History Under the Hood: The Dodge Charger

Jun 27, 2016 by Ian (Driver Weekly)

The Dodge Charger is one angry sedan, and that’s a good thing. This unique full-sized car is like nothing else on the market. While we’ve heard that the next platform won’t arrive until 2020, we’re already wondering if it will live up to a legacy of racing success, classic style, and big-block engines? While true Mopar enthusiasts might have a tendency to forget the more ignoble iterations of this classic car, not to mention the fact that not every vehicle came with a 426 Hemi under the hood, there’s no denying the raw engineering and power of a Dodge Charger. But how did the first two-door fishbowl fastback become a snarling four-door sedan? Buckle up and let’s take a look.

The Original Charger


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The Charger was already renowned as the name for various customized factory cars, racers, and show cars by the 1960s. Mopar enthusiasts were undeniably excited for the first production model in 1965. Of course, when most people think about the original Dodge Charger, they’re thinking about the menacing beauty that was the ‘69 Charger, immortalized in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” However, the Dodge Charger first appeared three years earlier in 1966—it just didn’t stick. Back in 1964, Dodge dealers demanded a new model to fit between the new Ford Mustang and the Ford Thunderbird, a pony car with a touch of luxury that could put new drivers in the seats. While it was true that the muscular Plymouth Barracuda from Chrysler had beaten the Mustang out of the gate, the style of the fishbowl fastback was immediately outdated. Unfortunately, Chrysler didn’t change course. They doubled down. When the dealers demanded a new vehicle, Chrysler redesigned the bread-and-butter B-Body Coronet, and the result was an elongated fastback rather than a new pony car. In 1965, Chrysler toured a souped-up concept car around the country, and when the new car arrived at the dealerships there was a brief surge of interest. Of course, sales plummeted 50% the next year, and the vehicle was stuck in limbo. Drivers wanted a pony car rather than a fishbowl. Chrysler made a mistake that we hope they won’t repeat in 2020: they failed to listen to their dealers and customers and sold a souped-up concept car instead of improving the real thing.

The Classic Charger


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No one remembered the failure of the first generation after one of the most successful redesigns in automotive history. When the B-Body was redesigned in 1968, the Charger reemerged as the best-looking muscle car of the 1960s. Richard Sias and Harvey J. Winn, working under Elwood Engel, designed the two-door hardtop with a graceful double-diamond coke bottle, a menacing spoiler, and bold fascia. Chrysler had sculpted the car into its primal essence. Best of all, there was a performance package building towards the legendary 426 Hemi V8. Unsurprisingly, sales leaped from 15,000 to 96,000. Mopar engineers outdid themselves when the Charger Daytona changed the face of NASCAR in 1969 with an aerodynamic profile and a series of unprecedented wins on the track. That same year, the Dodge Challenger arrived—late to the party—and diverted some attention from the Charger’s ongoing success. The Challenger was a powerful contender for in the pony car segment, but it muddied the waters. The Charger was left slightly bereft in the face of internal and exteranl competition. However, the oil crisis was just around the corner, putting an end to the competition—for everyone.

If It Ain't Broke...


Vitezslav Valka / Wikimedia Commons

While the Challenger was too late to make a dent in the market before the big crunch in the 1970s, the Charger benefited from the elimination of the two-door Coronets (moving drivers to the two-door Chargers) and updated bodywork and interior in 1971. At the same time, while the hefty bodywork made the Charger look larger, it was smaller and shorter than its predecessor. While it lost some of the bold purity of the previous model, the more rounded fuselage style and split grille represented an incremental change that didn't alter the fundamental nature of the car. Looks like Chrysler paid attention to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The updated styling kept the Charger on the road until the oil crisis in 1973. But it was the second generation Chargers from 1968-1970 that went down in history as some of the best performance cars from an era of classic automobiles. Just like the contemporary models, the next Charger will have to respect the iconic lines, legendary engines, and racing pedigree under the hood of the second generation—in style and spirit. Next—failure and rebirth.

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