Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1966 Plymouth Satellite 426 Hemi – King Kong Arrives, In A Blue Three Piece Suit

The legendary Mopar street hemi was only available from 1966 to 1971. It went out in a riot of DayGlo colors and stripes, but it arrived stealthily. The only way to identify that this 1966 Satellite coupe had 843 lbs of “King Kong” under its hood was via a couple of small badges on its front fenders and a discreet “426” on its little stand-up hood “ornament”. Stealthy, and ready to take on all comers.

color photos of an original survivor

You probably know the hemi origin story by now, but just in case, it arrived in 1964 as strictly a racing engine; a madly successful one at that. Richard Petty won his first NASCAR Grand National title with one that year. Ford protested, and the hemi was banned for 1965, and Chrysler boycotted NASCAR. The solution was to offer a street version, so that it was a legitimate “stock car”.

That involved taming it considerably; its 500-550 hp in racing tune was now down to 425 (gross) hp @5000 rpm, and a mighty 490 ft.lbs of torque at a quite high 4000 rpm. A milder cam, cast iron exhaust headers, lower compression ratio, a conventional intake manifold crowned by two 625 fcm Carter AFB four barrel carbs, among other changes. Yes, the hemi could breathe, thanks to its 2.250″ intake valves and 1.94″ exhausts, and smooth ports to go with them. That was the whole point of a hemi, of course.

The downside was the weight of those huge cast iron heads, and their cost. The hemi option, with mandatory HD suspension and brakes, was priced at $1105 (about $10k in 2022 dollars). Not exactly cheap.

As a point of comparison, Ford’s FE 427 had 2.03″ intakes and 1.65 exhausts. Chevy’s answer to the hemi was its 427 big block, with staggered “porcupine valves” that made room for 2.19″ intakes and 1.89″ exhausts. The Ford 427 was a heroic last step of the FE’s development, but it could go no further; it took the limited production 429 Boss to keep up with the other two.

According to one source, the street hemi actually made 433.5 hp on the dyno, and 472 ft.lbs. But that’s in gross numbers too; as installed (net), it was rated at 350 hp in the 1971 brochure, although its state of tune might have been blunted just a wee bit by then. But 350 net hp in today’s world is…middling, at best.

So before we get to the hemi’s acceleration stats, two things to keep in mind: this apparently was a legitimately stock car, unlike the heavily-massaged Pontiacs that infiltrated the magazines at the time. And it came backed by the Torqueflite automatic and the standard 3.23;1 rear axle, hardly what a street or drag racer would pick, with its shift to 3rd not coming on until 82 mph. That did give it a top speed of 130 though.

Since the hemi’s torque peak came in fairly high, it was more impressive at higher speeds. It’s 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds is far from stellar; its run to 100 in 15.8 seconds gives a better idea. The 1/4 mile was dispatched in a very consistent 14.5 seconds @95 mph. It took feathering the throttle at take off to keep the relatively grippy Goodyear Blue Streak tires from turning into a cloud of smoke. But once under way, the hemi pulled hard. Given the Satellite’s curb weight of 3940 lbs, and its tested weight of 4350 lbs (two aboard plus instruments), it needed to.

The street hemi was well-tamed; driving it around town, there was no indication that there wasn’t a slant six or small V8 under the hood. It’s just when the throttle went down hard and the secondaries kicked in…

The problem was stopping it; the large “police” 11″ drum brakes were a disappointment. not so much for fading but for the rears locking up. This was because of the lack of a weight-sensing proportioning valve, a little tidbit Detroit avoided like the plague. The result was the inevitable loss of control.

Handling around town was ok, but of course the Mopar power steering lacked road feel. Brisk cornering on rural roads “induced a degree of body roll and tire protest out of keeping with other aspects of the car’s behavior.” A canyon carver it was not going to be, with that heavy lump of cast iron over the front wheels.

The interior had two “blunders”; a console with chromed/bright ribbed top surface that created blinding glare under certain sun angles, and a tachometer mounted under the dash at the front of that console. The Satellite’s doors must have gotten “blown off” in an earlier street race, because they would not close without two hard slams.


The question was posed as to who was going to shell out for a street hemi? Chrysler responded with “… the 426 hemi was developed for a growing market market of new car buyers—especially those who maintain an active interest in sanctioned, off-highway timed trials”. You can interpret that as you like, but yes, the number showing up at the drag strips was growing quickly.

If I could go back in time and have any new hemi, it would be to 1966 and one of these, or a Dodge version. And take off the “hemi” badges.