The Dodge Challenger lasted just four brief years -- and it's been gone now for more than three decades. But the imprint Chrysler Corp.'s other E-body seared into the consciousness of muscle car enthusiasts -- many of them not even born when these cars were new -- assures its place in the pantheon of automotive greats.
Unlike GM's Camaro and Firebird F-cars -- which existed together as a corporate tag team from their inception in 1967 right through to the end of production in 2002 -- the Challenger came a few years late to the game. Its sister car -- the Plymouth Barracuda -- had been around as a stand-alone model since the introduction in 1964 of the famous "Glassback" coupe. But when the all-new e-bodies bowed for 1970, Dodge finally got its own version of pony car street muscle to entice buyers with.
The Challenger and 'Cuda (as the performance version of the Plymouth E-body was now known) seemed to be more or less the same car at first glance -- albeit with Dodge or Plymouth-specific sheetmetal tweaks and interior/exterior trim differences, like the Camaro and Firebird. But while they did share the same basic platform, the Challenger's wheelbase was actually two inches longer than the 'Cuda's -- allowing for a slightly larger, slightly more useful interior, as well as extending the car's visual proportions noticeably. Regardless, both cars had perhaps the best "muscle car squat" of their time -- tail high, arched hindquarters, wide body, predatory fish-looking front end treatment (especially the 'Cuda, which also had gill-like fender slats). Extra-fat tires, hood pins, pistol grip shifter and a variety of street-racer hood scoops -- including the soon-to-legendary "Shaker" that moved with the vibrations of the engine -- added to the car's formidable appearance. Buyers could choose appropriately neon-bright "High (unless there's a compelling reason for HIgh)-Impact" colors, including "Top Banana" yellow, "Plum Crazy" purple and "Sub-Lime" green -- accented with billboard-style decals, just so everyone knew what you were driving.
And it was 1970 -- the peak of the original muscle car-era's horsepower frenzy -- so the Challenger (and 'Cuda) entered the fray all-out. Though base models came through with Chrysler's endlessly durable 225 cubic-inch "slant six," what made the synapses crackle with anticipation was the bevy of bench-pressing V-8s buyers could choose from. The first of these was a 383 cubic inch big block in the R/T (for Road and Track) good for 335 hp.. This engine came as part of a package that also included an upgraded HD suspension and snarky (but not yet functional) twin-scooped hood. The base R/T Challenger was already packing a punch as powerful as some of its competitor's top-dog models (for example, the 1970 Pontiac Trans-Am's Ram Air III 400 V-8 rated the very same 335 hp; ; the most you could get in the '70 Trans-Am was the barely streetable Ram Air IV -- and that only got you 345 hp).
But Dodge was just getting started.
If the 383 didn't satisfy, two versions of the even bigger 440 cubic inch big-block V-8 were available. The first -- with single four-barrel carburetor -- upped the ante to 375 hp. Not enough? One could add a six-barrel intake (three Holley two-barrel carburetors) to push the output of the 440 to 390 hp -- which was almost 50 hp more than the top-dog 1970 Trans-Am engine and significantly more than the Corvette-sourced LT-1 350 small-block that was the top engine in Chevy's Camaro Z28. The 440 Six Pack was even rated higher than the fearsome Boss 429 Mustang -- which at 375 hp was the beefiest Mustang available in 1970.
Even then, Dodge wasn't done.
For the ultimate brain-smasher, buyers could step up to the 426 Hemi -- an engine which differed from the 440 in the same way a pit bill differs from a Labrador retriever. While the 440 was a great performance engine, it was always a street performance engine. The Hemi, on the other hand, was basically a full-on race engine that Chrysler fiddled with just enough to be able to hang a license plate on the front fender of cars so equipped.
Conservatively rated at 425 horsepower, the Hemi was probably the strongest, meanest muscle car V-8 to ever see the light of regular production. It was the same basic engine that was breaching 200 mph on the NASCAR super speedways -- and dominating bracket races all across the country.
The Hemi, however, was expensive to bankroll -- adding $1,228 to the price of the car. This may be why just 356 orders were placed that first year out -- compared with 2,035 for the 390 440 Six Pak (and many more 383-equipped R/Ts). Buyers could also choose a convertible bodystyle -- which the second-generation (1970-'81) GM F-cars never offered -- as well as an SE luxury group and a very groovy vinyl roof.
Only 1,070 R/T convertibles were minted in 1970 -- with Hemi versions being the rarest of the rare. 1970 also marked the debut -- and disappearance -- of the Challenger T/A, a street-going version of the race cars Dodge was running in the Sports Car Club of America's Trans-Am road-racing series. (Plymouth's version was the AAR 'Cuda.) Unique to this model was a high-rpm 340 small block with a three-carb intake (like the 440's) rated at 290 hp (but reportedly producing closer to 350 hp). These cars also got a unique matte-black fiberglass hood with a raised-snorkel air scoop that was designed to draw fresh air into the engine in the high-flow zone just above the surface of the hood itself. Standard disc brakes, hooligan side-exit exhausts with megaphone tips and DayGlo paint schemes (including "Panther Pink") further set the Challenger T/A apart. This car was also among the very first production cars to come fitted from the factory with different size rolling stock -- extra-fat G60x15s out back and E60x15s up front. The rear tires jacked up the tail end slightly, providing extra clearance for the megaphones -- and made the already ferocious-looking car seem even meaner. Though quick on the street (T/A Challengers could nail 60 mph in 5.9 seconds), their race counterparts didn't make much of an impression. Dodge pulled out of Trans-Am racing shortly thereafter -- and the T/A Challenger was dropped.
Overall, Dodge sold more than 53,000 base model Challengers that first year out -- and more than 13,800 R/Ts. Unfortunately, outside forces were conspiring to put the kibosh on muscle cars generally. By 1971, feeling the heat from Washington (and the slew of recently-passed anti-pollution requirements), Dodge dropped the compression ratio of the Challenger R/T's standard 383 -- which now produced just 300 hp -- and pulled the step-up 440 four-barrel off the roster entirely. The six-barrel 440 was still there -- although power had dropped by 5 to 385 hp. And for the very last time, the 426 Hemi was listed as the top-of-the-line Challenger engine -- still good for 425 hp. Minor visual/cosmetic changes -- including dummy brake cooling slats for the R/T and a revised grille -- comprised the remainder of the changes. The smell of death was in the air by now -- with sales of the '71 models plummeting by almost half of what they had been just one year previously.
By '72, the shell of high-performance still remained -- but the Challenger's sharpest fangs had been unceremoniously pulled. The 440 and Street Hemi were gone for good -- as was the R/T package itself, replaced by the oatmeal-sounding Challenger Rallye. A droopy-looking "sad" front-end treatment appeared, too -- as if the car were aware of its vitality slipping away. The strongest engine available that year was a lukewarm 340 small block rated at just 240 hp. The top Challenger model had lost more than 150 hp -- in the course of just a single calendar year. Most 1972 V-8-equipped Challengers came through with the even-less-impressive 318 V-8 -- which mustered just 150 hp. By this time, the Challenger wasn't even in the same league as the '72 Pontiac Trans-Am, which boasted a still-stout 300 hp 455 HO V-8.
Dodge tried to "rally" a little for 1973 by offering a larger 360 V-8 as the Challenger's top-dog engine. With 245 hp on tap (five more than the previous year's 340), it was respectable -- for 1973. Production upticked slightly, to 32,596 units for that year. But the car's fate was sealed nonetheless. Dodge weighed the expense and hassle of keeping the Challenger viable in an era of ever-more demanding federal regulations against flaccid sales and shifting buyer tastes -- and decided to pull the plug. 1974 would be the final year. No major changes would be made for the final season since Dodge had already given up on the car. Just 16,437 left the factory -- and as December 1974 rolled into January of '75, the Challenger slipped away into the history books.
Yet in spite of its brief and abruptly ended life, the Challenger (along with its sister E-body, the Plymouth 'Cuda) remains among the most memorable and most-loved of classic-era muscle cars. It stood apart at a time when outrageous power and throbby styling were par for the course -- pushing the envelope farther and harder than most of its contemporaries.
The straight-pipe rip of the Challenger T/A's megaphone exhaust echoes to this day -- and the lonesome sight of a broody-looking Hemi R/T's shaker doing its nervous dance remains an image of raw menace few new cars will ever surpass.
They may not have been with us for very long -- but we will never forget them.