There are Mopar guys, and then there’s Steve Mirabelli. It’s nearly impossible to impart a sense of this man’s skill level without resorting to what some will perceive as hyperbole, but tough nails. We haven’t seen a fabricator this good come along since Troy Trepanier. As you’ll see, Mirabelli has amassed a highly refined arsenal of skills, ranging from historian and artist, to master fabricator, body man, and racecar builder.
Our story opens with an innocuous phone call to Philly-based freelance photographer, John Machaqueiro. An artist in his own right, Machaqueiro wanted to tell us about a prime candidate for a feature. When the usually well-composed Machaqueiro launched into an excited, semi-lucid rant about some guy on Facebook down in North Carolina who was cross-pollinating a late-model SRT8 with a 1968 Dodge Charger body to make a clone of a ’69 Dodge Daytona, it seemed too crazy to be real.
In order to pull off a project like this-to look convincing, be a truly drivable car, to retain all of its functionality right down to the littlest luxury item, and to be street-legal in the most rigorous interpretation-it would require an unlikely confluence of well-honed competencies combined with the biblical patience of Job. It’s not that we don’t know guys who could pull it off, it’s that he came out of nowhere.
A quick Web search turned up a treasure trove of photos and blow-by-blow descriptions posted by Mirabelli on Facebook, and a 51-page thread on the DodgeCharger.com message board. Seconds turned into minutes, which turned into hours. Seeing Mirabelli’s creation come to fruition in photos is like eating Doritos: you’re compelled to eat the whole bag. We needed to find this guy pronto.
Studying Mirabelli’s photos and reading his captions left us dumbfounded. As the deceptively simple proposition of dropping a vintage Charger body onto a late-model LX chassis unfolded, the complexity of the job and the problem-solving acumen of Mirabelli was revealed. It’s like reading a Tom Clancy novel-only you’re seeing it in metal. Something as simple as creating a functional, leak-free air inlet for the HVAC system-all while fabricating a sub-cowl panel and cowl vents, leaving enough room for a wiper transmission (which he also built himself), allowing for proper cowl drainage, and tweaking a nearby hood hinge-takes on a series of fascinating twists, and that’s just one task out of hundreds. At a company like Chrysler, it takes a dozen engineers, a room-full of super computers, and a studio of stylists to resolve the sort of mechanical conflicts and design issues that Mirabelli holds in his head. Like we said, it boggles.
Throughout Mirabelli’s Daytona, examples of creative problem solving are everywhere, the vintage Charger body’s integration onto the late-model LX platform being just the most evident. When you think he can’t top himself, he comes up with even more clever solutions for melding old with new, making it look better than it did before-something that only happens when the eye of an artist is connected to the hands of a mad fabricator. We’ve seen guys try to combine different cars, and it usually results in a highly polished hot mess. This, however, is a clear exception to that rule. For his part, Steve is implacably modest, rejecting even the simplest of praise. “Please don’t make a big deal out of it. The guys at work will bust my chops,” Steve chided us. Of course, when your day job is building NASCAR Sprint Cup cars for Hendrick Motorsports, your sense of normal might be a little skewed.
Therein lies one of the keys to understanding why Mirabelli does things the way he does. If a big-name restoration shop makes a mistake or cuts a corner in the process of rebuilding a rare Hemi car, the fat-cat owner might get a little bent out of shape-if he even spots the problem. If Mirabelli makes a mistake on a Cup car, serious money is lost, or worse, people get hurt. It’s a high-stakes business, and the 60-year-old Mirabelli is a ball-buster for perfection. “I can be a bit thin-skinned when things get intense at work, which is an almost daily occurrence,” admits Mirabelli. Just knowing that should give you a sense for how it’s even possible for Mirabelli’s Daytona project to be a “relaxing” pastime.
To that end, Mirabelli has spent the last four years planning and concocting his Daytona-all on nights and weekends (ones that don’t fall on top of Sprint Cup races). Adding to the workload was the desire to document everything in pictures and text, mostly for folks he’s never met but who provide a well of emotional support. In a world of trolls and hacks, Steve has pulled off one of the great miracles of the internet in the sense that, well, most everybody likes him. One thing you can agree on is that the Mopar community-especially the nit-picky aero crowd-doesn’t suffer fools well; a car as audacious as this one will certainly raise hackles if anything is the least bit off in terms of historical accuracy, mechanical fluency, or fabrication skill. Mirabelli’s “clone” certainly will raise the hackles of chalk-mark gawkers, but Steve has good reason for every single departure from the norm, and he’s eager to school anybody who takes issue. (“One of the features that had bothered me about the Daytona nose was what looked like an afterthought of a grille,” says Mirabelli.)
Since childhood, Mirabelli and his family have been nuts about stock car racing. (His home movies of the 1971 Talladega race on his Facebook page made us nostalgic.) An early career in art led him to work in the signage and exhibit-building business. “Growing up, I used to fancy myself to be an artist. I loved to draw, sculpt, carve wood, and just plain create,” writes Mirabelli on his Facebook page. A side business selling racing-related art prints put him one step closer. Then, a three-day seminar learning how to hang stock car bodies in 1990 fully engulfed Mirabelli. By 1997, he had moved to NASCAR country and was working on Busch Grand National series cars. The rest as they say is history.
That said, the exterior of Mirabelli’s Daytona does deviate in subtle ways from the original. The only piece of luck granted him by fate was that the late-model LX’s wheel base and track is the same as the vintage ’68 Charger. Notwithstanding, the massive mismatch in cowl height-a whopping three inches-made sure this was anything but a slam dunk. Coarse measurements aside, cognoscenti will note stuff like the Superbird-look nose, “incorrect” drop-down headlight doors, updated side mirrors, one-piece door glass, late-model door handles, recessed wipers/cowl, carbon-fiber accent pieces, and the low-key fuel-filler door. The hydrographic carbon-fiber-look wing graphics will no doubt send purists into hysterics, but nevertheless they pay homage to the modern technology that lies beneath. The point is, this is not your garden-variety Daytona, so there’s no use pretending.
If we set aside for the moment the array of capabilities needed to bring this modern-day Daytona clone to life, we can see a boyish curiosity in its underlying principle: If you could have any car you wanted, what would it be? In answering that inner voice, Mirabelli didn’t hesitate: he wanted a ’69 Daytona with all the power, performance, safety, economy, and serviceability of a new SRT8 Hemi. If you’re eight years old, you buy a couple of model cars and “kit bash” one together. (Yes, Steve actually did that too.) If you build Cup cars for a living, you get out the plasma cutter, chassis table, and MIG welder.
One of the interesting things that becomes evident after scrolling through, oh, a couple hundred of Mirabelli’s build photos [HotRod.com] is his delight in crafting something that is just as elegant as it is clever. With other car builders, stuff like interior door panels, trunk close-outs, instrument panels, dash pads, and consoles often take on blockish, flamboyant, or cartoonish proportion, convincing us that their sole purpose in life is to impress car show judges or justify the owners of their cost. Famous car builder Bobby Alloway once confided in us after being beaten for Street Machine Of The Year, “I guess I needed 167 pieces of billet on my car this year.” It would’ve been funny if it weren’t so true. In this regard, Mirabelli runs opposite to the prevailing trend. Unlike most contemporary car show winners, this Daytona’s interior has not been dipped in glue, then tossed in a bowl of billet-aluminum Legos. Rather, Mirabelli has become adept at creating OE-inspired interior pieces that most people will assume are from some other kind of car.
Seeing Mirabelli’s Daytona for the first time, we were reminded of how we felt when we first saw the LX-platform Dodge Daytona in 2006-the chassis on which Mirabelli’s clone is based. Sitting down for dinner at the Charger’s long-lead debut with Dodge stylist Jeff Gales-the man who penned the 2006 Charger-we remember grilling him about the looks of the then-new LX-it’s performance, utility, and value notwithstanding. (We would later find out the Charger was never supposed to be called that; it only ended up that way after a dealer council meeting vote.) By meal’s end, the affable Mr. Gales had talked us into the style, and we soon forgot about our desire for two doors, sleek coke-bottle styling, and a tunnel-back rear light. With Mirabelli’s ruthlessly loyal take on the world’s most iconic Charger, however, we are now right back where we started, wanting a “real” Charger on an LX chassis. Mirabelli has proven without a shadow of a doubt that it can be done.
As work on the Daytona came to a close, Mirabelli discovered he had one final hurdle to overcome, and it was a big one: getting it registered to drive in North Carolina. Rather than just transplant a newer engine and transmission into an older body to make registration simple, Mirabelli had so convincingly integrated the chassis and gray metal from the 2006 Charger that DMV officials initially were unconvinced. It’s the harder road to take from a mechanical and fabrication standpoint, and it’s a better route from a handling and safety angle, but government doesn’t always see things the same way.
Just when it seemed the Daytona would be destined the rest of its days to do Dukes of Hazzard donuts in the backyard, the state relented; all Steve needed was one official who would take the time to better understand the car’s construction, and the laws as they were written. “There’s no chassis involved on a B-Body, so the water was a little muddy,” says Steve. “The 1968 rocker panels underneath the doors-they are the framerails of the car. Since I maintained those framerails, that’s how I was able to designate it as a 1968 car. The rocker panels are actually the frame of the car, and all I did was clarify that. We both came to an understanding about that.” Only days before our photo shoot, Mirabelli got his tags and the go-ahead to drive it.
By his own account, Mirabelli has about 3,000 man hours in the Daytona. Said another way, that’s about 14 hours each weekend over the course of four years. With the Daytona finished, Steve now has a big hole in his life that he’ll have to fill with something else. Sure, he’ll drive it and be happy behind the wheel for a while, but by his own admission, that’s going to grow old in a hurry. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now that it’s finished. I’m so used to working on it. I guess I’ll have to look for another project,” says Steve. “I’ll probably go back to work on my house. I’ve been neglecting it for four years.” As hard as it is to imagine being easily bored with a car like this, just try for a moment imagining that you either built every piece on a car, or massaged every part to fit your needs. Perhaps then you can understand what it truly means to “own” a car in every sense of the word.
2006 Dodge Charger SRT8 “Daytona”
Type: Chrysler Hemi 6.1L, Gen III series, overhead valve V8
Bore x stroke: 4.06 (bore) x 3.58 (stroke), 370 ci
Block: factory Gen III deep-skirt cast iron with cross-bolted main caps
Rotating assembly: factory forged crankshaft, stock connecting rods, stock
cast aluminum pistons
Compression: stock 10.3:1
Cylinder heads: stock 6.1L, A319 cast aluminum alloy, hemispherical combustion chamber
Camshaft: stock Chrysler hydraulic-roller, .571-/.551-inch lift, 221/225
degrees @ .050-inch lift, 117-degree LSA
Valvetrain: stock 6.1L Hemi 1.6:1 rocker assembly, springs, & valves, non-MDS
Induction: naturally aspirated, tuned-runner
Fuel system: sequential, multi-port, electronic, returnless fuel injection
Exhaust: stock 2006 Charger SRT-8 exhaust manifolds, stock SRT8
stainless exhaust, stock SRT8 resonators removed
Ignition: factory coil-on-plug
Cooling: stock 6.1L
Fuel: 91-octane gasoline
Output: 425 hp at 6,200 rpm, 420 lb-ft at 4.800 rpm
Engine built by: Chrysler Saltillo plant; Ramos Arizpe, Mexico
Transmission: NAG1-derived W5A580 5-speed automatic with factory lock-up converter
Driveshaft: stock multi-piece
Rearend: stock Chrysler center section with 3.06:1 rear gears
Front suspension: stock independent SLA with SPC Performance upper “A” arms (to correct
camber for extreme lowering), H&R lowering springs over stock Bilstein
gas-charged shocks, stabilizer bar, lateral diagonal lower links
Rear suspension: stock five-link independent with coil springs, link-type stabilizer bar,
gas-charged Bilstein shocks, isolated suspension cradle
Steering: rack and pinion with hydraulic assist
Front brakes: stock SRT8, 14.2-inch x 1.26-inch rotors with Brembo 4-piston calipers
Rear brakes: stock SRT8, 13.8 x 1.10-inch rotors with Brembo 4-piston calipers
Chassis: stock 2006 SRT Charger unibody
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels: 20 x 9-inch Liquid Metal Motorsports
Tires: Goodyear 245/45ZR20
Seats: stock SRT8 Charger
Instruments: stock SRT8 Charger dashboard and instrument cluster
Stereo: stock SRT8
Steering wheel: stock SRT8
Shifter: stock SRT8
Other: custom inner door panels, headliner, and headliner console to match
SRT8, custom door glass
The post It’s Finished! 1969 Daytona Is Really A 2006 Charger SRT8! appeared first on Hot Rod Network.