The Dodge Charger
When the lines of performance and high style cross, it creates a pretty special car. The Dodge Charger was one of those cars. In 1966, Dodge rolled out a truly new design and the car-loving world took notice. The Dodge Charger was a leap forward in 60′s car design and it dared to do what very few other cars and practically no muscle cars did, which was to offer extreme performance with exceptional luxury. Until the Charger, Dodge’s fast cars were a little on the plain side. Dodges were fast, thanks to the most impressive array of engines this side of the jet propulsion laboratory. But when it came to cool, they left little to be desired. The Charger fixed all that with one swing of the bat. Its roof line was the most radical of any mid-sized car on the market. Its trimmings were Chrysler plush and when you stepped on the gas you knew where the name Charger came from.
But the Charger was a car with a purpose and that purpose was super speedway racing. This was 1966 and the big game in town was Nascar. No other racing was as exciting as the 180 mile an hour fender banging at Daytona. With its new aerodynamic styling, the Charger was a direct assault on these big tracks.
Dodge was Chrysler’s hot rod division and the Charger was proof that Dodge wasn’t messing around when it came to stock car racing. When it debuted in 1966, it was the first effort by a major manufacturer to build a car from bumper to bumper with racing aerodynamics as its major styling influence.
But Dodge was also Chrysler’s cool car division, which meant that even though the Charger’s shape was designed for high speed competition, the car had to have a page full of luxury options to go with all that go fast.
“The Charger was a lot more upscale. The Charger, I guess you could say was somewhat like a T-Bird in that it was appealing to people of higher income, maybe a little more discerning tastes, so to speak.” Keith Maney, a restoration expert, explains.
The Charger was also bigger than most muscle cars, which is both a blessing and a curse. Size was good when it came to luxury and comfort but size wasn’t a plus when it came to the stoplight Grand Prix. But Dodge had no intention of building a wimpy muscle car. They solved this power to weight problem by simply adding more power. Thanks to the Charger’s size, every engine in Dodge’s impressive array of high horsepower motors fit very nicely inside the Charger’s engine compartment. The baseline Charger power plants weren’t very potent, but there was plenty of room under the hood for everybody’s favorite motor: the 426 hemi. Checking the right option block would build a Charger for any purpose for from street styling to smoking them down the quarter mile.
This was truly a car that could do it all. This ability to look right at home in the drive in, the country club, or the staging lanes made the Charger one of America’s all time favorite muscle cars.
Rich Pankz is a collector car owner who keeps an eye on the cost and availability of these cars. “The Dodge Charger is one of the top notch luxury cars, becoming one of the most sought after muscle car around. To get a car like that nowadays has become one of the rare things to find.”
Regardless of all that, though, the Charger will be best remembered for mixing it up in Daytona, Darlington, and Talladega. That’s where this car really made its reputation.
The History Behind the Dodge Charger
When Dodge entered stock car racing in the early 50s, it was a real anything goes kind of sport. Every kind of car under the sun was mixing it up out there on the track. But with a red ram Hemi engine, Dodge soon established a reputation for being fast enough to win and strong enough to go the distance. Dodge had a reputation for making lightweight, huge horsepower cars. And they rode this winning formula all the way through the swinging 60s. In 1958, the Hemi gave way to the 413 wedge engine. This power plant and its bored out brother, the 426 wedge, eventually produced some all world super stock drag racers.
The 1964 Hemi Race Motor
Chrysler re-introduced the Hemi in 1964 as an all-out race motor, drag racing and stock car racing both became play yards for the cars from Dodge and Plymouth. By mid 1964 the very young, very lucrative muscle car market segment was dominated by cars that looked like a lot more youthful than the mid-sized MO cars. Dodge felt the heat in particular because they were Chrysler’s “think young” division. But Dodge had a plan. When the rest of the world, including their sister division, Plymouth, jumped into the pony car market, Dodge elected to go with a much larger car. To some, this looked like old thinking, but the car Dodge had on the drawing board was going to grab all the attention.
“Dodge did something unusual. Instead of building a pony car they built something intermediate with the Charger. They took a different path than Ford did and also GM later which was the Camaro and Firebird.” Says Maney.
The 1965 Dodge Charger II
In the summer of 1965, Dodge rolled out an experimental show car called the Charger II, which was created by designing a swoopy fast back roof and sticking it onto a basic ’66 body. The reaction from the general public was astounding.
“It tended to polarize people, you either loved it or you hated it. At the time, a lot of people didn’t care for it, and then of course the people who bought the cars loved it.” Points out Maney.
The 1966 Dodge Charger
By late 1965, the Charger was a reality. The ’66 Charger styling was the most forward leaning of any car, anywhere. From the flush grill with its hidden headlights to the fender to fender tail light panel with Charger spelled out in Chrome letters, the car demanded your attention. Even they were sculpted especially for this car. By far the most arresting design feature of the ’66 Charger was its roof line. It was pure fast pack from the top of the windshield to the tail lights and incorporated a flat piece of rear glass that was more of a sky light than rear window.
And if you could stop looking at the Charger’s body long enough to get inside, you were surrounded by an interior that was as upscale as anything on the road but designed to make you feel racy. Four individual bucket seats and a console that ran the length of the interior dominated the passenger compartment and he dash featured instrument pods that were part race car and part spacecraft. Among the charger’s unique interior features were the individual fold down rear sets, which held implications for carrying a lot of luggage or sneaking several friends into the drive in movie. Dodge built this car as a luxury hot rod and they were right on. Most of the car’s upscale equipment was standard, including the wood-rimmed steering wheel and a floor-mounted automatic or 4-speed transmission.
The ’66 Charger’s base engine was the 318, but its other engine options upped the performance curve very quickly. You could opt for the mid-sized 361 two barrel with 265 horsepower or the torque 325 horse 383. But the engine that put the Charger on the map as a big time performance car was the 426 street hemi. The Hemi engine could make a muscle car out of a pile of bricks. But in a car like the Charger, it created the most desirable new car of 1966. The public responded by taking over 37,000 ’66 Chargers home that year. But Dodge saw an even brighter future for their new car and that future started at America’s stock car tracks.
The Dodge Charger Does Nascar
The Charger’s debut as America’s newest Nascar contender started very publicly by winning one of the qualifying races in the Daytona 500. Soon, though, it became apparent that Dodge’s first attempt at aerodynamics needed a little tweaking. Even though the fast pack was great at reducing drag, the Charger’s long flanks actually created rear end lifts at high speeds. Nascar finally allowed the Charger teams to bolt a small lip spoiler to the trunk lid, creating some badly needed down force. Sam McQuagg’s Charger won the Daytona Firecracker 400 in July. David Pearson won the 1966 Nascar driving championship in a Dodge, making the Charger a winner in its first Nascar season.
The 1967 Dodge Charger
So, for 1967, Dodge brought this winning combination back mostly unchanged. The fast pack body and all the deluxe trimmings were still there, with just a few minor changes to the package. New upholstery patterns graced the interior and the long front to back console was now an option, rather than standard equipment. Even though the Charger was aimed at the luxury market, Dodge didn’t forget to put some punch in the car. And for this year, there was one other prime mover on the option list. The 440 Magnum power plant. The 440 magnum was the be all and end all of the mighty max wedge engines. It began life as Chrysler’s big car engine, making 350 horsepower and enough low RPM torque to push other cars down the road with all their other accessories humming.
But in Magnum trim, this engine featured new high flow cylinder heads with larger vales. A wilder cam and a big Carter AFB 4-barrel carburetor With a new free-flowing exhaust system, the 440 Magnum produced 375 horsepower at 4600 RPM. And 480 pounds of torque at 3200 RPM.
Explains Maney: “The 440 was really a very good street engine. In fact, most people would consider the 440 a better street engine than the 426 hemi.” The 440 Magnum’s ability to produce gobs of low end torque, and its bargain price tag, which was almost $300 less than the hemi, made it America’s newest street monster. Unfortunately for Doge, though, the Charger wasn’t enjoying the same popularity on the street as on the Nascar tracks. The competition for the hearts and minds of muscle cars had a bunch of new players by 1967. Leading this pack were the new pony cars like the Firebird and the Camaro. The Charger was already bigger and more expensive than most intermediate muscle cars and those new smaller road rockets just complicated Dodge’s situation. Sales of the Charger fell to less than 16,0000 cars this year and it was time for a face lift.
The 1968 Dodge Charger
The car Dodge revealed for 1968 immediately caused everyone to forget about the first generation Chargers. The first Chargers were wedged shapes and this one was an arrow. For 1968, instead of being a fast packed coronet, the Charger’s sheet metal was all its own. Its flanks were tapered from front to back and this time the litter trunk lid spoiler was designed in. The car still had the signature hideaway headlight look. But a glance down the side of the car showed a definite Coke bottle curve in its flanks. Instead of flush rear glass, the back light was now tunneled in between a pair of sail panels. This allowed better visibility, while maintaining the racy fast track look. Inside, the rich kid theme continued with a new designed instrument panel which featured a 150 mile an hour speedometer and a full gauge package. Under the hood, the Charger’s engine options stayed the same this year. But the all new Charger RT option featured the 440 Magnum and the torque automatic trans as standard equipment.
Sales of the Charger rebounded remarkably in 1968 with some 96,000 cars hitting the streets. At last the Charger was becoming one of America’s favorite muscle cars. But the new body style wasn’t all the racing teams had hoped for.
1968 was turning out to be a difficult racing year for the Dodge boys. The new Charger’s recessed grill and the tunnel back rear window were causing problems on the super speedways. Meanwhile, Ford ‘s new Taurina, which looked like a close copy of the ’66 and ’67 Chargers was cleaning up. With engine power at the max, there was only way to go faster: aerodynamics.
By June of 1968, Chrysler’s engineers rolled out a new version of the Charger, made especially for the race teams. And thanks to hours in the wind tunnel, the engineers had eliminated both of its trouble areas. The recessed grill, which had acted like a giant air scoop was gone, replaced by flush grill work and face headlights, borrowed from the Coronet. The tunnel around the rear glass area, which had created a lot of lift, was now smoothed out and a new rear window was installed, creating another Charger fast pack. These two changes, along with the Charger’s sculpted sides and the built in rear spoiler gave this car a huge aerodynamic advantage over the standard body style. However, Na scar’s rules said that 500 cars had to exist to qualify a car for competition. So, Dodge’s assigned the task to a special company called Creative industries They didn’t quite hit 500 but they came close enough. Ready in time for the 1969 Nascar season, the race teams hit the tracks with this new car they now called the Charger 500.
The 1969 Dodge Charger 500
Pankz recalls: “Everyone thought it was named after the 500 Talladegas and the Daytons. It was named after the 500 production cars that had to be built.” The Charger 500 came within a fender of winning the Daytona 500 this year. This kind of results from a new car would have delighted just about anyone. But for Chrysler’s racing engineers, it wasn’t good enough. So, back they went into the wind tunnel, leaving the Charger 500 to make a name for itself on the street. The few Charger 500s that made it to the streets didn’t even try to hide their racing pedigree.
At first, the standard engine was the 426 Hemi. but this was soon changed to the Magnum. 500- emblems were placed on the grill and tail. And a striking bumble bee stripe wrapped around the car’s rear flanks with the number 500 inside. The Charger 500 was a great street machine. It had power to burn, striking good looks and was different than any other car out there. The only problem was there were only 500 or less to go around. As a consequence, very few people even saw a Charger 500, much less got the keys to one. Most Charger fans in 1969 had to settle for a regular Charger, a Charger RT, or the ultra-luxurious Charger SE. Pretty good alternatives, huh? By now the Charger lived at the top of the muscle car mountain. And in its second year, the body style was so popular that over 20,000 Charger RTs were sold this year. Despite its racing difficulties, it was on its way to becoming one of Chrysler’s most popular muscle cars. Sales of all three Charger versions stayed solidly in the 90,000 car range for 1969. But unbelievably, the Dodge engineers still weren’t done. There was another ’69 Charger waiting in the wings. And this one would blow peoples’ minds from Talladega to Daytona.
After two tries at getting the ’69 Charger into the winner’s circle, Dodge had managed to create a pretty nice race car, but they were still getting trailered every week by the flying Ford Talladegas. One might have thought that Dodge would have left well enough alone for the rest of the year. But no, Dodge was determined to get back on time in Nascar racing. It was clearly time to get outrageous and this is outrageous; in late 1969 Dodge’s aerodynamics team came up with something truly different. The Daytona. Much of the Charger’s 500 work was incorporated into the Daytona, but unlike the 500 this car left nothing on the table. The Daytona’s wings, sitting almost 2 feet above the rear deck, slammed the back end of the car to the track. Even the wings upright helped straighten the car out if it got loose in a term. When the Dodge teams unloaded at Talladega in September, the winged wonder let all the air out of everyone else’s’ balloon. All week the Ford teams had been running in the 185 mile per hour range. But when Dodge led a practice lap of over 199 miles per hour in the Number 88 Daytona, everybody knew that the world had just changed.
The 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
Keith Maney describes the entrance of the Charger Daytona: “Dodge really dropped a bombshell on the Nascar world with the ’69 Charger Daytona, which of course, is the wing car that everybody knows so much about. That car was designed strictly to win on super speedways and it did a fantastic job of it.”
A Charger Daytona, driven by Richard Brickhouse, won that Talladega race and a few weeks later, Bobby ISaac’s Daytona won the Texas 500. But as the 1969 racing season closed out, the truth promise of this car hadn’t been realized. The few races run by the Daytona in 1969 had showed everyone that the winged car’s aerodynamics were years ahead of tire technology. Dodge would race the ’69 Daytona again in 1970 alongside a new winged stablemate from Plymouth, the Superbird. This year with better tires and upgraded track services, the Charger finally showed the dominance that Chrysler’s engineers had been trying to achieve since that first Charger in 1966. It was a long awaited but satisfying pay off. In 1971 cars with lings were legislated off the Nascar tracks. Dodge had proved their point, though. They had set out to won the high bank super speedways and after five years and millions of dollars, they had done it. The next generation of Chargers would be the most successful Dodge race cars ever.
When the wings disappeared, it didn’t matter to the muscle car crowd one bit. There had never been enough of them to go around anyway. And the car under the wing was everything you could ask for in a muscle car. In 1971, Dodge merged the Coronet and Charger name plates and the car received another restyle Now there were six different models of Charger from the base coupe or hard top to three Charger 500 models, including the Charger super beat and the upscale SE version. And the hot rod of the line, the Charger RT. Even though compression ratios were dropping, horsepower still lived under the Charger’s hood. With a 440 six pack and a 426 Hemi, still the bad boys on the block. The 1971 Charger would be the last hurrah for the Hemi as the Charger enjoyed one more year as the most stylish of all the muscle cars. But after 1972, most of the legendary sixties ground pounders, the Charger’s muscle car career was over.
The Demise of the Charger
Keith Maney remembers: “The demise of the Charger really kind of follows that of the muscle car in general and that fuel crisis of insurance rates and things like that kind of spelled the end for the Charger as well as the muscle car.”
There’s one postscript to the story of the Charger. Maybe the most popular or at least the most recognized Charger of all time is this one: the General Lee. Every week for years, a 1969 Charger in confederate battle dress and sassy little horn outran the police and chased down bad guys on network television to the delight of millions. A flying Dodge Charger might not have been too realistic but the Charger did some pretty amazing things in it’s lifetime, so who’s to say?