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Early Chargers provided dramatic power

January 25, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

The sleek, smooth and sophisticated Dodge Charger added sparkle to the mid-sized automobile category while reinforcing Chrysler Corporation's design and performance leadership.

When the Charger was officially launched Jan. 1, 1966, Detroit's horsepower race was in full gallop. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were busy stuffing monstrous V-8s and assorted high-performance parts into intermediate-size cars originally intended to pack low-output six-cylinder engines or modest-output V-8s. At the same time, the so-called "pony cars," led by Ford's hugely popular Mustang, were beginning to flex their pectoral muscles with high-revving small-block V-8s that could hold their own - for the first 100 feet anyway - against some of the bigger-bore contenders at the local stoplight drags.

Dodge's stylists took a considerably different approach to compete against this heady mix of brawn and bravado. Their entry, appropriately christened the Charger, was nothing short of an attention-grabbing eye-popper.

Based on the mid-size Coronet coupe, the Charger's distinctive swept-back roofline completely transformed the low-key family-oriented car into a fashionably upscale sports machine. Although not the first automobile to take the fastback route, the Charger's massive signature-piece hardtop with its expansive rear glass was an extreme variation on an emerging theme. Power-operated hidden headlights plus taillamps that extended the full width of the rear deck also reinforced the Charger's leading-edge look.

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As stunning - its detractors used less polite adjectives - as it was on the outside, the Charger's interior also broke new ground. Vinyl-covered bucket seats for both front and rear passengers were standard and, combined with a full-length floor console, gave the appearance of a richly appointed corporate jet.

As a bonus, the rear buckets and the divider between the trunk and the cabin could be folded flat to create a carpeted load floor.

But what made the Charger so special with the enthusiast crowd was the array of available engines. The starting point was a 230-horsepower 318-cubic-inch V-8 that came standard with a column-mounted three-speed manual transmission. Most buyers, however, passed on this price leader, opting instead for either a 265-horse, 361-cubic-inch V-8 or a 383 with 325 horsepower on tap. Both were matched to a floor-mounted four-speed manual shifter, with a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic optional on all engines.

For an extra $1,000, the equivalent of one-third the Dodge's starting price, you could upgrade to Chrysler's rip-snorting 426-cubic-inch Hemi. With an advertised 425 horsepower, a four-speed Hemi Charger could touch 60 m.p.h. in 6.4 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 14 seconds, making it one of the most potent muscle cars on the road. Heft and skinny tires were the limits to quicker acceleration times.

Ordering the Hemi automatically reduced the powertrain warranty to one year or 12,000 miles, compared with the standard five-year/50,000-mile coverage. Buyers were also sternly warned that even that coverage would not be honored if the car was "subjected to any extreme operation (i.e. drag racing)."

In its initial year, just 468 Hemi Chargers, out of a production run that totalled close to 40,000 units, found new homes.

Aside from a few minor changes, the 1967 Charger carried on as before. The 361 V-8 was cancelled, replaced by a new 440-cubic-inch motor that made 375 horsepower and was nearly as fast as the Hemi, but a lot cheaper and less temperamental. It also qualified for the full factory warranty.

From a sales standpoint, the '67 Charger was a flop, with output dropping to less than half of first-year sales, including a meager 118 Hemis. Shoppers had many new pony- and muscle-car entries from which to choose, such as the second-generation Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda, GM's new Camaro/Firebird duo and Plymouth's high-powered GTX.

Both Dodge and Plymouth intermediate bodies were given new sheetmetal the following season and the Charger's fastback roofline gave way to what was called a concave, or 'flying buttress' silhouette.

However, the Charger's dramatically different dome had helped position it as an exciting niche car and Dodge as a builder of products that went fast, pampered passengers and looked good while doing both.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' historical writer.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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