No one knew when the Black Ghost might appear, but they certainly knew where. It was the early 1970s, the height of the muscle car era, and if you had a hot car and something to prove, Woodward Avenue and the more secluded back streets of Detroit were the best places to do it.
And nobody did it better than a sinister Hemi-powered 1970 Challenger R/T SE known as the Black Ghost. The nickname seems appropriate, considering the car’s black exterior paint, Gator Grain black vinyl top, and black interior–although the Challenger never stuck around long enough for anyone to see that interior. It had a mysterious penchant for materializing, winning, and then vanishing.
“It would appear on Woodward, make a couple of passes, (and) then you wouldn’t see it for a month or two,” Mopar collector and mechanic Dean Herron says in the latest video release from the Historic Vehicle Association, which celebrates the car’s addition to the National Historic Vehicle Register. “Everybody knew the car existed, but nobody hardly saw it.”
The Ghost showed up on Woodward in the spring of 1970, blew the doors off every competitor, and then drove off into the darkness before anyone could answer the question, “Who was that?” Weeks would pass, and the menacing Challenger would reemerge from the shadows, dominate, and disappear once again. Its legend grew. And then it vanished for good.
Godfrey Qualls grew up in Nashville and moved north at age 12 when his family sought work in the automotive industry. Qualls served as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and received a Purple Heart after being injured by a grenade in the mid-1960s.
“It was an addiction. I loved my job,” Qualls said in an interview filmed before he passed away in 2015. “I was dedicated to my job; they took care of me. I really wanted to stay in.” But Qualls missed his adopted hometown of Detroit, and upon his release from the military, he accepted a job there as a motorcycle cop.
“The kids were fascinated … And he was the kind of guy who took interest in the kids, raising them right,” his best friend says. “Being a policeman, he got a lot of respect.”
Godfrey’s son, Gregory, says his father was wise, which made him a stronger police officer. “My dad was a very good judge of character. He had to be. When you pull people over, it’s the way you talk to (them). He’d get to know you. You didn’t want enemies on the street. You had to relate to people in your community. I would say he was the definition of community policing.”
“You have to be fair,” Godfrey explains in the video. “You have to be honest. And you have to make good judgments.”
Qualls made a lot of them, and that included what car to buy and what options to add.
Chrysler developed its second-gen Hemi engine in the early 1960s, making it initially available only in race cars. By 1966, however, you could order one in a production model, and by 1970, the top-of-the-line Hemi was a 426-cubic-inch V-8 that produced a reported 425 horsepower (but was likely closer to 470 hp). Dodge put out a television commercial in which a police officer pulls over a new Challenger owner and begins writing the driver a ticket for operating a race car on a public street. “If you can handle the way people react to your 1970 Dodge Challenger,” the ad concludes, “you could be Dodge material.”
There’s no telling if Qualls saw the ad before he ordered the Black Ghost, but it certainly summed up his attitude when it came time to buy it. He purchased practically every option available.
“Not too many guys checked off all the boxes that Godfrey did,” Dean Herron says. “That is one very unique individual–and car. All these big Mopar collectors, they would kill to go to the dealer and order this car. And he had the foresight (to do it). I think he’s one of the smartest guys to ever order a Hemi car.”
Qualls not only ordered his dream car with the R/T and Special Edition (SE) packages and the monstrous 426–a 23 percent upcharge of $778.75 ($5522 today)–but he made sure to include the Super Track Pak with four-speed manual transmission and floor-mounted Hurst pistol grip, which sent power to a Sure-Grip Dana 60 with 4.10 gears. For style, he equipped the hardtop street bruiser with a “bumble bee” white stripe on the tail, hood pins, houndstooth interior, and the real conversation piece–the Gator Grain black vinyl top. Qualls’ car is one of just 23 Hemi four-speed R/T SE Challengers sold in the model’s debut year, and it is possibly the only car ever built with these performance and trim options.
His son jokes that the Gator Grain was a mistake. “He wanted (plain) black vinyl, but (Dodge) screwed it up royally,” Gregory Qualls says. “He loved it and he didn’t love it at the same time.”
“And sure enough,” Neal adds, “that’s what makes the car unique.”
Qualls even had a trailer hitch installed so he could trailer his 1968 Norton Commando motorcycle. You don’t often see that on a muscle car, either.
Qualls’ new triple-black Challenger was delivered in the spring of 1970, and, as Neal says, “when May and June came, that car was a terror on the street.”
Herron quickly became a fan of street racing and the legend of the Black Ghost. “Our street that I grew up on … they’d come by your house and do a burnout. It was like calling you out. Then they’d all go down the street, (and) me and all the kids in the neighborhood would all grab our Schwinns and go on down there and watch them race until like two in the morning.”
Qualls, Herron remembers, “would just cruise up and down, and guys would pull up next to him. And if you beat the other guy–first, second, third (gear)–to the next light, you were the winner. But Godfrey never stopped …”
Most of the time, Neal was riding shotgun. “It was beating everything–Vettes, Chevelle 396, 375 … those were nothing for this car … This car was the king of the street in those days.”
Neal says the best spot for drag racing was Stucker Street, an industrial area with no houses or cross-streets, which allowed for full quarter-mile races where “police didn’t bother you.” Remember, at the time, Qualls was the police, so he certainly knew where to go when you didn’t want to get caught. Neal says it was all good, clean fun, a “thinking man’s game” that kept participants out of other kinds of trouble.