The Dodge car was proof that it didn’t cost a fortune to have the fastest muscle car on the block. If you were around in the 60s, around the drag strip that is, there was one thing you noticed right away. Two cars with identical engines raced and the lighter car won just about all the time. This was the whole idea behind the muscle car revolution: putting top of the line engines in medium sized cars was a great idea. And it created some pretty fast cars. But for some people, even this wasn’t enough. These people had to have more speed. They didn’t care about luxury or a rich kid image. They just wanted to be first to the finish line. For these people, there was the Dodge Dart GT.
The Dodge Dart GT
The Dart GT was a perfect example of a no frills go fast. This car evolved from Dodge’s first compact car into an all world drag racer in just a few short years. By offering more punch for pound than just about any car of the muscle era. Performance like this doesn’t’ happen if you’re lugging around an extra thousands pounds of luxury options. But the Dart was no ugly duckling. Thanks to Dodge’s styling department, between 1961 and 1967, the Dart evolved from a plain Jane little grocery getter into a pretty stylish street machine. Car lovers took to this little car like hungry people to $1.99 buffet. Over the next few years, Dodge stayed with this popular body style and continued to build more horsepower into the car. The 340 engine and the reliable 383 made this car a potent little street fighter. But the ultimate weapon of the 60s, the 426 Hemi, eventually found its way behind the front fenders of the dart and that created a drag racing legend, the Hemi Dart.
The Dodge Hemi Dart
Herb McCandless, drag racing champion, explains: “The Dart was built as a race car It was a real legitimate, honest, off the showroom race car You could take it home, put some slicks on it and put a bigger pan on it and pretty much go race the car.” For years the benchmark for Detroit performance had been 10 pounds of vehicle weight per horsepower. The average 383 Dart GTS beat this by a wide margin. The Hemi Dart obliterated it. While most other 60s muscle cars were straining to achieve this magic number, the street Darts rolled off the assembly line in fighting weight The ones made for the strip were so light you could almost see through them. And this made for some wild times on the drag strip. Racer Herb McCandless developed his own Hemi Dart driving technique: “People who said they really watched the tach in those cars, they were lying. What it became was rhythm As the car peaked in low gear, you touched the clutch and pulled second. Same situation in the third. Put it in high gear and look around, hope you were in front. That was the name of the game. ”
You’d have to expect a car like this from Dodge. Dodge was Chrysler’s performance division The home of the ram Charger racing team. No other car company had more racing fanatics on their payroll Dodge’s motto was “Give the public what they want and our public wants fast cars.” The Dart GT, the GTS, the Dart Swinger and the awesome Hemi Dart are evidence that Dodge wasn’t interested in coming in second in any kind of race.
From hot rodding earliest day’s, power to weight ratio was a supreme principle. But for years that logic didn’t register with Detroit, for one basic reason: you couldn’t make money on small cars.
Keith Maney explains: “Dealers want to sell you large cars that are full of content. They ant to sell you the most loaded out car they can because that’s what they make most of the money on.” For decades, this big car mentality was the conventional wisdom. Until the recession hit the country in the late 50s. All of a sudden, people were looking for smaller, less expensive cars. Detroit responded with a whole line of econo-boxes, which all had one thing in common. They were as sparse as their big brother cars were luxurious. In 1961, Dodge hit the market with the Lancer. It looked like a three quarter scale version of a full-sized Dodge. It weighed around 2600 pounds. And it sold for just about $2000.
The 1961 Dodge Lancer
The Lancer was powered by an either 170 cubic inch or a 225 cubic inch slant six engine. Definitely not a muscle power plant. But wouldn’t you know it? Those gear heads at Dodge even found a way to hot rod this little six banger. The 225 hyper packed slant 6 could actually make more than 275 horsepower. By the mid 60s, compact cars were here to stay. But if little cars weren’t going to go away, maybe there was a way to make them profitable.
“Now on the Ford Mustang that was really the first time that a manufacturer made a small car profitable. And of course profit drives everything, which makes the dealers push certain cars Through the Mustang program, the dealers finally saw that they could indeed make money on small cars.” Keith Maney
Once Dodge saw the Mustang’s phenomenal success, they wasted no time jumping on the sport car bandwagon. And it didn’t take much to turn the Dart into a pretty cool little compact car. Thanks to its sport look and a few racy things like four on the floor, a sports steering wheel and gauges, the Dart GT joined the Mustang and the Barracuda as the only other sport compact on he street. It still stickered for around $2400 but with extra cost options like a console, bucket seats, power steering, and air conditioning, you could run it up to nearly $2800., which put the little car safely inside Dodge dealers’ comfort zone. By 1966 the big buzz on the street was not sport compacts. It was muscle cars. And Dodge’s muscle cars were definitely not el cheapo runabouts. About the only thing that these cars had in common with the Dart was the Dodge emblem on the hood. When Dodge’s styling department gave the Dart a sleek new look in 1967, for the first time the Dart looked like a muscle car. It’s 273 curb inch engine produce 235 Horses. Good for a Sport compact, but definitely not a muscle car.
The 1967 Dodge Dart GT
But the Dart GT did have a couple of very nice features. It weighed 500 pounds less than most muscle cars and on most insurance forms, it was listed as the low powered compact car. Dodge saw this as an opportunity to do something all new.
“In the late 60s most of the problems that people had with muscle car movement was that insurance companies started charging excessive premiums for all the displacement in horsepower that the muscle cars made. That led to the rise of the junior muscle car, that would be the small block power muscle car. You got most of the visual flash of the traditional big inch muscle car, however the insurance companies classified these vehicles as compacts and thus they had a very low insurance premium.” Says Keith Maney.
Help was on the way in the engine department, too. And the pipeline was areal muscle Dart. But with all the go fast goodies, Dodge was going to need help getting it into the showrooms.
In 1968, Dodge and Plymouth were the cars to beat in the door slammer classes. At most drag strips, a weekend meet was an infomercial for muscle cars. Herb McCandless describes how racing involved the public: “The performance-minded people that sat in the stands, they saw the Chrysler win and win on a regular basis. Those cars enabled a lot of people to get involved in a fast race car that wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise”
Mr. Norm and Grand Spaulding Dodge
Muscle car buyers soon found the car dealers in their area that spoke their language to get them the cars they wanted, recognizing this good, some car dealers began to specialize in selling and serving performance cars. One of the most famous of all these high performance dealerships was Grand Spaulding Dodge in Chicago, owned by Norm Krause, better known as Mr. Norm: “Then when we started a dealership, the whole dealership was keyed up for total performance. We ordered 50 ram Chargers, 13 to 1s, then the 12.5 to 1s, 11 to 1s. We had them all coming into our place. The only thing we ordered was performance cars.”
High on Dodge’s agenda was loading up the Dart GT with more horsepower. But first, nobody thought this was possible Nobody but a bunch of hot rodders at Mr. Norm’s Grand Spaulding Dodge, that is: “They promised us a Dart with a 383 or a 440 inch but it never came through. ‘Well we wanted to give you a 383 but our engineers said it won’t fit.’ Then I pointed to the shop and said, ‘Get a Dart in here, get a 383, I want to know why this doesn’t fit in the car.’ The next day he came in and said, ‘Well, we got it in the car.’ And I said, ‘What was the problem?’ And he said, ‘There was no problem. The exhaust on the left side was a little too close to the steering so we put a heat deflector in there.’ So I called Detroit and said, ‘I have a 383 Dart for you.’ Bob said, ‘Bring it down.’ I drive it to Detroit, he came down, looked at the car, drove it and said,, ‘This is nice.’ Called up the engineer and said, ‘Look what the kids from Chicago did. They put a heat deflector in there, so why couldn’t you?’”
Thanks for this high performance R&D from Mr. Norm, in late 1967, Dodge issued the Dart GT with big block power. The 383 car was such a people pleaser that for 1968 they unleashed the Dart GTS with two high performance engines: the nasty 300 horse 383 or all the all new 340 small block. The small block 340 was one screaming little engine. It’s 275 rated horsepower was achieved with 10.5 compression, a 455 lift hydraulic cam, a single Carter thermo-quad carburetor and dual exhausts. Getting the 383 into the Dart was a tight squeeze that required the use of more restrictive exhaust manifolds and because of this it was downgraded to 300 horsepower. But this rating helped keep the dart on the low risk page at mos insurance companies. Dart lovers could now get their jollies by winding the 340 to 6000 RPM at every gear. Or they could jump in a 383 power GTS and light the after burner on that torque monster Either way, the Dart had become an e-ticket pride. If you were lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you could still take your Dart to Mr. Norm’s for a little extra tweaking.
Norm Krause talks about Mr. Norm’s Sport Club: “Now when we sold a car, they became a member of Mr. Norm’s Sport Club. The car would put out 190-200 horsepower on the car. They said ‘Hey, this is supposed to pout out 300′ and I said ‘Not to worry, not to worry’ then we used to turn it off and our guys used to curb the strip and re-jet the carburetor and they would put a load on it at 5000 RPM. There was the gauge. Bury the needle at 325. You’ve never seen such excited customers in your life. I used to get excited! Oh, it worked!”
The 383 Dart’s bare knuckles approach didn’t attract a six way power seat crowd but it lit up everyone who had a need for speed and it made true believers out of a lot of folks who came to Mr. Norm’s to trade in their Fords and Chevys. “When a fellow came with a GTO or a Mustang or they came in with a Plymouth, we had a Bible we kept on the parts department, we made him swear allegiance and admit to his mistake. The customers went along with it, we took pictures of them, they made fun, they swore they would never buy another Chevy or Ford, that they would come and buy and a lot of them did. 90% of them all came back and bought their cars from us.” Laughs “Mr. Norm.”
There’s a downside to being a true horsepower addict though. For these folks there’s never enough. It was tis mindset that created the most awesome car of the muscle era. The Hemi Dart.
The Mighty Hemi
Thanks to a nice shot of horsepower, the Dart had morphed into a pretty stout street machine, turning low 15 second times, even mid 14s with drag strip tuning. This made the Dart an excellent but not an awesome muscle car. At the very top of the awesome list were cars packing the ultimate weapon: the mighty Hemi. Steve Atwell, Mopar Hemi Authority, explains: “They were built for torque and engine RPM to run both so it has great throttle response I’ve never been in any car that has better throttle response than a cross ram Hemi.” In mid 1968, Dodge was looking for an edge to give its super stock racing teams. The lightweight Dart and the racing version of the 426 Hemi were the makings of an all world super car When Dodge combined these two volatile ingredients, they made a bomb. The Hemi Dart was not a car for the masses. And that was okay, since they practically needed to be hand built.
Stuffing the Hemi into the Dart’s engine bay required some pretty radical modifications So Hurst Performance got the job of turning assembly line Darts into street legal super stock race cars. Dart bodies were shipped to Hurst, but the engines and drive lines shipped separately. Hurst fabricated special motor mounts, suspension, steering, and other components and completed the assembly. All of Chrysler’s heavy duty components were used like heavy duty ignition and a Mopar super stock battery., relocated to the trunk for better weight distribution. Hemi Darts were slimmed down a couple hundred pounds less than their stock weight by installing fiberglass hoods and front funders, gutting the doors and installing lightweight glass and lightweight front bucket seats. The cars were delivered to the racers through selected Dodge dealers without a paint job and needless to say, no warranty of any kind.
The race Hemi was a triumph of Chrysler development in the 60s. Two Carter AFB four barrel carburetors on an aluminum cross-ram intake manifold a solid lifter camshaft, forged crank and rods, and 12.5 to 1 compression where the starting points. The race teams took it from there, making the race Hemis’ conservative rating of 500 horsepower a complete joke.
“You could make a stock Hemi with unported toner heads. You could run any cam shaft and you had to run a stock intake manifold, making 725 horsepower.” Says Steve Atwell. Driving a Hemi Dart was a true heart stopping experience. Dropping the hammer on all this horsepower in such a light car could really get your attention. “You hit the throttle on that thing and you will scare you. You put someone in it that’s never been in a muscle car, it hurts them, they want out.”
Hurst cranked out about 80 Hemi Darts and an additional 50 Darts with a 440 wedge motor. Not very many to go around, but if you absolutely had to have one of these tricked Darts, there was a way, thanks to folks like Mr. Norm. Just like they had done with a 383 Dart, Grand Spaulding Dodge led the pack by offering another Grand Spaulding special, this time with a 440 Magnum engine.
“These engines weren’t necessarily available in the small A body cars in 1968. But Mr. Norm had a great idea. he thought these would make a fantastic performance car. So, he built one, took it to Detroit, and the Chrysler guys signed off on the idea.” Recalls Maney.
By 1969, the Dart had several reputations. It was a sporty car with a racy small block. A street cruiser with a torquey 383 big block and minster machine with Hemi or 440 Magnum power. But its image as an economy car was still on the books at most insurance companies. But premium rates were on the rise for just about anything with a V8 and a four speed. This was a blessing. So, when some thing’s working, you go with it, right?
The 1970 Dart Swinger
By late 1969, this muscle car thing was like a snowball rolling downhill. Everything was getting bigger, faster, and more expensive except the Dodge Dart. Dodge realized the things that had made the Dart a success. Good horsepower and sporty looks at a low price. So why not go around again with another car that offered even more of the same? The 1970 Dart Swinger was, believe it or not, a low buck car, but without any low buck look or feel. Dodge gave it a base price of just $2579 and packed it with all the go fast goodies like the 340 and a Hurst shifted three speed manual trans as standard equipment. The same basic Dart body shell was upgraded with new styling and new Ram style hood scoops fed cold air to the 340. Dodge’s scat packed bumblebee stripes wrapped around the tail, just to let everyone know that this car had some sting.
The Swinger’s new low price didn’t scale back its interior one bit. With Dodge’s range of colors, everything from plum crazy to Hemi orange, the Dart Swinger was way too cool to be called an economy car. The 1970 Swinger was the most popular Dart yet. With almost 120,000 built. By now, though, this body style had been around for 4 years. And it was due for an upgrade. Where do you go from such a popular shape? Well, if you’re Dodge, you look next door at Plymouth. The Plymouth Duster had debuted to massive success. Not only as a successor to the valiant But with the 340 engine, the world’s next great small block muscle car. Dodge said, anything you can do, we can do better and borrowed this body style for 1971, naming it the Dart Demon and packing it with all the stuff that had made the Dart a people pleasing muscle car, the 340 Demon was the 70s version of a 60s favorite.
The 1971 Dodge Demon
“For 1971, Dodge continued to offer performance in the A body line with the Demon 340. As always, you got the visual impact that made the muscle car so famous and you got good performance with the 340 under the hood. But there’s something more. If the standard 1971 Demon 340 wasn’t hot enough for you, all you had to do was take a trip to Mr. Norm’s Grand Spaulding Dodge. He offered a special version called the GSS. What that included was a hotter cam shift, some valve train changes, and of course, the crowning glory: three two barrel Holley carburetors on an aluminum intake manifold.” Explains Maney.
NHRA’s new pro-stock competition was a showcase for Demons and Dusters. Mopar’s drag racing teams wasted no time in squeezing more performance out of the new A body cars than the Dart had ever cranked out.
“Basically a Duster was just a faster ’68 Dart. That’s when they started becoming really great cars. That’s when they were really fun to drive.” Says racer Herb McCandless. While the Demon carried on as Dodge’s new high performance compact, the Dart was relegated back to its humble economy car roots with only slant horsepower. The world had moved on and the younger crowd of muscle car fans had found a new favorite low buck rocket ride. But as the 70s progressed and unleaded fuel and insurance pressures continued to increase, even the high performance Demon finally succumbed.
Fond Dodge Memories
After 1972, the aggressive Demon nickname was dropped in favor of a more vanilla Dart Sport model name. And by 1973, the only V8 offered int he car was the 318. Gone forever were the 340 and 383 fun engines and the Hemi and the 440 were just dim but fond memories. Todays’ Mopar lovers still hold a warm spot in their hearts for the Dodge Dart, though. Because it’s one of the best examples of the muscle car era. Darts are proof that Chrysler corporation was in the game with the muscle car fans. And they delighted in making cars their customers could fall in love with. After all, isn’t it all we ever wanted from a car company?