Mike Svagera’s mild restomod 1966 Charger proves you can do a reliable driver on the cheap.
If we had a nickel for every time we heard the phrase, “I just want to build a good, reliable, fun, and drive-it-anywhere car,” or some variation thereof, we’d have enough money to build a classic Mopar that fit that description. We hear guys say it, but rarely do they do it. Let us explain what we mean, taking our 1966 Charger feature car for example.
Back in the 1960s when these cars were built, the automotive world wasn’t all that different than it is today. The clear majority of them spent their lives commuting to and from work, running errands, taking kids to and from school and extracurricular activities, and taking road trips. The freeways and interstate system were already established and speeds averaged in the 55 to 75 mph range. Sure, a 1966 Charger as produced braked a bit slower and the handling was floatier than modern cars, but it’s not like they can’t keep pace with modern life. And yet, that’s how many guys tend to treat them when planning a build—like every single thing needs to be upgraded just to cruise it on the occasional weekend. We’re here to tell you, that’s not the case. You can keep it simple and spend money in the right places, and have a fantastic car too.
That’s not to say that you don’t have some work cut out for you to get there. One has to keep in mind that 1966 was 51 years ago. That’s a half century for a car to accumulate hundreds of thousands of miles and deteriorate all around due to weather and chemical exposure. Sure, you can still slap something together by cutting a bunch of corners and making piles of compromises, but if you really want it to be pleasant to drive, it takes going through it from end to end.
Mike Svagera of Fremont, CA knows this well, thanks to years of experience on two opposing sides of the automotive spectrum. As of one of the founders of Helcam Vintage Motors, a private restoration and modification shop for vintage cars, Mike knows how to put together all manner of street machines. What you wouldn’t suspect is that his other passion of building dirt late-models and dirt modifieds has led to many of his philosophies about building good street cars and how much you don’t need to change.
In the world of racing, there’s asphalt racing and off-road racing at the far ends, and dirt tracks land somewhere in the middle with chassis that appear to be road-course oriented, but are specifically constructed to handle the rigors of racing on rutted, bumpy patches of dirt. To say that’s rough on a vehicle’s suspension is putting it mildly. You think you treat your car rougher? Unlikely. Mike has built a range of dirt competition vehicles, from high-dollar Super Late Models, to old-school Stock and Modified Stock classes. Some of those stock classes are very production based and limit what can be swapped on the car, so you must figure out how to work with what you have, and what works.
Mike has brought that attitude with him to Helcam, and fortunately his partner Chris Helling shares the same philosophy since they spend upwards of 70 hours a week in the shop, working on, debating about, and discussing builds. Many of their customers come in with a long list of high-dollar exotic parts that they think they need, but Mike and Chris often talk them back down a bit after discussing what they realistically are going to do with the car. Most of the time it boils down to something along the lines of, “I want a really nice driving, comfortable, quick street car with handling and braking that I can take anywhere.” As a shop, it’s cool when a customer wants to spend gobs of money on cool new parts, but Mike and Chris want to make sure their customers spend money in the right place. Once that’s taken care of, the extra budget will often go to other things such as nicer paint and re-chroming. In the end, the parts list may not sound quite as sexy, but the customer always leaves pleased with how the car turned out. And really, that’s the best-case scenario for everyone involved.
Why is “overbuilding” a potential problem? Well, other than spending more money than is necessary, you run the risk of ending up a with car that loses the “comfortable and take it anywhere” part. It’s a Helcam guiding principle, but Mike even stands by that philosophy for his own cars. With years of car-building experience, Mike can size up what level of time and money commitment he’s looking at when he checks out potential project cars. He begins with a dollar figure in his head that he’s willing to pay, and what he’s willing to put into it to get it to turnkey status.
One car Mike had been thinking about building for a long time was second-gen 1968-’70 Charger. He searched around the usual spots—Craigslist, eBay, forums, a few online “classic car for sale” sites—but he just wasn’t seeing what he wanted. Then one day a ’66 Charger popped up on his search. Mike had already decided that a second-gen Charger was what he had to have, and besides who builds first-gen Chargers anyways? Still, the price looked tempting, so he clicked on the ad to see what the deal was.
It was pretty much a basket case. There was no front clip and it was basically stripped down. Nevertheless, it didn’t appear to be a bad starting point for what Mike had in mind. It was a ’66, and he wasn’t ready to give up on his original plan yet. Over the next six months, Mike kept looking for the right second-gen Charger, but kept hitting those same roadblocks: sellers wanted too much money for cars that needed too much work.
We’ve said it several times before, and we’ll say it again: ’66 and ’67 Chargers are overlooked and undervalued. The more frustrated Mike became with his project search, the more he began to open his mind to the possibility of doing the ’66. Finally, he just had to take a look. It’s a good thing Mike did, because it actually turned out to be better than he expected. Almost everything was there and the body appeared to be very straight and undamaged. Of course, at 50 years old pretty much every soft and semi-soft part from bushings to interior plastics was fairly well shot, but that was expected. The more he looked it over, though, the more he liked what he saw, so Mike decided to redirect his plan a bit and be that guy to build a first-gen Charger.
Back at Helcam, Mike finished stripping the Charger down to a shell. Pretty much anything that was held together by bolts came apart. Believe it or not, there were no surprises at all, and not a bit of rust to be found, which certainly helped Mike continue to feel good about his project choice. It also made the build go very smoothly. After the Charger was taken to bare metal, Mike applied one of his favorite tricks learned from the dirt track racing world and welded the pinch welds and some body seams solid, as well as the front crossmember, to eliminate flex points. According to Mike, you’d be surprised how much more rigid an old unibody gets when it’s welded solid.
Speaking of adding rigidity, since the suspension plan called for retaining mostly stock parts, Mike boxed the stock upper and lower control arms to make them as strong as possible. While he saved money there, Mike wasn’t shy about spending on parts that really would make a difference, such as Hotchkis Hemi torsion bars and a hollow 1 3/8-inch sway bar paired with QA1 shocks. Good bolt-in stuff that will improve the drive overall. In the rear, he relocated the leaf spring mounts and perches inward and installed the appropriate Hotckis leaf springs to complement the torsion bars. While the trend has been towards huge diameter disc brakes at all corners, the truth is they’re not always needed. Mike went with a basic Right Stuff disc conversion up front and kept the rear drums in place. Remembering that wheels and tires make or break a car’s looks, he did shell out for a proper set of high performance Continental tires on 18-inch Boss wheels.
Helcam’s mantra of “spend the money where it makes the most impact” even extended to the final look of the Charger. While he’s not against chrome and polish, there’s a huge amount of it on a ’66 Charger, and all that gets very expensive to replate. Instead, Mike let Alloy Motors of Oakland, CA coat the bodywork with a coat of custom House of Kolor silver paint. They also saved a bit of coin by having Alloy Motors paint the brightwork rather than replate it. The finished product adds a level of aggressiveness to the first-gen Charger’s typical classy style.
So what does Mike do with the Charger now that it’s all wrapped up? He takes it to shows, on leisurely drives, out to dinner, on errands, to the grocery store—you know, just regular car stuff. “It’s literally a grocery getter some days,” Mike laughed. In fact, because he kept everything on the build reasonable and aimed at a quality driving experience, even his wife (who didn’t think she would like driving an old car) enjoys being behind the wheel. “It doesn’t feel like a big car,” she says. That’s a pretty solid endorsement.
Honestly, as things have started to settle a bit from the fever pitch that pro touring was a few years back, we kind of wonder if pro touring cars might start to tend this way in general: upgraded, but realistic in ways to complement how the car is driven. The likely result of that will be even more classic cars out on the road just being used and enjoyed, which is really why we build them at all.