I have a mental exercise that I go through often when I see a car that catches my eye. I play a little game of “What if?”. What if I owned that car? What sort of modifications would I do to it to make it my own? I will mentally modify the car in my head (these wheels, this engine swap, that paint color, etc) to my liking. Most of the time it just ends there. Occasionally I will take it to the next level. How much would it cost to get one? Once I’m home, I will browse internet resources and find out how much that car was going for. Sometimes I will even research my “planned” modifications. In one case, I played this out completely and went through with the purchase of a car. That car just so happened to be one of my dream cars, a Dodge Magnum SRT8. Here’s the story.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon (as they almost all are in San Diego) in April of 2014, and I was driving down the Coast Highway in my 2006 Mustang GT convertible “Maxine” (COAL) with the top down. Just a beautiful day for a cruise. I ended up behind a silver Dodge Magnum station wagon. The first thing I noticed was the license plate frame that said “Kimi’s Hemi”. Seeing that, it was clear that Kimi was a gearhead since she was proudly advertising the V8 under the hood. It was then that I noticed that this wasn’t just any Magnum, it was a Magnum SRT8. I think I actually said “You go girl!” out loud. Seeing this car jogged the memory banks some. The Magnum had such a short lifespan, it had slipped my mind that Dodge produced the Magnum SRT8. I had also forgotten how much I wanted one when they first came out, but the $45K sticker price had kept me away. I followed Kimi for a while admiring her clean wagon and reminiscing about my Dodge Aspen wagon (COAL).
[Yes, I know it was built in Canada.]
After a couple of days, curiosity got the better of me and I started to do some research. First up was the price. According to the oracle that is Kelly Blue Book, the asking price for a used one was well within a theoretical budget I had set for myself. The SRT8s were rare, so there weren’t many for sale. I was able to locate 3 within 500 miles, reminding me of my long search for my 1992 Tempo GLS (COAL). One was in Phoenix, which was too far for just an initial test drive. The other two were local to San Diego county. A red one was at a dealership and a silver one was a private party sale. For just a test drive, I decided I wouldn’t waste a private sellers time, so off to the dealer I went. Bright Red, fully loaded, 22” Viper wheels, cold air intake, custom exhaust, and lowered. I test drove it and I overall I liked it, just not the modifications that had been done to this particular car. I knew I had to have one now, but I wanted a clean slate to start with.
[Look, it does rain in San Diego!]
I called up the private seller and set up a time to come and see his car. When I arrived, it was clear this Magnum belonged to a family of gearheads. There was a toy hauler off to the side of the garage loaded with a sand rail. Near the garage, two guys (his sons, I later found out) were wrenching under the hoods of an STI and a GTI. The seller explained his wife bought the car new to haul the kids around to school and extracurricular activities. Now that the kids were either graduated or had their own cars, she wanted something cute, fun and 2-seater. It was approaching 100K miles on it, but it did not show at all except for the wear on the seat bolster of the driver’s seat.
After the test drive and a little bit of negotiation on the price, we came to a deal. We shook on it and agreed to meet at the bank in the next couple of days to finalize all of the paperwork and swap money for title and keys. As I walked away from the car, I turned back to get one more look at it and that’s when I saw it. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? That can’t be, it would be too perfect. Sure enough, the license plate frame on the rear said “Kimi’s Hemi”. The car that I saw a couple of weeks prior on the Coast Highway was the actual car I just made a deal to purchase. When I finally met Kim a few days later, she was very happy to see her car go to me after she saw how much care and love I had put into Maxine. Hmmmm, see a reoccurring theme here?
[A small window of time with 4 of our cars together.]
[l-r Magnum SRT8, E350 Bluetec, Nitro R/T, Maxine Mustang GT]
My Magnum is the top performance model, the Magnum SRT8. According to the unofficial SRT8 production numbers, there were 3,837 Magnum SRT8s produced between 2006 and mid-2008. My particular car is 1 of 555 built (a silver 2006). The changes made to differentiate the SRT8 on the outside are subtle. Walking up to the car, first thing that lets you know this isn’t a regular Magnum is a more aggressive front bumper that has integrated fog lights and brake cooling ducts. The wheel wells are filled with 20” 5-spoke polished forged alloy wheels. Peeking out from behind the spokes are the red Brembo calipers capping massive disc brakes. Poke your head around back, you’ll find a similar rear bumper treatment with dual polished exhaust tips poking out from underneath. There is a small SRT8 badge on the right side of the tailgate.
Open up the driver’s door, and you are greeted with a two tone leather interior. The seats are dark slate gray leather with light slate gray suede inserts. The SRT8 logo is embroidered into the headrest. Slide down into them, and you feel how the heavily bolstered seats really hug around you at the shoulders, lumbar, and thigh areas. Gripping the meaty leather wrapped steering wheel feels good in your hands. Behind it, white faced SRT branded gauges feature a 180 MPH speedometer.
[The 6.1L Hemi engine. Photo courtesy of allpar.com]
Twist the key, and the 6.1L HEMI V8 engine fires to life. 425 HP and 420 lb-ft of torque are aching to be unleashed. Slide the leather wrapped shift knob down to drive, and pull away. The transmission is a 5-speed Autostick, with the ability to shift the gears manually. Matting the gas unleashes a beast of a car. You blast to 60 in around 5 seconds; keep it to the floor and the ¼ mile is gone in less than 14 seconds. This is faster than most of the muscle cars I’ve read about when I was a kid in my dad’s old Popular Hot Rodding magazines!!
[Big Brebmo brakes behind big forged alloy wheels.]
Unlike those muscle cars though, this thing actually handles very well. It is a heavy car (~4300#), but when it gets going it sure doesn’t feel as heavy as it is. Retuned shocks/struts (load-leveling in the rear), larger anti-roll bars, stiffer spring rates, a lower ride height, and those beautiful forged rims and low profile tires provided the hustle around the corners. When you punch the brake pedal, those massive Brembo brakes provided a whole lotta whoa!
[Pam Poovey, my Magnum’s namesake.]
First up, I needed to give the Magnum a name. It took a little bit of thinking, but I finally settled on “Pam”. She is named for the Archer character Pam Poovey. (If you have never watched Archer, do so. The humor may not be your thing, but the automotive references will make any gear head geek out.) The following characteristics apply to both Pams, and why I felt it was an appropriate name:
- A little bit on the heavier side.
- Unassuming on the outside, but packs a wallop of a punch.
- An irreverent loudmouth (especially after the new exhaust).
- Drinks like a fish.
- Drives surprisingly well.
[Hidden hitch mount for the bike rack. Hauling bikes is a breeze now.]
I tried to tell myself that Pam would stay stock, but that didn’t last long. Just as I did with both of my Mustangs, out went the stock exhaust and in went a Borla exhaust. This time I stepped up to the most aggressive Borla you could get, the Borla “ATAK”. The car now has a deep muscle car rumble at low RPMs, but will howl like a banshee when running hard (which is quite frequently).
Also, as is now my modus operandi, I installed custom vinyl stripes on the car. Since I thought about this as a muscle car station wagon, I wanted to pay homage to the types of stripes you would see from the muscle car era. Two wide matte gray stripes on the hood, and one bridging between the taillights. The stripes were finished with red pinstripes, and DEMON decals from the 1971 Dodge Demon are on the sides and rear. In my mind, the muscle car look isn’t complete without a set of white letter tires. They aren’t available in modern tire sizes, so I turned a company called TredWear for a set of their permanent tire letters. The addition of those Demon decals gave the wagon another name, the Demon Wagon. I finished it off with a customized California black plate, “DMN WGN” (Demon Wagon).
[Hustling the big girl around the autocross track.]
With this big bad muscle wagon I wanted to go racing again. This time, I tried my hand at autocrossing. I know the Magnum isn’t the best car to go autocrossing with and be competitive, due to how heavy it is. But, I just wanted to go out and have fun with my car. Man, did I ever have fun. Hustling the car around that tight course, exhaust bellowing all sorts of wonderful noises. What a rush!!! I’ve done it a few times, and plan to do it again periodically when I need to get a good dose of adrenaline in.
[Video of one of my first autocross runs. Video credit – Phil]
I knew the SRT8 would have some higher operating costs, but there were some I wasn’t expecting. I knew mileage would be worse (I have averaged 16.7mpg over the 2.5 years of ownership) and I knew it would require premium. What I hadn’t expected were the oil changes. They are required every 3,000 miles, require a 0w40 grade of oil, and requires 7 qt of oil (!!) at each change. I also knew going into it the plugs would need changing. Surprise! This 8 cylinder engine needs 16 spark plugs. I was hit with another surprise when it came time to replace the worn shocks and struts. I knew the front Koni struts were going to be a little more pricey due to the fact that they are Konis. At the rear, the self-leveling Nivomat shocks came in at $300 a pop to replace!!! A nice Black Friday sale knocked 10% off the price, but it was still a hefty bill to pay when replacing them. I saved on all the labor costs by doing all of the work myself.
[Autocrossing brings nothing but grins to my face.]
Another area of adjustment when driving the Magnum is the low front bumper. Both of my Mustangs were lowered, so I was used to pitfalls that come with driving a lowered car. I sat much lower to the ground in those cars than I do in the Magnum. Therefore, I didn’t give the front end a moments thought. I didn’t realize exactly how low that front end was. One day pulling into a parking space, I heard the lower part of the bumper barely scrape across the top of the parking block. When it came time to leave, my thoughts were “go slow, ease it off”. I did go slow, but it didn’t ease off. I started to hear snapping and cracking. I immediately stop and get out to survey what the heck was going on. The rebar holding the parking block down had caught under the rear edge of the bumper, and started pulling it off under the left headlight. All of the plastic clips sheared off, but thankfully nothing else was damaged. I was able to lift the bumper cover off the rebar and secure it enough to drive home. A few replacement clips and it was back to normal. Anytime a parking space has a parking block in it, I now back in to avoid repeating what happened.
I’d love to say that the rest has been nothing but roses, but not the case. One area that has been a struggle with my particular SRT8 is the cooling system. The first overheating panic happened while sitting in stop and go traffic, on one of the warmest days after purchasing the car. I look down to notice the temperature gauge is climbing above it’s usual resting place dead center of the gauge. I monitor it for a little bit, and as it continues to climb I kill the A/C, drop the windows, and blast the heat to try and help it from overheating. At that moment, the temp starts to go down. I repeat this multiple times and I am able to limp it home without going above the ¾ mark on the gauge. Internet research to the rescue, the SRT8 engine is designed to operate between 215-230 degrees, which is between middle and ¾ of the gauge. Also found out the temperature gauge is an actual gauge, and not an idiot light disguised as a gauge (like my past Fords). Even though I panicked, it was nothing to worry about. The car was operating as designed.
[Wrapped the center console with some leftover vinyl, to match the stripes.]
A couple months later, I popped the hood for an oil change and saw a fine spray of coolant all over the right side of the engine. Traced this down to a pinhole leak in the radiator. The color of the coolant suggested that some sort of stop leak had been used in the past to seal this leak. Over the next couple of days, I found it would only spray when the system was under high pressure (like when I was driving pretty aggressively). I would periodically check the system and top it off if needed, and continued to monitor the leak if it got worse.
Pulling into a parking space one day, I shut off the engine. As I open the door, the unmistakable pancake syrup smell of hot coolant hits me. I look underneath and see Pam puking coolant all over the parking lot. Once the river of coolant stopped, I crawled up under the car. I found the lower radiator hose not attached to the radiator, but it still had the factory hose clamp attached to it. The hose seemed fine, so reattached it to the radiator and refilled the system. Another item to add to the higher operating costs, the SRT8 requires special “red” coolant from Mopar and is only available at the dealership. Everything seemed to be fine after that point. Fast forward about 6 months and it happened again! The hose clamp no longer had enough tension to keep the hose on, so I replaced the hose clamp with a new one and it hasn’t happened again.
The autocrossing took it’s toll on the pinhole radiator leak. That intermittent spray developed into a noticeable leak and I had to replace the radiator. When shopping for a radiator, there are 4 different ones available for the Magnum. Of course the SRT8 is the largest and most expensive, but that was expected. Since the radiator was coming out, I also replaced both hoses and the rest of the clamps for new ones. Purely for aesthetic reasons, I also replaced the old discolored coolant overflow tank for a brand new one.
[The Demon Wagon with white letter tires, courtesy of TredWear.com]
I thought my cooling system woes were over, but a few days after replacing the radiator I noticed a new small leak in the system. I traced it down to the thermostat housing. According to sources on the interwebs, the housing can develop pitting over time and cause this slow leak. I replaced the thermostat housing (and a new thermostat while I was at it) and the leak is gone. So as of now, the entire cooling system except for the water pump and the overflow hoses is all new. I anticipate I’ll have to replace that soon, I’m just waiting for it.
One day arriving at home, as I placed the car in park the oil pressure light came on when the car settled into idle. A little goose of the gas pedal, and the light went off and did not come back on. The next day the same thing occurred again. I monitored the oil pressure via the electronic readout in the dash to compare to normal values. It was definitely low at idle after it was up to normal operating temperature. A pit in my stomach is growing, thinking that I may be in for some major engine repair in the immediate future. Interwebs to the rescue again. Searching forums, I read that it could just be that the oil pressure sender is going bad. I ordered a switch from the dealership and replaced it. Turns out that is all it was, indicated oil pressure has been fine ever since.
At this point, I’ve put over 50K miles on the car in 2.5 years of ownership. I’m up to 152K miles on it. I’m now getting to the point where more maintenance items are needed, which I don’t think are out of the ordinary for a car of this age and mileage. I performed a transmission fluid and filter change a few weeks ago. Just this weekend, I spent some time in the garage replacing the inner and outer tie rod ends as well as the tension struts. The tension struts on the front suspension were starting to clunk, which is a common problem on LX cars. These were replaced to take care of the clunk and a high speed vibration (75-80 mph) that did not go away the last time I had the tires balanced. After a couple of drives, the vibration has not returned.
[Artist commission I had done of my wagons. SilhouetteHistory.com]
My C.O.A.L. journey started off in 1977 when I was just 4 months old, with the arrival of a silver Dodge station wagon into the family. Today, 39 years later and after 16 weeks of C.O.A.L. entries I am now concluding my journey with another silver Dodge station wagon. From Party Wagon to Demon Wagon! Has another C.O.A.L. series had bookends like this? Someone previously commented on my passion and attachment to the Party Wagon, and (up to the point the comment was made) none of the other cars had come close to that. Maxine came close, real close. Pam, she definitely does. I’m not yet to half of the mileage that the Aspen had on it. I’m going to keep on driving my dream car (because it should be driven), and maybe in 20 years I’ll be updating everyone when this wagon passes 360K miles. Thank you to everyone for riding along with me and allowing me to share my stories with you.