Driven: The Hotchkis E-Max Challenger
Words & Photography: Luke Ray.
Emails, emails, emails. There was a point in time, I seem to remember, when receiving an email was a pretty special thing. It was all so new and fresh. There was something cool about that notification that someone had sent you a message through this bizarre new form of contact. Safe to say that now that same notion has been somewhat turned on it’s head, and of the barrage of data that lands in my inbox on a daily basis, only a small fraction of it is what I would call stimulating reading. That ‘special feeling’ has now transitioned to those special emails that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
5th October, 2010. “Hey, I work with a media agency here in Los Angeles. I just stumbled across Fuel Magazine online and I would love to work with you if you are ever out this way.” It was Elana. Elana works for a PR agency in LA, with some pretty cool automotive clientele on the books. This really made me pay attention. I had been procrastinating for a while about making the first FM trip out to the States to have a look around and spread the word about the magazine. I hadn’t really considered the possibility of being hooked up with some heavy American iron whilst on such a trip, but as it panned out, this is exactly what was going to happen. Forward a few months, and after some more research about a good time to visit the US, a trip was finally locked in to hit Viva Las Vegas in April. That and some extended plans in the L.A. area combined to form the basis of a crazy, fun, amazing two weeks.
Looking back on my email conversation with Elana, we threw around many ideas over nearly 40 emails to and fro. Company visits and events were coming at me thick and fast, but there was one comment the stuck out above the rest; “We could hook you up with a car for a few hours. What sort of thing are you interested in?”
What do you say to that? I’d spent the previous 34 years admiring and lusting after vehicles from all corners of every genre, and now I get a question like that? Given where I was heading for this trip, and the cars that I had started to surround myself with more over the Fuel Magazine years, my answer went back confidently; “Muscle or Mopar. Late ‘60s/early ‘70s. It’s gotta be tough, loud, and if at all possible, in a lairy paint colour with some period graphics.”
Talk about delivering. “We’ll get you in the Hotchkis E-Max Challenger” was the response. A quick Internet look up, and it was soon apparent that I would be getting everything that I had asked for.. and more. The first search result; Jay Leno doing a burnout in the E-Max. The second; A video of a guy from Hotchkis doing circle work with the car in a parking lot. On top of that, the ‘few hours’ had grown considerably to ‘24 hours’. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy this.
14th April, 2011. I pull up at Hotchkis H.Q. in Santa Fe Springs, California. Henry Hancock welcomed me and gave me a full tour of the facility, showing me the precision and skill that goes into both the Hotchkis products themselves, and the projects that they take on for customers wanting a full ride and handling transformation. It was fascinating, as it usually is, to see the behind the scenes goings on. However, my time with the E-Max was now down to 23 hours and 20 minutes, and I was dying to get in the hot seat. Finally, at the end of the tour, Henry casually mentioned “I’ll go get the car, see you in the parking lot”.
There she was. All 395 bhp of her, standing there with a killer stance and a paint job that was testing with full force my new pair of Oakley Jurys that I had bought on Hollywood Blvd the day before. If my Honda rental car looked boring before, it looked downright embarrassing now that the E-Max had pulled up along side. More than a little intimidated at first, I waited for Henry to give me the full tour of the car. It didn’t really happen. “Put your bag in the passenger foot well, there’s not a whole lot of space back there” he said, gesturing at the back end of the car. “Oh, and let me show you the fuel filler lock.. it can be a little tricky”. After he showed me the technique to stop complete embarrassment at the filler pumps (of which I saw many), the only other information that I got was that the engine was a nearly new unit. “Since we changed it, we’ve only taken the car out on an autocross event, it hasn’t been tested on the road yet”. The intimidation level just went up a notch. So, I was to be the first to give this new engine a good workout on California roads. Pretty cool, but somewhat daunting at the same time. Then, Henry’s parting words were “Ok, so you’re all set to go. Have fun.”
What? I thought.. No “Careful with the gears, it can be tricky in 3rd” or “Only go up to 2000 rpm until hot”. I was at expecting a list of special instructions to keep this finely tuned beast on the straight and narrow.. but nothing. As Henry was about to walk off, I gingerly asked; “Anything else I need to know”, with a simple, “No that’s it” in response. As I started to climb into the E-Max, Henry paused. “Oh, there is just one more thing..” “Great, what’s that?” I said. “There’s a T-shirt for you in the trunk!”
The E-Max is a 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A with a 340 Six Pack that was built by Hotchkis to take auto crossing. It wasn’t designed to extensively cruise the Southern Californian highways and mountain roads, but that’s exactly where I took it, and it more than stood up to the challenges, including crawling through heavy LA traffic a couple of times. Of course, there was no air conditioning to help me out but somehow I didn’t notice how hot and muggy it was. It’s amazing how excitement and awe can block out things like that.
I was out of the LA area as soon as possible, and I was headed south. I wanted to experience this car on different roads. Not just to see how the E-Max itself feels in different situations, but to also give me a glimpse of the different sights and sounds of a new and far away land. I had a rough plan; head down to Costa Mesa for a bite to eat, then branch off inland and head for the hills. Which hills in particular I had no idea, but if this baby was built for autocross work, I was going to try and get as much fun out of it as possible.
If you’re American and reading this, you’re going to glaze over when I talk about the satisfaction of cruising down a Southern Californian freeway. But this was special. A little boy from England that once dreamt of cars such as this at boarding school was now all grown up and behind the wheel of a piece of iconic American automotive history and rumbling along without a care in the world. At this point, I didn’t care about going fast, or blasting through the gears, it was all about taking in the moment and hoping the next 22 hours would be long ones!
A quick bite in Costa Mesa, and I pushed on further south. I had chosen a point on the map and I was going to stick to it. That point was Palomar Mountain Observatory in the Palomar Mountain State Park, north east of Escondido. I had no idea how long it would take, or what the route was like, but the little yellow line on the map was very wiggly so my mind was made up.
A left turn at Oceanside and I was headed inland, where the roads started to get a whole lot more interesting. It wasn’t long before I was suddenly surrounded by orange groves as far as the eye could see. An impromptu photo stop was essential. The green leaves and the fresh, bright orange of the fruit was a perfect back drop on a warm, sunny California afternoon. But that sun was not going to hang around too long, and after a quick chat with a very nice Police patrol who wondered what the heck was going on as I was crouching amongst the oranges for that money shot, I was off again.
The scenery was changing, and the experience with the E-Max was changing with it. Gone was the long, loud highway cruising. Now I was in gear-changing territory, and it was fun. It wasn’t long before the road got narrower, steeper, and a whole lot more twisty. This is where the E-Max came into it’s element. The Psychology of it was bizarre. I was in a heavy, 1970 Dodge Challenger, and yet it was going up the side of a mountain like it had a big tab hanging out underneath, there was a slot in the road, and somewhere there was a big kid with a hand controller squeezed on to full. It was mind bending. This was easily on par with throwing an old mid-engined Porsche around European country roads at full chat, and I’ve done that. A lot. The E-Max was begging for more on every corner as I pounded it up that hill, asking me to brake that little bit later, to let the revs go that little bit higher in each gear, to trust the tyres that little bit more. If any car was to bring the Steve McQueen out of you.. this is it.
And yet, the E-Max didn’t complain once. Nothing went wrong, nothing got too hot, nothing slipped a little too much around that hairpin. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great driver. But I’m not a bad one either, and that was the beauty of the E-Max Challenger. It didn’t command a high level of track competency, nor did it ask that you treat it with kid gloves from the turn-key moment. This car scoops you up and nurtures what skill you do have, and encourages you to learn that little bit more about the potential of a car like this. Right there, mid corner, as you are pushing up the side of a mountain, it mutters in your ear “You can do this.”
I have no idea how long it took to get up to the top of Palomar Mountain. Sitting here recalling that day, it really doesn’t matter. I just remember that the light was fading, which spurred me on even more in a gotta make it before sunset kind of way. And make it before sunset I did. Just. The observatory was closed, and I was faced with a big yellow gate with the word END signposted on it. Quite apt really, after the journey I had just been through. As the light was fading, all I could do was sit in awe from the side of the road, staring at the E-Max, allowing my heart rate to relax and take in what had just happened. I had the utmost respect for this car whilst I was in the driver’s seat, and never for one moment did I doubt that the car would let me down.
The sun went firmly down over the Californian hills, I got back in the car, strapped myself back in to the Simpson harnesses, and put my new pair of Jurys to bed.
All I had to worry about now was finding the headlight switch and doing it all over again in the other direction.
Hotchkis E-Max Challenger
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T Clone
340 6-pack Dodge small block
Custom Moroso oil pan
Be Cool Aluminum Radiator
Red Line Synthetic Oil
Classic 5-Speed Tremec TKO
Forgeline Wheels and Nitto Tires
Sparco Milano 2 seats
Redline Gauge Works Cluster
Hotchkis E-Body TVS
100’ radius Skidpad: 0.92g
600’ Slalom: 66 mph
1/4 : 13.80 (on street tires)
HP: 395 hp
Torque: 378 ft.lbs.
This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 08.