Thanks to The Dukes of Hazzard, most Americans are familiar with the sleek, late-sixties Dodge Charger, but 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 respectively.
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 the manufacture of 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 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 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 in theory this move gave the two brands greater autonomy, it also provoked a sometimes bitter rivalry. Dodge’s nominal competition was Mercury, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile, but Dodge management envied Plymouth’s greater sales volume, which typically exceeded Dodge’s by 50% or more.
Cannibalization — having one brand steal sales from another — had been a problem for Chrysler since the mid-fifties and had been a major factor in the demise of DeSoto. GM’s automotive divisions competed with each other too, particularly the mid-priced brands, but GM’s total market share was enormous and its pockets deep, allowing a high level of stylistic and mechanical differentiation. Chrysler couldn’t afford that — unlike, say, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, Plymouth and Dodge cars were nearly identical under the skin– which left its remaining brands in considerable danger of undermining each other rather than expanding the company’s share of the domestic market.
Nonetheless, any time Plymouth had a popular or even promising new product, Dodge demanded and generally got its own version, usually close enough in price to represent direct competition for the Plymouth version, but with a somewhat higher grade of trim or more features. As far as the corporation was concerned, having Dodge directly target Plymouth was bad news, but neither dealers nor division executives could be dissuaded and the sibling warfare continued.
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. The corporation had previously offered 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 designer Milt Antonick developed a fastback hardtop coupe based on the second-generation, A-body Valiant. Dubbed “Barracuda,” it received production approval in early 1963 for a spring 1964 introduction. The A-body 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.
As had become inevitable, no sooner had the Barracuda been approved for production than Dodge dealers began lobbying for their own version. For once, however, neither Dodge management nor Chrysler president Lynn Townsend was thrilled with the idea of cloning the Barracuda. At that time, many Detroit executives, including Dodge general manager Byron Nichols, expected the Mustang to be a niche item and were concerned that that niche would be quickly over-saturated.
By contrast, Nichols saw an untapped market for a bigger specialty car, one that might snare both Mustang and Thunderbird buyers without directly competing with both. Dodge was then preparing to introduce the plush Monaco, a fancier version of the division’s C-body full-size hardtop aimed at the Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Starfire, but that still left room for a distinctive specialty car based on the B-body intermediate line.
In the summer of 1963, Dodge stylist Carl Cameron did a series of design studies for a midsize fastback coupe based on the next-generation B-body Coronet. Cameron’s design, at least one iteration of which was dubbed “Monte Carlo,” was intended to look as different as possible from the standard Coronet while sharing most of its unitized body structure and hardware.
As Cameron’s design was taking shape, the industry was discovering that its previous doubts about the Mustang’s commercial viability were ill-founded. The Mustang, which debuted on April 17, was a smash hit; indeed, in its extended first model year, it would sell 680,992 units, exceeding the Dodge Division’s entire output by more than 200,000 units. Naturally, Dodge dealers renewed their cry for a Mustang-fighter of their own.
It was already apparent that the Plymouth Barracuda was not the answer. Although it debuted two weeks before the Mustang, the Barracuda’s first-year sales totaled a dismal 23,443, a fraction of the massive success of its rival from Dearborn. In the summer of 1964, Lynn Townsend gave Dodge product planning manager Burton H. Bouwkamp the go-ahead to develop a Dodge sporty car, but said emphatically that it should not be based on the A-body; a Dodge version of the Barracuda would help no one and threaten the Mustang not at all. The expedient answer was Carl Cameron’s fastback Coronet.
THE FASTBACK CHARGER
The exterior design of the fastback B-body had been largely finalized by the fall of 1963, but there were still various unresolved detailing, packaging, and structural questions, such as whether the fastback should be a hardtop or have fixed B-pillars. According to Car and Driver, Dodge attempted to fast-track the development process in hopes of launching the fastback as a 1965 model, months ahead of its redesigned B-body rivals, but that proved impossible. The best Dodge could manage was to create a show car version of the fastback, dubbed “Charger II” (implying a sequel to the 1964 Charger concept car that had showcased the revived Hemi engine), which was exhibited at the Chicago Auto Show in the spring of 1965.
Dodge’s public relations staff indicated that the Charger II was intended to test public reaction to the design and implied that a favorable response would make Dodge consider building a production version. In fact, the fastback was already committed to production and Dodge engineers were scrambling to get it ready.
As it turned out, the production Dodge Charger did not debut until January 1966, almost a year later than the division had originally hoped. Unsurprisingly, the production car looked very much like the Charger II, differing mainly in small trim details. From a structural and mechanical standpoint, the 1966 Charger was little more than a V8 Coronet with a new roof, but it was dressed up with an ‘electric razor’ grille with concealed headlights and a unique rear clip with full-width taillights. More impressive was the Charger’s unique and expensive interior treatment, which featured round pods with a full set of gauges (including a tachometer, for once not mounted on the floor), bucket seats both front and rear, 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. However, the Charger was substantially more expensive than either; the $3,122 base price put the 1966 Charger into the same realm as Pontiac’s Tempest GTO, but was $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 commercial results. GM tried to popularize the look with its “sedanets” of 1941-1942, but production was interrupted by the war and by the end of the decade, the theme was growing tired; GM abandoned it in the early fifties. Like the Rambler Marlin, the Charger epitomized the difficulty of applying the fastback style to the prevailing design idiom of the mid-sixties. The Charger looked sleek from some angles and clumsy from others — a product, perhaps, of its relatively narrow track dimensions and considerable front and rear overhang, which made the fastback look taller than it was and 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 426 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/RB 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, so 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), an 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 RB 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 five-year/50,000-mile (80,500-km) warranty to 12 months and 12,000 miles (19,320 km). 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 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 created less drag than a notchback Coronet, it essentially turned the body into a giant wing, generating enough lift to make the tires’ relationship with the pavement at high speeds very tenuous. This was not a major problem in on-road use — by mid-sixties standards, the Charger handled pretty well — but became a white-knuckle affair at 150+ mph (240+ km/h), making it hard for racing drivers to exploit the Charger’s speed potential.
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. Whatever its performance, the Charger was clearly no sales threat to the GTO or the Mustang.
Why was the fastback Charger a commercial flop? The odd styling probably had a lot to do with it, but we suspect the bigger problem was that for all Dodge’s efforts to give the Charger a racy image, it had no real-world 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 Chargers in 1968, enough to finally put some hurt on the GTO if not the Mustang. The Charger’s 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 except in equipment levels and very minor cosmetic and trim details.
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 have endured the coming decades much better than it did.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources on the development of the Charger included 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); Burt Bouwkamp’s July 2004 speech, “The Birth and Death of the (Original) Dodge Charger,” transcribed at Allpar.com, 2006, www.allpar. com, accessed 2 June 2007; 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; James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); John Katz, “1967 Dodge Coronet R/T: Much More than a Plymouth,” Special Interest Autos #156 (November-December 1996); Richard Langworth, Chrysler & Imperial 1946-1975: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Curtis Redgap, “Insider’s History of Plymouth,” Allpar, c. 2003, www.allpar. com, accessed 2 June 2007; and Josiah Work, “Fantastic Fastback: 1966 Dodge Hemi-Charger,” Special Interest Autos #111 (May-June 1989), 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); and Paul Zazarine, Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1991).
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; “Specialty: Dodge Charger,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 11 (November 1966), p. 46; Bob Schilling, “Sporty Specialties: Marlin Charger,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 5 (May 1967), pp. 38-40; “Sporty Cars,” ibid, pp. 41-42; John Etheridge, “Dodge Monaco Road Test,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 4 (April 1965); Eric Dahlquist, “How Hot Is the Hemi?” Hot Rod December 1965; “Dodge: Monaco, Coronet, Polara, Dart,” Auto Topics November 1965; “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; “Cars Road Test: Dodge 426 Hemi Charger,” Cars March 1967; John Ethridge, “Dodge’s Dreadnoughts,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 6 (June 1967), which are reprinted in Dodge Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 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, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1984).