History ad Mystery of the Rarest HEMI Ever-Built

Discussion of the prototype Hemis.

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History ad Mystery of the Rarest HEMI Ever-Built

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History And Mystery Of The Rarest HEMI Ever-Built
Representing a significant piece of Mopar history, here's why none is rarer than the Ball-Stud V-8 amongst the legend of Chrysler Hemi engines.
  • The Ball-Stud Hemi engine, a rare and elusive variation of the legendary Chrysler Hemi engine, was developed as a cheaper and more mass-market alternative to the 426 Hemi.
  • Despite being smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the Ball-Stud Hemi still packed a punch with estimated horsepower ranging from 375 to 425.
  • Only a few examples of the Ball-Stud Hemi were produced, with the surviving engine currently on display at the National Auto and Truck Museum of the United States.
The Chrysler Hemi engine is a legend that powered the fastest pro stock drag cars and classic muscle cars past the competition every time. It is also a living legend, continuing to this day under the hoods of the baddest Ram pickups, but sadly no longer in muscle cars as Dodge has discontinued the Charger and Challenger. Like all good legends, there is a bit of mystery and, in this case, it involves the mythical Ball-Stud Hemi engine, talked about but rarely seen.

Like Big Foot of the Loch Ness Monster, the Ball-Stud Hemi was rumored to exist, with eyewitness accounts fueling the intrigue, but no tangible evidence. Amateur scientists have been hunting cryptic creatures for decades to no avail, but some automotive sleuths were able to track down the fabled Ball-Stud Hemi. For gearheads and Mopar fans, this is akin to finding the Holy Grail, while simultaneously proving El Chupacabras exists. It is real, it is spectacular, and there is only one in existence.

Hemi History 101

In order to fully appreciate the Ball-Stud Hemi, it's important to cover the history of the Chrysler Hemi engine first. Named for its hemispherical combustion chamber, the Hemi engine was first developed as a 2,500-horsepower V-16 engine intended for use in fighter aircraft. The end of WWII nixed that project and, sadly, it was never adapted for street use. Chrysler down-sized the engine to 331 cubic inches of displacement for civilian vehicle use, and called it the "FirePower."

In the early days, from 1951 to 1958, the Hemi engine was not marketed as such. Chrysler called it the FirePower, DeSoto's were dubbed, "FireDome," and Dodge named them "Red Ram" for cars and "PowerDome" for trucks, which doesn't make a lot of sense. Whatever the name, the Hemi engines, which had displacements between 276 and 392 cubic inches, were the fastest of the day, favored by hot rodders, street racers, and professional race car drivers.

The 426 Street Hemi

For whatever reason, the Hemi was retired in the late 1950s, but an idea that awesome was too good to stay dormant for long. In 1964, Chrysler came out with 426, which is the engine everyone knows as the classic Hemi. Originally designed for use in NASCAR racing, and put under the hood of the Plymouth Belvedere, it was so fast it got banned. Well, banned isn't exactly the right word, but the various racing governing bodies required that it be sold to the public to qualify for use in racing.

Fastest 426 Hemi Muscle Cars

To meet those homologation requirements, the 426 Street Hemi, with dual inline four-barrel carburetors, was shoehorned into the 1965 Dodge Coronet and then found its way into the full Mopar line. This move effectively gave Mopar the crown in the classic muscle car era, as none of the other automakers made anything that could catch it. As such, Hemi-equipped rides like the Charger, Challenger, and Barracuda became street legends that nobody wanted to line up against.

Semi-Issues With The Hemi

As awesome as the 426 Hemi was, it wasn't perfect. Performance-wise, yes, but it was massive and heavy, gaining the nickname "the elephant engine," and there were some financial issues with it as well. Because of its size and complexity, the 426 Hemi was extremely expensive to produce, and obviously that cost was passed on to the consumer, which limited its production. MotorTrend reports that only around 9,000 426 Hemis were optioned in a Dodge or Plymouth from 1962 to 1972.

While the rarity of the engine is great news for enthusiasts today, who can get top-dollar for a matching-numbers Hemi-equipped Mopar, it didn't make much business sense in the late 1960s. There was no advantage in producing an expensive engine that hardly anyone bought, so Chrysler set out to develop a similarly-powered engine that was cheaper and had more mass-market appeal. Thus, the Ball-Stud Hemi project was born, to not only replace the 426, but all of Mopar's big V-8s.

Enter The Ball-Stud Hemi

In addition to the 426 Hemi being too expensive, Chrysler had another problem in that their big V-8s were all built on different blocks. All the Chevy big blocks, from 348ci to 632ci are bored from the same block, which keeps manufacturing costs down. On the other hand, a Chrysler 383 was a B block, the 440 an RB block, and the Hemi was an RB block, but different from the other RB blocks. To solidify its big engine line-up, Chrysler began developing a unified block to replace the 383, 400, 440, and 426 in the late 1960s.

While "Ball-Stud Hemi" kind of sounds naughty, it was named after the ball-stud-style rocker arms it used. Originally intended to come in 396ci and 440 configurations, that was upped to 400ci for the smaller of the two and 444ci for the larger, because Chrysler felt 444 was a great number to market. Coming up with an entirely new block, heads, and port design, the first prototype barely ran. After about a year of intense development, engineers worked out the kinks and came up with a solid engine.

The Ball-Stud Hemi Is No BS

Officially designated the A279 and affectionately known as the BS Hemi, the Ball-Stud Hemi was anything but BS. It was never intended to be a racing engine, but it did pack some nice performance. Or at least that is what the rumors are. There are no official dynos to prove it, but the 444 BSH apparently did better than a 440 with a four-barrel, but not quite as good as a 426 with two inline four-barrels. The BS Hemi was 6.5 inches narrower than the 426 and thanks to the new heads, weighed 100 pounds less.

Fall Of The Ball-Stud

With an inexpensive high-performance engine ready to go, the Ball-Stud Hemi seemed like a slam dunk and was set for production in 1972, but there were evil forces at work that doomed the project. First, there would be considerable expense for equipment and retooling to mass-produce the BS Hemi, which wouldn't have been a major issue if not for the second thing. In the early 1970s, a global oil crisis caused gas prices to soar and even created shortages.

Consumers began looking for fuel-efficient vehicles and the market for gas-guzzling street machines bottomed out. Also, this was a time in which the federal government mandated fuel economy standards and emission regulations, which resulted in the radical detuning of big V-8s. There wasn't much point in building a new 400-plus cubic inch engine if it didn't have any horsepower and that most people didn't want to buy. Chrysler eventually pulled the plug on the Ball-Stud Hemi project, sending it into obscurity.

The Ball-Stud Hemi Lives!

Estimates are that as many as a dozen Ball-Stud Hemi engines were built, but that number is probably closer to just three. One number that isn't in dispute is that of the surviving example, which is a single solitary engine. Though it is unclear how he acquired such a piece of Mopar history, legendary drag racer Dick Landy was in possession of the Holy Grail Ball-Stud Hemi engine for many years. Landy was famous for blowing doors off in modified Mopars, so maybe he had an in at Chrysler and was gifted this rare engine.

Ball-Stud Sacrifice

With the rarity of being one of one, it would be assumed that the Ball-Stud Hemi would be untouchable, but Landy sold the engine to someone who bored it out, replaced the rotating assembly, and modified the intake manifold. This is like painting a unibrow on the Mona Lisa or gluing some arms on the Venus de Milo, but the defiled engine did reportedly crank out 500 horsepower. Almost as bad, the BS Hemi was dropped into a rare notch-back 1969 Barracuda, which would have been more valuable in its original matching-numbers configuration, especially if it was 426 Hemi car.

The BS Hemi Belongs In A Museum

BangShift tells us that the Ball-Stud Hemi-equipped 'Cuda was raced for many years, and bounced around several owners before ending up in gasser drag racer Tom Hoover's garage. From there, it found a few more owners and then eventually ended up on display at the National Auto and Truck Museum of the United States in Auburn, Indiana. Something this rare and amazing belongs in a museum where it can be appreciated for both its historical significance and its engineering beauty.

Legacy Of The Hemi Engine

The story of this mysterious and elusive Hemi is great, but it also seems like a shame that it never got launched in production for Phase II of the Mopar muscle car legacy. Imagine how killer a 1973 Challenger, which still had the basic styling of the legendary '70, would have been with a 400-plus horsepower BSH instead of the 245 horsepowerparody engine it came with. There's probably no way this cheaper Hemi variant could have saved the classic muscle car era, but it sure is fun to think about.

It also gives Mopar fans a great story to tell around the campfire, or a really intense dyno test: the Legend of the Ball-Shaft Hemi. It's like a ghost story, a fish tale, and ancient mythology, wrapped in a high-revving package. The 426 Hemi also got the boot in the early '70s, but the iconic Hemi engine would find new life in the 2000s, continuing its legacy. The Ball-Stud Hemi is part of the living history of Mopar performance that continues to terrify all the suckers who line up against it.
I have never seen a Ball-Stud HEMI in the wild, at least that I'm aware of.

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Re: History ad Mystery of the Rarest HEMI Ever-Built

Post by George »

Was thinking the 348 Chevy was a different engine line than the usual BBCs.
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