Bad Luck HEMI Coronet

Posted April 06, 2020

By Dean Larson

Photos: Seller, eBay

**I wrote the majority of this text several months back when this car was offered for sale on eBay, but never published it. Upon being prompted by the brass to cover more diverse vehicles, I decided to dust off this story and put it out there for what it's worth. The car is no longer listed, and I'm unsure if it sold — apologies.**

Maybe you’re in a different line of work than I am, but it’s pretty rare these days to see a HEMI car in this condition. Growing accustomed to the polished nut-and-bolt restored HEMIi ’Cudas, Charger Daytonas and 426 Challenger convertibles on the auction blocks, it’s sometimes tough to imagine that these cars were once just cars. Sure, the HEMI was something special, and a fair few owners kept their elephant-engine treasures hidden away in garages since day one, but plenty of these cars were used hard, and not all of them made it out alive. Whether this 1966 HEMICoronet race car is a skin-of-its-teeth survivor, or a wrecked parts car likely depends on your level of mechanical sympathy, and also your threshold for punishment — should you attempt a restoration.

It would be wrong to say that this HEMI was unloved, as I’m sure its first owner loved it — enough to make a special trip down to Mr. Norm’s anyway. According to the owner, the car was originally purchased by an NHRA Pro Stock driver’s father in 1966 as a legit 426 HEMI four-speed Coronet. For those who think in dollars and cents, Hagerty’s price guide places a #2 “Excellent” 1966 Hemi Coronet at $78,200, plus 15-percent for the four-speed, and you’ve got just shy of $90,000. And that’s ignoring the connection to quintessential Mopar performance dealer Mr. Norm — provided you can prove it.

But the Coronet fell into a string of bad luck right off the bat, and less than two years after it rolled onto the lot at Mr. Norms, it looked pretty much like you see it today. In case you didn’t catch that, this HEMI Coronet was parked for good when it was just two years old. According to its current owner, here’s how things went south for this rare muscle car.

The Coronet’s first brush with the hot rod reaper was a garage fire that likely trashed most of its rubber parts and turned its sheet metal sour. This almost certainly happened in 1966 when the car was still as good as new, and it was then sold to a “Mr. Erickson” who turned it into a Stock Car. The Coronet, still sporting its original engine and transmission, would have certainly shown any competitors the taillights back in those days, but Mr. Erickson soon sold the car to a character by the name of J.W. Zembo out of Chaffey, Wisconsin. A wrecker and service center owner by day, and dirt track racer by night, Zembo brought on more hard days for the Coronet on the oval, where it surely gained most of the war wounds it wears today.

Upon Zembo’s death in 1967, the car was stashed away somewhere for decades. How the car didn’t end up crushed or parted-out is amazing, as the HEMI driveline, stock car hubs and rear end have surely always been valuable pieces. The current owner was able to scoop the car up recently, in more or less the same condition as Zembo’s last trip around the oval.

Now before you go bantering on that the car is junk, it’s important to weigh some pros and cons. Starting with the positives; if the owner can prove it, this is indeed a rare HEMI car, one of 732 HEMI Coronets to leave the factory in ’66. It also has its original engine and transmission, which appear to be in remarkably good condition. Unfortunately, I don’t recall whether the seller had a VIN plate, title or fender tag, which would be important pieces for conducting a somewhat authentic restoration.

It’s also impossible to ignore that this car needs all the metal work under the sun, and you’ll have to cut out the “death-by-water-pipe” roll cage first. Every panel on the car is dented, wrinkled or wrecked by fire, so you’re talking a costly restoration, but I suppose the silver lining is that parts are readily available for 1966-67 Coronets, and a cheap slant-six parts car could be sliced and diced to revive this one.

There’s no sugar coating the cost and work associated with restoring this car, and the fact that it will probably always sell at a slight discount among its peers. But I pose the question, what’s the alternative? Yank its heart and soul and leave the chassis to rot? I think not. If you’re after a rare HEMI car, I’d make the investment in this one. A moot point really, as the auction closed months ago, but I see this car sympathetically restored and brought back from the brink. Then you could drive around knowing you’ve got a HEMI that’s been to hell and back, and that you’ve saved one more for the next generation of gear heads.

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