Ryan Mendoza’s ’73 Dodge Challenger

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It’s 1989. Nine-year-old Ryan Mendoza gets hooked on hot rodding by the Dodge Challenger.

THIS Dodge Challenger.

At that time, it had a warmed-over 383, a 727 transmission, and not much else. A neighbor with a ‘63 Corvette wanted to race. And Ryan’s dad Rudy smoked him.

“That feeling of V8 power,” Ryan told me, “was something entirely different than I’ve ever felt. It was a wake up call. And I thought, ‘I kind of like this!’

“We’d had nothing but regular cars. My dad had a Fiat Spider with 130 horsepower. He drove the Challenger and said ‘This car has some balls.’ The neighbor would always call my dad and say ‘Let’s race’. We were kind of intimidated – he owned an engine shop, the 327 in that Vette was built. My dad went by him in that $1800 Challenger. I couldn’t believe this car beat that Vette. And he never wanted to race Dad again.”

That set the stage for Ryan to get into hot rodding. And boy did he ever.

Ryan got the Challenger in 1998, when he graduated from high school. “My dad said if I don’t graduate, I don’t get the car,” Ryan told me. “It was a wreck. Primered. No carpet, no interior. All motor. I didn’t have much money. I just drove it to work and school.”

That 383 was starting to float the valves, so Ryan thought he’d just rebuild the motor and keep the Challenger a race-style car. But, “one thing led to another,” he told me, and the Dodge got totally rebuilt.

The front suspension got a complete overhaul. It still has the Mopar torsion bars, but Ryan replaced the rest of it with an aftermarket tubular K-member and tubular upper and lower control arms.

That aftermarket K-member can hold everything from a 318 small block to a 440 big block, but Ryan wanted a Hemi. Specifically a 6.1 liter SRT Hemi from 2008 Charger Daytona. Ryan installed the correct motor mounts, and it went in just fine.

The Hemi is internally stock for right now. Ryan has installed Doug Thorley headers and 3″ exhaust pipes flowing to a set of MagnaFlow mufflers. He happily reported, “It’s pretty tame when you drive it on the street, but pretty loud when you step on it.”

The SRT mates up to a 545RFE 5-speed overdrive automatic transmission from a 2004 Dodge Ram 1500. When I asked Ryan if it was difficult installing the late model transmission in a 1973 Challenger, he sighed and said, “Oh my God…”

“The hardest part,” he said, “was cutting the floor out of the car to fit the trans, which is a lot taller than the 727. And I had to modify the stock transmission crossmember with a mount from a 1965 Impala.”

I asked Ryan how in the world he figured out that a mount from a ‘65 Impala would work.

“I have a friend who worked at NAPA Auto Parts,” Ryan said. “And I asked him if I could look through the books because they have all the measurements listed. I saw the Impala mount and thought ‘I can make this work’. The holes line up perfectly to the trans. I just welded up an L-bracket on the existing crossmember and added some support tabs.”

Ryan controls the RFE with a B&M shifter. The trans drives the stock 8 ¾ inch rear end with 3.91 gears on a Positraction differential. There are upgraded Mopar disk brakes in the front and stock drum brakes in the rear – but the drums will be going away soon.

Ryan uses a Hydroboost hydraulic (not vacuum) power brake system from a GM Astro. “It’s amazing,” he said. “If you want to stop, it’ll stop you. It’s really hard core. I have to be careful. If you slam on the brakes it will lock them up. All of them.”

The Hydroboost runs off the power steering pump on the pressure side. Ryan installed a modern Mopar master cylinder and figured out the correct pedal length to match. The master cylinder’s proportioning valve reduces the pressure to the rear drums because they don’t like high pressure. That’s why those drum brakes will be replaced in the near future.

Those gorgeous wheels were custom made for Ryan by Esajian Wheel. He’s got 18 x 8s up front with Michelin tires. The rear Esajians are 18 x 9.5 with Nitto NTL5 rubber.

This Dodge has come a long way from its primered, no interior beginnings. The first generation Challenger is arguably one of the most beautiful muscle cars ever built, and Ryan has worked hard to enhance that.

He shaved off the emblems, door handles, and sidelights. Ryan created a custom gas cap from a Triumph motorcycle. He used modified 1970 bumper brackets to pull the bumpers in closer to the body front and rear. He also removed the huge 73 bumper guards and bumperettes, and shaved the bumper bolts. His overall goal was to emphasize the Challenger’s prominent body line down the side of the car. “That line to me is very iconic,” Ryan said.

The super smooth body is a perfect canvas for the 2000 Porsche Boxer silver paint. Ryan knew he wanted to paint his car silver, but he wasn’t sure exactly what color to pick. So the guy who painted it gave Ryan a book of silver paints, with the paint codes and names covered. He told Ryan to circle the color he liked. Then he gave Ryan a second book, also with the names covered, and told Ryan to circle his favorite from those.

“I”ll be damned,” the painter told Ryan, “You picked the same color two times in a row. You know what that means? We’re going to paint it that color.” Obviously, it was an excellent choice.

The newly completed interior is the final stage in the transformation. Sergio at Orange Auto Upholstery In Orange, CA, did a complete overhaul, including Acura Integra seats and customized door panels. Ryan and a friend built a custom center console which Sergio wrapped to match the interior. A complete set of Auto Meter gauges sit in the stock bezels in the dash.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the interior was the one piece suede headliner Sergio created. The stock Challenger headliner has five ribs across the top to hold it in. Ryan didn’t want that.

“A lot of guys said they wouldn’t do it,” Ryan said. “Sergio did it. I love it. To me it’s one of the best parts of the interior and you don’t even see it unless you look up.”

Future plans call for a hotter cam in the Hemi and a cooler air in the passenger compartment, thanks to a Vintage Air air conditioner. Ryan’s thinking about a supercharger too, but he really likes the flat hood on his Challenger and is worried he won’t have the needed hood clearance. His is the only late model Hemi swap he knows of that has retained a flat hood.

A trip to the drag strip might be in the Challenger’s future as well. Ryan would like to see what it will run in street trim. His lifelong goal has been to own a door car drag racer – like a Pro Stock. In fact, Ryan is the administrator of the @pro_stockers account on Instagram.

But the Challenger isn’t going to be a race car. It means too much to Ryan and his family.

“It’s got a lot of sentimental value,” he told me. “That’s why I put so much heart into it. It’s part of my dad. It’s part of me. It was a turning point in my life. When my dad bought it, it was something entirely different than I’d ever felt – the power of a car. You could hear the engine winding up and it was like ‘Alright!’ It’s something I’ll always remember.

“There are a lot of memories – so many good times.”

Ryan and his dad Rudy

Photos courtesy of Ryan Mendoza
Click here to see more photos of Ryan’s Challenger
You can follow Ryan on Instagram at @ryanleemendoza


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