Angry Wheels: From the 1969 Dodge Charger to the 2017 Dodge Charger Hellcat Jun 27, 2016 by James (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
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Barracuda from Chrysler had beaten the Mustang out of the gate, the style of the fishbowl fastback was immediately outdated.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
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 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...
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.
Malaise and Retrenchment
In the face of dwindling sales and the collapse of the pony and muscle car segments in the 1970s, Chrysler took a few desperate steps to keep the iconic nameplate in production. In 1973, the Mustang Pinto set the new standard for the underwhelming sports coupes of the 1970s, economy cars with pathetic engines. Alternately, Chrysler tried to ride out the fuel crisis by upgrading the Charger to a personal luxury car with luxurious trimmings, sound insulation, and comfortable features. From 1975 to 1978, the Charger was a clone of the Cordoba, complete with neoclassical styling, wheel covers, whitewalls, and even a pretentious hood ornament. You could still find a decent V8 engine (for the 1970s) but the car was slowed down by another 10” of length and 400 pounds of weight compared to 1974. While the Charger was, at first, saved from an ignoble downsizing, it wasn’t enough to keep the nameplate in production. Dodge retired the Charger in 1978 and launched the Dodge Magnum, similar in appearance to a rounded Charger, and ready for NASCAR, unlike the overburdened Cordoba. Ironically, the “Dukes of Hazzard” served as a memorial to the death of the muscle car in 1979 with a ’69 Charger. If you wanted something similar off the lot, you were out of luck for almost thirty years. Yes, we’re not counting the Dodge Omni Charger from 1981-1987—a subcompact hatchback economy car with front-wheel drive. Not even Carroll Shelby could salvage the Dodge Omni, demonstrated by the fact that he focused on handling and precision with an improved suspension and transmission. While the Shelby Charger was quick on its feet, the subcompact didn’t have the power—or the look—of a real Mopar. Chrysler failed to honor the spirit and style of a car with the potential to attract dedicated drivers and enthusiasts, and the name was retired in 1987—seemingly for good.
The New Chargers—The World’s Angriest Sedan
It took nineteen years for the Dodge Charger to escape from the scrapyard, and it almost didn’t happen. After years of financial pain, Chrysler was trapped in a marriage of convenience with Daimler-Benz. In 2006, the new management pitched a new vehicle to Dodge dealers and gave them three options for the nameplate: Intrepid, Enforcer, and Magnum. The dealers wrote in Charger, despite the fact that it would be a four-door sedan. That’s the appeal of the classic car. The result was a four-door with an aggressive roofline and rear fenders, long hood, big engines, and RWD. In retrospect, the new body was slab-sided and overburdened, justly criticized for its focus on fleet sales to rental companies and law enforcement. At the same time, we’re grateful that the new model pioneered a different type of sports sedan that was nothing like the computerized rides from Mazda or BMW. The Charger was a full-sized sedan that could burn rubber in a straight line and fit the whole family if you wanted. It looked nothing like the 1999 Dodge Charter R/T concept car that had appeared and disappeared just a seven years before. Frankly, it shouldn’t have worked. But it was a unique vehicle that captured an untapped niche, especially amongst Dodge loyalists, with a surprising combination of versatility and fun.
Remarkably, the modern version improved over the years despite a recession, bankruptcy, and merger. Now in the hands of Fiat-Chrysler, the Dodge Charger benefited from a significant update in 2011, with improved lines and a more sculpted appearance that truly evoked the ‘60s fastbacks. In 2014, Fiat-Chrysler announced that Dodge would focus on performance vehicles and the results are in—the latest Charger is the only four-door sedan with serious heft, the long hood of a pony car, and RWD. Despite the weight, the elegant chassis and balanced suspension keeps the car nimble. The focus on performance shows in the new German ZF transmission with a lower first gear for acceleration and a taller top gear for improved efficiency on the highway. (We know, it's German, but it’s just the transmission.) But the real advantage? The range of big engines including the classic Hemi V8 and even a supercharged 6.2L V8 with 707 horsepower. The straight-line performance of the Charger is the stuff of legend if you’re willing to put your life on the line, and the Charger Hellcat is the world’s fastest production sedan, hitting 60 in a suicidal 2.9 seconds. Even with a more economical engine, you get the purr of a big block under the hood with an interior to match. This is a real four-door muscle car, bigger and better than ever, with a spacious cabin and a range of finely-tuned engines for any level of performance.
The 2017 Dodge Charger is muscular and versatile, a surprising success in a unique niche that still pays homage to the aesthetic and engineering history of a classic car. The new style might not have the exacting lines preferred by a vintage enthusiast, but you have to admit that the latest models have been a critical success and a unique opportunity to drive a real powerhouse for work and pleasure. When the next platform emerges in 2020, we can only hope that the designers pay close attention to the careful balance between legacy and versatility, engineering and style.
Article updated 26-July-2017.