Don Phillips remembers exactly when he decided he wanted to own a Dodge Dart.
“Back when I was a kid, I used to do a lot of street racing,” he says. “I had a ’55 Chevrolet and it was about the fastest car around.
“One night out at the airport, I went against this black Plymouth Duster. I pulled him for the first three car lengths, then he went by me like I had my foot on the brake.”
It took the Portland, Oregon retiree a few years to find his Duster--although it is the Duster’s sibling by Dodge-- and a few more years to restore it.
“Actually, he’s owned it for 18 years,” says his son, Michael. “It sat for a long time.”
Phillips says he was looking for a project car when his neighbor told him his Dodge was for sale.
“I looked at what it was and immediately said ‘sold!’,” he explains.
“But it was awful,” he adds. The floorboards were rusted, the quarter panels were either rusted or damaged, the trunk was passing air through the floor and one door needed to be replaced.
“It needed everything,” he says.
But, it had a newly reconditioned Chrysler 340 short block in need of finishing, along with the factory four-speed gearbox.
It took Phillips about four years to restore the car.
“The parts are mostly available, but I ordered so many of them I wish I owned stock in UPS,” he jokes.
“In retrospect, I think it would have made more sense to gut the car entirely instead of working through it the way I did,” he says. “And maybe I’d look at building a stroker motor.”
No matter what the approach, the finished product simply looks “right”.
“As soon as I got it done, I took it to four shows,” he says. “It got four trophies.
“I tried to do everything right,” he says. That meant making no compromises on craftsmanship. The fit and finish are superb. The engine bay gleams like it just came from the detail shop. There are a few parts that still display the marks of being in service for 40 years, but they add to the car’s patina and character.
Phillips says he tackled the car after he retired, spending enough time on it that his wife dubbed the Dodge “The Other Woman.” He responded by having a plaque painted and placed on the firewall proclaiming the title.
“I did most of the work myself,” he says, with friends filling in around the areas he was uncomfortable tackling.
The changes during reconstruction are subtle. It has a beefier driveline and larger axles. The engine is fed through a 750 cfm double-pumper carb and is fired via electronic ignition.
According to Phillips, Chrysler underestimated the power output from their engines to help mitigate the public’s concern about young people having too much power under their right foot.
The company claimed horsepower output in the mid to high 200s, while the engines actually put out about 340 horsepower.
“This one’s about 400,” he says. “It’s way too much power for the tires on it.
“I actually built it to race,” he adds, “but it turned out too nice for that.
“I suppose I could get bigger, stickier tires for the rear and take it out to the track, just to give it a try.”
So if you’ve got a hot ’55 Chevy, consider yourself warned.