Story and photos by Brian Earnest
The Charger was Dodge Division’s answer to the fastback craze and it was dramatically different than all competitors when it arrived. It was big and wide, which gave it a distinctive “flat” look to distinguish it from other muscle cars. It combined MoPar’s bright, clean interior styling with some of the company’s best engine options to create a package that had no peers.
Dodge called its 1966 Charger a “Sports Sedan,” even though it was really a Sport Coupe. This was an attempt to widen its sales appeal beyond the youth market and to stress its cargo-carrying abilities. With a full-size 117-inch wheelbase and 203.6 inches of overall length, the Charger was certainly roomy. And its 75.3-inch width didn’t hurt either. With seating for only four on its front and rear bucket seats, the Charger was not really sedan-like in the passenger-carrying category, either. Its real appeal was its sporty flavor.
Nevertheless, young-at-heart American dads canny enough to convince their better half that the Charger was really a “kind of station wagon” were likely to go for the base 318-cid 230-hp V-8 or the one-step-up 361-cid/265 hp option, both fitted with two-barrel carburetors. Once you got to the big-block 383 or the even heftier 426-cid “Street Hemi,” you were talking “muscle car” when you talked about a Charger.
The 383-powered Charger was honestly not the ultimate muscle machine, but it was entirely adequate for many buyers. The 383-cid V-8 had a 4.25 x 3.38-inch bore and stroke, a 10.0:1 compression ratio and a single four-barrel Carter carburetor. This added up to a package delivering 325 hp at 4800 rpm and 425 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2800 rpm.
A nicely outfitted Charger with power steering, power brakes, power steering, a limited-slip differential, a Rallye suspension, a few other goodies and the 383 hooked to a three-speed automatic transmission went out the door for just over $3,100. And two nice performance enhancements included at the regular price were dual exhausts and the well-known responsiveness of the Chrysler automatic gearbox.
On the test track, a ‘66 Charger 383 could move from 0-to-60 mph in 7.2 seconds and zip down a quarter-mile drag strip in 15.6 seconds at 89 mph. It was, and still is, a kind of “everyman’s muscle car” with body lines that set it apart from other muscle machines of the era.
A Light Blue Beauty
When he was young, Jeff DeLapp pretty much had all his bases covered when it came to the “Big Three” auto makers.
“I was a Ford and Chevy guy,” he says. “Those were my dad’s favorite cars and I dorve a ‘64 Chevy and a ‘65 Comet. But my favorite cars were always the Dodges and the MoPars. So when I decided to go looking for a collector car I started looking at my Dodges.”
The Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., resident found pretty much exactly what he was looking for not far away 20 years ago when he located a nice, original, low-mileage 1966 Charger. The car hadn’t been abused, wasn’t rusty and mostly likely had sat through a long slumber at some point in its life.
“My favorite Dodges were the ‘Dukes of Hazzard Dodges,’ so I was looking for one of them, but everybody and their brother has one of them, so I decided no, I rally don’t want a copy cat car. When I found this one, I said that’s it – I want the ’66 or 67, preferably the ’66 because that was the first year of the Charger. That’s what sold me on it.”
DeLapp, who had been involved on the local stock car racing scene for years both behind the wheel and in the pits, knew his way around the garage, but he wasn’t interested in a full-blown restoration. Luckily, the ’66 Charger didn’t require one, and after some minor bodywork, a new coat of Light Blue paint, some upholstery work on the front seats, and some other TLC, the Dodge was hard to tell from new.
“I pulled the interior and I was real pleased with that because when I got into the rear quarter panels and stuff it was excellent — no rust, no nothin’… It took about a year between working for a living and working my car to get the engine back in and get all the pieces repainted. I kept it stock and when I bought it it had mag wheels on it and took all that of. It had a chrome air cleaner and I got rid of that. It always had the original air cleaner, but it was never on the car. I kept everything that was original for the car, but I have a different air cleaner on it now because it runs better with the big one, but I kept the stock one.”
DeLapp had the engine rebuilt just because of the car’s age and for some piece of mind. With only 58,000 miles on the 383-cid V-8 today, the engine rebuild was probably more for preventative measures than necessity.
DeLapp hasn’t learned much history on the car or its whereabouts before he found it on a dealer lot in 1996. Since the interior is original from the front seats back — including the carpeting — it’s unlikely the car ever had many back seat passengers. The lack of corrosion underneath and condition general condition of the Dodge make it highly unlikely it was ever used as a family hauler or as year-round transportation.
“The only thing was the trunk was pretty much a disaster area,” DeLapp notes.
That I was able to bring it back much faster than I thought I was going to be able to to. Somebody must have got some water in the trunk area and they drilled a hole in the trunk to let the water out. That’s what I’m guessing. When they did that they drilled right through the gas tank. I was going to buy a new gas tank but I couldn’t get one. So I had to send it out.
“The engine compartment I left alone for probably the first three years and just drove it. About the only thing that doesn’t look original on the car now is the battery.”
DeLapp has plenty of company in his affinity for the first-year Charger. The legendary model gained a big following almost immediately when the rookie year 1966 models were introduced.
DeLapp’s Light Blue example was one of 37,300 Chargers built for the 1966 model year.
HANDING OVER THE KEYS
The Dodge Charger was one of the feature cars at this year’s Iola Old Car Show in Iola, Wis., and DeLapp’s car was one of the invited guests. While he was at the show, DeLapp met fellow MoPar lover John Martin of Oconto Falls, Wis., who was smitten with the blue ’66 Dodge.
Martin asked if DeLapp would consider selling the car, and after mulling the offer for a while, DeLapp signed over the title, ending his 20 year-run as the car’s caretaker.
“If I was going to sell it, I wanted it to be to somebody who wasn’t going to do all kinds of stuff to it. I wanted that car to stay stock,” DeLapp said. “I wasn’t going to sell it to just anybody. I wanted that car to go to the right owner — somebody who would take care of it and keep it the way it is. I had it for 20 years and I’m getting older, so I figured it might be time for somebody else to have it.”
Martin and DeLapp had one thing in common: they both loved the 1966 Charger from the first time they saw one. “I’m 64 years old and I’ve been wanting a ‘66 charger since I was 18 year old,” Martin says. He got to ride in a fellow student’s car when he was in college in 1970 and “I said, ‘Oh, I gotta have one of those some day.’
“I just love the styling inside and out,” he said. “I love everything about. Sixty-six was the last year of the full-length console, and I like that.”
Martin had been looking for the right car for a year or two and finally found it in Iola this year. It wasn’t really for sale, but Martin was in the right place at the right time when he walked up and started talking to DeLapp for the first time.
“I just love it. For a car that is 50 years old, it runs like a top,” he says. “There are no flat spots … You are almost afraid to park it anywhere. The body and everything is in such super shape. Every place I stop I have somebody come up and ask about it. People come up to you at the gas station. I’ve had it parked in my garage at home with the door open and had several people stop and want to talk about it. It’s really an attention-getter.”
“It’s been a big nostalgia trip, definitely. They way I feel right now, I’ll probably keep that car until I die.”
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