The Dodge Magnum: Why I Own One of America's Last Great Wagons
Back in 2007 I was graduating high school and in two of the four years spent in school I got my permit, then my license and my first car, a 1999 Ford Escort SE Sport. The color listed on my registration was 'Champagne', I didn't have the nerve to tell the employee at the DMV that it was your stereo-typical shade of beige like every other sedan on the road. I was a car enthusiast since birth and I had to make that car cool to me somehow, but I didn't do too much with it. For instance I put in a K&N drop in filter for better air flow and added a nice black pinstripe to the car. Against my parents wishes at the time, I took the car down to Englishtown Raceway Park and learned to race against a tree. The car would give me four really good eighteen second passes to start with before it would become a stanley steamer and become a sauna inside. That was my sign to stop and give it a break. I really wanted a Dakota 5.9 R/T to replace it, that or a Neon SRT4. Needless to say finding a clean Dakota was hard to find and insurance on a SRT4 with my age was ridiculous. I held onto the Escort for a little while longer, till I graduated. Then about a year later I drove it a little too hot around a corner, got it sideways and gently rubbed the left front with a guard rail. I do mean gently, I took the paint off to the primer layer. Nothing more than a slight bruise to a otherwise once beautiful face. Assuming you find late 90's Escorts beautiful.
Then along came the idea of finally trading the car in. I graduated high school, was headed into college, driving a Ford, making decent pay, but not entirely sure what I would want to replace it with at the time. The Dodge Challenger was on the horizon for 2008 and the Magnum was on its way out. Station wagons aren't too popular with the masses anymore and that was eleven years ago! Even today, wagons struggle in the US market but Dodge was the first to try a modern day interpretation of what was once the classic family hauler. In the 80's, wagons were lined with wood trim, cushy plush seats, and of course a failing headliner held in with cheap glue but at least they still had a rear facing third row. My grandfather had one, an Oldsmobile. My cousin and I would spend hours in the back just staring out at the world and drivers looking at us. It was a weird thought now, but funny then.
So I started thinking wagons were cool, the Magnum was cool. Ultimately I felt like I had two options. Risk getting a loan somehow, holding onto the Escort another year and ending up with a V6 Challenger or trading the Escort in right now for a Magnum with a V6. Everyone was buying Magnum R/T's in the area like hotcakes but now you can find them with high miles for sale all over. I was okay with the idea of the V6, just not in a Challenger. That to me was sacrilege, sorry. One local dealer had a silver one for sale, full fishbowl (no factory tint), an SE with 35k miles on it. While heading to that dealer after picking up my mom from work, we spotted a black Magnum SXT outside in the lot at the Chrysler dealer on Route 35 which wasn't all that far from my high school ironically. So we walked in, made small talk about the car, about how Mopars at E-town was going on that weekend, trading in the Escort and how I'd been doing photography for a while with the local Viper club. The gave me the keys to the Magnum, not a single piece of paperwork signed, just nothing but keys and a temporary plate and said, "Here you go, have fun this weekend! See you Monday." I never saw the silver car.
That was the beginning of it all! I showed up at the track with 14k miles on the clock and we made a deal, basically paying a dollar per mile for the thing! It was pretty cool to see the reactions when everyone realized it was me finally in a Dodge. No, I didn't race that weekend because technically it wasn't mine just yet. Although the following year I did, several times at that! I did three races at Englishtown during the HHP Modern Mopar series. Two regular bracket races and nationals. I cleaned house and won in the bracket class at Mopars at E-town for 2009 along with $125 for winning the final. Despite only doing three races out of eight or nine that year, I even finished 3rd overall in the points.
In the last decade of owning my Magnum, it's had three different driver stripes (Red, VoooDoo and ACR-X. All themed after Gen IV Viper ACR's.) two sets of wheels and tires for the seasons (The factory wheels were painted black and Michelin winters were mounted, A set of 18' Charger Daytona R/T's currently with a staggered 235/255 Nitto tire setup for the summer.) a custom made intake, Petty's Garage strut tower brace, the resonator removed, a hood scoop from SLP Performance, The Charger R/T front splitter, a rear diffuser from BJ's Garage 570, a set of KONI Orange shocks with the Charger SRT spring setup on those, and a set of Hawk Performance pads with StopTech slotted brake discs. That's it. I never wanted to venture into tuning the engine or swapping anything.
The car has seen multiple track days too. Englishtown of course was the start, but in 2012-2013 I quickly grew out of drag racing and wanted to venture into tracks with left and right turns. I got bitten into doing that at the 12th Viper Owners Invitational in Charlotte, NC and tried doing Autocross in Mark's 2000 Viper GTS. I was faster than he was in his own car and I couldn't get enough of driving around cones. My friend Meech has a Chrysler 300 SRT and introduced me to the local autocross group back home. That was a great way to figure out what it's like to drive a big car around a tight course. I ended up being the slowest in my class because everything I was up against was either a Mazda 2, Fiesta ST, or a Volkswagen GTI. My confidence was pretty high, I felt pretty positive about my driving only brushing one cone in eight laps. A week later I got the scoring sheet and it was bad, I was slower than everyone by a good ten seconds but still the value and the experience I gained were well worth it. I highly suggest doing it if you haven't already. Also, don't think you'll be competitive with a 4200 lb, V6 powered long wheel base car against a field of 4-cylinder cars the size of Power Wheels. Bears aren't going to outrun Rabbits, unless your Meech. His bear moves pretty good with all the suspension goodies on his car.
After doing some autocross, it was time for the big tracks. New Jersey Motorsports Park, Pocono, and Limerock. I'll describe my first track event, I can't believe I was doing this stuff but I wanted to learn how to properly tackle a corner and do it well. So my first outing was at NJMP, on the Thunderbolt course with my friends from Off Camber Autosport. I took an introductory drivers ed class and was placed in green group with an instructor. We did a lead-follow, the classroom was extremely valuable and NJMP provides new drivers with a lot of great knowledge. Well worth it if your interested in giving it a try. All of us started slow, behind the pace car, and gradually got faster through out the day. I was the first car out and my instructor was pretty impressed with my sight lines, braking and throttle response. "This is your first time driving this track?" He asked. "Yeah" I replied, followed by a few seconds of silence. "I think you're bullshitting me!" he said as he laughed. "You're a hell of a liar!" But the best part was I wasn't lying! I was telling the truth. I had only been to NJMP, specifically Thunderbolt, once before in the passenger seat of a Honda S2000. From there we had a few more indoor classroom sessions before it was just track session after track session of lead follow for the rest of the day. While I was slower than everyone else on the straights, I realized that I was gaining a fair bit of ground on cars in corners. Slow car fast made sense here, so I would wait it out a little bit before another session and let a few faster cars go ahead of me. My best lap was a 1.55:66 behind a Cayman GT4 which I had a blast following halfway through the day. I wanted to be under two minutes and for the last session I stuck my GoPro on my helmet to see how much steering input I was giving and it was quite a bit, but the Magnum did really well on a set of Falken's at the time. I'm ready to do some more!
Of course the Magnum has done a lot more than track days, it's been as far north as Vermont and as far south as Florida. It's been in the state next door on the snowfield with other Magnums for Chrysler Nationals in Carlisle, PA a few times. I've traveled to Ohio for Mopar Nationals (which by the way is way different than it is in Jersey!) and to Michigan too. When I first got the car I was pretty adamant about going to Detroit for Woodward. I ended up getting invited to Detroit a little early for the Viper ACR production reveal, then flew back again to be with Detroit Area Modern Mopar for their end of the year car show and then back to the Viper plant again for a private tour. Okay so I made three trips to Detroit before I finally made plans to drive out there because I wanted pictures of my own car in front of the Chrysler Technology Center at FCA HQ, it's where I ultimately want to end up someday. That whole trip was one of my top three favorites, I met with my buddy Stell along the way and we drove both our cars out there, just two Magnums cruising along. I visited the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, got my pictures in front of CTC, went to Milan Dragway, hung out on Woodward and went to M1 Concourse for Roadkill Nights all within a few days so there was a lot to take in for sure. For any motorhead, Woodward is mecca for cars and if you blink you might miss something special and it's not just for older American muscle but literally everything!
If someone decided to walk up to me and ask if I would be willing to sell it, I'm not sure if I could and I'm note sure anything could replace it at this point. There's signatures all over it. Ralph Gilles, Dick Winkles, Steve Saleen, Valentino Balboni, Rhys Millen, Sam Hubinette, even John Force have been in it or signed it at some point. Chargers and Challengers are the modern Mopars to have these days, I love driving them but they just aren't as unique to me. You go to Carlisle and there's just rows and rows of those particular cars, but Magnums are all of just all of two rows. Mine currently has 126k miles on it and I've enjoyed every second of it. The trunk area has seen wheels, tires, mulch, luggage, parts off race cars, ladders, all sorts of stuff. The upper intake manifold got stuck on me once, the airbag has been recalled and replaced, the factory Mopar battery died after nine years (yes I'm serious, it just got replaced just last year.), I accidentally damaged the right side fuel pump after running something over, the ignition switch gave up once, the not so elusive but commonly broken pink thingy...well, broke and was replaced with it's aftermarket aluminum counterpart, two speakers were replaced and now I think the factory head unit is on it's way out but other than that those are pretty minor things over a decade. I can't really complain because I've done so many things with this car. Which leads me to this. What is the fascination with CUVs? I guess they're practical but I find compact utility vehicles to be hit or miss, a lot of the time you'll have hard time getting in and out of the rear passenger seats because of leg or head room. Yeah, I know, the Magnum has a low roof itself like it's been chopped and no I'm not fitting a full size couch back there but I can fit an air mattress and that's part of the beauty of wagons. I don't have to lift something as high or climb into the back of it without much effort because the car sits pretty low and everything else is just like getting into a regular sedan plus I have foldable rear seats for more cargo capacity and then if I want to, gut the interior, head to a race track to do some laps then clean it up and park it at the local car show.
Sure, mine is 'lacking two cylinders', doesn't have a HEMI but I've always made the best of it. It doesn't produce the best sound or go as fast as anything else but it's been a ton of fun. Maybe I was just born in a different time, but wagons are cool. Cooler than the respect they rightly deserve in automotive history. Times change, but wagons will live on forever.