The Surprisingly Strange Saga of the Dodge Charger
When we think of the Dodge Charger, we picture one of the all-time greats. Menacing looking, long and sleek, black on black, just like the one the hit men drove in Bullitt. With the first-generation Mustang and Camaro, it forms the holy trinity of late-’60s muscle cars, and well preserved examples can cost a fortune today. But the Charger is vastly different from its rivals, and it always has been.
The Mustang has always been the Mustang, even when it was the Pinto-based Mustang II. And the Camaro has always been the Camaro, even when it spent eight years out of production. The Charger, however, has never stayed one thing for too long. After reigning as Dodge’s most formidable performance car, it was reinvented, becoming an SUV, a personal luxury coupe, an economy car, and today, the fastest sedan in the world. Performance has always been a big part of the Charger’s allure, but how it got from the tire-roasting ’60s to today is one of the weirder stories in automotive history.
Despite the shine the Mustang gets for kicking off the ponycar craze, Chrysler wasn’t late to the party; it was early. The Valiant-based Plymouth Barracuda hit dealerships on April Fool’s Day 1964, two weeks before the Mustang. But it was quickly lost in the Mustang’s wake, and Chrysler, which had a long reputation for building some of the hottest cars on the street, was eager to introduce something to blow the Mustang away.
The Charger name first appeared on a Dart-based concept car in 1964, but for 1966, it was its own nameplate built on Chrysler’s new B-Body platform. Introduced at the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s day 1966, the Charger was billed as “The Leader of the Dodge Rebellion,” and designed to appeal to car-crazy Baby Boomers. While it shared most of its architecture with the more pedestrian Coronet, the Charger was only offered as a rakish fastback model. It could be had with a range of V8 engines (the venerable Chrysler 318 came standard), and came with sporty features like hidden headlamps, four bucket seats, tachometer, and a woodgrain steering wheel. After introducing them on their NASCAR racers, Dodge also offered an optional decklid spoiler on the Charger, making it the first American production car to offer one.
But the car was bigger and heavier than the Mustang, and GM’s new Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, and by 1967 sales had fallen to just over 15,000 cars. For 1968, the Charger got a major redesign, and the longer, lower, and meaner Charger was the one to finally catch on with the public. A slant-six was now the base engine, but the 440 Magnum, and 426 Hemi-powered models became the stuff dreams were made of. While its smaller ponycar rivals could be dressed down in a way that appealed to everyone form secretaries to drag racers, the Charger looked big and menacing, and oozed performance. And with the big V8s, it was obscenely fast.
Over 96,000 people took home Chargers in ’68, and knowing a good thing when they saw it, Dodge made only minor improvements to the car and sold nearly 90,000 of them. A new grille and taillight panel differentiated the car on the outside, but a host of engine improvements made the fastest Chargers even faster. For the 1969 NASCAR season, Dodge experimented with a radical aerodynamic body kit for the Charger, and because of NASCAR homologation rules, it needed to make 500 available to the public. Sold as the Charger Daytona, its near-19 foot length, massive rear wing, and steep price never quite caught on with the public.
Today however, Daytona’s are some of the most valuable cars of the muscle car era, with well-preserved examples now fetching over $1,000,000.
While the Charger got more powerful, the world around it began to change. Sales for the 1970 model year plummeted, thanks in part to skyrocketing insurance premiums and the introduction of the smaller E-Body Dodge Challenger. For 1971, the Charger got a redesign that brought it closer in line with Chrysler’s “fuselage” body style, and while it was plenty hot for the era, power was down all around. By 1974, the muscle car party was over, and the name would undergo its first two big transformations.
In 1975, the Personal Luxury Coupes made up the hottest segment in the auto industry, and the Charger became its latest entry. It became the Charger SE, and the 360 cubic inch V8 became its base engine – though emissions equipment had robbed the big motor of of any performance potential. The hottest engine, a 400 V8, could only muster 245 horsepower, and its aerodynamics were so bad that drivers petitioned NASCAR to keep using their ’74 models instead. By the time Charger SE production ended in 1978, the company was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and its performance car glory days were long behind it.
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