With a red, 440-powered Dodge Challenger in the garage, Terry McKeown was a happy man. Having been a fan of the iconic E-body shape for many years, he thought he’d reached the acme of his Challenger ownership — that was unless somehow he could find (and fund the purchase of) a Hemi-powered one, which is near on impossible.
Things changed though when a particular ad caught his eye while casually browsing Mopar Collector’s Guide magazine. The ad in question read: “1970 Dodge Challenger RT S/E, 440 Magnum, air, leather, 59,000 miles, three owners.” While the mileage was remarkably low for a car over 30 years old, that wasn’t the part that got his attention — the label ‘S/E’ however, did.
Even many fellow Mopar owners are unaware of the S/E Challengers, or what exactly the S/E (Special Edition) stands for. The obvious visual difference is the unusual ‘formal style’ rear window, notably smaller than what you’d find on a normal Challenger. The S/E Challengers had a higher-spec interior and exterior trim level to compete with the higher-specced muscle cars of the day, such as the Pontiac GTO, Buick GS, Oldsmobile 442, and Chevelle Malibu SS. Rather than construct a whole new roof skin, the designers cleverly created a plug which screws into the stock rear window opening, the joins of which are hidden by the vinyl roof.
This car was advertised as a factory 440 ‘U Code’ car, meaning it was one of just 733 that were fitted with the always-desirable 440 big block engine, making it even more valuable. It was this rarity that attracted Terry to the car, and as far as he knows there’s only a handful of them in the country.
It wasn’t long until he was on the phone to ex-pat Kiwi Duane Jones to ask him to check it over and arrange the freight back to New Zealand. As it happens, the current owner was clearing out all the spare parts he had too, so Terry decided to grab a spare 440 engine and rear diff too.
With the car landed in NZ, it was quickly complied and ready to hit the road, but the first thing Terry did was to strip it down to a bare shell, and begin a major rebuild process. For peace of mind, Terry had CA Levien Mediablasters give the body a once-over, including the under-floor. The bare shell was then sent to Wideglide Panelbeaters for a tidy up, before being handed over to painter-extraordinaire Steve Levine for paint. Although Terry was at first set on the factory B5 Blue, Steve mixed up a sample with a heavier metallic and a bit more pearl, and that was what Terry chose to run with.
While Steve was busy painting every square inch of the bodyshell, Terry was at home pulling the recently rebuilt 440 from the red car — the plan being to drop in the spare motor which had been imported and then sell the car to help fund the completion of the blue one.
As Terry says, “My house was full of car parts, and there was a constant stream of boxes coming from America. I lived like this for the next three years.” With the help of friends though, slowly but surely the car was starting to come together. Any parts that were replaced with non-factory items, were kept in a corner of the shed, should he ever get the desire to return it to standard. For now though, he wanted a car that was nice to drive, complete with modern comforts including good brakes and suspension.
To achieve this, Wilwood calipers were fitted on each end along with a matching (unboosted) master cylinder. For suspension, Terry sourced tubular A-arms along with oversized torsion bars and plenty of Moog components. On the rear end he opted for Hemi-spec leaf springs, which sit the car slightly lower than stock. It wasn’t simply a case of bolting them on however, as to fit the wider wheels Terry had in mind, the springs had to be remounted inside the chassis rails. While under the car, a set of bolt-in frame connectors was also fitted, and every other part that was re-fitted was cleaned, painted, polished or renewed.
When it came time to drop the red car’s 440 into the hole, Terry copied how the factory did it, by sliding everything in from underneath, rather than through the bonnet. Strapped to the back of the 440 is a Hemi-specced TorqueFlite trans with a 2800rpm stall converter. The engine itself was built by West Auckland Engine Reconditioners to include a steel crank, modified oiling system, forged pistons, 906 heads with Hemi valves and a Crower cam. With an Edelbrock Performer manifold, 770cfm Holley carb up top and TTI ceramic-coated headers on the sides, it’s reportedly good for around 500hp.
The 8 3/4-inch Positraction diff from the red car also found its way under the blue one, albeit with a ratio change to 3.23:1, however, Terry has a spare 4.11:1 ratio on hand, should the need arise to change it. Amongst the incoming boxes of parts were new leather seat covers, which Terry fitted himself, but not before he’d stripped and repainted the frames and had new foams fitted too. It’s this level of detail that has gone into the entire build, although more often than not it goes unseen. The upholstery work that Terry couldn’t do himself was handed over to Tim at Allcare Upholstery, and included fitting a new vinyl roof, roof lining and retrimming various smaller internal parts.
What can be seen though, is the effort that’s gone into the car’s audio system. Terry fabricated a custom centre console to house a seven-inch Panasonic DVD player (with reverse camera), and also grafted tweeters into the car’s A-pillars before having them vinyl wrapped by Dashboard Restorations. While the parts now look factory, they were obviously items completely unthought of back in 1970 when the car rolled off the production line. The overhead console with built-in warning lights for seatbelts, low fuel and door ajar however, is one of the S/E’s unique factory features.
With 18-inch Boyd Coddington rims fitted, the car was finally ready to hit the road, and although Terry knew it would be a different car to drive than the stock handling red car, even he was blown away; as he says, “It corners like it’s on rails now and has no body roll at all, it makes for a big difference to what I was used to.” Despite how well it drives, Terry’s been tied up with other commitments since the car’s completion, and hasn’t had it on the road as much as he’d like to. All going to plan though, that will soon change, and he’ll be out and about enjoying the fruits of his labour, and safe in the knowledge that you’ll never see another Challenger like it.
This article is from NZV8 issue 87. Get your copy here.
1970 Dodge Challenger RT S/E – Specifications
Engine: 440 Mopar big block, steel crank, modified oiling system, Hemi sump and pump, forged pistons, 906 heads, Hemi valves, Crower cam, roller rockers, Edelbrock Performer RPM intake, Holley 770cfm Street Avenger carb, TTI ceramic-coated headers, 3-inch exhaust,
Driveline: 727 TorqueFlite transmission, Hemi-spec internals, 8 3/4-inch Positraction diff, 3.23:1 ratio, 2800rpm stall converter
Brakes: Wilwood discs and calipers, Wilwood master cylinder
Suspension: Oversized torsion bars, Moog bushes, aftermarket sway bars, tubular A-arms, relocated rear leaf springs
Wheels/tyres: 18×8- and 18×9-inch Boyd Coddington Smoothie II rims, 245/40R18 and 275/35R18 Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres
Exterior: Custom paint
Interior: Flaming River steering wheel, Panasonic DVD player, 10-inch subwoofer, 6-inch front speakers, 6×9-inch rear speakers
Chassis: Bolt-in sub frame connectors
Performance: Approx 500hp
Terry McKeown – Driver Profile
Age: Old enough
Occupation: Warranty clerk
Previously owned cars: 440-powered Dodge Challenger
Dream Car: This one
Why the Challenger?: It was one of only 733 ever made
Length of Ownership: Three-and-a-half years
Build Time: Three years
Terry thanks: James, Murray, Fred and Steve for their help during the build, Dante at Dante’s Mopar Parts, Tony at Tony’s Mopar Parts, Firm Feel, North American Muscle Cars, Year One, Shane at Wideglide Panelbeaters, Steve Levine, CA Levien Mediablasters, Chuck’s Restorations, West Auckland Engine Reconditioners, Western Auto Electrical, Tim at Allcare Upholstery
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Adam Croy[Gallery not found]