THE 1968 DODGE CHARGER
Dodge revealed the new Charger to the press at a long-lead event in June 1967. Although the journalists in attendance were held to a strict embargo, they were uniformly impressed with the new design. The Charger’s design was perhaps not the most original and it was dauntingly large for a sporty car, bigger even than the GTO, but it was clean, rakish, and aggressive, winning approval even from the harshest critics of Chrysler’s contemporary styling.
Even more encouragingly, the new Charger was both cheaper and lighter than its predecessor. A 1968 Dodge Charger with a V8 now started at $3,040, $88 less than the ’67, and weighed 175 lb (79 kg) less than before. Drivers more interested in looks than speed could now order the Charger with the Coronet’s slant six, saving an additional $106. On the other end of the scale, the new R/T model added a standard TorqueFlite automatic and Chrysler’s big 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) with 375 gross horsepower (280 kW). The 440 was nearly a match for the still-optional 426 Hemi on the street and had an advantage of at least 40 cubic inches (655 cc) over any of its GM rivals. The Hemi, meanwhile, gave the Charger the most powerful engine of any midsize Supercar, although it was expensive, finicky, and had a very limited warranty.
Any of the bigger engines gave the Charger fine performance. Despite its size, it also handled very well. Its main dynamic limitations were the typically numb Chrysler power steering and a tendency to excessive rear-wheel hop on hard braking. Few reviewers were very happy with the Charger’s seats, which had no lateral support at all, but on balance, it was one of the more roadable of contemporary Supercars.
After several years of near misses, the new Charger finally hit home with sporty-car buyers. Dodge sold 96,108 units in 1968, nearly doubling the two-year total of the first-generation model. Burt Bouwkamp said they could probably have sold more if Dodge had had the production capacity to spare. The Charger actually outsold the 1968 Pontiac GTO, despite the latter’s curvaceous new styling and Motor Trend Car of the Year honors.
The Charger received only mild changes for 1969, but sales remained strong, totaling almost 90,000 units. (Its featured role in the Steve McQueen film Bullitt, released around the time the 1969 models went on sale, couldn’t have hurt.) Perhaps the greatest compliment the Charger received was that Ed Estes, son of Chevrolet general manager Pete Estes, bought one just because he liked the look.
The only place the 1968 Charger didn’t score highly was on the racetrack. Many of its attractive styling features actually handicapped its high-speed aerodynamics. The recessed grille added drag while the flying-buttress roof created enough turbulence to suck debris out of the first few rows of grandstands along the NASCAR speedways. The new Charger also produced an alarming amount of front-end lift at 180 mph (290 km/h), making it difficult to control at speed. Dodge managed only five victories out of 49 starts for the 1968 Grand National season and again lost the Manufacturers’ Championship to Ford.
That shortfall was not acceptable to either Lynn Townsend or Dodge general manager Robert McCurry. Townsend had personally authorized the revival of Chrysler’s famous Hemi (originally dropped in 1958 for cost reasons) to win the 1964 Daytona 500 and he was committed to NASCAR success. Bob McCurry, meanwhile, had been Dodge’s general sales manager before his promotion to general manager and he knew that racing victories meant sales. McCurry was an intimidating presence, a former football captain whose staff nicknamed him “Captain Crunch.” Many Dodge employees were afraid of him and they knew he brooked no excuses.
That summer, Dodge engineers took a race-prepared Charger to Chrysler’s proving grounds to explore ways of improving the car’s dubious aerodynamics. Adding the flush grille from the Coronet helped, as did filling in the flying-buttress roof with a sheet of transparent acrylic. The modifications were not exactly pretty, but they reduced drag markedly.
Modifying the racing Chargers in the same way would have been simple enough, but NASCAR president Bill France had decreed that manufacturers had to sell at least 500 copies of any car or engine they planned to race. Building 500 cars is troublesome for an automaker the size of Dodge; it’s not enough to be worth tying up a regular assembly line, but too many to build by hand. Dodge decided to farm out the work to Creative Industries, a local contractor that had been doing special projects for Chrysler since the mid-fifties.
The resultant homologation special was dubbed Charger 500. Depending on whose account you believe, the name referred either to the production quantity or the 500-mile (805-km) length of the Daytona 500 or perhaps both. Each 500 began life as a standard Charger R/T powered by either the 440 or the Hemi. Creative Industries added the flush Coronet grille and a roof plug that replaced the recessed rear window with an aerodynamically cleaner flush backlight. The Charger 500 cost $268 more than the R/T, it was considerably less attractive, and its crudely finished roof plug leaked in the rain, but such practical considerations were beside the point.
Dodge actually fell somewhat short of the requisite 500 cars (392 is the most commonly cited production figure), but Bill France decided to look the other way. The racing Charger 500 made its debut at Riverside in February 1969. It was indeed faster and easier to control than the standard car, although it still had too much lift.
Unfortunately for Dodge, Ford had had the same idea. Around the same time the Charger 500 debuted, Ford rolled out the limited-production Torino Talladega, with extended front fenders and a flush grille. (There was also a similar Mercury model, the Cyclone Spoiler.) The Charger and Torino proved to be very closely matched in power and aerodynamics, which was good for racing audiences, but not for Dodge management. By September, Dodge was well behind Ford on points and had lost several important races. The Charger 500 was a good effort, but it was not fast enough.
Dodge had already recognized that they needed to increase the Charger’s top speed by an additional 5 mph (8 km/h) if they wanted to lead the pack in NASCAR competition. However, achieving that speed would not be easy. Dodge engineers calculated that obtaining such an increase even with the Charger 500’s slicker aerodynamic profile would require an additional 85 hp (63 kW), considerably more than could be reliably extracted from the existing racing Hemi.
Dodge racing chief Bob Rodger proposed an alternative: a new homologation special focused on radically improving the Charger’s high-speed aerodynamics. Cutting the Charger 500’s total drag by an additional 15% promised to be a tall order — automotive aerodynamics were still a little-regarded black art in those days, even in racing — but it seemed within the realm of feasibility, particularly compared to the cost and difficulty of homologating a new engine.
Work on this project began even before the Charger 500 actually appeared on the track. In late 1968, Chrysler Fluid Dynamics Laboratory manager Morgan Dawley and aerodynamicists Bob Marcel and Gary Romberg had embarked on a crash program to create a package of additional aerodynamic modifications for the Charger 500 shape. This effort, completed in about 14 weeks using 3/8th-scale models tested in a small rented wind tunnel at Wichita State University in Kansas, was made all the more herculean by the fact that the desired drag reduction had to be accomplished mostly with add-ons. There was no way, for instance, to significantly alter the Charger’s substantial overall width to reduce its frontal area.
The result of this work was a dramatic if rather bizarre-looking aero kit that included a big fiberglass front fairing with an integral under-nose spoiler (designed to reduce front-end lift as well as drag); new caps for the windshield pillars; and a massive rear wing that looked like it had been pilfered from a jet airliner. The Charger’s nose was also lowered to improve aerodynamic penetration, requiring the addition of blisters atop each front fender for suspension clearance (according to some sources to exhaust wheel well air pressure).
To modern eyes more accustomed to aerodynamically dictated styling, the aero add-ons no longer look quite as outlandish as they did did in the spring of 1969, but the aesthetic results appalled both Dodge stylists and general manager Bob McCurry. McCurry was more concerned, however, with whether the package would work on the track. From that standpoint, the package was a decided success, providing the requisite drag reduction and some 800 pounds (3,560 N) of downforce at 180 mph (290 km/h), which greatly improved high-speed stability.
With McCurry’s support and promise to run interference, neither the the looks nor the cost represented a serious obstacle, but time was now very short. To homologate the new car — dubbed Charger Daytona — in time for the next racing season, Dodge had less than six months to build the required 500 cars. McCurry made it clear that he wanted the Charger Daytona ready to run in the Talladega 500 in September and he wanted it to win.
DODGE CHARGER DAYTONA
As with the Charger 500 on which it was based, the Charger Daytona was a hasty conversion of the standard production Charger, modified by Creative Industries at a frantic pace. Assembly quality was necessarily slapdash; fit and finish were crude and paint quality was worse. As long as 500 cars were ready to go on sale by September 1, Dodge couldn’t have cared less.
While production ramped up, Bob Rodger and Larry Rathgeb enlisted NASCAR drivers Charlie Glotzbach and Buddy Baker for track testing. Baker and Glotzbach found that the aerodynamic improvements were extremely effective. On the Chrysler Proving Grounds test track in Chelsea, Michigan, the Daytona reached speeds of up to 243 mph (391 km/h), dramatically faster than even the hottest contemporary NASCAR stockers.
The production Charger Daytona went on sale in September. With a base price of $3,993, the Daytona cost about $400 more than a standard Charger R/T. Most of the 500-odd cars (exact production totals are uncertain, but estimates range from 501 to 509) had the 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) RB engine; only 70 cars had the 426 Hemi, which cost $648 extra. Most street Daytonas had price tags in the $5,000 range, a lot of money at that time.
Bob Rodger waxed poetic about how the Daytona’s aerodynamics would ultimately trickle down to Dodge production cars, but the press was skeptical. Car Life editor Allan Girdler doubted that the Charger Daytona’s aero addenda had any effect on the street (although the magazine later found that the reduced drag was helpful on the dragstrip) and almost no critic liked the looks, which were anything but subtle. Worse, the fiberglass proboscis restricted airflow to the radiator at low speeds while the towering wing sang a siren song to every traffic cop and highway patrolman in a three-state radius. The Daytona was not really built for street driving — its only purpose was to win races.