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

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.

1973 Dodge Charger badge

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.

1966 Dodge Charger rear 3q
The original Charger was 203.6 inches (5,172 mm) long on a 117-inch (2,972mm) wheelbase, weighing between 3,600 and 4,170 lb (1,633 and 1,892 kg) depending on engine and equipment. This one has the mid-line 383 cu. in. (6,275 cc) V8 with TorqueFlite automatic.

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.

1966 Dodge Charger Hemi engine
Chrysler’s first Hemi, the FirePower, was dropped in 1958 for cost reasons, but Chrysler revived it for racing use in 1964, now based on the 426 cu. in. (6,974 cc) RB engine. Pressure from NASCAR president Bill France, Sr. resulted in it becoming a regular production option in 1966. It cost a hefty $877, not including the mandatory four-speed manual, and only 438 1966 Chargers were so equipped.

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.

Convair YF-102A in plan view - Armstrong Flight Research Center of the United States, NASA Photo ID E-2551 (U.S. PD)
The “Coke-bottle” styling theme probably originated with supersonic aircraft like this Convair YF-102A: note the way the fuselage tapers inward inboard of the wings. This technique, known in the U.S. as the Whitcomb Area Rule, minimizes changes in cross-sectional area in the interests of reducing transonic drag. (U.S. public domain NASA file photo ID #E-2551, circa 1956; via Wikimedia Commons and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center)

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.

1967 Pontiac GTO flying buttresses
GM’s take on the flying-buttress roof design, seen here on a 1967 Pontiac GTO. We’re not sure to what extent the GM design influenced the Charger; it’s possible that Richard Sias was aware of GM’s 1966 A-bodies, which would have been in the works before he joined Chrysler, but we have no specific evidence one way or the other.

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.

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.

WIN OR DIE

On September 9, 1969, five days before the Talladega 500, project engineer Larry Rathgeb and driver Charlie Glotzbach took the Charger Daytona test mule to the track for qualification. Despite competition director Ronald Householder’s strict orders to keep speeds below 185 mph (298 km/h), Glotzbach blew through his laps at more than 199 mph (320 km/h). It was a dramatic demonstration of what the Daytona could do.

In the Daytona’s racing debut on September 14, driver Richard Brickhouse proved that early performance was no fluke, winning the inaugural Talladega 500 with lap speeds of up to 197 mph (317 km/h). Brickhouse’s victory was slightly hollow because 30 top NASCAR drivers, including Glotzbach and Richard Petty, had boycotted the race in a dispute over track safety. Nonetheless, the race was an impressive showing for Dodge.

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona front 3q
This Dodge Charger Daytona is the real thing: Neil Castles’ #06 NASCAR racer, now privately owned. Its 426 Hemi engine is very similar to the street Hemi, but has higher compression, aluminum heads, and a single four-barrel carburetor. Naturally, it makes a good deal more horsepower than the street engine’s 425 gross hp (317 kW).

The Charger Daytona was not invincible, but it was a formidable competitor. Not only was faster than its rivals, it was very stable at high speeds, a huge improvement over the earlier Chargers. Dodge’s drivers and engineers also had an additional, less-quantifiable edge: their mortal fear of Bob McCurry. Gary Romberg later recalled that some Charger Daytona drivers mounted a photo of McCurry on the dashboards of their cars with a caption reading “Win or Die.”

Unfortunately, the Daytona arrived too late in the season to overcome Ford’s early lead. Although Dodge earned 22 victories, Ford again took the 1969 Manufacturers’ Championship on points. Moreover, Plymouth enticed Richard Petty back from Ford for the 1970 season by promising to build him a winged car of his own based on the Plymouth Road Runner. The Daytona’s thunder was about to be stolen.

Dodge’s pride was somewhat assuaged by a publicity stunt staged at the suggestion of public relations director Frank Wylie. On March 24, 1970, before an audience of NASCAR officials, Buddy Baker drove the Charger Daytona development mule to a new lap-speed record at Talladega: 200.45 mph (322 km/h).

THE 1970 DODGE CHARGER

Meanwhile, the standard Charger returned for the 1970 model year with another modest facelift, distinguished mainly by a new grill with a loop-type front bumper. Curiously, the Charger 500 was back, although it was now just a mid-level trim series with none of the previous aerodynamic improvements. A new option was the 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) “Six Pack” engine with an Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold and three Holley two-barrel carburetors. Dodge rated it at 390 gross horsepower (291 kW), which some reviewers thought was conservative. The four-barrel 440 and 426 Hemi remained optional.

1970 Dodge Charger R/T front 3q
A 1970 Charger R/T shows off its new grille treatment. (Photo: “Dodge Charger R-T (Orange Julep)” © 2008 Bull-Doser; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

Despite the heavy artillery, Charger sales dropped by nearly 50% for 1970, failing to top the 50,000 unit mark. The main reason was higher insurance rates, which were making intermediate Supercars too expensive for many buyers. There was also internal competition from the new Dodge Challenger pony car, which offered the same engines as the Charger, cost and weighed somewhat less, and had fresher styling. The Challenger didn’t sell particularly well either, but it probably cannibalized a substantial number of Charger sales.

Production of the Charger Daytona ended in September 1969, after the homologation minimum had been reached. Although the Daytona and its Road Runner Superbird cousin are prized collectibles today, they were not easy to sell when new and leftovers languished on dealer lots for months, despite substantial discounts.

Nonetheless, the winged cars had served their purpose and NASCAR Daytonas continued to race with great success. Despite strong competition from Richard Petty’s new Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, Bobby Isaacs drove a Charger Daytona to the 1970 Grand National Division Championship and Dodge beat out both Plymouth and Ford for the 1970 Manufacturers’ Championship. Buddy Baker’s closed-course speed record stood for 13 years, finally being broken in 1983 by Benny Parsons.

1970 would be the last season for the winged cars. Dodge and Plymouth did some preliminary work on a new generation of winged B-bodies, but they didn’t get very far. NASCAR boss Bill France, who had never liked limited-edition homologation specials, ruled that winged cars would henceforth be restricted to engines of no more than 305 cu. in. (5,000 cc) displacement. Realizing they would have no chance with smaller engines, the Dodge and Plymouth teams switched back to conventional bodies.

THE GLORIFIED CORONET: THE 1971-1974 CHARGER

Around the time the Charger Daytona’s racing career was winding down, Dodge unveiled the restyled 1971 Charger. It was the most dramatic iteration of Chrysler’s new “fuselage styling” theme — curvaceous but massive-looking, with radical tumblehome (inward angle of the roof sides) and a colossally long hood. The Charger was actually shorter than before, but it was 3.5 inches (89 mm) wider, making it feel even bigger than it was. Car and Driver proclaimed it the year’s best-looking car, likening it to the work of sculptor Frank Gallo, but other critics were dismayed by the new Charger’s intimidating bulk.

1973 Dodge Charger side
In 1971, Chrysler adopted a split-wheelbase strategy for its B-body intermediates, just as GM had done in 1968. Four-doors intermediates rode a 118-inch (2,997mm) wheelbase, one inch (25 mm) longer than before, while two-doors rode a 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase, 2 inches (51 mm) shorter than before.

The Charger’s look was a clear evolution of the second-generation car, but its role in the Dodge lineup had changed. When the 1971 model was originally conceived in the late sixties, Bob McCurry and Burt Bouwkamp had noted that sales of the regular B-body Coronet had slackened considerably. Since the Charger was essentially a better-looking B-body hardtop, they concluded that many Charger sales probably came at the expense of the Coronet. The simple solution was to drop the slow-selling Coronet coupes and hardtops and apply the Charger name to all two-door Dodge intermediates.

On its face, this seemed like a sensible merchandising decision, but it continued a regrettable Detroit tendency to dilute desirable nameplates in the search for greater volume. Chrysler was hardly alone in that predilection — the Chevrolet Bel Air and Pontiac Bonneville (to name just two examples) had been similarly demoted — but the Charger had been the closest thing Dodge had to a halo car, particularly since the E-body Challenger was shaping up to be an expensive flop.

Based on the sales figures, the consolidation either confused or turned off more Dodge buyers than it enticed. Total Charger sales rose to more than 82,000 for 1971, but that was actually about 20% less than the previous year’s combined sales of the Charger and two-door Coronet.

1973 Dodge Charger front
The 1971-1974 Charger continued the loop bumper theme introduced in 1970. The large rubber bumper overriders were added in 1973 to meet federal 5 mph (8 km/h) crash standards.

The Charger line now boasted two performance models: the R/T and the Super Bee econo-racer (Dodge’s answer to the Plymouth Road Runner, previously part of the Coronet line), both of which were available with the 440, 440 Six Pack, or 426 Hemi. Emissions controls were beginning to erode engine power, but all were still strong performers. It hardly mattered; high insurance rates had made the Supercars virtually unsalable. The Super Bee accounted for only about 5,000 sales in 1971, the Charger R/T about 3,100. Both models were dropped at the end of the year.

The 1971 model year was also the last bow of the 426 Hemi. It had never been produced in large numbers — total production from 1964 to 1971 was something like 16,000 units for both Dodge and Plymouth — but its presence had always added a certain luster to Chrysler’s performance image. With minimal sales and ever-more stringent emissions standards, however, Chrysler decided it was no longer worthwhile. Production ended in the summer of 1971.

The 440 Six Pack survived into 1972, now rated at 330 net horsepower (246 kW). Only a handful were sold before it, too, was canceled, leaving a four-barrel 440 with 280 net horsepower (209 kW) as the top engine.

The Charger limped on through 1974. Compared to its previous iterations, it did quite well, selling nearly 120,000 units in 1973, but compared to other contemporary intermediates, it was decidedly anemic. In 1973, for instance, Oldsmobile sold nearly 320,000 of its new Cutlass “Colonnade” coupes.

THE CHARGER AND THE CORDOBA: 1975-1978

With the demise of the Supercars in the early seventies, the market was rapidly shifting to plusher personal luxury coupes. Noting that trend, Burt Bouwkamp decided to base the 1975 Dodge Charger on the new B-body Chrysler Cordoba.

1975 Chrysler Cordoba front 3q © 2009 dave_7 (used with permission)
Although it looks huge to modern eyes, the Chrysler Cordoba was the smallest Chrysler of its era, stretching 215.3 inches (5,469 mm) overall on a 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase. From the front, the Cordoba’s resemblance to the contemporary Chevrolet Monte Carlo is pronounced, although it lacks the Monte’s dramatically sculpted fenders. (Photo: “Chrysler Cordoba” © 2009 Dave 7; used with permission)

According to some sources, the Cordoba was originally intended as a Plymouth, a competitor for the wildly popular Chevrolet Monte Carlo. As a Chrysler, with prices starting at around $5,000, it competed instead with the Pontiac Grand Prix. Nonetheless, the Cordoba was quite successful, selling around 150,000 units in 1975.

The Charger was not so lucky. Buyers seemed reluctant to accept the Charger’s transformation from sporty car to personal luxury coupe; sales totaled only 31,000 units, a fraction of the Cordoba’s volume. Burt Bouwkamp later admitted that tying the Charger to the Cordoba was probably a mistake, but at the time, the only practical alternative would have been to update the existing body shell, which was not an encouraging prospect either.

1976 Dodge Charger front 3q © 2009 Joe McKinney (used with permission)
The distinction between the Chrysler Cordoba and the Dodge Charger SE was mostly in the grille and other minor details. A 1975 Charger was only $169 less than the Cordoba, so it’s little wonder that most buyers preferred the Cordoba’s plusher trim and more prestigious name. (Photo © 2009 Joe McKinney (Katie and Joe); used with permission)

Dodge tried to make the best of it by adding a cheaper base Charger for 1976. Priced at a more palatable $3,736, it was essentially a Dodge version of the intermediate-size Plymouth Fury introduced the previous year, with far less content than the SE model. There was also a new Daytona trim package, although it was little more than badges and decals, hardly worth of the vaunted name. The move did not exactly captivate buyers; sales for 1976 were fewer than 66,000, of which nearly two-thirds were the pricier Cordoba SE. For 1977, Dodge applied the Monaco name to all its intermediates and the base Chargers were replaced by two-door Monacos, again leaving the Charger SE. Sales were much the same as before: fewer than 43,000, still a poor showing compared to other personal luxury coupes. The Charger finally expired after an abbreviated 1978 run. The basic package survived through 1979 as the facelifted Dodge Magnum coupe. It was an ignominious end for one of Dodge’s most interesting cars.

LATTER-DAY CHARGERS

In 1975, shortly after the debut of the ill-fated fourth-generation Charger, Burt Bouwkamp was transferred from Dodge product planning to a new role as executive director of European Product Development, where he was involved in the development of the front-wheel-drive Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni. In 1979, Chrysler introduced hatchback coupe versions of the Horizon and Omni, originally known as the TC3 and O24 respectively.

In 1982, the O24 was renamed the Dodge Omni Charger, festooned with decals and powered by Chrysler’s 2,213 cc (135 cu. in.) OHC four. With 84 net horsepower (63 kW), it was hardly a muscle car, but since it weighed less than 2,400 lb (1,089 kg), it had respectable performance for its era. The following year, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca renewed his acquaintance with his old friend Carroll Shelby, leading to a new Shelby Charger with 107 horsepower (80 kW) and an even more lavish cosmetic treatment. By 1985, there was also a turbocharged version with a respectable 146 horsepower (109 kW), although it offered the same mixture of torque steer and turbo lag that made its Omni GLH cousin such a handful. The Shelby models never sold in great numbers — usually around 7,500 a year — but they were useful image builders. The last Shelby Charger appeared in 1987, after which both the Omni-based Charger and its sportier derivative were dropped.

Dodge revived the Charger name yet again in 2006 for its LX-platform sedan. The name’s resurrection caused a lot of kvetching among historically minded Dodge fans, since the new Charger was available only as a four-door sedan, not a coupe or hardtop. Nonetheless, the rear-drive Charger’s performance gave away little to its storied predecessor and the 6.1-liter (370 cu. in.) SRT-8 and Super Bee models were even more powerful than the old 426 Hemi. The Charger also returned to NASCAR, although modern stock cars have only the vaguest cosmetic resemblance to their production counterparts.

2008 Dodge Charger NASCAR stocker © 2008 Freewheeling Daredevil (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
Robby Gordon’s 2008 Dodge Charger stock car at Daytona in 2008. (Photo: “Robby Gordon Jim Beam Dodge Charger” © 2008 Freewheeling Daredevil/”The Daredevil”; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

POSTSCRIPT

Despite all its varied incarnations, the Dodge Charger is still most strongly associated with the 1968-1970 generation, survivors of which are prized today. Although less adventuresome than either its predecessor or its successor, the 1968 Charger’s styling remains very pleasing to a wide range of tastes. It was by no means the first American muscle car and whether it was the best is debatable, but it continues to exemplify the breed.

As for the Charger Daytona, it remains a milestone car by any definition. We’ve written before about the etymology of the term Supercar (what most magazines of the sixties called muscle cars) and we’d say that the Daytona bridges the gap between the contemporary and modern definitions of that term. Like the Ford GT40, the Daytona was in some respects quintessentially American — being both crude and ingenious in roughly equal measures — but it had the performance and competition pedigree to match any European exotic of its day. Such aerodynamically radical designs are no longer as unusual as they were 40 years ago, but the Charger Daytona still turns heads and it still has the power to awe.

# # #


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the history of the Charger included The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1966-1967 Dodge Charger” (16 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1966-1967-dodge-charger.htm, accessed 24 February 2010); the transcription of Burton Bouwkamp’s July 2004 presentation “The Birth and Death of the (Original) Dodge Charger,” transcribed on the web at Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 24 February 2010, and “Interview with Burton Bouwkamp (2006, Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 24 February 2010); Jerry Garrett, “Dodge Charger, a Name of Many Shapes,” New York Times 27 December 2004, www.nytimes. com, accessed 24 February 2010; Paul A. Herd and Mike Mueller, Charger, Road Runner and Super Bee (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1994); Randy Leffingwell, American Muscle: Muscle Cars From the Otis Chandler Collection Second Edition (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Bryan T. Nicalek, “Charger, Turismo, O24, and TC3: Omni/Horizon Coupes” (n.d., Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 26 February 2010); Mike O’Donnell, The Dodge Charger Story (11 October 1999, Chicagoland Mopar, www.chicagolandmopar. com/ features/991011.asp, accessed 24 February 2010); Josiah Work, “Fantastic Fastback: 1966 Dodge Hemi-Charger,” Special Interest Autos #111 (May-June 1989), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000); and David Zatz and Allpar, “The legendary Dodge Charger muscle car” (n.d., Allpar, www.allpar. com, retrieved 24 February 2010). A refresher on the F-102 and the origins of Area Rule came from Robert F. Dorr, “Convair F-102 Delta Dagger,” Century Jets: USAF Frontline Fighters of the Cold War (Norwalk, CT: AIRtime Publishing, Inc., 2003); and Greg Goebel, “The Convair F-102 Delta Dagger & F-106 Delta Dart,” v1.0.1, 1 June 2009, www.airvectors. net/ avf102.html, accessed 1 June 2009.

Information on the history of the Charger 500 and Daytona (and the Road Runner Superbird) came from Patrick Bedard, “1969 Dodge Charger Daytona: Hemi-tough, semi-sensational, and all-over bad,” Car and Driver Vol. 33, No. 6 (December 1988), pp. 123-128; Eric Dahlquist, “Super Super Charger,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 8 (August 1969), pp. 34–35; Richard Langworth, “MoPar’s Winged Wonders,” Special Interest Autos #45 (May-June 1978), pp. 52–57; Steve Magnante, “Phantoms of the Wind Tunnel – 1971 Dodge and Plymouth Phantom Wing Cars,” Hot Rod May 2008, www.hotrod. com, accessed 26 February 2010; John Matras, “Supercar Too Soon: 1969 Charger 500,” Special Interest Autos #140 (March-April 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000); Roger Meiners, “Too Fast Too Soon? Engineering the First 200 MPH Lap,” Mopar Magazine November-December 2009, www.moparmagazine. com, accessed 26 February 2010; Curtis Redgap, “Engage! The story of the 200+ mph Dodge Charger Daytona” (2006, Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 24 February 2010), “On The Wings of a Snow White…Dodge: A tale of not much time, a lot of money and an absolute commitment to win” (2006, Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 24 February 2010), and “Which came first, the Plymouth or the Petty?” (2003, Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 24 February 2010); A.B. Shuman, “The Thing of Shapes to Come,” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 38–41; and Daniel Strohl, “Buyer’s Guide: 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #33 (June 2006), pp. 70-75. Special thanks also to readers “econobiker” and “Jackmac” for clarifying the details of the 1975-1977 Chargers.

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Car and Driver: Dodge Charger,” Car and Driver November 1967; “Dodge’s Larger Charger,” Road Test March 1968; “Car Life Road Test: The Dodge Scat Pack,” Road Test, April 1968; “Car Life Road Test: The Crown Comes Back,” Car Life April 1969; Karl Ludvigsen, “The incredible Dodge Daytona!” Modern Motor October 1969; Allan Girdler, “As a speed machine, the Charger Daytona is the greatest thing since plastic flowers,” Car Life November 1969; and “Car Life Road Test: Charger 440 R/T,” Car Life May 1970, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Cars 1967–1970 (Brooklands Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1984), and “Dayton Charger: Undisguised Racer,” Road Test December 1969; A.B. Shuman, “The Chargers of the Dodge Brigade,” Motor Trend December 1970; Steve Kelly, “And Super It Is,” Hot Rod February 1971; and “Road Test: Dodge Charger SE,” Car and Driver March 1971, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Portfolio 1964–1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003); and “America’s GTs: Symbol of Our Age,” Motor Trend April 1970. Some of these articles are also reprinted in Charger Muscle Portfolio, 1966-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1995).

This article’s title was suggested by a catchphrase that originated in the 1943 song “Coming Home on a Wing and a Prayer,” composed by Harold Adamson and Jimmie McHugh. It subsequently inspired the title of the 1944 20th Century Fox war film A Wing and a Prayer and became part of the popular vernacular.


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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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