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 $900,000.
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.
Even before the Charger SE was treading water in the Personal Luxury Coupe segment, Dodge’s truck division had developed a full-size SUV to compete with the Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer, and it repurposed the fading Charger name for its truck. Debuting in 1974, the Ramcharger was a capable body-on-frame and utilitarian SUV that could handle its rivals both on-and off-road, and was a popular seller for Dodge as it struggled through its darkest times.
The Ramcharger served admirably in the U.S. until 1994, and was so popular in Mexico that it was redesigned and carried on until 2001. But after a two-year absence from Dodge’s car line, the Charger returned in 1981. Unfortunately, it made the Charger SE look like a dream car: Chrysler was a very different company than it had been in the ’70s, and was rapidly converting its cars to its new front-wheel drive K-Car and Omni/Horizon platforms. As a result, the ’81 Charger was a $400 accent package for the sporty Omni 024 hatchback. Known as the Charger 2.2, its sole powerplant was a 2.2 liter inline-four. The 024 was renamed Charger for 1984, but base models were downgraded to a 1.6 liter-four jointly developed with Peugeot.
If there was any bright spot for the ’80s-era Charger, it was the Carroll Shelby-designed model, which improved the suspension and livened up the wedge-shaped styling. With a high-compression turbocharger coaxing 107 horsepower out of the 2.2, it was the closest to excitement anyone could muster out of the car. In an era when automakers were beginning to emerge from the Malaise Era with IROC-Z Camaros, 5.0 liter Mustangs, and Firebird Formula 350s, the Charger seemed to serve as a reminder of the dark days from not too long ago, and when it left production again in 1987, not many people noticed.
After the ’80s, it looked like the Charger nameplate was just about spent. But the 1990s were very good to Chrysler, and by the end of the decade, it began to plan for a Charger revival – albeit in yet another guise. Introduced in 1999, the four-door Charger R/T concept was a huge hit, incorporating elements from the nameplate’s B-Body heyday with Chrysler’s successful “cab-forward” design of the era. The company seriously considered the car for production, but insiders say Chrysler’s merger with Daimler-Benz put those plans on ice.
A four-door Charger finally appeared for 2006, and injected some much-needed life into the stagnant mid-size sedan segment. It didn’t look like the 1999 concept, but its retro styling cues and muscular lines made it a much-needed hit for Chrysler, which was again in dire financial straits. With performance models like the 6.1 liter Hemi-powered SRT8 model and the 5.7 liter Hemi R/T, the new Charger more than made up for the misfires of the last 30 years, and proved that American family sedans didn’t need to be boring.
Of course, the current Charger’s finest hour came in 2014, when Dodge introduced the 6.2 liter supercharged Hellcat, and set the automotive world on its head. Like the tire-roasting Hemi cars of the ’60s, the Hellcat’s 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque rocket the car to a top speed of 204 miles per hour, and at $63,000, it offers Ferrari-like performance for the price of a nicely-equipped Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Fifty years ago, the Charger was introduced to put Dodge at the top to the performance car market. After its late-’60s high, it spent decades in the wilderness before reemerging as a completely new animal. The Charger may not be a sinister-looking coupe anymore, but it isn’t an econobox, SUV, or baroque luxury coupe either. We’re living in the era of the Charger’s great renaissance, and as fans of American horsepower, we couldn’t ask for more.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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