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50 years of Challenger

MoPar’s pony car came out of the blocks running. Challenger provides 50 years of excitement.
2020-09B Challenger is 50 Photo 03

Challenger may have been late to the pony car party, but it did so fashionably. 50 years later, that entrance remains memorable.

Ironically, it was the Dodge’s sister division, Plymouth, was actually first to the party with its Barracuda. Released just a couple weeks before the Ford Mustang in April 1964, the Barracuda shared with Mustang the formula that would make this sporty, youthful segment such a huge seller during the 1960s: long hood, short deck and compact proportions in a sporty front-engine, rear-drive package. While the Mustang was based on the Ford Falcon platform, its styling was entirely new; conversely, the spendier Barracuda was more clearly a fastback version of the existing Plymouth Valiant. The Mustang was a runaway success with 121,538 sold for 1964 while the Barracuda and its trick curved-glass backlight could only be considered a moderate success with 22,443 sold that abbreviated season. Had the first Barracuda been at least as popular as the Mustang, perhaps we’d be calling cars in its class “fish cars” instead of “pony cars.”

You could get your Challenger fix with the top down as well.

You could get your Challenger fix with the top down as well.

Through the rest of the 1960s, the Barracuda heavily trailed the Mustang in sales. In 1967, Plymouth completely restyled the Barracuda and added coupe and convertible models, but that year Chevrolet and Pontiac launched their respective Camaro and Firebird pony cars. That year, Ford Motor Co. added a Mercury pony car with the Cougar. The strong competition in the youth-oriented pony car field left the Barracuda swimming against the current. For the 1970 model year, Chrysler Corp. started fishing in a whole different body of water — one that would have room for Dodge.

Under legendary Chrysler Corp. Vice-President of Design Elwood Engle, designers Bill Brownlie and Carl Cameron came up with new pony cars for Plymouth and Dodge to sell beginning in the 1970 model year. Realizing the huge potential in the pony car category, Chrysler management hoped it could carve out a portion and sell in excess of 200,000 of its new Dodge and Plymouth pony cars even though Plymouth struggled to sell even 50,000 Barracudas annually during the 1960s.

Enter the E body

Like the 1960s Barracuda, the new MoPar pony car would be based on the compact A body, at least initially. After Chrysler Corp. planning was underway on the 1970 pony car, Ford and General Motors started stuffing big-block V-8 engines in their pony cars. The biggest engine Chrysler planned to put in its new-for-’70 pony cars was the 383-cid V-8, so engineers and designers tweaked the A body platform in order to add width for a larger engine. The result used the firewall-to-radiator support of the mid-size B body (Charger/Satellite), which could be had with the 440- and 426-cid engines.

Six-packs weren’t just for beer anymore. Three two-barrel carbs could ram gas into the 340- or 440-cube Challenger V-8.

Six-packs weren’t just for beer anymore. Three two-barrel carbs could ram gas into the 340- or 440-cube Challenger V-8.

This new pony car species was named “E body,” and setting it apart was a stunning low and wide stance, a close-coupled passenger compartment and the long hood and short rear deck expected of a pony car. The Barracuda and Challenger designs also featured a handsome kick up after the door and into the quarter panel in the “Darrin dip” fashion popular decades earlier. Dodge emphasized this dip with a body character line that paralleled the car’s beltline, including the dip. Aggressive grille designs of both Challenger and Barracuda were channeled deep into the front, and taillamps looked like red hot exhaust vents that were likewise channeled into the body. Coupe and convertibles were offered in both the Barracuda and Challenger lines.

Although The new Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda cut similar profiles for 1970, they were subtly different cars on the outside. The Challenger had a wheelbase 2 in. longer than the Barracuda (110 in. versus 108 in.) and the Challenger was more than 5 in. longer than the Barracuda. These differences were aimed toward the mid-price Mercury Cougar and Pontiac Firebird pony cars that Dodge intended to challenge.

Challenger’s interior featured very mod three-dimensional plastic door panels and a smooth, uncluttered instrument panel of matching plastic material. Instruments were laid out horizontally in four large, round pods. The Challenger featured an energy-absorbing steering column and advertised the featured with an exaggerated accordion-like cover over the column.

The Challenger without muscle car appearance goodies could be luxuriously on par with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

The Challenger without muscle car appearance goodies could be luxuriously on par with the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

The Challenger was offered in several lines: a highline, a lowline, an upscale SE model and a performance R/T version with an R/T-SE version available. The SE, for Special Edition, featured a vinyl roof that covered a fiberglass shell that made the rear window smaller for a more formal effect. The SE interior was also more luxurious with an overhead console and available leather interior. Challenger could also be built as a SCCA-inspired Trans Am version with the 340-cid V-8.

Right out of the gate, available Challenger engines included Chrysler’s full line, from the 225-cid “Slant Six” to the 426 Hemi with the 340, 383 and 440 (four- or six-barrel carburetion) also choices. The base engine in the Challenger R/T was the 383-cid V-8. A Challenger could be mild or wild, with the wildest Hemi and 440 Six Pack versions among the fastest street cars of the entire muscle car era.

The 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T edition with 426 Hemi.

The 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T edition with 426 Hemi.

Challenger combinations could be downright dizzying as on top of the model and engine choices, there were luxury options and performance options: Go Wing spoiler, headlamp time delay, stripes, numerous wheel and wheel cover choices, Shaker hood scoop and more. Colors ranged from subtle green and brown earth tones to High-Impact Panther Pink and Plum Crazy. Shifting could be done on the column or through a Slap-Stick wood-handled shifter in the console. Despite building a Challenger for every person — from pastor and grandparent to teenage troublemaker — Dodge lost money on the Challenger program. Only 83,032 were sold in 1970 and with just 55,499 Barracuda sales added in for the model year, production was well beneath Chrysler Corp.’s expectation of 200,000 E-body cars per model year. Sales were worse in 1971 and then in 1972, Challenger’s grille and tail panel were restyled and the result was unflattering compared to the original. Performance dropped dramatically after 1971 when the triple-carbureted Six Pack 440 and 426 Hemi were dropped.

The 1970 Dodge Challenger SCCA-derived T/A edition.

The 1970 Dodge Challenger SCCA-derived T/A edition.

Challenger sales were curbed by internal competition from the restyled and cheaper 1970 Dart and then the Dart-based Demon fastback of 1971. Sales of the new 1970 Barracuda and its performance derivative, the ’Cuda, were also beat up internally by the new fastback Plymouth Valiant Duster and restyled Valiant Scamp. Some quality control woes further hampered sales of the E-bodies. The end came for the original Challenger, as well as the Barracuda, in 1974.

Rise to the top

As used cars and into the 1980s, the Challenger was a bit of an underappreciated stepchild in the muscle car world with values and interest lagging behind GM and Ford pony cars of the era. After the turn of the century, interest in these fast, powerful and handsome and aggressively styled pony cars flipped and they became among the most valuable muscle cars. Hemi Challengers began to sell for six figures and it took seven figures to buy a Hemi Challenger convertible.

The Challenger may not have lived up to Chrysler’s production expectations 50 years ago, but it’s undoubtably a winner today.

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