Successful car design is as much a matter of prognostication as engineering skill or styling acumen. To be successful, a design has to take into account not only where the market is now, but where it’s going to be three years from now. If you show up late to the dance, it may not matter how stylishly you’re dressed or how clever your moves may be. Dodge learned that the hard way in the early 1970s when it made its belated entry into the “pony car” market: the formidable but ill-fated 1970–1974 Dodge Challenger.
LATE TO THE PARTY
When we last checked in with the Dodge Boys, it was 1965 and the success of the Ford Mustang had Dodge dealers up in arms, calling for their own entry into the booming ‘specialty car’ market. Plymouth had the Barracuda, a fastback version of the compact Valiant, but Dodge had nothing.
Bowing to pressure from dealers and division managers, Chrysler president Lynn Townsend had authorized the creation of a new, sporty Dodge, but insisted that it not be based on the Barracuda. The result of Dodge’s efforts, as we have seen, was the midsize, Coronet-based 1966–1967 Dodge Charger, which proved to be something of a flop.
Not long after the second-generation Barracuda bowed in November 1966, Chrysler’s Advanced Styling studio began design work on the third-generation car, which was slated to bow for the 1970 model year. It was an important project because the sporty car market was continuing to heat up. The Chevrolet Camaro had just gone on sale, as had the Mercury Cougar, a plusher version of the Mustang. The Pontiac Firebird was then only a few months away and even AMC was planning to get into the act with its sporty Javelin. These “pony cars” would ultimately account for about 13% of all U.S. car sales for the 1967 model year.
With numbers like that, Dodge definitely wanted a piece of the action, so it was decided that the third-generation Barracuda would be joined by a Dodge version called Challenger.
THE BARRACUDA CHALLENGE
When several divisions of a car company offer vehicles in the same class, it’s almost inevitable that the resulting cars will be variations of the same design, a strategy known as platform sharing. At GM in those days, the individual divisions shared body shells, but had unique chassis, engines, and sometimes transmissions. At Ford and Chrysler, which lacked GM’s depth of resources, the different divisions shared chassis and powertrains as well as bodies and other hardware. It was no surprise, then, that the third-generation Plymouth Barracuda and its new Dodge sibling shared the same basic unit body as well as the same engines, transmissions, brakes, and suspension layout.
The new cars would be bigger than the outgoing Barracuda, sharing a new “E-body” shell. The earlier Barracudas had been based on the A-body of the compact Plymouth Valiant. The A-body had enjoyed a reputation for nimble handling, but its engine compartment had been designed for smaller engines: Chrysler’s “slant six” and small-block, LA-series V8s. When the competition began offering big-block engines in the Mustang and Camaro, Plymouth managed to cram the big B-series 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) engine into the Barracuda, but it was such a tight fit that offering power steering and air conditioning became problematic.
To ensure that the E-body would have room for any Chrysler engine, the Barracuda and Challenger shared the cowl dimensions (the body cross-section just forward of the windshield) of the bigger B-body Charger and Coronet. That provided plenty of room and made the E-body somewhat more economical to build, but made the new pony car substantially wider and heavier than the A-body Barracuda.
With shared body shells and running gear, differentiating the Dodge Challenger from the Plymouth Barracuda presented a challenge for Chrysler stylists. The two cars were styled separately — the Challenger was primarily the work of stylist Carl Cameron, who also penned the first-generation Charger, while the Barracuda was drawn by John Herlitz of the Plymouth studio — and they shared no common sheet metal. The Challenger was somewhat longer than the Barracuda and about 1.5 inches (38 mm) wider, although both shared the same front and rear track dimensions. Still, with slightly different skins stretched over the same body and the same roof, there was no way they were going to look significantly different. At a distance, it was difficult to tell them apart.
What the E-bodies actually ended up resembling, more than anything else, were the contemporary Camaro and Firebird. It’s not clear how intentional that resemblance may have been; neither Cameron nor Dodge Division styling chief Bill Brownlie have ever indicated any conscious intent to ape their GM rivals. Nonetheless, the Chrysler and GM pony cars all shared some common themes: long hood and short deck, a wedge shape in profile, and bulging and muscular in detail.
Ironically, shortly after the Barracuda and Challenger debuted GM launched the restyled 1970½ Camaro and Firebird, which had a softer, more curvaceous, almost Italianate style that immediately made the E-bodies look somewhat dated. Nonetheless, if the Challenger and Barracuda were not the most au courant of pony cars, they were certainly the most aggressive-looking.
That aggressive styling could be backed up with some of Detroit’s most formidable engines. The E-body Challenger came standard with the 225 cu. in. (3,696 cc) Slant Six, but there were eight optional engines, including the 426 cu. in. (6,974 cc) Hemi, which made a nominal 425 gross horsepower (317 kW). With three different available transmissions (three- and four-speed manuals and the TorqueFlite automatic), there were more than 20 powertrain combinations on offer with performance ranging from adequate to excessive.
The choices didn’t stop with the powertrain; Chrysler was determined to beat all comers when it came to optional equipment. Beyond the usual array of power accessories, radios, tape players, and air conditioning, there were five different hoods; two different styles of racing stripes; a choice of cloth, vinyl, or leather upholstery; and 18 paint colors, including five extra-cost “high-impact” colors like the gaudy nuclear green of the photo car. There were so many options that few truly identical Challengers left the assembly line.
THE DODGE CHALLENGER BELLY FLOPS
When the 1970 Dodge Challenger went on sale at the end of August 1969 there was great excitement at the Dodge Division. The E-body Challenger was fashionably late, to be sure, but with bold looks, copious power, and a blizzard of options — everything sporty car buyers seemed to want — how could it miss? The corporation confidently projected annual E-body sales of 200,000 units.
Unfortunately, the Dodge Challenger and E-body Barracuda met with a lukewarm reception. With the bigger engines, they had no shortage of power, but their muscle was somewhat blunted by the E-body’s considerable weight. The 426 cu. in. (6,974 cc) Hemi was naturally the performance leader of the line, but it was very expensive and came with a shorter, more restrictive warranty. Our photo car’s optional 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) Six Pack V8, with three two-barrel Holley carburetors and a nominal rating of 390 gross horsepower (291 kW), provided comparable performance for less than half the cost of the Hemi. The triple-carburetor 440 also promised somewhat better fuel economy when feather-footing, although in workaday street use, the vacuum-operated carburetor linkage could make the 440-6 a handful, engaging the front and rear carbs at the engine’s whim rather than that of the driver. If you didn’t want to deal with that, there were also a plain 440 Magnum, with 15 fewer horsepower (11 kW less) and a simpler single four-barrel carburetor.
The most sensible engine for normal driving was the small-block 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) V8, which offered either 275 gross horsepower (205 kW) in standard form or 290 hp (216 kW) in the limited-production Challenger T/A. The 340 was nearly as quick as the big-block engines on the street and was substantially lighter, offering better weight distribution. The basic 318 cu. in. (5,204 cc) V8, meanwhile, was adequate, but not as sprightly as it would have been in a lighter Valiant.
The E-body Challenger and its Barracuda sibling were quintessential American muscle cars: fast in a straight line, at least with the right engine, but a long way from nimble. The basic suspension layout was the same as any Chrysler’s, with unequal length control arms and torsion bars up front and a live axle on parallel leaf springs in back, but even the stiffest iterations did not produce anything we would now recognize as good handling. Sports Car Graphic‘s November 1969 test of a 1970 Dodge Challenger 440 recorded lateral acceleration figures that could be handily beaten by a number of modern full-size SUVs. Obtaining even those modest figures was complicated by the fact that hard turns could hamper both fuel flow and oil circulation. With the Challenger’s substantial front weight bias, understeer was considerable, although the more powerful engines allowed lurid power-on oversteer to be summoned readily, not necessarily on purpose.
With any but the lightest engines, power steering was basically mandatory, but the customary lack of feel did nothing to improve driver confidence. By the standards of contemporary American sedans, the E-body Challenger and Barracuda didn’t handle badly, but for sporty cars, they were cumbersome and clumsy, possessing none of the agility expected of the breed.
Brakes were another sore point. Front disc brakes were still an extra-cost option and even when ordered were marginal for the weight of the big-engined cars. Stopping performance was further hampered by a penchant for rear axle hop, which only the ultra-stiff rear springs included with the 426 Hemi could quell effectively. The issue was not the brakes themselves, but the fact that the axle was closer to the front spring shackles rather than in the middle of the springs, which improved axle control on acceleration, but allowed too much axle movement on a panic stop.
Other E-body Challenger foibles included mediocre visibility, a cramped interior for the sizable exterior dimensions, and dismal gas mileage that barely edged into the double digits (more than 20 L/100 km). Critics also had unkind words about the car’s build quality. By that time, Chrysler had a decided checkered reputation for quality control and the thousands of different possible combinations of options available on the E-bodies almost certainly didn’t help.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming was price. A six-cylinder coupe started at $2,851, $130 more than the cheapest Mustang hardtop, while the Challenger R/T began at a hefty $3,226 (which did not include such sundries as radio, power steering, or automatic transmission). It was not difficult to option a Challenger to a list price well above the $5,000 mark, which was beyond the means of many younger buyers — exactly the kind Dodge expected to be interested in the Challenger.
AN AUDIENCE OF NONE
Sporty car buyers proved to be just as ambivalent about the E-body Challenger and Barracuda as the magazine reviewers. Plymouth Barracuda sales for 1970 were 55,499, an improvement over ’69, but hardly impressive for an all-new model. The Dodge Challenger did better, selling more than 80,000 units in 1970, but many of those sales appear to have been at the expense of the bigger Dodge Charger, whose 1970 sales dropped significantly. Astute buyers may have recognized that the Challenger was essentially a smaller, somewhat trimmer version of the Charger and opted for the new car over its three-year-old brother.
As if to add insult to injury, the disappointing debut of the E-body Challenger and Barracuda coincided with a dramatic surge in the popularity of the A-body Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart — particularly the new Plymouth Valiant Duster, a hastily contrived fastback version of the familiar A-body compact. Chrysler almost couldn’t give away the original fastback Barracuda, but the conceptually similar Duster outsold the muscular new Barracuda by more than four to one. In fact, sales of the 1970 Duster exceeded the combined sales of the Barracuda and Challenger by a significant margin.
According to Burt Bouwkamp, Dodge’s director of product planning during this period, the E-body program lost so much money that just seeing an E-body was enough to make Chrysler president John Riccardo lose his temper. Something had clearly gone awry.
MORE AND LESS
When the E-bodies were conceived in 1967, Dodge and Plymouth had evaluated the then current sporty-car market and unloaded both barrels at that target. The E-body Challenger and Barracuda had the most power, the most options, and arguably the most aggressive looks of any pony car. Unfortunately, in the three years or so between conception and execution, the target had moved. Sales of both pony cars and intermediate Supercars were dying on the vine by 1970 as buyers turned their attention to compacts like the Valiant or Ford Maverick or to imports like the Datsun 510.
The problem was that most of the pony cars — not just Chrysler’s — had drifted too far from original parameters of the genre. Buyers had liked the size of the 1965 Mustang, which was big enough to be passably practical, but not so big as to be unwieldy; it could still pass muster as an only car for a single person or young family. As is Detroit’s wont, the pony cars had gotten bigger and more expensive while simultaneously becoming less practical. More performance options had been added, but that wasn’t a big draw to most pony car buyers, who were generally content with a basic V-8. Aside from concerns about fuel economy, the industry industry was doing its level best to make high-performance models unaffordable by levying prohibitive surcharges that could inflate a young buyer’s annual premiums to more than a third of the car’s original purchase price. If you didn’t want or couldn’t afford a big engine, you were better off with a V-8 compact like the Chevrolet Nova or the aforementioned Valiant Duster.
Ironically, both the E-body Challenger and Barracuda are far more popular now than they ever were when they were new. Their mediocre sales and the bewildering number of permutations mean that certain desirable combinations are very rare, making them prime collector’s items. Barracudas and Challengers have become as iconic as dinosaurs, and for essentially the same reasons: They were big, ponderous, over-muscled, and possessed of voracious appetites their environment could no longer support.
Years later, Chrysler finally took advantage of that nostalgic popularity by launching a new Dodge Challenger, which debuted as a mid-year 2008 model. Like the contemporary Ford Mustang, the noveau Challenger studiously recycles the styling cues of the original; if the new Challenger doesn’t look exactly like its 1970 predecessor, the resemblance is nonetheless immediately apparent. Like the original, it’s based on the Charger, riding a shortened version of the Chrysler LX platform, which makes the Challenger more than 300 pounds (136 kg) heavier than even a 1970 Hemi Challenger and contributes to dismal EPA fuel economy estimates.
Despite that, despite high list prices that can easily top $40,000, and despite arriving at a time when Mustang sales were eroding and fuel prices were climbing, the new Dodge Challenger has done reasonably well. [Author’s note: It’s now survived seven model years.] The pony car market is now obviously very different than it was in late sixties and early seventies — our unscientific observation suggests that buyers tend to be affluent Gen Xers in the throes of mid-life crisis and aging Baby Boomers who wanted but couldn’t afford the originals — but if we accept the current Challenger as a conscious extension of the original, it appears that only now, 40 years later, has that formula’s time finally come.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1970 ‘Cuda Six-Pack: Plymouth’s Prancing Pony,” Special Interest Autos #98 (March-April 1987), 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), pp. 108-115, and “Pony Car or Race Horse? 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T – T/A,” Special Interest Autos #134 (March-April 1993), reprinted in ibid, pp. 116-123; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Randy Leffingwell, American Muscle: Muscle Cars From the Otis Chandler Collection, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); David Newhardt, Dodge Challenger & Plymouth Barracuda (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 2000); “Pontiac Firebird & Chevrolet Camaro: The First Generation of Grand Touring Cars,” Car and Driver March 1970, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1985), pp. 68-69; Curtis Redgap, “Challenger for 2008: On time or two late? (Chrysler in the muscle car era),” Allpar.com, 2006, www.allpar. com, accessed 28 September 2008; Ray Thursby, “Horse Power: The Ponycars of 1970,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 20, No. 2 (August 2003), pp. 8–23; David Zatz, “Interview with Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler Corporation,” Allpar, 2006, www.allpar. com, accessed 29 December 2007; and Paul Zazarine, Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, International, 1991). Another contemporary impression of the Barracuda’s styling came from “70½ GM Sports Spectacular: Firebird/Camaro,” Motor Trend January 1970, pp. 28-30.
We also consulted the following period road tests: “Dodge Challenger 440 Magnum (SCG Road Test),” Sports Car Graphic November 1969; “Dodge Challenger R/T Hemi: Lavish execution with little or no thought toward practical application,” Car and Driver November 1969; and “Dodge Challenger 6-Pack: Dodge delivers Muscle in a surprising package,” Road Test March 1970, all of which are reprinted in Dodge Muscle Cars 1967-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Brooklands Books) (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1984); “Hemi is Here to Go: We stuff one into a Challenger to show you,” Road Test June 1970, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003). (The latter volume also reprints the November 1969 Sports Car Graphic test.) Also compared were A.B. Shuman, “Road testing the 340, 440-6, and Hemi ‘Cudas: Isn’t there an easier way to earn my Canadian Club?” Motor Trend May 1970, reprinted in Plymouth Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003).