Tom Coddington is a quiet man. His HEMI® engines, however, have made the unmistakable sound that has roared and reverberated through the decades. As a member of the Ramchargers in the ‘60s, he is one of the Mopar® Legends who have made a lot of noise with their iconic machines. Standing beside his ’71 Challenger, he shares breakthrough moments from a time when the need for speed pushed a group of guys to bury the needle every day.
“The Ramchargers were a group of Chrysler engineers who were car buffs and they had their own drag racing cars for quite some time,” Coddington said. They were always eager to test out new concepts and technologies. “Finally they said, ‘Why don’t we build a club car’, and they had a car called ‘High and Mighty’. It was pretty revolutionary for the day.” An ungainly race car, the Ramchargers were experimenting with weight transfer and testing out their 354-cubic-inch HEMI engine. “It was a pretty successful car, and it got notoriety for that and it did win a national event,” Coddington said. The event was the NHRA Nationals at Detroit Dragway in 1959.
Having made a name for themselves, the Ramchargers pitched an idea to Plymouth and Dodge for sponsoring a car in a whole new category – Super Stock. Plymouth bowed out, but Frank Wiley, head of Dodge Public Relations and his team said, ‘let’s talk’. Coddington says, “I didn’t really come along until ’62 or ‘63, in that era. As a member of the club you got to work on a car, and you worked your way into the club depending on what you could do.” With Coddington on board, the Ramchargers had the first Chrysler product to win in a Super Stock class. They went on to win a Stock Eliminator title in ’63.
Coddington spent his time building engines with the late Tom Hoover, a.k.a. the “Father of the HEMI® (engine),” whose passion for engines was contagious. Tinkering happened in garages and heavily at the track. “We would basically get a new car and practically gut it to get as much weight out of it as we could.”
As time went on, all the club members developed different areas of expertise. “I became involved in fuel injection, kind of by default I think. I was in the fuel systems lab at Chrysler in ’65 and we started running alcohol — you couldn’t run that successfully with carburetors, so we used the Hilborn fuel injection. That was the year we started out with gasoline, went to alcohol and, by the end of the year, we were on nitro. It was a pretty dramatic year and I became the fuel injection expert.”
As a brand, Mopar® was dominating on the track. “Everybody recognized it. Racers kind of picked up on it and everybody was racing a Mopar.” Coddington recalls one epic year: “The last year we had built a car, a Funny Car, and it ran nitro. It was the fastest car in its class and that car had more innovations in it than probably any car because we built it from scratch. It had a very unique frame and we ran a supercharged HEMI engine which, believe it or not, was more durable than the nonsupercharged because we ran less nitro and more boost through the supercharger. We could get 40 or 50 runs on a motor which was remarkable in those days.”
The Ramcharger’s engine was a durable beast. Coddington said, “We were trying to run three races a weekend. We would catch a race on Friday night, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday, and try to make it back in time to get to work on Monday. But the motor was pretty trashed at that point. The nitro, with the fairly high compression motor, busted up the ring lands of the piston and the oil was running out of the exhaust pipes on the trailer as you came back.”
So, how did he come to be called the ghost? “There are a number of stories about the ghost name, but I think the real one was that I was a quiet guy around the garage. They never really knew where I was unless I was beating a hammer on something.”
With racing getting too hectic for those starting families and more important jobs at Chrysler, decisions had to be made. Part of the group raced the dragster full time and the rest stayed with Chrysler. Coddington joined Tom Hoover again to build cars for a new NHRA classification in ’70: Pro Stock. That’s when Coddington came to lead the Chrysler Drag Racing Engineering Program. He would also build cars at Chrysler like the ’71 Challenger.
In more recent years, Tom continued with development work building many prototype cars for Chrysler. About 12 years ago, Coddington had an idea after meeting a group of Chrysler engineers. He let them use his Challenger as a guinea pig for a development engine – the first [Gen III] HEMI® crate motor – and it’s still in the car.
Racing, it seems, will always be in Coddington’s blood. Every year, Tom enjoys going to the Nationals at Indianapolis with the Chrysler racing guys for the HEMI® Challenge shootout. “We get a big kick out of them. They’ve really done some imaginative things with the engines. They run higher engine speed than we ever imagined they could. They do a lot of cylinder head modifications; they do intake tuning; they evacuate the crankcases to run lower pressure; they’ve done everything to maximize total horsepower.” As Coddington sees it, today there are new legends to keep an eye on. “Ray Barton is one of the premier builders and we’ve been down to visit his shop. How they develop a vacuum in a crankcase is pretty amazing too.”
The Challenger isn’t his only “hobby car.” He also has a ’38 Plymouth. “Oh, I picked that one up a few years back. What I wanted to do is build a street rod and again put a crate HEMI engine in it. I bought it off eBay. It was one of those last minute bids before midnight.” He says he still hasn’t put a HEMI engine in the car. Judging by the transmission lying on the floor and the tall industrial-size tool cabinet, obviously Coddington continues to have a lot of very interesting ideas.