Last month, Dodge lost a vital member of its racing heritage. Jim Thornton was a pioneer of drag racing technology and has been called the Father of the Funny Car.
Born, raised, and educated in Missouri, Thornton graduated with highest honors in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri. He went on to earn his master’s in automotive engineering from the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. In this time he owned a Dodge Coronet D500, already signifying his love of the brand and of racing.
Immediately going to work for Chrysler after completing his studies, Thornton was assigned to the Ramchargers, a development team devoted to the booming sport of drag racing. They were notorious for their fieldwork, getting out on the track themselves to race each weekend, and bringing what they learned back to the lab during the work day.
An image of smoking tires often comes to mind when the uninitiated spectator thinks of the drag strip, but what smoking tires meant to Thornton and his team was a waste of power and the loss of critical time in a race decided by fractions of a second. As such, Thornton’s greatest contributions and innovations came through weight distribution. He pioneered the use of aluminum in the front end of vehicles like the Dodge Dart Seneca, recognizing that he could reduce the overall mass of the car and increase the weight distributed to the rear with this design tweak. More mass over the rear wheels led to greater traction and less wheel spinning off the starting line.
His greatest achievement came with the introduction of the 426 HEMI engine, which rendered the previous trick of reducing mass at the front end insufficient. Thornton realized that by moving both sets of wheels forward from their stock position, it was possible to maintain the favorable weight distribution with the much more powerful engine. You’ll remember that the HEMI was quickly banned from competition after a rule was passed requiring racing vehicles be street legal. In truth, this was in response to Thornton and the Ramchargers’ “funny cars” dominating the competition throughout the 1965 racing season.
Jim Thornton is a legend not only in the racing community but also a shining star in Dodge’s 100 year history. He was 77 when he passed away last month. To see more pictures and read further into his achievements, Chris Leith Dodge encourages you to read this full obituary on Redline Dodge, the Official Blog of Dodge.