Bought to create happy memories, this ’68 Charger did its best to spoil that plan with three years of breakdowns and frustrations. Was it worth it? You bet!
Words: Nigel Boothman
Photography: Jonathan Fleetwood
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Forty years ago, in south-east England, some kids are playing in an orange Mk 3 Cortina. They are sliding in and out of the windows, and when Mum gets in and they drive off somewhere, they’re making tyre squealing noises every time she takes a bend. We don’t know which one of them is Bo, which is Luke or whether Daisy is present. But one of them, we know for sure, is Rob Darnell-Norrington.
A decade or so later, Rob is enjoying a night out with some mates in Chingford, Essex. Someone has a red Corvette and, as a crowd gathers outside a pub, the Corvette’s owner performs an enormous burnout. The noise, the smoke, the smell − it all has a significant effect on Rob. He even goes to pick up some shreds from the ’Vette’s tortured tyres. Hit the fast-forward button again, and we find ourselves in the waiting room at the dentist’s or maybe the local GP surgery, around 2014 or 2015. On the table there’s the usual pile of old magazines. One of these is actually readable, because it’s about cars. Rob turns to the small ads at the back where there are muscle cars for sale. Wow, he’d love one of those! He homes in on the Mach 1 Mustang and starts keeping an eye out for the right car.
A couple more years slip by and Rob has an encounter with a Mk II Dodge Charger, one of the famous 1968-70 models. “That’s the one,” he thinks, and his plans for the Mustang disappear. Charger prices are insanely high, but Rob wants his own family to have a ‘memory car’. He wants every sunny day to be ‘a Dodge Charger day’. One day, a black one comes up for sale just around the corner. He goes to see it and it’s in a bit of a state – too much to do there, thank you. So he keeps watching and a blue 440 R/T appears on eBay.
This one, though, looks to be too far the other way. The price is steep. Perhaps too steep, because it fails to sell and soon reappears with a lower number next to it. By now, we’re in August 2017. Rob contacts the seller and heads down the M3 to Berkshire to view it. And, although he doesn’t know it yet, he arrives wearing a massive pair of rose-tinted specs. Rob’s account of what happened next is very amusing, but it’s also terribly familiar to many of us.
“All the advice I’d been given went out of the window,” he says. “As soon as I saw it I wanted it.
“The owner and I took it on a test drive for 20 minutes or half an hour and it felt like a second. I didn’t take in a word he was saying, until we got back to his place and he asked me ‘What do you think?’ and I just said, ‘Okay, I’ll have it!’” They did a deal and Rob arranged to come back the following week to pick it up. “Even that was a bit of a blur,” he says. “We stopped at a petrol station and I’d never realised the gap between the rows of pumps was so small. This car is huge! What had I done?”
Worry turned to surprise and a little bit of pride as they crawled back around the M25 in slow traffic, with people yelling out questions about the horsepower or urging Rob to do a burnout. “It was a completely new experience. To have people taking pictures and calling to you from other cars… it was nuts.” It sounds like a happy start to the relationship and, indeed, the honeymoon period did continue for a while, right up to American Speedfest at Brands Hatch in the summer of 2018, where the car was snapped by Classic American.
But almost as soon as the family got home again, the gremlins got to work.
“The first breakdown was on a busy A-road at night and the electrics just died – no lights, no nothing. My wife had to run up the road and wave the torch on her mobile phone to slow people down,” says Rob. And that was just the beginning. “It needed an additional fan, a starter, an electronic ignition conversion, a timing chain. Everything else seemed to be some kind of overheating problem or a fuel issue. Literally, every time we tried to go anywhere in it, it would break down. Every time it got hot it would stop. There was a good, reliable American car garage I’d been using, but I got frustrated that they were taking so long to sort it. I was used to modern cars where you drop it in one day and pick it up the next, and here we were having to wait for parts to come in from the States and so on.”
By December of that year, Rob ran out of patience and took the car to another garage… and things went rapidly downhill. “They said the car needed an engine rebuild. So rather than more breakdowns, I decided to get it done. I didn’t get it back for seven months. By then it had Edelbrock aluminium heads and some other new bits. I got it back and we’d had it two weeks when I was picking up my son from school and one of his mates said: ‘Oi! Your engine’s on fire!’”
And it was. Rob managed to put it out and phoned the garage who did the rebuild. They decided the old wiring loom was to blame, so rewired the engine bay, but by October 2019 it was still running like a pig and Rob gave up, returning to the first garage. Here, it seems, the car received all the attention that should have been part of the first rebuild: a new oil pan without any dents in it, a new fuel tank, a new alternator, new dash wiring and a new carburettor. The garage phoned to say the car was ready to collect…the day before the first lockdown in March 2020.
“I couldn’t get there,” says Rob. “I ended up having to wait until June 20. After that, when the advice was all about staying local, I did just that – took the kids to school, did the shopping in it, that kind of thing. And I figured out what I wanted to do next.” What Rob did, and what he perhaps should have done from the start, was to work on the car himself.
“I rebuilt the front and rear suspension and the brakes, fitting new bushes and ball-joints, calipers, pads, even a new steering pump. I watched loads of YouTube videos showing me how to do things, got help from forums and a neighbour leant a hand as well. I did the back axle bearings, fitted a new high-torque starter motor, got some plates welded on to the bottom of the control arms to stiffen it up a bit. I’ve learned so much more about the car. And now it’s driving great.” All of this kept Rob sane through the second lockdown, when he also had time to research the car’s history.
“It’s a genuine 440 R/T, and although the original engine isn’t with it any more, this block is the correct age and type. When it was new, it was bronze with a gold interior, but it had a colour change some time in the Eighties or Nineties. It was sold through a dealer in New Jersey about 20 years ago and I tried to track them down, but they’d all gone to prison! Back then it was blue with a black vinyl roof, but by 2013, when it came to this country, it had the white roof fitted.”
The car now sports a black interior with those neat front seats that can be treated like a pair of buckets or filled in with the armrest to give a three-seater bench. It runs a three-speed Torqueflite transmission and manual windows, but with power steering and power brakes, now augmented with discs on the front – a worthwhile step. Otherwise, Rob is keen to keep it as stock as possible, only upgrading the original radio with new internals that allow AM and FM reception, plus a hidden input for other music.
“It took a while to get the kids to come out with me again,” says Rob. “They were convinced we’d break down. It’s running properly at last, but even so I always have torches, tools, blankets and coats in the boot just in case! I bought it to make happy memories and for a while, all it created were unhappy ones, but it’s all part of the journey and I wouldn’t change it.” Just because the road is long (all the way from Essex in a Mk 3 Cortina!) and features plenty of bumps, it doesn’t mean the destination won’t be worthwhile. So was it worth the hassle? “For sure,” says Rob. “I love it…I love it to bits.”
This article originally appeared in Classic American July 2021. You can read more back issue articles by purchasing them here or subscribers get access to over a decade’s worth of back issues free with their subscription! Subscribe here.
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