426: The Number of the Beast

Words: Robby Pacicco / Photos: Courtesy of Gregory Qualls

Welcome one and welcome all, to the supernatural tale of the… Black Ghost (insert the Vincent Price laugh from Thriller here).  Yes, the 1970 426 Hemi powered Dodge Challenger R/T SE which famously haunted the Detroit street racing scene throughout the 1970s.  A machine so feared that Christine switches off her engine and headlights whilst cowering under the car covers.  The triple black mystic Mopar with white bumblebee stripe today is part of the NHVR (National Historic Vehicle Register) and deservingly so.  However, this is no ordinary muscle car nor is the story behind its mysterious existence long before the days of social media where word of mouth spread rumors, truth and fodder for reputation.  Forget Salem and Transylvania, buckle up, put it in first, pop the clutch and floor it towards the spring of 1970 Detroit, MI.

Thirty some odd years before the horror (or is it horrible) Fast & Furious franchise were even a concept, hot rods and muscle cars were scorching asphalt all across Canada and the United States of America.  The air was filled with the scent of burning fuel and the ashes of smoldering egos everywhere, especially during the dark hours of the night within the industrial area of Detroit.  Legend has it that the spectral quad headlights came on, the rumble of the possessed Hemi V8 shook the ground and lesser muscle cars became its prey.  Back in those days, the fraternity of drag racing at night was all about who could beat who, what could beat what and having fun.  Win or lose, everyone would usually congregate at a nearby burger joint or diner and share the war stories of the night, laughs and sagas of blown transmissions.  Well, almost everyone.  Not the Black Ghost or the captain at the helm, Godfrey Qualls.  Everyone would wait and wait for this 426 Hemi powered Dodge to show up and it never did.  The Challenger and Qualls would beat ‘em and leave ‘em so to speak.  Basically, they all got (black) ghosted, before ghosted was verb.  Despite the performance Godfrey Qualls and his car would put on, they’d disappear into the darkness of the nocturnal landscape.  Only to be seen again the next time they were out on the prowl, stalking Corvettes, Mustangs and GTOs.  Nobody knowing who drove the enigmatic shadowy wraith added to the lore.  Does the black 426 Hemi Challenger really exist?  Who drives it?  Does it fly away?  It became known then as the Black Ghost since it was shrouded in obscurity.  The Dodge and Godfrey were incognito while the urban legend about them grew in Detroit rock city.  Known to his friends as GQ, Godfrey was a Purple Heart recipient in the US Army where he served as a paratrooper.  The absence of the black Challenger at the local after race hangouts obviously added to the magic of storytelling.  However it was by design that GQ would purposely avoid attending the end of night gatherings.  Had he stopped by and talked shop, he may have very well found himself driving to the unemployment office.  Not only was GQ a decorated former member of the military, but his new civilian life had him wearing the uniform of Detroit’s finest as he protected and served on the police force.  Back then as it is now and will always be, street racing is dangerous, illegal and a definite no-no among law enforcement.  He couldn’t risk his career and livelihood just for some temporary bragging rights.

Upon his return home from military service in late 1969, GQ unknowingly gifted automotive culture an absolute icon when he custom ordered a black Dodge Challenger R/T SE (Special Edition package) with a big four barrel 426 cubic inch V8 Hemi, four speed manual transmission, AM/FM radio, “Gator Grain” vinyl roof and white bumblebee stripe.  In fact, there was very little he didn’t select from the option sheet when the order was placed.  His intention was to have a car built to his specification which could wipe the floor with the competition.  He did just that.  As time went on and officer Qualls became a family man, the Challenger sadly eventually was parked and was seldom used if at all.  A familiar story for many who have basked in the driver seat of their joy toys during their early days of adulthood and freedom.  GQ and his closest friends knew the Black Ghost had not been busted and was still around in horsepower purgatory.  It was just in a different phase of its existence as it watched family priorities take precedence.  Unfortunately on December 24th, 2015 Godfrey Qualls passed away.  GQ ensured before his passing that his Dodge would stay in the family as he informed his son Gregory of the location of important documents regarding the car.  He is quoted by Gregory as ordering him to “don’t sell my fucking car” two days before leaving this Earth.  Gregory has honored his father’s wishes and is still holding the keys to the very special 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T SE today as the story of the Black Ghost has evolved. 

Four decades later, the identity of the man petrifying Camaros, Firebirds and everything else is known and immortalized along with his chariot.  The car he had ordered to his exactitudes would become a one of one build as confirmed by connoisseurs, meaning there was no other built like it, ever.  This in turn helped it become an American national treasure.  Gregory and his family are helping in preserving the heritage of the Black Ghost while ensuring a bright future.  Gregory did whatever he could to get the help and support he needed from experts to have the Challenger drivable again.  It was important to him for the car to be the exact way his dad had it.  He took upon the task of finding the necessary parts and components to have the car in proper running order again, new tires and a proper cleaning after having sat still for so many years.  With the Black Ghost back on the road looking pretty much exactly as she did back in the ‘70s, Gregory feels like his dad is with him for every turn of the key, push of the throttle and chirp of the tires.  The importance of the Black Ghost goes way beyond street racing.  Every piece of this car means something to the Qualls family, to the people that heard of it, told stories about it, the people it defeated and to the people that spent countless hours and years looking into researching it.  As a certified member of the NHVR, the Black Ghost Challenger is captivating a new generation of admirers as it headlines countless shows, events and is the star of its very own documentary produced by Hagerty.  It still grabs attention and gains respect with every glance it gets wherever it may roam.  Like the old saying goes, there ain’t no rest for the wicked, and this car exemplifies that.  It draws in wonder and awe from the unknowing as they eventually get schooled on the significance of its existence, while those in the know smile as they walk right up to it.  Sometimes, Gregory will be right near the car as it lays surrounded by photographers, journalists, enthusiasts and any other motor head around.  If he is around, say hello, just look for the guy with the big smile.

The Black Ghost may not be tearing up the tarmac anymore as it once did.  It has nothing left to prove.  Right now, it just needs to be appreciated and loved for what it is.  Although, ancient myths out of old Detroit say if a person says “Black Ghost” three times into their rear-view mirror, it will appear, beat them and leave them in a cloud of dust and tire smoke.  That last part has yet to be debunked or proven true.  Regardless, it’s still pretty cool to think it could happen.

To learn more about the Black Ghost visit https://blackghost426.com/

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