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Mr. Norm – One on One

Behind the Big Block Darts

Story Larry Weiner / Images courtesy of Mr. Norm's collection - October 31, 2013 10:00 AM

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Prototype 1967 383 Dart on the Clayton Dynamometer at Grand Spaulding Dodge in the fall of 1966.

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Prototype 1968 440 Dart GSS at Grand Spaulding Dodge in the fall of 1967. 

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Norm uses the 1967 Mr. Norm’s Super Charger Funny Car to anchor the ad that is targeted to a drag racing audience. Mr. Norm was using the 383 Dart prototype to pre-sell the production cars that have not yet arrived from Chrysler.

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This Grand Spaulding Dodge ad was promoting the availability of the 1968 440 Dart GSS.

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This 1968 440 Dart GSS is shown at US 30 Dragstrip in Indiana in the spring of 1968. It was probably used to test new powertrain and chassis combinations. 

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This 1968 440 Dart GSS is reputed to be the same car in the previous photo. It has been restored to all original condition.

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1968 Dart GSS 440 engine.

 
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Chrysler Corporation Advance Shipping Notice for 1969 Dodge Dart. This is the document that shows the vehicle was built at the Hamtramck Assembly Plant. The VIN has the “H” in the sequence, prior to the installation of the 440 engine at the Hurst Campbell facility in Madison Heights, Michigan. 

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The deal jacket for 1969 440 Dart GSS. Note that when the completed vehicle arrived at Grand Spaulding Dodge, an “M” was substituted for “H” in the VIN Number sequence. “M” indicates 440 engine. 

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Rare copy of the original Chrysler Corporation special warranty for 1969 440 Darts.

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Mr. Norm and Gary Dyer adding a load of nitro to the fuel tank on the 1968 Mr. Norm’s Super Charger Funny Car.

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Gary Dyer outside of Grand Spaulding Dodge posing for a publicity photo with a sign that he had set a new Funny Car Record on June 22, 1969 at Lebanon Valley Raceway. This would have been with the 1969 Mr. Norm’s Super Charger Funny Car. 

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Gary Dyer pulling the wheels on the Mr. Norm’s 1965 S/FX altered wheelbase supercharged Hemi Coronet in front of Grand Spaulding Dodge on Grand Avenue in Chicago. This photo was taken in early 1965. Note the snow on the ground!

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The Mr. Norm’s 1968 Super Charger Funny Car and 1965 Coronet S/FX in the Grand Spaulding Dodge service department. 

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Norm Kraus is better known to enthusiasts as Mr. Norm.

He’s the man who started Chicago’s Grand Spaulding Dodge in 1963 and quickly built it into the largest high-performance Dodge dealership in the nation.

He was instrumental in the creation and sales of 1967-1969 383 and 440 Darts. These vehicles made the compact Mopar A-body a terror on the street and strip.

“It was the fall of 1966, and as intense as the competition was in the muscle car segment, there was no question that it would be escalating in ’67 as each manufacturer kept adding models with high performance engine and powertrain options,” Kraus said. “The newly minted R/T Charger and Coronet B-bodies that were the foundation of the Dodge Rebellion ad campaign were great, but there was a gap in the Dodge product line without a hot compact. We had great expectations for the all-new 1967 Dart. Promises from Chrysler of a high performance A-body, something that could go toe-to-toe with the likes of the lightning quick 350 horsepower Chevy II Nova SS was just what I was counting on to offer our customers.”

History shows that’s not what happened. “When the redesigned Dart debuted, the only V-8 was the mild-mannered 273. What a letdown! We needed a red-hot compact, and we needed it right now. When the first new Dart arrived at Grand Spaulding, we promptly took matters into our own hands,” Kraus noted. “We made some quick measurements and concluded that there was no question that the 383 from a Coronet would fit. The 383 four-barrel produced 325 horsepower bone stock with 10.1 compression, and could easily make more power with simple upgrades like a more aggressive cam and four-tube headers. I made the decision then and there that if Dodge wasn’t going to offer a big block Dart, then we would.”

I asked Norm how long it took to get started on the big block conversion. With that, he crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked me right in the eye. “Are you kidding? We didn’t screw around. That car was torn apart before 5 p.m., fabrication started that night and by the end of the next day the Dart was running with a 383 under the hood, backed by a 727 TorqueFlite and an 8¾-inch Sure Grip rearend, all from a Coronet. We measured the Coronet rearend before we installed it and it was three inches wider than the stock 2.94-geared Dart third member. It still fit in the stock wheel wells, even with the larger B-body wheels and tires. As soon as it was pulled off the dyno, I took the Dart, now powered by the big block with headers, a dual exhaust system and 4.11 gears out for a spin and was amazed.

“Instead of driving and sounding like an economy car for a little old lady, the Dart now had real muscle car attitude, with plenty of power. The 383 Dart was great fun to drive, had tons of torque and when properly set-up, there was no doubt that it could easily dip into the 13s. We knew we had a home run on our hands with the big block Dart. The next step was to find a way to get them built in quantity.”

 

A meeting at Chrysler

“Grand Spaulding Dodge was a new car dealership, and our primary focus was selling cars and trucks, not building them. The 383 Dart would have to be produced by Chrysler. The fastest way to accomplish this was to drive it from Chicago to Chrysler Corporation headquarters in Highland Park, Michigan, and show it to Bob McCurry, Vice President of the Dodge Division.

“Upon arriving in Highland Park, I met with McCurry. He was so impressed with the performance of the 383 Dart that he called down the engineers and asked them point blank why he was told that only a Slant 6 or a small-block would fit in the vehicle. As the engineers looked over the stock appearing big block engine installation in the Dart, McCurry said to them sarcastically ‘look at what the kid from Chicago did. Why couldn’t you do it?’ One of them replied, ‘Because of the steering box is too close to the exhaust manifold.’ But another engineer noticed we put a heat shield over it! Using a little hot rod ingenuity, we had patterned a simple, inexpensive metal heat shield for the steering box and solved the problem.

“After discussing the opportunity to sell 383 Darts with McCurry, he told me that Chrysler could build the 383 Darts, but because it was not a regular production option, if we really wanted them, we would have to order a minimum of 50 cars at a time. McCurry knew that virtually no dealer would ever order 50 cars like that on spec, but I really believed in the big-block Dart. Without hesitation I told them no problem, let’s do it and the production 383 Dart was born.”

Norm had a black and white 8 x 10 photo of the original 383 Dart GT prototype strapped to the dyno at Grand Spaulding Dodge. “We ordered all of the 383 Darts using the upscale GT hardtop model, fully trimmed out, including buckets, console and floor shift, just like the car in that picture. The next challenge would be for us to successfully market the 383 Dart. Since it appeared that we would be the only dealership selling the big block Dart, I thought that we should give it a unique model name so that everyone would know that it was something special, and available exclusively from Grand Spaulding. Since it was already a Dart GT, we decided to call it the Dart GT/N.

“One of our goals was to be sure that enthusiasts were aware that Grand Spaulding Dodge would stock a great selection of these high performance A-bodies for immediate delivery, too. To accomplish this, we knew that the key to success would be lots of positive media exposure.”

 

Promoting the 383

Because these were special order vehicles, he couldn’t depend on Dodge to promote the big block Dart. He was on his own when it came to creating enthusiast awareness.

“In advance of receiving the first shipment of production 383 Darts, we immediately contacted the editors of the enthusiast car magazines and invited them to come out and test drive our prototype big block Dart. Once they drove the 383 Dart, they were as impressed with its performance as we were. All of them wrote great stories about it. We began promoting the GT/N in all of our advertising, even in radio spots on WLS, the mega-watt AM channel in Chicago that was heard nearly coast to coast at night. We included information on the new big-block Dart in the Mr. Norm’s Sports Club newsletter that we mailed to all of our members every month. We were sure that if performance enthusiasts not only in Chicago, but around the nation knew that they could get a 383 Dart from Grand Spaulding, we would sell every one that we could get.

“As soon as the stories and our advertising started to hit, we were flooded with calls and letters from all over the country. We even received letters from GIs in Vietnam asking about how they could reserve one of the 383 Darts so that it would be ready and waiting when they returned home. Knowing that most of the people would want to add performance and dress up items, we developed custom made parts. With Gary Dyer developing high performance packages, a well-stocked parts department that was second to none, and an extremely knowledgeable team in the service department, we were ready to help each purchaser build their new Dart into a competitive street or strip car right off the showroom floor.

“The first cars arrived in the fall of 1966. Chrysler had changed the emblems on the vehicles. The 383 Darts had GTS chrome letters on the front fenders instead of the large GT badge. Since it had the GTS lettering on the front fenders, and each of the letters was individual, instead of calling it the GT/N, we renamed it the GSS, for Grand Spaulding Special. We immediately changed our ads from GT/N and marketed the cars as Mr. Norm’s GSS Darts. The result was an instant legend.”

 

440 plans

“By May of 1967, with the model year drawing to a close, we began to plan for 1968, knowing that we had to raise the bar again. We knew that Dodge would be offering the 383 as a regular production option in the Dart. We decided to kick it up another notch and develop the 440 Dart. As soon as the first 1968 383 Dart GTS arrived at Grand Spaulding, we put Rich Moudry, one of our high performance mechanics, to work on the car, pulling the engine out and installing a 440 from a Charger R/T. Other than a few simple mods like a mild notch on the K frame to insure adequate clearance for the oil pan along with drilling and tapping new holes in the oil filter boss for the left motor mount, there was really nothing to it.

“We also performed several upgrades to the 440 engine before dropping it into the Dart, including enhancements to the oil pump, installing chrome moly push rods, aluminum valve spring retainers, heavy-duty valve springs and the use of 383 rod bearings because they had a larger oil groove than the standard 440 bearings. These upgrades all became part of the 440 GSS Dart package and went a long way to making the engines more durable while helping our customers win races.

“As soon as the conversion was done and I eagerly took the 440 Dart out for a spin. The weight of the 383 and the 440 engines was nearly the same, so this was not an issue. The new engine was installed in the same location as the one it replaced, so the handling of the 440 Dart was on par with the 383 Dart. With a stock rating of 375 horsepower from 440 cubic inches, we knew that it would be easy to produce a streetable package with about 440 horsepower, resulting in one horsepower per cubic inch. That was not only a serious street car, but there was no doubt that it would be a real force to be reckoned with on the track in Super Stock.

“As with the 1967 383 Darts, Chrysler handled the production version of the 440 Darts for both 1968 and 1969. In the case of the 440, the engines were built at the Trenton engine plant, and were identified as HP for ‘high performance.’ Chrysler subcontracted the 440 conversions to Hurst Campbell at their facility on 11 Mile Road in Madison Heights, Michigan. Each of the 1968, and subsequent 1969 440 Darts started life as a 383 Dart built at the Dodge Hamtramck plant, less engine, with a 383 H-Code VIN on the paperwork, which was changed after the installation of the 440 to an M-Code VIN, with the other characters in the VIN remaining the same.

“In the 1960s, Chrysler was well known for their industry leading five-year, 50,000 mile warranty. Chrysler knew that the typical buyer of a 440 Dart was likely to modify or race the vehicle, so they only offered a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty limited to the original purchaser. A special three-page pamphlet from Chrysler explained the warranty. It did not have any impact on sales. The fact was, most of our customers who bought 440 Darts modified them soon after purchase, and were far less worried about the warranty than they were about winning races.

“Needless to say, just like the 383 GSS Dart, the 440 GSS Dart was a huge success. The pocket rockets of their era, the big block GSS Darts were available from 1967 through 1969. They were highly competitive vehicles on the street and strip and paved the way for other special vehicle packages such as the GSS Six Pack and Supercharged Demons we developed and sold in 1971 and ’72. The 383 and 440 Darts played an important part in building the image of Grand Spaulding as the place to go if you wanted the ultimate high-performance Dodge.”

 

Today’s special vehicles

The motivation behind the creation of special vehicles lives on today. The resurrection of the muscle car era brought a resurgence in performance interest. In 2008, when the Challenger returned to production after a 34-year hiatus, Mr. Norm saw the handwriting on the wall, and immediately created the Super Challenger and Super Cuda models, both of which were available with wickedly powerful supercharged 6.1 Hemi engines. New and exciting models continue to evolve and capture our attention.

The Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary GSS Challenger and Charger are prime examples of vehicles that transition the gap between all-out race cars and real world, high-performance street cars. Just like the ground pounding muscle cars that Mr. Norm offered back in the ’60s, the new GSS Challenger and Charger are equipped with Hemi power that’s equally at home on the street or the strip. In addition, the performance of these vehicles is matched with a vivacious appearance that’s uniquely their own.

For the first time since 2010, a supercharged Hemi engine provides the power for the Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary GSS Challenger and Charger. An optional TVS2300 supercharger with engine management by Arrington Performance is now available from dealers, enhancing the performance of the stock 5.7 Hemi engine, increasing horsepower from 370 to 510 at the flywheel with 6.8 lbs of boost.

Throttle tip-in is very smooth, and the power is linear right up to the red line. The transmission shifts smartly at wide-open throttle with a choice of shifting with the Hurst Comp Stick Shifter or paddle shifters on the steering wheel. There’s an optional Flowmaster American Thunder cat-back dual exhaust system. There’s nothing like a potent muscle car with a great sounding set of pipes.

Complementing the performance of the Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary Challenger and Charger is a host of features. In celebration of Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary, the vehicles are offered in both black and white, accented with contrasting gold graphics. The appearance of the Challenger is very traditional and pays homage to its legendary E-body namesake. It features a bold full-length stripe that flatters the characteristic Challenger belt line and quarter panel kick-up. On the hood, a matching gold graphic with GSS letters at the front continue the theme of the vehicle. Scoops reminiscent of those seen on 1971 Challengers accent the quarter panels and special 50th Anniversary GSS emblems are located on the front fenders.

Inside, the Challenger features custom leather by Katzkin with the Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary logo embroidered in contrasting gold stitching in the seat backs and carpet mats. The Hurst Shifter is standard equipment for vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions, while six-speed manual transmission cars are equipped with a Mr. Norm’s Pistol Grip Shifter with carbon fiber grips that complement the factory trim. The finishing touch to the interior is the Mr. Norm’s signature serial number dash plaque that’s located on the right side of the dash.

Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary Charger is one thoroughly modern muscle car and it all starts with the race-inspired GSS Aero Body Package. The aggressively styled ground effects dramatically enhance the appearance of the Charger with its wind cheating front air dam, rear lower fascia cladding with a Viper GTS/R style air diffuser, and matching side skirts. The GSS Charger is also enhanced with the Mr. Norm’s Speedway rear spoiler and door ducts. Consistent with its no-nonsense personality, the graphics on the GSS Charger are bold, with dramatic accents on both the body sides and hood. Like the Challenger, GSS 50th Anniversary emblems are located on the front fenders, and a Mr. Norm’s windshield banner lets everyone know that you’ve got the real thing.

Both cars feature Hotchkis Performance suspension that includes lowering springs and sway bars. Hotchkis utilizes hollow bars front and rear for maximum performance. The front bar is 110 percent stiffer than stock, while the rear bar is 35 percent stiffer. Working in concert with the enhanced suspension is rolling stock that consists of Hurst Dazzler custom wheels and BFGoodrich g-Force Comp II tires. A staggered fitment further amplifies the handling prowess and footprint of the Challenger and Charger. At the front, 245/45ZR20 tires are mated to nine-inch wide wheels, while at the rear, 275/40ZR20 tire are fitted with 10-inch wide wheels. The results are nothing short of impressive, thanks to enhanced track width, wider tires and a suspension that’s ready for drag racing, road racing or cruise night.

Muscle cars once again rule the street today, but we learned that nothing lasts forever. Only 100 serial numbered Mr. Norm’s 50th Anniversary GSS Challengers and an equal number of Chargers in black or white will be built.

For more information, check out www.mrnorms.com

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