Car of the Week: 1972 Dodge Challenger

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

When you pony up for a bidder’s pass at a collector car auction, you never know what kind of “accidental” surprises might unfold.

That was certainly the case for Mustang guy Dan Nicewander, who showed up at an auction in 2013 looking for garage decorations and wound up having a 1972 Dodge Challenger follow him home. The Shakopee, Minn., resident wouldn’t have been overly shocked if he had stumbled onto anther Mustang that he decided he had to have, but a Challenger was certainly not in the plans.

“We went to an auction to buy a neon light, and the guy with the neon lights didn’t show up, but there were a half dozen or so cars there. I was not looking for another car, but the guy with this one was very talkative,” laughs Nicewander. Even though he was impressed with the low-mileage Dodge, Nicewander still didn’t have any plans to buy it.

But then he made the mistake of giving his bidder’s card to his daughter and letting her sit ringside during the auction proceedings.

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“The guy [who owned the Challenger] and I seemed to hit it off and we spent a half-hour crawling through everything. We had taken my daughter [Holly] and her husband to the auction. They had never been to an auction but they had been watching ‘Auction Kings’ on TV so they’re all excited.
“We sat in the second row and I gave her my auction card. When we talked to the owner, we kind of knew where his reserve was and we knew what the car was worth, but we weren’t really looking for a car. We thought, ‘We’ll bid and have some fun,’ and we were well below what his reserve was, where mentally I was just going to stop. But we gave the card to my daughter, and she’d have been about 25 at the time and looks like she’s 17.”

One thing led to another, the crowd began to cheer every time Holly raised her hand, and as the bidding began to slow the Nicewanders had the high bid. “It was still well below his reserve and the [auctioneer] was just trying so hard to sell this car,” Nicewander said. “Finally, the owner nods his head and the reserve is off … They worked it for another 45 seconds and nobody bid, he gaveled it down and the crowd goes nuts! It was so funny. And she runs up on stage and jumps in the passenger side and waves to people as they are rolling it off.”

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Initially, Nicewander figured they’d just keep the nice yellow MoPar for a year or so and then flip it. That hasn’t turned out to be the case, however. “My wife [Lynn] has now got this pegged as her favorite of our cars, so we’ve got a Challenger for a while,” he chuckles.

Not that Nicewander is complaining. The lovely 45,000-mile Challenger has turned out to be a welcome addition to the fleet and is a rare example of a vintage muscle car — albeit one from the tail end of the golden era of muscle — that has lived its life in a snowy climate but is none the worse for wear. Clearly, it didn’t follow many salt trucks or snow plows around during its younger days.

“The guy had a whole book on it. He had tons of documentation,” Nicewander noted. “It spent its entire life in Minnneapolis or northern Minnesota. …. Three guys owned it before me and the original owner had owned it almost the entire time.”

The first owner had given the Challenger a new coat of its original Top Banana yellow and removed its vinyl top. The second owner apparently added the black R/T-style side stripes which were not correct for ’72, but were available other years and were a common add-on to the 1972 models. Beyond that, the Challenger is very original.

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“The original owner had it resprayed, and then the next two guys had done basically nothing. It’s got a replacement block, a service block, that is coded right. The engine blew up on the first guy, apparently,” Nicewander noted. “As far as we can tell, on the pieces with numbers we can find, the dates are all correct.”

Nicewander is happy to be the caretaker of a Challenger, even if it wasn’t part of his master plan. Like countless red-blooded American males at the time, he was a fan of the Dodge pony cars during their memorable run from 1970-’74. Even as their popularity among new-cars buyers faded dramatically after a big rookie year in 1970, the Challengers were still one of the flashiest cars on the road for ’72. With a base price of $2,902 for a V-8 hardtop, they were a relative bargain.

By the time the ’72 model years cars arrived, the muscle car market was shrinking and Chrysler made some big changes with its performance machines, including the Challenger. The convertible, hot R/T and SE model were all killed off, as were the 440, 383 and Hemi powerplants. Only the hardtop and Rallye hardtop were on the menu, both featuring a redesigned “sad mouth” grille and tail light arrangement.

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The Challenger was the base trim level hardtop and included a base 225-cid Slant Six engine; front and rear side armrests; front ashtray; cigarette lighter; color-keyed carpeting; ventless side windows; glovebox with rotary latch; heater and defroster; dual horns; dome and parking brake/brake system warning lights; outside left manual mirror; inside day/night mirror; bucket seats; front foam seat cushion; three-spoke steering wheel (with simulated woodgrain padded hub); electric windshield washer; and concealed two-speed wipers. The Challenger Rallye was the high-performance option for the series and included the 318-cid V-8 engine; a side scoop behind the front wheels and strobe-type tape stripes that ran the full length of the car.

The optional 340-cid V-8 became the engine of choice for performance-seeking buyers of Challenger and Challenger Rallye models. It was rated at 240 hp and was accompanied by dual exhausts and a rear stabilizer bar for improved handling. All three Challenger engines were detuned with lower compression ratios to meet emissions requirements and fitted with hardened valve seats to handle unleaded petrol.

Nicewander’s car carries the 340 and a four-speed. “Beyond that, it’s just kind of a ‘Plain Jane car,” he says. In addition to modern MoPar valve covers, “It’s got an aftermarket radio in it and the second guy put that in. At some point I will yank that out as well. It has Vintage Air in it. It didn’t come with air, but the first guy, sometime in the 1970s or early ’80s, he put an under-dash air-conditioning unit in it.”

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The bright yellow Challenger might be the “black sheep” of the Nicewander fleet these days, but it gets just as much love as the couple’s Mustangs. It makes regular visits to car shows and last summer made the trip to Wisconsin for the Iola Old Car Show, where it looked right at home in the Blue Ribbon feature car area.

“I love to drive it. It rides great,” he said. “The wheels on it are original factory wheels and it’s got radials on it now. It rides like a dream. Compared to my Mustangs, it rides really nice. It’s a fun car to drive. It’s got the 340 four-barrel, and it came with a four-speed, which is always fun. I hadn’t driven a four-speed since high school. ”

Adding to the Challenger’s appeal for Nicewander is the memories it rekindles of one of his previous cars. “We dated and actually got engaged in our ’72 Charger,” says. “I’ve been looking around a little [for another one.’ We had fun with that car, but back in the day it was just a car, just transportation. Nobody hung onto them.

“But I’ve always been a Challenger fan, and always been a Dodge fan.”

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