The Challenger Challenge – A ’71 Dodge Convertible

Click Here to Begin Slideshow Joe Valenza's perfectly restored 1971 Challenger looks like a nicely painted and restored version of the iconic Dodge, but under its hood, it is anything but regular. When Joe Valenza debuted his restored “Hemi Orange” 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible in mid-February, he beat out the other 200+ cars in attendance. Since then, Valenza has earned enough “Best of” trophies that he may need to add a new wing onto his Vero Beach, Fla. garage. The process of restoring this exceptional Challenger began 14 years ago when Valenza, a longtime fan of Chrysler classics, spotted two 1971 Challengers cruise past as he gassed up his 1972 Barracuda. “I thought they were the prettiest muscle cars I’d ever seen,” recalls Valenza. “I started looking for one the very next day.” But Valenza had a problem: Only 1,700 Challenger convertibles were sold in 1971, so many of the Challengers he looked at were either too rusted-out or too far out of his price range. When the right car at the right price finally appeared on the web in 2015, Joe and his wife, Susan, dragged a trailer over 1,500 miles to Iowa in order to bring it home to Florida. “It needed a full restoration. It had the usual rust in the quarter panels and floor,” says Valenza, “but the rest of the car was solid.” Despite the long haul from Iowa back to the Sunshine State, Valenza began the restoration process the very next day. He spent the first 3 hours getting the 318 cubic inch engine to start and then took it around the block to be sure the transmission was still functioning. However, the engine and transmission would later be discarded in favor of modern upgrades. “Not only did we tow the car back, but we had an entire van full of parts for it,” Valenza laughs. “None of it was labeled and it all had to be unloaded and sorted out – piece by piece.” Valenze stripped the car to its bare bones and mounted the shell on a rotisserie. He media blasted all of the old paint and rust from the body, floors and underside. He applied an epoxy primer to stop the rust process in its tracks. A few rusted areas were located beneath the old paint. Those were cut out and repaired. New floors and quarter panels followed. Valenza also cut out the firewall and inner fender wells and smoothed them out with new sheet metal. The next step was to remove the front suspension and upgrade it all to modern, lighter suspension components to improve the ride and handling of the Challenger. Wilwood disc brakes were added at all four corners of the car. Discarding the tired, old 318 V8, Joe chose a new 392-cubic inch Hemi crate and paired it up with a 6-speed Tremec Magnum trans. For even more performance, a 3.73:1 gear would be the new prop at the rear. The usual dings you’d find on a 45-year old car were repaired, and multiple coats of a surface primer were sprayed over the body. “I spent many long hours of long-boarding the car with fine grit sandpaper,” Valenza recalls. “Then I called my brother to spray the car with 4 coats of Hemi Orange, which I had the paint shop brighten up a bit.” After the four coats of orange were applied, another four applications of clear coat gave the cars a diamond-like gloss. Valenza then wet-sanded the car and finished it off with a light compound and buffing wheel. At that point, the reflection off the car could be seen from the International Space Station. A Painless Wiring System was installed to replace the worn out wires and connectors throughout the car, then a Dakota Digital rally gauge package upgraded the instrument cluster. Finally, Vintage Air Conditioning was installed. “Mike Camp of Vero Beach did a fantastic job of reupholstering all of the interior seats and panels, as well as replacing the white convertible top,” Valenza said. Not discounting the incredible paint job and menacing hemi engine, the most outstanding feature of Valenza’s Challenger might very well be the engine compartment. There are no ignition wires in sight, no visible air-conditioning hoses and no battery; all of it is concealed behind the inner fenders and firewall. The clean look of the engine bay is very impressive. So, unfortunately for Florida’s local trophy hunters who happen to be in the same, early ‘70s muscle car category as Joe Valenza, well… they’re just going to have to wait until Joe’s garage is too full.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible

Click Here to Begin Slideshow

Joe Valenza's perfectly restored 1971 Challenger looks like a nicely painted and restored version of the iconic Dodge, but under its hood, it is anything but regular.

When Joe Valenza debuted his restored “Hemi Orange” 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible in mid-February, he beat out the other 200+ cars in attendance. Since then, Valenza has earned enough “Best of” trophies that he may need to add a new wing onto his Vero Beach, Fla. garage.

The process of restoring this exceptional Challenger began 14 years ago when Valenza, a longtime fan of Chrysler classics, spotted two 1971 Challengers cruise past as he gassed up his 1972 Barracuda.

“I thought they were the prettiest muscle cars I’d ever seen,” recalls Valenza. “I started looking for one the very next day.”

But Valenza had a problem: Only 1,700 Challenger convertibles were sold in 1971, so many of the Challengers he looked at were either too rusted-out or too far out of his price range.

When the right car at the right price finally appeared on the web in 2015, Joe and his wife, Susan, dragged a trailer over 1,500 miles to Iowa in order to bring it home to Florida.

“It needed a full restoration. It had the usual rust in the quarter panels and floor,” says Valenza, “but the rest of the car was solid.”

Despite the long haul from Iowa back to the Sunshine State, Valenza began the restoration process the very next day. He spent the first 3 hours getting the 318 cubic inch engine to start and then took it around the block to be sure the transmission was still functioning. However, the engine and transmission would later be discarded in favor of modern upgrades.

“Not only did we tow the car back, but we had an entire van full of parts for it,” Valenza laughs. “None of it was labeled and it all had to be unloaded and sorted out – piece by piece.”

Valenze stripped the car to its bare bones and mounted the shell on a rotisserie. He media blasted all of the old paint and rust from the body, floors and underside. He applied an epoxy primer to stop the rust process in its tracks.

A few rusted areas were located beneath the old paint. Those were cut out and repaired. New floors and quarter panels followed. Valenza also cut out the firewall and inner fender wells and smoothed them out with new sheet metal.

The next step was to remove the front suspension and upgrade it all to modern, lighter suspension components to improve the ride and handling of the Challenger. Wilwood disc brakes were added at all four corners of the car.

Discarding the tired, old 318 V8, Joe chose a new 392-cubic inch Hemi crate and paired it up with a 6-speed Tremec Magnum trans. For even more performance, a 3.73:1 gear would be the new prop at the rear.
The usual dings you’d find on a 45-year old car were repaired, and multiple coats of a surface primer were sprayed over the body.

“I spent many long hours of long-boarding the car with fine grit sandpaper,” Valenza recalls. “Then I called my brother to spray the car with 4 coats of Hemi Orange, which I had the paint shop brighten up a bit.”

After the four coats of orange were applied, another four applications of clear coat gave the cars a diamond-like gloss. Valenza then wet-sanded the car and finished it off with a light compound and buffing wheel. At that point, the reflection off the car could be seen from the International Space Station.

A Painless Wiring System was installed to replace the worn out wires and connectors throughout the car, then a Dakota Digital rally gauge package upgraded the instrument cluster. Finally, Vintage Air Conditioning was installed.

“Mike Camp of Vero Beach did a fantastic job of reupholstering all of the interior seats and panels, as well as replacing the white convertible top,” Valenza said.

Not discounting the incredible paint job and menacing hemi engine, the most outstanding feature of Valenza’s Challenger might very well be the engine compartment. There are no ignition wires in sight, no visible air-conditioning hoses and no battery; all of it is concealed behind the inner fenders and firewall. The clean look of the engine bay is very impressive.

So, unfortunately for Florida’s local trophy hunters who happen to be in the same, early ‘70s muscle car category as Joe Valenza, well… they’re just going to have to wait until Joe’s garage is too full.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 1

The entire restoration process was performed in Joe Valenza's home garage.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 2

After being media-blasted on a rotisserie, the body of the Challenger was primered with an epoxy in order stop the rusting process.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 3

Joe Valenza poses before the hemi installation begins.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 4

The Hemi Orange paint was applied to the entire shell and interior.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 5

Painted with four coats of hemi orange and four more applications of clear coat, the car is now ready to be reassembled.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 6

Look, Mom! No wires! (Or hoses or battery...) All of those messy items are hidden behind the fender walls in the Challenger's engine compartment.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 7

Save for an upgraded digital instrument cluster, Valenza's '71 Challenger interior looks perfectly stock.

The Challenger Challenge - A '71 Dodge Convertible 8

On its inaugural appearence in February, Joe Valenza stood next to his '71 Challenger and patiently answered questions all day long. Before he headed home, he took the "Best of Show" trophy – winning out over 200+ other cars in attendance!

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About Keith MacDonald 9 Articles
Keith MacDonald started his automotive writing career at the young age 45. When not writing auto reviews for his local Vero Beach, FL newspaper, he's written 2 street racing novels, "Woodward Avenue," and "Woodward Avenue II: Ground Pounders."

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