Was the Original ’70s Dodge Challenger a Failure?
The Dodge Challenger is one of the most beloved muscle cars from the Golden Age of American performance. It looked great, had racing pedigree, and could be optioned with everything from a thrifty slant-six to a fire-breathing Hemi V8. But there’s another reason why the Challenger looms large in our collective automotive imagination: It died young. The Challenger was around for just five model years, from 1970 to 1974, just long enough to experience the peak of the muscle car movement, and disappear before things got really bad.
The first-generation Mustang infamously gained 1,000 pounds before being replaced by the Pinto-based Mustang II. The second-generation Camaro and Firebird went from some of the most refined sports cars of the era to overweight personal luxury cruisers almost overnight. Ditto the Dodge Charger. But the Challenger never got too slow. Or too fat. And it was never weighed down with massive safety bumpers to ruin its good looks. Like its nearly identical cousin the Plymouth Barracuda, the Challenger seemed to get it right the first time, then duck out at the best possible moment. That was good enough to canonize it for thousands of gearheads around the world.
In the late ’60s, compacts ruled the day. Not like today’s compacts, where five doors rule the day, but smallish coupes like the Ford Mustang, Pontiac Tempest, and Oldsmobile Cutlass. Chrysler had the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart, which sold respectably, but even with big V8s available, coupe versions of these cars were no match for more dedicated performance rivals like the Camaro and Firebird. It had the Dodge Charger, but that was too large and expensive for the demographic the company wanted to reach.
So in 1967, work began on a new compact. Within a year, both Ford and GM had begun dropping big block V8s in their compacts, taking the muscle car wars to the next level. Chrysler was determined to keep up, and began engineering its new car accordingly. It would be largely based on the Dart/Valiant A-Body platform, but with structural elements of the larger B-Body cars to support the heaviest Chrysler firepower. The new platform became known as the E-Body, and it would arrive at dealerships in the fall of 1969 in the form of the redesigned Plymouth Barracuda, and the all-new Dodge Challenger.
Chrysler had big plans for its new cars. Built at plants in Detroit and Los Angeles, it expected to sell upwards of 200,000 of them a year, thanks to their wide price range, numerous powertrain options, and those good looks. The Challenger was the larger of the two; with a 110-inch wheelbase, it was longer than the Barracuda, despite sharing glass, interior trim, and most mechanical parts with the other car. Starting at $2,720 with the 145 horsepower slant-six and three-speed manual transmission (roughly $16,500 today), the base Challenger was just barely cheaper than the entry-level Mustang and Camaro. It was certainly sharper than the portly Ford, and with labor disputes delaying the launch of the second-generation Camaro, the Challenger took off.
In its promotional advertising, drag racing legend Don Garlits gave his glowing endorsement, saying:
They [Chrysler] watched the whole pony car thing develop, then built their own super-tough version … the Challenger R/T. Compact like a Dart. Wide like a Charger. Just the right size for anyone who likes his own personalized backyard bomb. Dodge should sell a million of ’em. Challenger and especially Challenger R/T are young people’s cars with young persons’ price tags.
Over 76,000 Challengers sold in 1970. It paled in comparison to the Mustang (198K units) and Camaro (124K units), but it looked like this new compact was a step in the right direction for Dodge.
While sales were strong, the Challenger’s biggest asset was its performance. Chrysler’s engineers designed the E-Body to handle virtually every engine in the company’s lineup. So while that meant slant-sixes for the masses, it also meant no fewer than six different V8s, ranging from the stout 318 to the big block 44o Magnum to the king-of-the-hill Hemi 426. For 1970, the performance model was the R/T (for Road/Track), and its powertrains read today like a hall of fame roster of classic Mopar iron. The base R/T came with the 383 Magnum, which was good for 335 horsepower. Next was the 440 Magnum, which made 375 horses, then the 440 Six Pack which made a cool 390. The Hemi made a whopping 425 horsepower. A three-speed manual came standard, but a four-speed manual, and drag strip-friendly TorqueFlite automatic were available as options.
The Challenger’s rookie year would also prove to be the last great year of the SCCA’s Trans Am racing series. To meet the challenge, Dodge fielded the Challenger T/A to take on the Camaro Z/28 and Mustang Boss 302. With a 340 cubic inch V8 rated at 290 horsepower (it put out closer to 320 on the track), the T/As had a respectable showing in the 1970 season.
On the street, however, the T/As were a true Camaro Z/28 competitor. It may not have had the big block or Hemi, but a number of suspension and aerodynamic upgrades made the car the best handling of the Challenger lineup. Under 2,500 were built that year, making them among some of the most desirable Mopar muscle cars ever built.
Dodge planned to build a revised T/A for 1971, but unfortunately, plans for those cars were quickly scuttled. The market was quickly shifting away from muscle cars, thanks to rising insurance premiums, declining performance car sales, and rapidly changing safety and emissions laws. The Challenger lineup was simplified (which included dropping the R/T convertible), and several trims and engines were dropped. Horsepower was down across the board too.
Just one year into production (and despite a handsome new front fascia), Challenger sales fell off a cliff. Just under 27,000 people took a chance on Dodge’s ponycar the second year. It ended up selling fewer than the bigger Charger and the sporty Dart Swinger. Almost immediately, the Challenger was making itself redundant.
With the exception of the hottest R/T cars, the Challenger wrote checks it just couldn’t cash. In its November 1969 review, Car and Driver said:
Chrysler passed up a splendid opportunity to make an exceptional performance car. It’s simply too heavy. And the Challenger is so wide that it has none of the agility associated with this class of car. Before we go any further we should make it clear that the test car is perfectly satisfactory for normal maneuvers like going to church and fetching grandma. [But] strong understeer is apparent in places where you might try to hurry, like expressway entrances, and really flogging on a twisting road or a tight road course is a waste of time. The car just won’t cooperate.
People were beginning to move away from muscular coupes. And those that weren’t wanted something that could live up to the hype. Unfortunately, you just couldn’t do that without spending a lot of money at your local Dodge dealership.
For 1972, the Challenger saw a slight update, with a new front and rear fascia. The 383, 440, and 426 Hemi were gone; in their stead were the 340, which was detuned to 240 horses, and 150 horse 318, and the wheezy slant six. The convertible, luxury-oriented SE, and R/T were gone too. Sales dropped to just over 22,000 units.
1973 saw the disappearance of the slant-six, with the 318 cubic inch V8 hanging on as the base powerplant. As a workaround to the impending 5 mile per hour impact laws, the bumpers got fat rubber overriders, and Dodge made more features standard in an attempt to woo new buyers. It worked; sales jumped to just over 27,000.
For ’74, the Challenger largely remained the same, but the only engine options were the 318 and Chrysler’s new 360 cubic inch V8, which gave the car a 5-horse bump to 245. By mid 1974, Dodge announced that the Challenger would be discontinued. By then, it had long been written off as an afterthought.
But the Challenger didn’t die quietly. By the end of the ’70s, buyers were already beginning to feel nostalgic for fire-breathing muscle cars, and the relatively rare Dodges began to be quickly snapped up. In popular culture, the 1971 film Vanishing Point was quickly becoming a cult classic, and the Challenger with its starring role became one of the coolest cars to grace the big screen.
By the time the muscle car boom of the 2000s hit, the Challenger was royalty. Almost overnight, ultra-rare T/As and Hemi-powered cars (especially convertibles) were changing hands for six figures. For fans of Mopar muscle, or for those who wanted to stand out in something different than a Mustang or Camaro, the sexy looks of the Challenger were a perfect fit.
The renewed interest in the Challenger proved to be too much for Chrysler to ignore. In a case of history repeating itself, the 2000s saw a reborn muscle car war, with a retro-themed Mustang causing Chevy to reintroduce an all-new Camaro with its own throwback looks. Not willing to be left out, Dodge entered the fray in 2008 with an all-new Challenger, designed to look as close to the original as possible.
Nine years on, the reborn Challenger has the life that its ancestor never had. Instead of performance being aggressively curbed, it’s only gotten crazier. In 2015, Dodge stunned the automotive world by launching the SRT Hellcat, a 707 horsepower version car, making it the most powerful production muscle car ever. That year was also the modern Challenger’s biggest facelift to date. Unsurprisingly, it ditched its 1970-model cues for 1971 ones.
Looking back on the classic Challenger, you find a car that took years of development, sold for five model years, was only really relevant for two or three, and never found more than 165,000 buyers. And yet despite all its flaws, the car is a legend. It appeared at the zenith of the muscle car era, and is almost universally considered to be one of the best-looking of all time. Nearly 50 years later, the 400,000-plus people that have bought the modern version would likely agree.
The story of the Challenger may be proof that history is best looked at through rose colored glasses. But it also proves that the legend can often be more powerful than the truth.