Thanks to The Dukes of Hazzard, most Americans are familiar with the sleek, late-sixties Dodge Charger. The General Lee was actually the second generation of Dodge’s sporty car; the first was the original Coronet-based fastback Charger, a peculiar-looking car born of desperation and bitter sibling rivalry. This is the story of the 1966-1967 Dodge Charger.
THE DODGE BROTHERS
Alfred P. Sloan, the chairman of General Motors from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s, was a great evangelist of what would later be called brand hierarchy. Sloan conceived a ladder of sharply defined automotive brands from the lowest price point to the highest. The idea was that buyers would signify their social and economic advancement by trading up, moving from a Chevrolet to an Oldsmobile and eventually to Cadillac, a philosophy has been embraced by nearly every other big-volume automaker.
As many companies have discovered the hard way, maintaining such a brand hierarchy is challenging. Division managers, eager to improve their profits, try to poach sales from the divisions above and below them; corporate accountants push for more shared components between divisions, eroding the distinctions between models; and dealers, unwilling to be cut out of any potentially lucrative new niche, demand their own versions of every popular model. Before long, the carefully crafted brand ladder becomes a morass of nearly identical models, overlapping prices, and internecine warfare.
The Chrysler Corporation was founded in 1923 by former GM executive Walter P. Chrysler out of the remnants of Maxwell-Chalmers. Chrysler was quick to establish his own hierarchy of brands; in 1928, the corporation launched the Plymouth and DeSoto divisions, covering the low- and medium-priced fields.
Around the same time Chrysler arranged to buy the Dodge Brothers Company, a well-established car and truck manufacturer. Dodge had been founded by John Francis and Horace Elgin Dodge in 1900 as a parts supplier, moving on to complete vehicles in 1914. The Dodge brothers died in 1920, leaving the company in the hands of a succession of other owners, although Dodge sold its one millionth car in 1924. The company was purchased by Chrysler on July 31, 1928, and it officially became the Dodge Division of Chrysler Corporation in 1930, positioned above DeSoto and below Chrysler in price and prestige.
The relationship between Plymouth, DeSoto, and Dodge was always uneasy. During the Depression, Chrysler paired Plymouth with each of its other dealer franchises, insuring that dealers would all have a low-priced car to sell. This pairing helped keep many dealers alive, but it forced Plymouth to always play second fiddle to its corporate siblings in power, features, and styling, lest it overshadow the more expensive cars on the other side of the showroom. That in turn put Plymouth at a disadvantage against Chevrolet and Ford, its principal rivals.
DeSoto died in the early sixties, leaving Dodge to cover the mid-priced spread between Plymouth and Chrysler. By then, Plymouth was paired only with Chrysler, leaving most Dodge dealers as stand-alone franchises.
Although Dodge’s nominal competition in that era was Mercury, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile, Dodge management was often more jealous of Plymouth’s greater sales volume, which typically exceeded Dodge’s by 50% or more. Any time Plymouth had a success or an innovation, Dodge dealers and managers immediately began lobbying for their own versions. If Chrysler could have afforded the level of differentiation that GM allowed its mid-priced divisions — which at that time had their own engines, transmissions, and chassis — it might not have been so bad, but Plymouth and Dodge models were nearly identical under the skin.
The result was often cannibalization, with the two divisions stealing sales away from one another, rather than from rival makes. From a business standpoint, it was bad news, but neither division wanted to be cut out of any potentially profitable market segment, and senior management seemed reluctant to say no.
In the fifties, each division had had one basic product, offered in several body styles and trim levels, but by the mid-sixties, buyers were demanding a choice between compact, intermediate, and full-size models, and there had been explosive growth in the ‘specialty car’ segment, cars like the Ford Thunderbird.
Chrysler was even slower than GM to enter the specialty car arena. There had been a few limited-edition performance models, like the big Chrysler 300 “letter-series” cars and the original Plymouth Fury, but they were relatively rare and by the early sixties, Chrysler had let them become watered down to the point of invisibility. Furthermore, unlike the Thunderbird, none of them offered a unique body.
In 1962, Plymouth stylist Milt Antonick developed a fastback hardtop coupe based on the second-generation Valiant. Dubbed “Barracuda,” it received production approval in early 1963 for a spring 1964 introduction. The Plymouth Barracuda was intended as a follow-on to the Valiant Signet hardtop, a rival for both the Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the upcoming Ford Mustang, which was set to debut in April 1964.
Inevitably, no sooner had the Barracuda been approved for production than Dodge dealers began lobbying for their own version. Dodge management, however, was not thrilled with the idea of cloning the Barracuda, nor was Chrysler president Lynn Townsend. Like many Detroit executives, Dodge general manager Byron Nichols expected the Mustang to be a niche item and he feared over-saturating that niche. Nichols felt there was an untapped market for a bigger specialty car, in between the Mustang and the Thunderbird.
That summer, Dodge stylist Carl Cameron created a series of design studies for a midsize fastback coupe, initially dubbed Monte Carlo. Cameron’s designs were based on the next-generation Dodge intermediate (B-body), but featured a dramatic fastback roof and a new grille with concealed headlights, something Chrysler had not attempted since the 1942 DeSoto. The intention was to make the fastback look different from the standard Coronet, while sharing as much of its hardware as possible.
As Cameron’s design took shape, Dodge dealers continued to press for their own version of the Barracuda. Their outcry grew that much louder after the Ford Mustang debuted on April 17, 1964. Defying the expectations of many in Detroit, it was a smash hit — indeed, in its first, extended model year, Ford sold 680,992 Mustangs, exceeding the Dodge Division’s entire output by more than 200,000 units. Something had to be done.
It quickly became clear that the Barracuda was not the answer. Although it debuted two weeks before the Mustang, its first-year sales were a dismal 23,443, a fraction of its rival from Dearborn. Developing a Dodge version would help no one, and would threaten the Mustang not at all.
Some months after the Mustang’s debut, Lynn Townsend called Dodge product planning manager Burt Bouwkamp into his office. He gave Bouwkamp the go-ahead for a Dodge sporty car, but ordered him not to make it a derivative of the Barracuda.
THE FASTBACK CHARGER
Bouwkamp’s solution was Carl Cameron’s fastback study. It’s unclear whether Cameron’s 1963 rendering was originally slated for production, although it was developed at the same time as the other 1966 B-bodies. According to Bouwkamp’s own account, the fastback didn’t receive production approval until well after the other 1966 intermediates were under way and Dodge designers had to scramble to get it ready in time.
To whet the public’s appetite, Dodge hastily developed a show car based on Cameron’s design and exhibited it in early 1965 under the name Charger. The division’s marketing people hinted publicly that Dodge would consider building the Charger if public response were strong enough. In fact, the decision had already been made well before the show car debuted.
The fastback Charger production car bowed in January 1966. Mechanically, the 1966 Charger was little more than a V8 Coronet with a new roof, but Dodge dressed it up with an ‘electric razor’ grille, kicked-up rear fenders with simulated louvers, and a new rear clip with full-width taillights. The Charger also got a unique and expensive interior treatment, with a full set of gauges (including a tachometer, for once not mounted on the floor), front and rear bucket seats, and an elongated center console. Like the Barracuda, the Charger’s rear seats folded flat to increase cargo capacity, a novelty at the time.
For all that, the Charger still looked a lot like a Coronet or AMC’s conceptually similar Rambler Marlin. It was substantially more expensive than either. The Charger’s base price was $3,122, in the same ballpark as Pontiac’s Tempest GTO, but $417 more than a Coronet 500 hardtop with the same engine, a hefty premium at that time.
Fastback styling — that is, cars with a continuous curve from the front of the windshield to the rear of the deck — had first been essayed during the 1930s craze for streamlining, with mixed results. GM tried to popularize the look with its “sedanets” of 1941-1942, but production was interrupted by the war before they had had a chance to make an impression and they had faded away by the end of the decade. Like the Rambler Marlin, the fastback Charger looked sleek from some angles, clumsy from others, a product of its narrow track (which made it look taller than it was) and considerable front and rear overhang, which gave the impression of a huge car perched atop a relatively tiny ‘footprint.’
The fastback Charger had at least one big advantage over the Marlin and that was the Dodge’s running gear. AMC had little that could be considered sporting hardware; its most powerful engine had only 280 gross horsepower (209 kW), which made for something less than scintillating performance. Dodge, however, had torsion-bar front suspension, the excellent TorqueFlite automatic transmission, and a full assortment of engines, including the Hemi.
The origins of Chrysler’s 1951 FirePower Hemi engines are a story for another day, but suffice it to say that they had been powerful, heavy, and expensive to produce. They were dropped in 1958 in favor of a cheaper, wedge-head “B” engine, which became Chrysler’s bread-and-butter big V8. The B engine was relatively tame in street form, but, expanded to 413 cu. in. (6,771 cc) and then 426 cu. in.(6,974 cc), became the basis of the legendary “Max Wedge” engines, which were used extensively in competition.
By 1963, the wedge had reached the limits of its development, as far as racing was concerned, so Chrysler revived the old hemi-head design on a beefed-up 426 block for use in NASCAR. It was triumphant in 1964, but NASCAR chief Bill France kiboshed the Hemi for 1965, saying it wasn’t really a stock production engine. Chrysler retreated from the tracks for a season and then offered a street version of the Hemi — not just to special customers, but to anyone who could pay for it.
In street form, the 426 Hemi had an iron block and heads (competition engines had aluminum heads and manifold), iron intake manifold, 11.0:1 compression (compared to 12.5:1 for race engines), and two four-barrel carburetors. It was a massive engine, weighing in at around 760 pounds (346 kg), some 110 pounds (50 kg) heavier than the wedge-head B engine. The Hemi was basically hand-built, with loose clearances and fairly radical cam timing, so it was noisy and somewhat surly at low speeds, especially when cold. In compensation, it was conservatively advertised at 425 gross horsepower (317 kW) and 490 lb-ft (662 N-m) of torque, making it one of the most powerful engines ever offered in a production car. Street racers dubbed it “King Kong.”
The Hemi was expensive: in a 1966 Dodge Charger, it cost about $880, and it reduced Chrysler’s normal 5 year / 50,000 mile warranty to 12 months / 12,000 miles. However, a well-tuned Hemi Charger was capable of going from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in a shade over 6 seconds and running the standing quarter mile in the low 14s with a trap speed of over 100 mph. This was enough to blow the doors off a GTO, and it would eat any stock Mustang alive. The Hemi never sold in large numbers, and Chrysler undoubtedly lost money on most of the ones they did sell, but its image value was tremendous.
Unfortunately, the fastback Charger, Hemi or no, found little success on the track. While its fastback roof had lower drag than a notchback Coronet, it did nothing for high-speed stability. The Charger’s slippery shape generated so much lift that the the tires’ relationship with the pavement soon rather tenuous. Racing drivers reported that the Charger had spooky handling at very high speeds, like driving on ice.
THE DODGE CHARGER LAYS AN EGG
Racing success might have helped sales of the street cars, which were disappointing. Dodge sold 37,300 in 1966 (only 468 of which had the Hemi), and sales plummeted more than 50% the following year, despite the addition of a new 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) V-8, which offered comparable street performance to the Hemi for less than half the cost. The Charger was clearly no sales threat to the GTO or the Mustang.
Why was the fastback Charger a flop? Its odd styling probably had a lot to do with it, but we suspect the bigger problem is that for all Dodge’s efforts to give it a racy image, it didn’t have a particular performance advantage over its Coronet and Plymouth Satellite siblings, which were lighter and cheaper. At the same time, the Charger was probably a little too sporty to appeal to personal-luxury buyers.
In Bouwkamp’s position, a GM exec might’ve killed the model entirely after that, but Dodge was not about to relinquish their one foothold in the specialty market. The Charger got a sleek restyling for 1968 with flying-buttress sail panels like those of the 1966-1967 GM A-body hardtops; the result was a much more attractive car that sold much better. Dodge sold 96,108 of them in 1968, enough to finally put some hurt on the GTO if not the Mustang. Its revamped styling, unlike the original, has stood the test of time to become a classic of its era.
Even before the second-generation Charger debuted, Dodge was already working on its Mustang rival, the E-body Challenger, which would share its body shell with the third-generation Plymouth Barracuda. When the E-body arrived for 1970, however, the market for sporty cars was already withering on the vine and the Challenger only served — as Lynn Townsend had predicted five years earlier — to erode the already modest sales of the Barracuda. Both cars died after 1974.
SIBLING RIVALRY REDUX
The sibling rivalry between Dodge and Plymouth went on throughout the sixties and seventies. When Plymouth had an unexpected hit in 1968 with the Road Runner, a stripped-down, high-performance Belvedere intermediate, Dodge followed with the Coronet Super Bee. When Plymouth turned the Valiant into a surprisingly popular fastback coupe called Duster, Dodge was close behind with the Dodge Dart Demon. By the eighties, a cash-strapped Chrysler had largely stopped trying to differentiate the two brands at all, slapping different badges on identical models.
Given what came after, the original fastback Charger looks better in retrospect than it did at the time. If it was hastily contrived and somewhat awkward, it was at least unique — not a rebadged Plymouth with a Dart grille, which it just as easily might have been. Still, if Dodge had spent more of its resources studying where the market was going, rather than competing with its sister division(s), it might be in much better shape today.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for the development of the Charger included Allpar’s transcription of Burt Bouwkamp’s July 2004 speech, “The Birth and Death of the (Original) Dodge Charger,” Allpar, 2006, www.allpar. com, accessed 2 June 2007; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1966-1967 Dodge Charger,” HowStuffWorks.com, 16 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1966-1967-dodge-charger.htm, accessed 24 February 2010, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Arch Brown, “1965 Plymouth Barracuda,” Special Interest Autos #82 (July-August 1984), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 102-109; Paul Zazarine, Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1991); Josiah Work, “Fantastic Fastback: 1966 Dodge Hemi-Charger,” Special Interest Autos #111 (May-June 1989), and John Katz, “1967 Dodge Coronet R/T: Much More than a Plymouth,” Special Interest Autos #156 (November-December 1996), both of which are reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000).
We also consulted John Ethridge, “Dodge’s Charging Charger” and “Evolution of a Show Car,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 1 (January 1966), pp. 24-31; “Dodge Charger: Detroit’s latest fastback is a neat package of proven components, but the best of Charger is yet to come!” Car and Driver February 1966, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2003; and “Hemi/Charger: Dodge’s Fastback Fullback Plays Offense and Defense,” Car Life February 1967, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Cars 1967-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1984). We believe both are reprinted in R.M. Clarke, ed., Charger Muscle Portfolio, 1966-1974 (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1995.