Pontiac's Tempest-based GTO had been on the market for two years when Dodge finally fired back in mid-1966 with an intermediate-sized, big-engined street intimidator of its own -- the Charger.
Though it wasn't first on the field and so it can't claim credit for igniting the frenzy, the Charger would become every bit the muscle car legend the GTO became -- and then some. In fact, the Charger would ultimately eclipse the mighty GTO in power and performance -- as well as racing bona fides.
Like the Tempest-based GTO, the first Charger was not created from whole cloth as a separate model in its right. Taking a cue from Pontiac, Dodge took an existing model, in this case, the Coronet hardtop coupe, as the starting point and gave the entire platform a muscle car makeover.
But Dodge went a couple of steps further than Pontiac did in creating this new performance machine. To give it visual impact -- and make it clear the Charger wasn't just a dressed-up Coronet with a few hastily pasted on trim gewgaws and a souped-up engine -- Dodge stylists ginned up a swoopy fastback shell, set off by filled-in C-pillars that tapered into abbreviated rear quarters capped off by full-length tail-lights. "C-H-A-R-G-E-R" chrome letters spelled out the new name. Up front, a smooth-looking flush-fit front end with "hideaway" headlight doors set the car apart from its Coronet cousin.
Inside, there were individual fold-down low back seats and a center console set off with plenty of chrome, color-keyed seat covers, dash pad and door panels. It was not nearly as Spartan-looking (inside or out) as that first-year GTO -- which had an almost economy car ambiance and a much lower profile, at least initially.
The first-year Charger had something else the GTO lacked, too -- an available 425 horsepower 426 cubic inch "Hemi" V-8. Unlike the GTO's 389 and 400 cube V-8s -- which were powerful street engines that could be tuned for the drag strip -- the Hemi was an all-out race engine barely de-tuned for the street.
Where the GTO's hydraulic-cammed, Quadrajet-fed V-8s were known for their easy-to-live-with civility, the Charger's Hemi was like an angry rottweiler chained to a pole outside a junkyard. It did not like to idle for prolonged periods -- and would foul plugs quickly if you let it. Its twin Carter four barrels were set up with one thing in mind -- feeding the beast. No one really cared how well the hilariously crude choke system worked (or didn't). And until the advent of hydraulic lifters, you had to pull those huge valve covers frequently, too, in order to check and adjust the Hemi's demanding solid lifter valvetrain.
But you had an astounding 425 horsepower under your right foot and controlled the same basic engine, more or less, that would soon dominate almost every class of racing -- from quarter-mile drags to NASCAR super speedways.
And that was in "detuned" form.
Reverse the things that Chrysler engineers had done to make this meat cleaver of an engine sort of behave on the street and 500-plus horses were there with minimal fuss. The all-out design of the Hemi engine enabled horsepower production that street-intended V-8s such as Pontiac's 389s and 400s simply could not match -- at least, not without heavy massaging.
Equipped with the monster motor, the Charger lived up to its name -- burning rubber almost the entire length of the quarter mile, its pathetically inadequate bias-belted tires hardly able to contain the Hemi's fury. Zero to 60 times of just over 5.3 seconds bone stock were obtainable -- provided you could hook the thing up. And with nearly 500 ft.-lbs. of torque rolling off the crank, that was no easy thing. It took real skill to launch a Hemi Charger right -- but if you choreographed your clutch and throttle work just right, the car was all-but-unbeatable -- with stock quarter-mile capability in the high 13s right off the showroom floor -- and 12s within easy reach if you bolted on some drag slicks and traction bars.
To clue buyers in about the true nature of the Hemi, Chrysler only offered a 1 year/12,000 mile warranty -- compared to the five year/50,000 mile warranty that covered all other engines in the Charger lineup. And the Hemi's warranty was lawyered-up with caveats in the literature warning that even this skimpy coverage would be void if the car "was subjected to an extreme operation" -- i.e., drag racing.
But power overkill was what the Charger was all about. From day one, it was a commanding presence on the street and track that one simply did not mess with lightly. The first-year Charger's second-string engine was stronger than its main competition's first-string power plants. Behind the mighty Hemi was a 335-hp 383 CID V-8 that surpassed the GTO's standard 325-hp 389 V-8 -- and came close to outmuscling the Goat's optional 348-hp Tri-Power 389.
In 1967, the even bigger 440 V-8 appeared -- and offered 375 horsepower in four barrel form (390 when equipped in later years with the wild-looking three-carburetor intake setup). It became one of the most dominant street engines of its time -- offering close-to-Hemi performance on public roads without the Hemi's pit bull demeanor and high upkeep requirements.
Also new for '67 was the R/T ("Road & Track") package that revolved around the new 440 engine and complemented it with a host of standard an available performance upgrades, from Magnum wheels and wide (for the era) bias-belted tires to HD suspension with locking rear axle and wild-looking graphics packages. The Hemi engine was upgraded that year as well, with a longer-duration cam and new valve springs -- but it retained its 425 horsepower rating, which enthusiasts then and now consider to have been massively understated.
In 1968, a smooth-bodied Charger appeared that was intended for NASCAR's high-speed tracks. This model, the Charger 500, had a flush-mounted grilled, flush-fit rear glass and other aerodynamic improvements to make it "slippery" in a triple digit headwind. This car became the progenitor of the most famous of all Chargers -- the '69 Charger Daytona (and its corporate cousin, the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird). These cars featured an 18-inch bullet-shaped nosecone with pop-up headlights and an enormous rear wing to provide stability-enhancing downforce on the high-speed tracks. Power came from either the 440 V-8 or the 426 Street Hemi. Top speed was around 150 mph in stock, street legal trim -- heroic performance for 1969 -- and available to anyone who had the means to cut a check.
The Charger Daytona was one of the most visually outrageous -- and memorable -- muscle cars ever built; but interestingly, while race models ran amok in NASCAR, street examples were slow sellers -- and actually languished on dealer lots until eventually sold after heavy discounting. These cars -- which cost around $4,000 brand-new -- now routinely sell for $75,000 to $100,000.
In 1971, a dramatic "fuselage" bodystyle appeared that remains controversial among the faithful -- who either love it or hate it. Notable features included a new "Air Grabber" pop-up hood scoop controlled by a knob inside the car. Performance was still outstanding -- with the Hemi-equipped Charger recording 13.7 second quarter mile times and tearing through 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds.
But whether the new look was an improvement (or not) smart buyers knew the bell was tolling for the muscle car. Gas lines were queuing up and recently enacted emissions control requirements were putting the squeeze on high-compression, lumpy-cammed V-8 engines. 1971 would be the last year for the awesome Street Hemi -- a harbinger of worse news to come.
Power and available engine choices steadily dwindled through '74 -- the final Charger model before the era of Landau roofs, Ricardo Montalban and "rich, Corinthian leather." The Hemi was history; no more three carb induction -- just a 280 (net) horsepower 440 4-barrel as the top engine choice. It was OK for the day (by '74, the Charger's once-respectable cross-town rival the Pontiac GTO had been reduced to a tarted-up Ventura hatchback with a 200-hp 350 V-8 as its top gun) but compared to earlier Chargers, it was still like a sudden switch from Italian Roast to Nescafe decaf.
Unlike Pontiac -- which to its credit retired the GTO nameplate when the car it was affixed to couldn't deliver the goods anymore -- cars named Charger continued to built for many years after 1974 -- including outright economy models with front-engine/front-wheel-drive that were as far removed from a pistol grip-shifted 440 Charger in "Green Go" or "Citron Yella" as a Chihuahua is from a Great Dane.
But no amount of dragging such a great name through the mud could sully the memory of what it used to mean if you were among the lucky few who held the keys to a real-deal Charger -- and today these machines are among the best-loved and most desired of '60s-era Detroit City motor madness.
They shall not pass this way again.