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Dodge Charger was a muscle-car legene

March 07, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

From the tip of its long hood to the end of its rear bumper, the Charger that Dodge launched in the fall of 1967 was something else.

That fall, big horsepower emanating from Detroit's Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, was the name of the game. Just about every intermediate automobile - cars sized slightly smaller than their full-sized relations - could be ordered with neck-straining large-displacement V-8s. Many were also fitted with a multitude of performance parts that allowed them to burn up the track as quickly as they burned up the copious quantities of high-octane fuel needed to keep them running.

The original 1966-'67 Charger wasn't much more than a mid-sized Dodge Coronet coupe with a fastback roof grafted onto its borrowed shell. The result was a love-it-or-hate-it proposition and most seekers of sportiness passed it over in favor of something more stylish.

Chrysler's Dodge Division could have easily canceled its slow-selling model and moved on to some more financially viable project. And in a way, it did.

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A young Chrysler stylist showed his boss an interesting wedge shape that he had been playing with. The early sketches depicted a smoother and cleaner Charger with an integrated swept-back roofline that blended with the rest of the body. About the only thing the concept drawing had in common with the original was its twin headlights that by day remained hidden behind the grille.

Little did anyone know the success story that was about to be unleashed for 1968, since the only real difference from the year before was style: the engine choices were just about the same.

Under the base Charger's hood, V-8 power ranged from 318-440 cubic inches, the latter reserved for the highly prized R/T (Road and Track) model that also added other heavy-duty hardware and an upgraded suspension. The 426 Hemi - so named for its large dome-shaped hemispherical combustion chambers - also returned with a 425-horsepower rating.

The rebodied Chargers - which shared their "B" body layout with the new Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Coronet - complete with an exposed racing-style fuel-filler opening atop their rear quarter panels, flew off of Dodge car lots as quickly as they landed. By year end, sales had exceeded the 92,000 mark, compared to fewer than 16,000 sold the previous year. Of that impressive total, nearly 20,000 were R/T models and close to 500 of those were fitted with the Hemi. Three-quarters of all Chargers sold that year came with the optional vinyl roof.

Other than some minor trim adjustments along with a new split grille and elongated taillights that replaced the small round units, the 1969 Chargers carried over basically unchanged from '68. However, there were some notable exceptions. Dodge decided to offer a six-cylinder engine for the economy minded, although there were few takers.

At the other end of the spectrum there were two low-volume, high-output models that were developed in a wind tunnel to aid factory stock-car (NASCAR) racing efforts. The Charger 500 came with a flush-mounted grille and flat aft section that replaced the tunnel rear window for improved aerodynamics. Later, the Charger Daytona featured a wind-cheating snout (that stuck out 18 inches past the hood) as well as a giant adjustable rear wing designed to create enough downforce (and lateral stability) so as to keep the car firmly planted at speeds above 200 mph.

With about 300 pounds of extra weight, the few hundred Daytonas that were sold to the public were actually slower around town than regular Chargers. But, in full race trim with the Hemi engine, the Daytonas were dominant.

For 1970, Dodge tacked on a "loop" chrome bumper that encircled the grille and added an available three two-barrel carb setup - called the Six Pack - to the 440-cube V-8 for an impressive 390 horsepower.

Restyling the Charger in 1971 with a longer nose and a shorter tail, Dodge was able to keep its muscle engines in top form at a time when Ford and Chevy were busy detuning. Perhaps it was the softening of horsepower over the years that followed that cast a somewhat dim light on the third-generation Charger.

Detuning was the only way manufacturers at the time were able to quickly respond to sudden emission regulations changes as well as skyrocketing insurance premiums.

Of all the Dodge Chargers produced, those 1968-'70 cars remain the most memorable and the most valuable today. It is with their spirit in mind that DaimlerChrysler has revived the brand for 2006, which is a great honor for a truly noble steed.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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