1966 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere – A Survivor Story
Serendipity: The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
There is simply no other word more fitting for Michael Knispel’s adventure with this unrestored, 800-original mile, 426 Hemi-powered ‘66 Belvedere. Yes, you read all that right.
Michael was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer from Agent Orange poisoning and his doctor told him to “take his last vacation.” After some searching he found a doctor in an Arizona Clinic willing to try a treatment, even though his Gleason Score was a 9. That was in 2010.
Understandably depressed, he decided to look for an old car to take his mind off things.
He was attending his granddaughter’s birthday party when he found a guy advertising five cars in the Omaha World-Herald classifieds. He called and went to check them out. There were lots of other cars on the property and three rows of cars parked two-wide inside a barn, one of them a ‘64 Chevelle with a 454.
“I knew a ‘64 Chevelle didn’t come with a 454,” says Michael. “After that, I kind of just took everything he said with a grain of salt, especially when he said he had a Hemi drag car with only 800 miles in the back behind the others. I just kind of said ‘yeah right’ and didn’t even look at it.”
He was told the car had a Dick Landy engine under the hood, but the original 426 was stored safely upstairs. The other cars had potential, but they all needed lengthy restorations. “With my condition, I wasn’t exactly looking for a four-year project car,” he says.
Though he didn’t purchase the car, the story did stick in his mind and in 2016 when he was visiting his grandkids once again, something told him to call his son back home in Nebraska. He asked him to see if there was a newspaper on the floor by his desk with a phone number in the margin.
Surprisingly enough it was, and six and a half years later the guy not only remembered who Michael was when he called, he’d sold dozens of cars but still had the Belvedere. More intrigued than on his initial visit, Michael was more than welcome to come look at it.
Upon his arrival, he learned that the car had been in the barn for 12 years and never had a water hose put to it. It seemed nice, though he didn’t exactly know who Dick Landy was, or much about Mopars in general. “All I really knew about Mopars was that some of them came in those funky colors,” says Michael. “I was wondering not only why nobody had bought the car, but where would I start to find out if it was real or not.”
Cue up the serendipitous music. He went back to his granddaughters’ birthday party and his wife was on the phone. She asked if he wanted to speak to Steve on the other end. Steve is the other grandpa of the grandkids.
“I wondered what I would talk to him about, and then I remembered he was fixing up a ‘54 Corvette he had inherited,” says Michael. “After listening to the updates, I told him about the car I had just looked at, and he said if it’s the red 426 Hemi Belvedere in the barn, he knew that car. In fact, the guy who bought it brand new had lived two houses down from him, when Steve still lived in Omaha, and he knew his name and said it was still in the phone book. He also knew a drag racer named Kenny Schram who ran with the guy back in the day. Within 15 minutes I had the full lowdown on this car I had just seen but knew absolutely nothing about. One chance phone call.”
He called the seller back but got no answer. This was in November. He tried a few more times over the holidays and got no answer. “After a while, I started wondering if he was okay,” says Michael. “Finally I texted him and said forget the car, are YOU okay?”
That was in January. The guy finally responded that he was indeed fine, and the car was still there, he’d just not been paying much attention to his cell phone. The two talked back and forth on price, and after a while, Michael said he “knew what the seller wanted for the car, but asked what did he NEED for the car,” and they finally arrived at a price. Twelve years this Hemi car had sat in the barn, mind you.
A little while later Michael gets another call: If he really wants the car can he come get it this weekend? If he can’t find a trailer, he can even use the sellers. After talking with his wife, they decided they needed to act fast. They rented an open car trailer from U-Haul and set out on a Friday morning. They loaded the car and found a neighbor with a tractor and a forklift to retrieve the original Hemi from the top of the barn. They headed back on their four-hour drive later that night, battling high winds, and stopping for gas to take a photo of “Bringing Big Red Home.”
Once safely inside the garage, Michael began lightly cleaning the top with a duster, and as he walked down the side of the car, he heard something suddenly fall to the floor behind him. The black plastic insert that said “Belvedere” had fallen out of the metal emblem, seemingly without provocation.
“Now why that fell off just then, in my garage, and not at any time during the bumpy trailer ride home, I don’t know,” says Michael.
He didn’t fully realize how special the car was until a Mopar enthusiast stopped by for a closer look after spotting the car in the open garage. This guy raced Mopars and he climbed all over the car, noting that the exhaust pipe still had the blue stripe on it and there wasn’t a speck of rust on the gas tank. The Landy-built engine, too, was a jaw-dropper and he had to bring a more technically-savvy friend back to check it out.
So what’s the story? After piecing it all together here’s how it goes.
In the 1960s Ed Jochim, the car’s original owner, was drag racing a Ford, that Jay Leno now owns. Tired of getting his “butt kicked by the Hydro Automatics” he went out and ordered this 1966 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere brand new. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a big enough torque converter, and his main competitor was not only leaving the line at 4,000 RPM, he had a sponsorship and a van full of transmissions. In 1971 the car was sold for $2600.
The speedometer had been disconnected for racing after 29 miles, and a tach and oil pressure were run through the speaker hole in the dash. The car had been ordered as a radio and heater delete car without power steering or brakes. The original engine was pulled by the second owner to be fitted with 12:1 compression pistons. Unfortunately, the pistons were put in backwards and it bent the valves. Astonishingly enough, they kept the original pistons and Michael now has them.
The car was raced with a 440 while the 426 was out. The new owner, Mr. Johnson, bought it to race but ended up parking it when he started his family. He would own the car 32 years. At some point, he bought a ‘67 GTX with a Hemi. He pulled the engine and sold the car body, and took the Hemi to Dick Landy in California. Every note, receipt, and slip of paper was kept from the Landy build, right down to directions to his shop, notes on the progress, a 550hp dyno slip, and a shipping receipt back to Nebraska. This was around 1988.
The Landy engine was put in the car and it spent most of its life traveling very little before it was sold to “Mopar Dave” where it sat for 12 years before Michael bought it. The car is fully documented, having all of the build sheets, paperwork, receipts and other items meticulously stored in manila envelopes. Michael backtracked the previous owners and had them sign papers authenticating the mileage and progress over the years.
Today the car remains in an amazing state of unrestored beauty. The wheels and tires on the car haven’t been replaced and are the ones the car was raced on. The rear fender lips were carefully rolled in to fit the slicks, and done without damaging the paint.
The interior is showroom fresh, as is the chassis and engine bay. The original Hemi exhaust manifolds were later retrieved from a collapsed barn and put back on the car. Since the GTX parts car had come with a complete engine, Michael has two sets of everything. The original engine is complete, even down to things like the air cleaner, and could be assembled and put on an engine stand.
The car currently resides in a museum and Michael resides in disbelief.
“How this car was able to stay in storage for so long, and then end up in my hands and a guy who doesn’t know anything about Mopars is beyond me,” he says. “I didn’t even know who Dick Landy was. But the appreciation of others when they see the car has been a huge source of joy for me, and I’m glad I was lucky enough to not only purchase the car but to put the story together for others to enjoy and marvel at. I just thought it looked nice.”
Photography by Damon Lee