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Factory-built “Saturday Night Special” Challenger could be the car that kept Dale Earnhardt in racing

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Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

As lore has it, Dale Earnhardt was just about ready to hang up his helmet in 1974 and turn his back on racing for good when he got the opportunity to test a factory-built kit car Chrysler was developing. Encouragement from the Chrysler engineer on hand led Earnhardt to reconsider and go on to race professionally. The car he drove that day may very well be the kit car prototype headed to auction next month.

While Chrysler folded its factory stock car program after the 1972 season, it still had plenty of track tuning experience to capitalize on in the form of Larry Rathgeb. The engineer in charge of Chrysler’s race car development and one of the leads in the wing car program thus began work on an unusual proposition: a short track race car that customers could buy pretty much direct from Chrysler either in pieces or as a whole.

As with any short track car, getting the chassis right was of paramount importance, but to make the project feasible it needed to use as many off-the-shelf Mopar parts as possible, so Rathgeb specified an E-body front chassis section—with subframe rails spaced wider apart to allow a greater selection of engines—an A-body rear section, and plenty of tubing to tie the two together in either a 108-inch or 112-inch wheelbase. Slightly modified E-body torsion-bar front suspensions and A-body parallel leaf rear suspensions would then bolt directly to the chassis.

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The kit would come in one of a handful of configurations, from basic chassis all the way up to a whole car, complete with wheels, tires, seat, sheetmetal and Chrysler’s W2-head 650 hp V-8. Prices ranged from $2,800 for the chassis to $10,000 for the turnkey car.

Chryslerkitcar_01“It’s called a ‘kit car’ because anyone can purchase the packaged components and assemble them, just as youngsters put together scale models from a hobby shop kit,” Rathgeb said in a 1974 press release announcing the car. “All the right parts are in the kit, and directions are explained very simply in black and white. The buyer will be responsible for welding the parts and most will assemble their own engines. But, the beauty of the program is that we have taken the mystery out of building a stock car.”

At least one of the prototypes—including the one that Earnhardt drove during that testing session, according to—used a Dodge Challenger body. Some references to the kit car program claim that E-body sheetmetal was available for the production versions as well, but period ads and the catalog for the program only show Dodge Dart Swinger, Dodge Dart Sport, Plymouth Valiant Scamp and Plymouth Duster sheetmetal.

Chrysler tapped Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises to distribute the kit cars—also known as Saturday Night Specials—and in that same press release Rathgeb noted that Chrysler hoped to supply the “thousands” of short track racers across the country, but the program fell flat: After Chrysler sold about 30 entire cars and about 100 kits, it pulled the plug.

According to an article from Circle Track magazine, the car headed to auction popped up for sale about 30 years ago wearing Dodge Mirada sheetmetal and had earlier worn Dart sheetmetal, but the restorer believed it had been one of the Challenger-bodied prototypes and thus chose to restore it as such. Mecum’s auction description notes that it comes equipped with a W2 355, four-speed, and Petty Enterprises 8-3/4-inch floater rear axle. The pre-auction estimate for the car ranges from $40,000 to $80,000.

Mecum’s Kissimmee auction takes place January 15-24. For more information, visit