggling-to-make-it racer named…

…Dale Earnhardt. 

Reportedly paid something like $800 for two days of testing in 1974 before the kits went on sale, the Kit Car was the very first V8-powered race car that Earnhardt was able to drive on dirt. While it'd be a stretch to say that the test opened the door for his future NASCAR career, it couldn't have hurt—his first Winston Cup race was just a year later in 1975 at Charlotte.

Pretty cool, right? Isn't it awesome when a car company makes it easy for its customers to go racing?