There are Mopar guys, and then there’s Steve Mirabelli. It’s nearly impossible to impart a sense of this man’s skill level without resorting to what some will perceive as hyperbole, but tough nails. We haven’t seen a fabricator this good come along since Trepanier. As you’ll see, Mirabelli has amassed a highly refined arsenal of skills, ranging from historian and artist, to master fabricator and racecar builder.
Our story opens with an innocuous phone call to Philly-based freelance photographer, John Machaqueiro. An artist in his own right, Machaqueiro wanted to tell us about a prime candidate for a feature. When the usually well-composed Machaqueiro launched into an excited, semi-lucid rant about some guy on Facebook down in North Carolina who was cross-pollinating a late-model SRT8 with a 1968 Dodge Charger body to make a clone of a ’69 Dodge Daytona, it seemed too crazy to be real.
In order to pull off a project like this; to look convincing; to be a real, drivable car; to retain all of its functionality right down to the littlest luxury fluff; and to be street-legal in the most rigorous interpretation (think crumple zones, stability control system, ABS, and smog equipment), it would require an unlikely confluence of well-honed competencies combined with the biblical patience of Job. It’s not that we didn’t know guys who could pull it off, it’s that he came out of nowhere.
A quick Web search turned up a treasure trove of photos and blow-by-blow descriptions posted by Mirabelli on Facebook, and a 51-page thread on the DodgeCharger.com message board. Seconds turned into minutes, which turned into hours. Seeing Mirabelli’s creation come to fruition in those photos was like eating Doritos; you can’t have just one, you’re compelled to eat the whole bag. We needed to find this guy pronto.
Studying Mirabelli’s photos and reading his captions left us dumbfounded. As the deceptively simple proposition of dropping a vintage Charger body onto a late-model LX chassis unfolded, the complexity of the job and the problem-solving acumen of Mirabelli was revealed. It’s like reading a Tom Clancy novel—only you’re seeing it in metal. Something as simple as creating a functional, leak-free air inlet for the HVAC system—all while fabricating a sub-cowl panel and cowl vents, leaving enough room for a wiper transmission, allowing for proper cowl drainage, and tweaking a nearby hood hinge—takes on a series of fascinating twists, and that’s just one task out of thousands. At a company like Chrysler, it takes a dozen engineers, a room-full of super computers, and a studio of stylists to resolve the sort of mechanical conflicts and design issues that Mirabelli holds in his head. Like we said, it boggles.
Throughout Mirabelli’s Daytona, examples of creative problem solving are everywhere, the vintage Charger body’s integration onto the late-model LX platform being just the most evident. When you think he can’t top himself, he comes up with even more clever solutions for melding old with new, making it look better than it did before—something that only happens when the eye of an artist is connected to the hands of a mad fabricator. We’ve seen guys try to combine different cars, and it usually results in a highly polished hot mess; this, however, is a clear exception to that rule. For his part, Steve is implacably modest, rejecting even the simplest of praise. “Please don’t make a big deal out of it, the guys at work will bust my chops,” Steve chided us. Of course, when your day job is building the fastest cars on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit for Hendrick Motorsports, your sense of normal might be a little skewed.
Therein lies one of the keys to understanding why Mirabelli does things the way he does. If a big-name restoration shop makes a mistake or cuts a corner in the process of rebuilding a rare Hemi car, the fat-cat owner might get a little bent out of shape—if he even spots the problem. If Mirabelli makes a mistake on a Cup car, serious money is lost, or worse, people get hurt. It’s a high-stakes business, and the 60-year-old Mirabelli is a ball-buster for perfection. “I can be a bit thin-skinned when things get intense at work, which is an almost daily occurrence,” admits Mirabelli. Just knowing that should give you a sense for how it’s even possible for Mirabelli’s Daytona project to be a “relaxing” pastime.
To that end, Mirabelli has spent the last three years planning and concocting his Daytona—all on nights and weekends (ones that don’t fall on top of Sprint Cup races). That doesn’t leave a lot of time to actually build the thing. Slowing him further is the desire to document everything in pictures and text, mostly for folks he’s never met but who provide a well of emotional support. In a world of trolls and hacks, Steve has pulled off one of the great miracles of the internet in the sense that, well, most everybody likes him. One thing you can agree on is that the Mopar community—especially the nit-picky aero crowd—doesn’t suffer fools well; a car as audacious as this one will certainly raise hackles if anything is the least bit off in terms of historical accuracy, mechanical fluency, or fabrication skill.
Mirabelli has those bases covered. Since childhood, Mirabelli and his family have been nuts about stock car racing. (His home movies of the 1971 Talladega race on his Facebook page made us nostalgic.) An early career in art led him to work in the signage and exhibit-building business. “Growing up, I used to fancy myself to be an artist. I loved to draw, sculpt, carve wood, and just plain create,” writes Mirabelli on his Facebook page. A side business selling racing-related art prints put him one step closer. Then, a three-day seminar learning how to hang stock car bodies in 1990 fully engulfed Mirabelli; by 1997 he had moved to NASCAR country, and was working on Busch Grand National series cars. The rest as they say is history.
That said, Mirabelli’s Daytona does deviate in subtle ways from the original. Coarse measurements aside (track, wheelbase, cowl height), cognoscenti will note stuff like the Superbird-style nose, the updated side mirrors, the late-model door handles, and the low-key fuel-filler door. These elements clean up the appearance and tip the viewer off that this is not your garden-variety Daytona.
If we set aside for the moment the array of abilities needed to bring this modern-day Daytona clone to life, we can see a boyish curiosity in its underlying principle: If you could have any car you wanted, what would it be? In answering that inner voice, Mirabelli didn’t hesitate: he wanted a ’69 Daytona with all the power, performance, safety, economy, and serviceability of a new SRT8 Hemi. If you’re eight years old, you buy a couple of model cars and “kit bash” one together. (Yes, Steve actually did that too.) If you build Cup cars for a living, you get out the plasma cutter and MIG welder.
One of the interesting things that becomes evident after scrolling through, oh, a couple hundred of Mirabelli’s build photos is his delight in crafting something that is just as elegant as it is clever. With other car builders, stuff like interior door panels, trunk close-outs, instrument panels, dash pads, and consoles often take on blockish, flamboyant, or cartoonish proportion, convincing us that their sole purpose in life is to impress car show judges or justify the owners of their cost. Famous car builder Bobby Alloway once confided in us after being beaten out for Street Machine Of The Year, “I guess I needed 167 pieces of billet on my car this year.” It would’ve been funny if it weren’t true. In this regard, Mirabelli runs opposite to the prevailing trend. Unlike most contemporary car show winners, this Daytona’s interior has not been dipped in glue, then tossed around in a bowl of billet-aluminum Legos. Rather, Mirabelli has become adept at creating unique OE-inspired interior pieces that most people will assume are from some other kind of car.
Seeing Mirabelli’s Daytona for the first time, we were reminded of how we felt when we first saw the LX-platform Dodge Daytona in 2006—the chassis on which Mirabelli’s clone is based. Sitting down for dinner at the Charger’s long-lead debut with Dodge stylist Jeff Gales—the man who penned the 2006 Charger—your author grilled him mercilessly about the looks of the new car—it’s performance, utility, and value notwithstanding. By meal’s end, the upbeat, likeable Gales had talked us into the style, and we quickly forgot about our desire for two doors, sleek coke-bottle styling, and a tunnel-back rear light. With Mirabelli’s ruthlessly loyal take on the world’s most iconic Charger, however, we are now right back where we started, wanting a “real” Charger on an LX chassis. Mirabelli has proven without a shadow of a doubt that it can be done.
This story originally appeared in Hot Rod.