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

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.

1968 Dodge Charger R/T © 2006 Hannes Drexl (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
With its simple recessed grille, the 1968 Dodge Charger is arguably the best-looking of this generation. R/T models, like this one, came standard with full instrumentation, heavy-duty suspension, the 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) V8, and TorqueFlite automatic. It’s capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around seven seconds and the standing quarter mile (402 meters) in the high 14-second range. (Photo: “Dodge Charger RT 1968.Front” © 2006 Hannes Drexl; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

1968 Dodge Charger R/T rear 3q © 2006 Hannes Drexl (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The rear three-quarter view shows off the 1968 Dodge Charger’s flying buttress sail panels, flared rear fenders, and chopped-off “Kamm-back” tail. The tail stripes were optional on the Charger, as on all of Dodge’s “Scat Pack” performance cars of the time. Note the flip-up fuel filler on the left flank; the location of that feature was dictated by Chrysler styling VP Elwood P. Engel. (Photo: “Dodge Charger RT 1968.Heck” © 2006 Hannes Drexl; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

1969 Dodge Charger dashboard © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The 1968-1970 Dodge Charger’s interior was not as fancy or as expensive as the 1966-1967 model’s, but the second-generation Charger still had a unique dashboard, not shared with the Dodge Coronet. Full instrumentation was included, although a tachometer was an extra-cost option; when ordered, it was combined with the clock, which served to make both instruments functionally useless. (Photo: “1969 Dodge Charger green I” © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

CHARGER 500

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.

1969 Dodge Charger front 3q © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz PD
The principal distinguishing feature of the 1969 Dodge Charger was the new split grille. Overall dimensions (208 inches (5,283 mm) long on a 117-inch (2,972mm) wheelbase) were unchanged. (Photo: “1969 Dodge Charger green F” © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

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.

1969 Dodge Charger rear 3q © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz PD
From the rear, the 1969 Dodge Charger is distinguished by its new taillights. Like all contemporary Chryslers, front suspension is double wishbone with torsion bars while the rear is Hotchkiss drive. Drum brakes were standard, but power-assisted front discs were available for an extra $72.95. The vinyl roof was a very common option, priced at around $100. (Photo: “1969 Dodge Charger green R” © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

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.

1969 Dodge Charger 500 front 3q
Although the 1969 Dodge Charger 500 has the grille and exposed headlights of the ’69 Coronet, it retains the vacuum-operated mechanisms of the original flip-up headlight doors; the hasty conversion left Creative Industries no time to remove the system. This car’s oversized wheels are not stock — even Charger 500s came from the factory with 14-inch wheels. (Photo: “Dodge Charger 500 (Orange Julep)” © 2009 Bull-Doser; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

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.

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona backlight
Both the Dodge Charger 500 and Charger Daytona had this roof plug, replacing the Charger’s flying-buttress sail panels and recessed backlight with a flush backlight. Not only did the plug usually leak, it required the trunk lid to be shortened, rendering the sizable trunk nearly useless.

WINGED WARRIOR

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).

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona wing
The Dodge Charger Daytona’s rear wing stands about two feet (60 cm) above the rear deck. The reason for the wing’s towering height was not aerodynamic necessity, but rather to allow clearance for the street cars’ rear decklid, one of the Daytona’s few concessions to real-world practicality. The wing is made of aluminum and is quite strong; when the Daytona was introduced, Dodge PR men would balance on top of it to demonstrate its robustness.

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.

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona front
The Dodge Charger Daytona’s nose fairing is fiberglass while the rear wing is aluminum. Street cars have flip-up headlights in the nose, but racers removed the lights for safety reasons and riveted the doors in place. There is some argument over the purpose of the Daytona’s fender blisters; according to some sources, their reversed scoops also exhaust air pressure from the front wheel wells, although others claim their only functional purpose was to provide suspension clearance with the lowered nose.

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.

12 Comments

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  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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