These days, those who have completely given up on life drive minivans. For those who have completely given up on life but still want to feel cool, there are SUVs. Sure, hauling lots of people and cargo both safely and securely is serious business, but today’s tools flat out suck compared to the tools of decades past. Unlike anything on the road today, David Henriksen’s 1972 Dodge Monaco wagon can haul nine passengers up 10,000-foot mountain peaks, traverse unforgiving off-road trails, hit 150 mph on the highway, and cruise 600 miles between fill-ups despite packing 493 ci of big-block Mopar under the hood. It’s been getting the job done for 270,000 miles, too. Unless you can get Scotty to beam you up to your favorite travel destination, this beastly wagon hauls people and cargo better than any device known to man.
Not long after Chrysler invented the minivan segment in the mid-’80s, the public decided that they didn’t like wagons anymore. It marked a sad day in automotive history for hot rodders, as the wagon’s demise meant that hauling kids and cargo with any semblance of dignity or excitement was merely a distant memory. While hot rodders are often ridiculed for thinking everything from back in the day was better, they have a legitimate argument when it comes to the wagon. Since many were based on their mid and fullsize muscle car counterparts, dad could order up a wagon with a big-block, manual trans, and a heavy-duty rearend while mom patted him on the back for buying a sensible family car.
“With a sticker price of over $7,500, it was actually the most expensive car that Dodge produced at the time,” —David Henriksen
Recognizing the virtues of these machines when they were still available to the public, David locked in on the perfect people mover in 1977. “I worked at a Dodge dealership in 1972, and I always liked the looks of the Monaco wagon. With a sticker price of over $7,500, it was actually the most expensive car that Dodge produced at the time,” David recalls. “In 1977, my wife and I needed a family car, so I picked up a ’72 Monaco wagon for $1,300. When people bought wagons back then, they used them for a purpose, so it had already been used very hard over 70,000 miles. It had dings and dents, the woodgrain was bleached out, and there was a bulge in the floorboard I had to jump on to flatten it back out.”
Addressing the cosmetics would have to wait for some other day, as fortifying the Monaco for high-elevation duty was the top priority. “It gets so hot here in Phoenix that we used to drive up to the mountains each summer to escape the heat. We loaded up the wagon and dragged a tent trailer behind it five times each summer over the course of 10 years,” David recollects. While the big 440 had no problem pulling the kids and cargo through the thin 10,000-foot air, the rough roads eventually took a toll on the chassis.
“The unpaved mountain roads were very hard on the car, and created lots of fatigue cracks on the frame, so I was always working on the car. The sway bar mounts ripped a hole in the frame, so I had to reinforce it. The rear shocks kept hitting big rocks, so I raised them up higher and relocate them to behind the rearend housing. To keep the suspension from bottoming out, I added two additional leaves on each rear spring and installed larger-diameter torsion bars up front.”
“We loaded up the wagon and dragged a tent trailer behind it five times each summer over the course of 10 years.”—David Henriksen
Once the odometer hit 170,000 miles, David swapped in another 440 big-block out of a ’72 Chrysler New Yorker, which eventually logged 50,000 miles in the wagon. Since gas stations weren’t always easy to find while cruising through the wilderness, David came up with a clever solution. “After we set up camp, the kids liked sitting on top of the roof as we cruised around hunting roads the next day. Driving back into town just to get gas was a hassle, so I built an additional 33-gallon fuel tank,” David explains. “I had to slightly modify the floorboard, but from inside the car you can’t really tell that anything’s been changed. The two tanks hold 56 gallons total, so even at 11.5 miles per gallon the range is over 600 miles.”
“Driving back into town just to get gas was a hassle, so I built an additional 33-gallon fuel tank.”—David Henriksen
After a decade-plus of service, the Monaco’s exterior had seen better days. In 1990, David embarked upon a full restoration. To get the ball rolling, he yanked the drivetrain and stripped the wagon down to the bare frame. Next, he applied a fresh coat of paint, and freshened up the interior by replacing the original vinyl upholstery with cloth. Since the car had been maintained meticulously over the years, the only mechanical work needed at the time was a transmission rebuild. Once back in action, the Monaco shuttled the Henriksens back and forth to the mountains a few more times. Shortly thereafter, the wagon’s role transitioned into a long-distance cruiser. “The kids were all grown up, so my wife and I started traveling all over the country going to car shows, sightseeing, and shopping,” David says. “This car has taken us to the Mopar Fest in Canada, Disneyland, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Niagara Falls, Oregon, and Maine. It’s been to 40 states and logged over 270,000 miles.”
…the Gear Vendors unit allows sticking with 3.73:1 gears inside the Chrysler 8.75-inch rearend in every situation.
Naturally, as the wagon transitioned from an all-terrain beast to a long-distance cruiser, David continued to adapt it for its new environment. For more relaxed freeway cruising, he installed a Gear Vendors overdrive unit onto the TorqueFlite 727 trans. Unlike in the past, when David swapped back and forth between 3.23:1 and 2.76:1 ring-and-pinion sets depending on the wagon’s intended use, the Gear Vendors unit allows sticking with 3.73:1 gears inside the Chrysler 8.75-inch rearend in every situation.
Anyone who logs over a quarter of a million miles with a big-block has an obvious fondness for cubic inches, so David pounced on the opportunity to make the wagon’s 440 even bigger. After boring the block to 4.350 inches, he fitted it with an Eagle 4.150-inch crank, Carrillo steel rods, and JE 9.24:1 pistons. Ported factory iron cylinder heads inhale through an Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold and an Edelbrok 750-cfm carb. A Crane 214/222-at-.050 hydraulic roller camshaft actuates the valves, and exhaust exits through a set of TTI headers and dual 3-inch pipes. Although the exact horsepower output is unknown, the big 493 puts out more than enough grunt to smoke BMWs at will. “I was driving down the freeway one day when a guy in a BMW flashed his lights at me.
Once he pulled up beside me, I dropped it down a few gears, hit the gas, and pulled a quarter-mile ahead of him by the time I hit 150 mph,” David says with chuckle. Needless to say, after nearly 40 years and over 200,000 miles together, the intertwined lives of the Henriksens and the Monaco wagon are virtually inseparable. “This car is a pleasure to drive at any speed. The dual A/C system keeps you cool while the seats are like a big sofa with armrests,” says David. “The performance is amazing and the acceleration is endless. I will continue to add things to the car as I feel the need for them, and enjoy driving and showing this fine Mopar as we grow old together.”
Whether the terrain is rugged or smooth, steep or flat, there’s simply no better way to haul people and cargo while hauling some serious ass.
While there are still some wagons running around today—mainly Eurotrash—and even Dodge briefly got back into the game in recent years with the Magnum, consumers still mysteriously clamor for minivans and SUVs. While attempting to understand the public’s poor taste in people movers is pointless, the overwhelming scarcity of wagons makes David’s Monaco even more unique. Whether the terrain is rugged or smooth, steep or flat, there’s simply no better way to haul people and cargo while hauling some serious ass.
1972 Dodge Monaco Wagon
Type: Chrysler 493ci big-block
Block: factory 440 block bored to 4.350 inches
Oiling: Melling oil pump, stock pan
Rotating assembly: Eagle 4.150-inch steel crank, Carrillo rods, JE 9.24:1 pistons
Cylinder heads: ported factory iron castings
Camshaft: Crane 214/222-at-.050 hydraulic roller; .488/.508-inch lift; 112-degree LSA
Valvetrain: COMP Cams roller rockers and timing set
Induction: Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold and 750-cfm carb
Exhaust: TTI headers and dual 3-inch mufflers
Cooling system: custom four-row radiator and 20-inch mechanical fan
Transmission: TorqueFlite 727 transmissions with 2,600-stall converter; Gear Vendors overdrive unit
Rear axle: Chrysler 8.75-inch rearend with 31-spline axles, 3.73:1 gears, and limited-slip differential
Front suspension: heavy-duty 1.06-inch torsion bars, shortened strut rods, custom swaybar
Rear suspension: heavy-duty leaf springs, custom sway bar and air shocks
Brakes: stock 11-inch discs, front and rear
Wheels: 17×8 American Racing Torq-Thrust II, front and rear
Tires: 235/65ZR17 Michelin, front and rear