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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.