Larry Krussow ’71 Challenger was built by trial and error
Words: Shawn Brereton; Photos: Jeff Smith
Whether it was inherited or a product of his environment, Loren Krussow is a gearhead. When your father and grandfather owned a body shop, chances are there is a gene. But when you’re a kindergartener in the 60’s, and your older brother sits you down in the bleachers of San Fernando, California, dragstrip, you are pretty much guaranteed to be a car guy.
If he possessed the gene, it was that moment that woke it up. He knew he was hooked. As he grew, he developed a serious car-magazine habit in grade-school, and collected buddies with the same addiction. The same brother later started him on mechanics and design, while his father and grandfather showed him basic metal work on his first car (a pretty beat-up Nova).
His next few cars in the late-’70s/early-’80s tended to be canyon-racer Chevy Vegas which were cheap fun, but in 1989 when he noticed this ‘71 Challenger with a near-perfect body and an old “for-sale” sign hiding out in a yard near his work. He was ready to try building a drivable Pro-Street car — and a Mopar at that.
Once located, the owner wanted just $300! Krussow stammered out, “Well it has some leaks and stuff, but OK.” He knew it was meant to be, and paid him an extra $100 to store it for a day just to help clear his conscience over the price.
“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of accelerating through the gears and hitting speed in something you’ve built yourself.” — Larry Krussow
After deciding he’d like to build a full frame and design his own suspension, he built a wooden body jig to cut out the floors and firewall in his girlfriend’s mom’s backyard. After job experience as a mechanic, machinist, and body/paint guy, he took a job working as a metal fabricator where his employer, Mel Stahler, allowed him to use the tools during off-time.
He was able to build an entire custom 2 x 3 steel tube frame there, but installed it, hated it, and pulled it all out for scrap. Mandrel-formed rails from Alston Race Cars became the basis of the next more-permanent attempt.
From there he went to work on the suspension system using the original torsion bars, with fabricated control arms up front, and a transverse leaf spring over ladder bars in the rear — all adjustable for ride height. He used stock-type components wherever possible to save money as long they were up to the task such as Camaro disc brakes.
There was a lot of trial and error. Many more parts would be designed, built, thrown-out, and done over again as he tried to figure out the process. The catalog-sourced roll cage tubes fit poorly and were re-done with help from a local chassis shop. He built a narrowing jig for the rear housing and it took two tries to get that part right.
The wheels he wanted were available only to 10-inch width for the rears, so he bought two more and with some cutting and welding (he was a competent aluminum welder by that point) made a single pair of 14s.
All interior panels were re-done using aluminum sheetmetal, with the welded hammer-formed wheel tubs. Working nights, his good friend Rob Woods would follow him around the shop helping out. He built a custom dash, using a junkyard GM steering column. When a rotary-table attachment for the milling machine came along, he spent two days learning to machine a custom horn button from aluminum bar stock.
As time went by his girlfriend became his wife and they moved to a new town. Krussow started a fabrication shop of his own, building prototype stamped-metal components for large automotive parts companies to use in development. His backyard-project Challenger finally got a little inside time out of the weather, but often languished on the back burner for long periods.
Krussow had been planning to use a wedge-head 440 engine from the beginning, but when friends Ray and Ron Weaver and Willie Boelke, who had been using Stage V Hemi conversion heads on their 426 Dodge land-speed-racer offered up a pile of “previously used” aftermarket Hemi parts for a good price, he couldn’t say no.
These particular heads were one of two sets built that required a specially-modified block for lifter-valley stud provisions and a unique “shuttle” pushrod system for clearance around huge ports. There had been cylinder-wall durability problems under that setup, but luckily Mopar Performance had gotten back into the Hemi business.
Suddenly everything needed was available, including a tough new Siamese-bore engine block. Larry Holt of Speed Specialties in San Diego cut the block to an even 4.5-inches for a custom set of JE pistons. Krussow did other machining and built a 10-quart aluminum oil pan with a swinging-pickup external-feed oil system. Holt, local A/FD racer Ches Bushey, and cylinder-head manufacturer Eric Hansen, all offered good advice to this former Chrysler newbie.
A nearby transmission shop built the GM TH400, which Krussow adapted to the Mopar block with a safety-rated JW bellhousing. After looking at available ratchet-shifter units, he thought, “I could do that…”, and, well, you get the idea.
Inland Driveshaft built the chrom moly prop shaft, while Curry Enterprises assembled a 35-spline Detroit Locker with 3.90 gears for street and occasional track use.
As the Challenger poked along either waiting for resources or just inspiration, Krussow concentrated on a rebuild of his wife’s Mustang, his SS El Camino, restored their ’59 Chevy, and built two lowered-dually trucks.
Finally, after many hours of fabrication, phone calls to Summit, and working the body over, it was time to roll the shell into the paint booth at Prestige II Body and Paint where his friend Carlos Villelobos Sr. (master of the spray gun) laid on the purple, white and clear R/T scheme while Larry masked up the stripes.
After all was re-assembled for the last time and the paint buffed, it was time to dial-in the drivetrain and Krussow says “it has been a relatively easy ride ever since.” Well, after going through all that, we can see why everything else is easy.
“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of accelerating through the gears and hitting speed in something you’ve built yourself. I did over-rev it once and had a handful of lifter needle bearings to pick out. There is a rev-limiter now!” says Krussow.
He also says the external electric fuel pump doesn’t like sitting in traffic between those full-exhaust pipes so may switch to an in-tank pump, but otherwise it starts right up, stays cool, and answers when he steps on it. He actually says it handles like a go-kart, which is saying a lot for a Pro-Street style build.
Krussow hopes to get it on the dyno in the near future, but says Willy Boelke and the Weavers were making 750 horsepower with their setup. It has been toned down for street driving, but should probably be good for 600–650. The nitrous system is mild but won’t get used until the dyno work is done.
“At our local 1/8-mile track, it spins off the line and crosses the finish line just shy of 100 mph. There are stickier tires at-least, in its’ future,” Krussow says.
Regardless, it always draws people, and Krussow and his wife have fun meeting other car enthusiasts when they take it out. There are two questions he gets asked the most: First, did he really cut up an actual R/T? Second, how much did it cost to build?
Though he was looking at an actual R/T at the same time, he knew this bare-bones coupe fit better with his plans. As far as his answer to how much, Krussow says “not that much, it’s possible to be creative if you do it yourself.”
Lastly, Krussow thanks all his friends and especially his patient and helpful wife Gail.
“There are lots of guys who have a tough time seeing their nutty ideas come to fruition because there is no support at home … that is not a problem here.”