Sean Thomas likes Mopars. Plural. With an “s”.
It was his ‘77 Dodge van, Vanther, that first caught my attention. And then the 1971 Chrysler 300 his wife drives. We talked about his ‘71 Charger that he still misses. In addition to Vanther, he’s had Crazy Van, and is now working on Yellow Submarine – an original YH3 Street Van. There’s the 1970 Duster he recently acquired, which replaced the ‘71 and ‘76 Dusters he used to have. He’s also got a 1969 Plymouth Fury that people are always wanting to buy from him. (It’s not for sale.) And let’s not forget the ‘73 Rectrans Discoverer streamlined RV.
Like I said… Mopars. With an “s”.
Let’s start with his wife’s 1971 Chrysler 300. Sean found out about it from Milton at Wolf’s Machine shop in North Carolina. Wolf’s was building the 440 that was going to end up in Vanther.
Milton was best friends with Kelly, the guy in Ohio who owned the 300. Kelly was planning to move to Florida and Milton thought the car was for sale. He gave Kelly’s phone number to Sean. But when Sean called, Kelly said he’d changed his mind. That was July, 2018, and by the way… it was warm in Ohio.
“Fast forward to January 2019,” Sean recalled, “and there was a terrible cold snap up there. Milton said to me ‘Did Kelly call you? He’s ready to get the hell out of there.’”
Sean called and told Kelly he’d come that weekend to get the car, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually seen the 300. Sean and his wife drove 9 1/2 hours to Ohio to get it. When they got there, the car wasn’t running. Sean suspected an ignition problem.
The radiator and headers were loose, the hood was off the car, and there were six inches of snow on the ground. Somehow – “adrenaline” he said – Sean picked up the hood (it’s a really big hood) and set it on the car while his wife started the hood bolts.
Sean had to remove the trailer from his Ram pickup and use the Ram to pull 300 out of the garage. Then he had to hook up the trailer back up and use a come along to get the car onto the trailer. “It was 2 pm and about 18 degrees,” Sean recalled. He and his wife drove the 300 home to Georgia that night.
Sean reattached the radiator and headers. He put some fuel in the tank, and the 300 fired right up. But once the engine got warm, it started acting up. As Sean suspected, it was an ignition problem. He replaced the existing ignition box with an MSD Street Fire, and while he was at it, he replaced the Edelbrock carb with a Holley he had in the garage. Since then, the 300 has run flawlessly, including a 700 mile round-trip drive last summer to a car show and swap meet.
The 440 big block in the 300 has ported and polished heads and a full dual exhaust behind those headers. I suspected it was producing some good horsepower, and Sean said “It’s pretty good.” With the factory 2.76 gears in the rear end, it’s a cruiser. Sean described it as “long legged.”
In keeping with the car’s classic heritage, Sean set it up initially with Keystone Classic wheels and air shocks. But to get the necessary rear wheel clearance he had to pump up the air shocks pretty full.
“You pump the air shocks up and it’s just about like welding the suspension solid,” he said. Something had to change and Sean decided it should be the wheels.
Sean found a set of 15 x 8½ American Racing Torque-Thrust TTO (Torque Thrust Original) wheels at a swap meet in Ohio. The TTOs, with 255/60/15 tires, allowed him to let the air out of the air shocks, so he and his wife can enjoy the ride comfort the 300 was designed for.
“I have built and sold a few cars in my life,” Sean told me, “but that Charger was one I literally choked back the tears on. It was a once in a lifetime build.”
The 1971 Charger was the first Mopar Sean built. The four year build started with just an engine. “I bought a 383 out of a 1970 Super Bee,” Sean said. “It was a perfect motor.” With such a good motor in his garage, he needed the right car to put it in. He found it on Craig’s List in 2014.
It was a factory 383 Charger 500 for sale in Greenville, South Carolina. The man who owned the car was going to paint it in 1984, but he passed away before he could. The Charger was then pushed out in the woods, with the windows down, and sat there from ‘84 to 2014. The man’s family sold the car to Sean.
It took four years for Sean to gather all the parts. As you can imagine there was a lot of rust on the car, although the roof and the doors were in decent shape. Sean was able to find some body panels and fixed up most of it, but no one had Charger front fenders. When Sean would call about them, people would just laugh.
He called Stevens Performance in Alabama, which Sean described as “the biggest Mopar junkyard in the world.” Sean recalled what Ted Stevens said to him about front fenders for the Charger: “He chuckled and said, ‘If I had one that a tree had fallen on, and it had been in saltwater, you’re probably looking at about $550. Then if it’s pristine, you can just imagine what we’d want for it. There’s just none out there.’”
But eventually, Sean was able to cobble together the body parts he needed, flipping passenger side components around to work on the driver’s side. The entire month of May, 2015 was spent replacing the floor pan.
One of his friends had an Air Grabber hood stored in his parents’ basement. “I paid him more for the hood than I paid for the whole damn car,” Sean said. He found the vacuum-activated switch to open the scoop on eBay. The switch wasn’t cheap either.
Sean went with a complete 70s look for the Charger. It had Thrush side pipes and Formula One Super Stock tires – N50s on the back, G60s on the front.
As much as he enjoyed the Charger, Sean had the itch to build something else, and he had to sell it. “I love building them,” Sean told me, “but for me to go to the next project, I have to liquidate what I’ve got.”
Vanther was the second Mopar Sean bought, in December, 2015. He wanted to build something different. As is the case for most of Sean’s cars, there’s an interesting story behind how he acquired it.
“There was a hippie in Smyrna, Georgia,” Sean told me. “This guy was getting ready to go off the grid. He had logs in his driveway and he was hand hewing the logs to build a cabin out of them. He had the van and a trike. He traded the trike for a piece of property in South Georgia that was in the middle of nowhere. He was getting close to having the cabin finished and he was wanting to buy solar panels. He was selling the van for solar panels.”
The money Sean got from selling the Charger went into building Vanther. “Well, that money plus some,” he clarified. The additional money was needed because when he got it, Vanther wasn’t in good shape. Even though it had a new transmission, there was a driveline vibration. Sean said the hippie had painted the van, “basically with a paint brush,” and someone had put motorhome windows in the back.
Sean got to work on a complete rebuild. During the course of the build, he’s removed every nut and bolt on the van, except the bolts holding the cargo doors on. He changed every bit of the running gear.
A 1972 440 big block went in. It’s been balanced and blueprinted, and features Edelbrock Estreet heads that have been ported, polished, and flowed. David Smith in Dahlonega, Georgia built a brand new Holley 770 Street Avenger.
A set of ceramic coated headers feed into 2016 Scat Pack mufflers and then into the classic zoomie exhaust tips exiting just in front of the rear wheels. Sean thought those mufflers would be quieter than they are, but, that’s OK with him. “I like them loud,” he told me. Based on the specs of the engine, the 440 is putting out about 600 horsepower.
Sean’s got factory wheels on Vanther, but he’s had the rear wheels widened to 12” by a shop in Calhoun, Georgia. Since they’re still Mopar wheels, the factory dog dish fits perfectly. Sean’s got Pro-Trac tires all around, but he mounted Mickey Thompson lettering on them for a muscle car theme.
Those motorhome windows did not sit well with Sean. He found a van at a junkyard that had good sides on it, cut the sides out, and had a body shop install them in Vanther. Sean then installed Pentastar port windows, and sanded off the hippie’s paint job. A buddy’s body shop applied new paint. Although Vanther is not a factory YH3 Street Van, Sean mounted a set of Street Van emblems on the Dodge. The emblems have been airbrushed in red, white, and blue by his artist friend Gail.
Of course, no 70s van is complete without a far out interior, and Vanther’s got one. Sean’s got 2012 Scat Pack bucket seats up front, and factory seats in the rear. Sean took the dash out and recovered it himself. He took a pistol grip shifter from a ‘Cuda four-speed, heated and flattened it out, and then mounted it on Vanther’s column shifter. The suede leather cover blends it all in.
Last summer Sean asked the folks at Wilson Upholstery in Cedartown, Georgia to make a custom dog house cover for Vanther. When the folks at Wilson asked if he wanted anything special for the cover, Sean said, “Instead of diamond tuck, do you think you could put the pentastar in that thing?” They could and they did, making a very unique and great looking cover.
Sean said Vanther is a blast to drive, and that includes at the drag strip. Wanting to know exactly what his Dodge could do performance-wise, he took it to the track in Calhoun, Georgia.
“I hauled it down there,” Sean said about trailering Vanther to the strip. “I told my wife, ‘I’m hauling it because I’m going to find out what it does and I may bust it all to hell.’”
He wanted to know how the van performed in its normal street trim. So he pulled to the starting line with a full tank of gas, the air conditioning running, and his tool box and a cooler (with ice) inside.
Sean was worried Vanther wouldn’t hook. He was wrong. “When I launched it I thought I was going to black out,” he said. “It launched so hard I lifted out of the throttle.”
Vanther made three passes down the eighth-mile track, and got faster with each pass. Even with mild 3.23 gears and 28″ tall rear tires, Sean was posting 2 second 60′ times and 8.80 elapsed times. That translates to 13 second quarter-mile times. Very impressive.
Despite its impressive showing, Vanther wasn’t built for the drag strip. “It’s a driver,” Sean said. “It’s got nicks and chips because I get that thing out and use it. I’m not going to build something that I can’t use.”
Crazy Van and Yellow Submarine
Sean was waiting at the body shop while Vanther was being painted. Someone came in and told him he knew of another van just like it. The van belonged to Charlie, and Sean got Charlie’s phone number.
“As soon as I heard his voice,” Sean said, “I thought, I know this guy, he’s a customer of mine.” Sean and Charlie struck a deal and that’s the van that became Crazy Van.
Crazy Van had a 318, but it had been sitting for a couple of years, and the motor mounts were broken. Sean replaced the 318 with a 440 that he freshened up with a new cam and valve springs. Then he built a custom exhaust including a pair of Patriot side pipes, which initially had muffler inserts in them. “I didn’t have the inserts in for 5 mintues,” Sean told me. “I took them out. It was too quiet.”
Sean had a lot of fun with Crazy Van, but he sold it last summer, probably to make room for the Yellow Submarine van. Yellow Submarine is a genuine YH3 Street Van that Sean’s just begun restoring.
The 1970 Duster joined Sean’s stable last summer. Three years ago he’d bought a ‘71 Slant Six Duster he was going to rebuild with the help of a ‘76 Duster for parts. “I thought it [the ’71] was more solid than it was,” Sean said. “The right hand floor pan had more rust than I wanted to fool with.”
Surfing on Facebook last year, he saw a factory 340 Duster for sale, without a motor or transmission. Sean called the owner about buying it. The owner told him he was already talking with someone else. “I said, ‘Listen, I’ll come today and bring cash.’” Sean told me. “I checked it out and bought it.”
The Duster is a factory high performance 340 model with Kelsey-Hayes 4 caliper disc brakes, and a Rallye dashboard, complete with 150 mph speedometer. Sean’s acquired a 340 X-head motor for the Duster, and will convert the automatic transmission / bench seat car to a 4-speed with bucket seats.
Sean’s already got a set of perfect T70s Torque-Thrust wheels in the period correct 14 x 8 size to put on it. He’s going to keep the exhaust period correct as well with Thrush mufflers running through pipes that hang down just a little bit off the floor pan, because, Sean said, “that’s how they did it in the 70s.”
Maybe Sean’s most ambitious aspect of the Duster build is going to be the paint. The car was originally painted Rallye Red, but somewhere along the line, someone had primed it.
“I’m getting real big on the original paint cars,” Sean told me. “I was looking at the Duster, got some sandpaper and started wet sanding it. I sanded the primer off on a test spot on the hood. There was paint below the primer. I sanded through that paint and got down to the factory paint. I got some buffer compound and buffed that spot. It’s unreal how good the paint looks.”
Sean did a second test spot on the roof with results that were just as good. He’s not sure if the entire car will work out as well, but he’s going to try to save the original paint.
The Rectrans Discoverer is a unique RV built on a Dodge chassis. It was designed by Larry Shinoda, who also designed the first Corvette Stingrays and the Boss 302 Mustang.
The Rectrans was the first motor home to be designed in a wind tunnel. Shinoda’s goals were to create an 11,000 pound vehicle that got 11 mpg and could go 0-60 in 11 seconds. Sean’s going to rebuild it, and has already planned out the Sublime Green and black stripe paint job.
The 1969 Plymouth Fury four door is the runaround car for Sean’s tire and maintenance shop, Sean Thomas Tires, in Hiawassee, Georgia. He saw it advertised on Facebook. Sean was interested, but didn’t want to allocate any cash to it. When the Fury was still available after six months, Sean had an idea.
“I had an ATV four wheeler at the shop that I hadn’t used for a while,” he said. “I sent a picture and told the guy I’d trade the ATV for the Plymouth.” They agreed to an even swap and Sean got the Fury.
The driver’s seat was destroyed, and for the time being, Sean has replaced it with the seat from a junkyard Lincoln Continental. (He’ll eventually replace it with the correct C-body seat.) It has headers and dual exhaust and four wheel drum brakes. And other than a heater, windshield wipers, and a radio… not much else.
Despite its basic accoutrements and rode-hard looks, Sean keeps getting asked if he’ll sell it. “You wouldn’t believe the people aggravating me trying to buy that car,” he told me. “It’s not really worth anything, but I’d rather have the car than $10,000 cash.”
How’s that for a stable of cars? That doesn’t even count the ’55 Chevy or the Mustang II King Cobra Sean used to have, which I won’t include since this article is about his Mopars. Well, OK… one thing about the King Cobra: Sean told me he built the Mustang II “because Ford guys despise them.”
The best thing about Sean Thomas’ Mopars is that they’re all also home grown, garage built, regularly driven hot rods. Plural. With an “s”.
Photos courtesy of Sean Thomas
Click here to see more photos of his Mopars
You can follow Sean on Instagram at @seanfattireguythomas