A Wing and a Prayer: The Dodge Charger and Charger Daytona

The Dodge Charger was born as a fancier Dodge Coronet with a fastback roof; in its later incarnations, it became a facelifted Chrysler Cordoba, a Plymouth Horizon in drag, and even a family sedan. In between, it became an American muscle car icon and one of the most fearsome stock car racers ever built. This week, we look at the history of the 1968-1978 Dodge Charger and Dodge Charger Daytona.

1973 Dodge Charger badge

THE 1966-1967 DODGE CHARGER

As we have previous seen, the first Dodge Charger was a fastback version of the Coronet, Dodge’s humble B-body intermediate sedan. Developed as a styling study by designer Carl Cameron in the summer of 1963, it was later rushed into production to give Dodge a ‘specialty car’ to compete with the new Ford Mustang. Although it could be ordered with Chrysler’s justly famous 426 Hemi (6,974 cc) engine, the Charger’s main claims to fame were its styling and its elaborate interior treatment, which included bucket seats, full instrumentation, and folding rear seats.

1966 Dodge Charger rear 3q
The original Charger was 203.6 inches (5,172 mm) long on a 117-inch (2,972mm) wheelbase, weighing between 3,600 and 4,170 lb (1,633 and 1,892 kg) depending on engine and equipment. This one has the mid-line 383 cu. in. (6,275 cc) V8 with TorqueFlite automatic.

Like AMC’s contemporary Rambler Marlin, which it resembled in both concept and general proportions, the Charger was not a great commercial success. Dodge sold only 53,132 cars in two years, accounting for a little less than 5% of the division’s total volume. By comparison, Pontiac sold nearly 180,000 GTOs during the same period while Ford buyers snapped up more than a million Mustangs.

The big Dodge fastback also proved disappointing in NASCAR competition. Although its sleek roofline promised slippery aerodynamics, the Charger suffered from excessive lift, which made it difficult to control at high speeds. The last-minute addition of a rear-deck spoiler helped to keep the tail on the ground, but even with the spoiler, the Charger didn’t have a great advantage over its notchback rivals on the track. David Pearson drove a Charger to the 1966 NASCAR Grand National Championship, but Ford won the Manufacturers’ Championship that year. In 1967, Richard Petty dominated the Grand National series with his notchback Plymouth Belvedere, leaving the Charger in the dust. Both Plymouth and Dodge again lost out to Ford on points.

1966 Dodge Charger Hemi engine
Chrysler’s first Hemi, the FirePower, was dropped in 1958 for cost reasons, but Chrysler revived it for racing use in 1964, now based on the 426 cu. in. (6,974 cc) RB engine. Pressure from NASCAR president Bill France, Sr. resulted in it becoming a regular production option in 1966. It cost a hefty $877, not including the mandatory four-speed manual, and only 438 1966 Chargers were so equipped.

The Charger’s underwhelming debut was undoubtedly frustrating for Dodge. The GTO had revealed a booming market for hot intermediates that the Charger had failed to tap. The Charger was no threat to the Mustang either, and Dodge would not have a smaller sporty car until the debut of the E-body Challenger in late 1969.

Dodge product-planning chief Burton Bouwkamp still felt the Charger concept had great potential if they could put the right pieces together. Fortunately, the division was already at work on the second generation, slated to debut for the 1968 model year.

WASP WAISTS AND DOUBLE DIAMONDS

The design that became the 1968 Charger was primarily the work of stylist Richard Sias, a former GM designer whom Dodge Division styling manager Charles Mitchell had hired in 1964. Sias was originally assigned to the A-body studio, developing trim for the Dodge Dart. In his spare time, he developed a scale model of a design that he’d shown Charlie Mitchell during his initial interview. The model was a sporty-looking coupe with flared fenders that gave it a pronounced wasp-waisted shape; Sias and other Dodge designers described it as a “double diamond.” That shape, inspired by supersonic aircraft, was then gaining currency at GM, where it would be applied to both the 1967 Camaro and 1968 Corvette. Charlie Mitchell and B-body styling chief Frank Ruff were impressed with the model, so they transferred Sias to the B-body studio to translate it into a full-size clay based on the Coronet platform.

Convair YF-102A in plan view - Armstrong Flight Research Center of the United States, NASA Photo ID E-2551 (U.S. PD)
The “Coke-bottle” styling theme probably originated with supersonic aircraft like this Convair YF-102A: note the way the fuselage tapers inward inboard of the wings. This technique, known in the U.S. as the Whitcomb Area Rule, minimizes changes in cross-sectional area in the interests of reducing transonic drag. (U.S. public domain NASA file photo ID #E-2551, circa 1956; via Wikimedia Commons and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center)

Mitchell and Ruff liked the results, but their boss, Dodge chief stylist Bill Brownlie, did not. Brownlie, who had joined Dodge in 1963, was young, passionate designer with great enthusiasm for sporty cars. Burt Bouwkamp recalled that he constantly railed against the “package” dimensions of Dodge sedans and wagons, always looking for a lower roofline and a sleeker look. However, for reasons now unclear, the “double-diamond” design rubbed Brownlie the wrong way. Shortly before leaving for a European trip in mid-1965, he ordered Mitchell and Ruff to destroy the clay model.

While Brownlie was gone, his boss, styling vice president Elwood Engel, came into the B-body studio and took a fancy to Sias’s design. Sias said later that Engel even added one of the Charger’s most distinctive features, its exposed, flip-up gas filler.

Sias, Ruff, and Mitchell kept working on the model during Brownlie’s absence. When Brownlie returned, he was not at all pleased to see that the model was still there and prepared to give his designers a piece of his mind. At that moment, Elwood Engel walked in and again declared his fondness for Sias’s design. Irritated as he was, Brownlie was not about to contradict his boss, so he quickly squelched his objections. In later interviews, Brownlie would say that he dictated the design’s major themes.

The double-diamond car’s roofline became the subject of a ferocious argument between Brownlie and Burt Bouwkamp. Brownlie had been a great advocate of the 1966 Charger’s fastback roof and he wanted to repeat that theme for the new model. Bouwkamp resisted, mostly because the fastback roof had required a unique rear package shelf and trim, which increased production costs. (This argument took place more than six months before the ’66 Charger debuted, so the public’s ambivalence about its styling was not yet apparent, although it certainly would have strengthened Bouwkamp’s case.)

Bouwkamp and Brownlie’s eventually compromise was a relatively upright rear window with broad, “flying-buttress” sail panels, a theme that GM used for its 1966-1967 A-body hardtops. The flying-buttress look gave Brownlie the fastback shape he wanted with the simpler, cheaper package shelf that Bouwkamp had demanded.

1967 Pontiac GTO flying buttresses
GM’s take on the flying-buttress roof design, seen here on a 1967 Pontiac GTO. We’re not sure to what extent the GM design influenced the Charger; it’s possible that Richard Sias was aware of GM’s 1966 A-bodies, which would have been in the works before he joined Chrysler, but we have no specific evidence one way or the other.

Brownlie and Mitchell presented the Charger design with appropriately dramatic flourish to the Corporate Product Planning Committee in the summer of 1965. Despite a protracted argument over its exposed fuel filler — a feature that polarized many executives — the new Charger was approved for the 1968 model year, flip-up gas cap and all.

12 Comments

  1. Great read as always!

  2. Thanks for the well done story. One of my all time favorite cars.I’ve had a few of them over the years and have a 06 Daytona now. The street version of the 1969 Daytona’s had a steel nose not fiberglass. Keep up the good work!

  3. Excellent research.

    I wanted to mention that I owned one of the de-contented 1976 Chargers in the 1980s. It was a base model that shared more (front header panel/bumper and rear trunk / taillight arrangement, interior) with the Plymouth Monaco 2dr than with the top line model based on the Cordoba. This base, 225 Slant Six, dog dish hubcap, am radio only, equipped vehicle had only two options- automatic transmission and rear window defroster- no a/c or anything. It was truly de-contented though as it lacked plastic engine bay splash panels between the front header and radiator support ( which I acquired from a junkyard Plymouth Monaco ) and under hood insulation. It did had a huge 25 gallon fuel tank (probably for the V-8) and could get 17-21 mpg highway driving so it had a decent driving range. So equipped, this model was advertised as a fuel economy option as listed in an July 1976 Dodge advertisement in Reader’s Digest.

    1. Interesting! I knew they had de-contented it, but I hadn’t realized they’d gone to such extremes.

  4. It wasn’t so much “decontenting”, but that there were really two different Chargers in 1976. The two door body (shared with the concurrent Plymouth Fury) that had been badged as a Coronet in 1975 was given the Charger name in ’76. So there were these base model Chargers, as well as the Charger SE, the Cordoba based model that had debuted for ’75. This lasted for the one year only, as the Monaco name moved to the B-body for 1977.

    1. Jackmac,
      That makes much more sense as I was wrong about the Plymouth Monaco junkyard parts car versus Coronet or Fury name. I crossed my wires in remembering the Chilton repair book that covered the Furys, Monacos, Chargers and Cordobas. The base Chargers truly didn’t share much with the Charger SE in regards to front end, rear end treatments and interiors. Interesting to find that the base Charger/Fury was 1976 only. Not very collectible but neat to know this oddity.

      One other de-contented item that rubbed me wrong about that car was that the rear seat wing windows were fixed in place yet their leading edges were rubber stripped to meet the door windows as if they would have rolled down (unlike the SE/Cordoba cars which had moldings around the windows.) I got into the interior panel at that point to see what was what. It looked like Dodge had intended to have it roll down, like earlier model year Chargers, but yet again de-contented and fixed it in place. It would have been nice for the rear seat passengers if the windows could have rolled down in that non-a/c car. I checked the junkyards at the time but earlier Chargers had different window and crank hardware dimensions.

      I also forgot to mention that the ’76 Charger didn’t have a passenger side mirror either though the appropriate hump was still on the door skin.

    2. Ah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the connection with the B-body Fury, but that explains a great deal. I’ve amended the text to better reflect that relationship.

      Thanks to both of you!

  5. The wing on the Charger Daytona was made to add downforce and keep the rear wheels on the ground. It had nothing to do with opening the deck lid.

    1. The purpose of the wing was to add downforce, yes; the [i]height[/i] of the wing was dictated in part by the desire to have the trunklid open on street cars. The aerodynamicists who designed the Daytona said they could have gotten the same downforce with a shorter wing (the downforce was primarily determined by the shape of the airfoil, not the height of its support struts).

  6. My mom had a 1977 SE, and absolutely loved that car. We actually kept it until 1984, when an accident did enough damage to total it. Unlike many, we had very few mechanical problems with it, likely due to the fact that my Dad’s best friend was a factory service rep and we bought his demonstrator. That car had likely been nearly rebuilt over the year he owned it to fix the problems. He also left a box of spare notorious ignition computers in the trunk…and we went through a couple of them.

    But my mom still talks about that car.

  7. Regarding the front “fender blisters” on the Charger Daytona, I’ve never seen a picture of a race car (NASCAR or USAC) at speed riding low enough that they would be needed for tire clearance and I’ve seen quite a few pictures. Exhausting the high air pressure from the front wheel wells seems the obvious reason they are on the car, the race teams cut a hole in the fender under the blister to accomplish this.

  8. In his autobiography, Bobby Allison claimed that he was the first driver to hit a 200 mph in Daytona. He claimed that he did it earlier the same day when Buddy Baker did it. Allison claimed that he was asked not to say anything and was surprised to find out, later than same day, that Dodge said that Baker did it.
    Allison believes that the reason was that he wasn’t a Mopar guy. In 1969 Allison drove Dodge on speedways, but drove a Chevy Chevelle on shorter tracks because it was much smaller and did better against the traffic on small tracks. He felt that Chrysler didn’t want a Chevy guy to be the first one who would hit 200 mph in a Dodge Daytona.

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