No other car has captured the imagination of today's enthusiasts than the Dodge Challenger.
The modern Chally could be seen as a retro design exercise on a shortened LX platform. At the concept stage, it was. Since 2009, it has been an image car for the Dodge brand – a modern muscle car with a look back at when they were king. It was never intended to be a huge seller, but Dodge sold over 51,000 units in 2013. My review in 2010 revealed a superb coupe that gets looks anywhere it shows up – even if it only has a V6.
However, before we even consider the modern Challenger, we must look back at the car that was the inspiration for it.
The original Challenger may have been as memorable as the Plymouth Barracuda it shared its platform with. However, critics at the time saw the Dodge as a "Johnny come lately" in the muscle/pony car game. The original Barracuda was a fastback version of the Valiant, introduced in 1964. It and the Ford Mustang began a new craze in the muscle car world – "pony cars." They were smaller than your usual mid-sized and full-sized brethren, though either car could shoehorn a monster engine to play against the big boys. The Mustang ruled the stable since its introduction, while some considered the Plymouth an afterthought. By 1967, more ponies were introduced in the guise of the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and Mercury Cougar. At this point, Chrysler was developing a new pony car for the start of the 1970s – an answer to the rest of the pack.
The formula for the E-body was simple: Make it look great and have a big enough engine bay to fit the most powerful engine Chrysler makes. The strategy for either model was distinctive, though some design tenets would be maintained. The body was inspired by Chrysler's new fuselage design – a language introduced in the 1968 Dodge Charger and its full-sized cars for 1969. Yet, the E-bodies were to be sculpted for a stronger visual image with integration from concept cars from the last several years.
The result is one of the most beautiful designs ever created by Chrysler. A Coke-bottle fender affect was integrated onto the fuselage language. A notchback body was favored against a fastback one, giving both the Barracuda and the Challenger a certain presence that balanced stealth and Chutzpah. The interior was stunning. If equipped with the center console, the driver is surrounded by a cockpit that was all business. High-back bucket seats were the preferred thrones to master this pony.
There was a two-inch difference in wheelbase between it and the smaller Barracuda. The reasoning behind this difference was in brand positioning. Dodge was seen as a mid-priced brand, though some of its products were sold closer to Chevrolet and Ford levels than of Oldsmobile. Pontiac was its main rival, though Dodge sold trucks and vans – the sole source for Chrysler's commercial products at that time. Yet, Plymouth’s position as the company's value brand had been blurred, as well. That image was coupled with sharing showrooms with Chrysler and Imperial through the 1960s, with products moving upwards in scale.
When the new E-bodies arrived at showrooms in 1969, Chrysler basically called GM's and Ford’s bluff. The Barracuda had the Camaro and Mustang in its sights. The Challenger's equal was the Firebird. Yet, one would easily argue its worth against the Camaro and Mustang equally.
However, the Challenger's existence was in part influenced by the arrival of the Mercury Cougar in 1967. Though based on the Mustang, the Cougar had a stretched wheelbase and more upscale interior. The Challenger was seen as a more luxurious version of the Barracuda, even with some specific bits pointing to the Dodge over the Plymouth.
The edge the Challenger and Barracuda had could be found under the hood. The task of the engineers of the E-bodies was to fit every engine made by Chrysler in its engine bay. That meant everything from Slant Sixes to the big 440-cubic inch monster Magnum V8. In-between, some of the most memorable motors found their way under the hood of the Challenger. If you picked the T/A model – a tribute to their entrance into the Trans Am racing circuit – you got a 340-cubic inch V8 with three two-barrel carburetors on top of it. They call this the "Six-Pack," and it felt like someone with as many abs on their torso. You could also ask for a 383-cubic inch V8 or a 426-cubic inch HEMI V8, if you dare. Each and every one of these V8s breathed a mighty fire once you hit the throttle.
The E-Body would last through 1974. They became a victim of a whole host of new Federal regulations and of the OPEC Oil Crisis. Though the desire for a huge engine and its performance was there, newfangled devices such as the Exhaust Gas Recirculation valve and the 5MPH bumper were added to make them safer and cleaner. However, it would be the Society of Automotive Engineers that would put the end to the fun. They would send everyone back to the drawing board in terms of horsepower calculation and how to do so with the advent of unleaded gasoline.
All of this spelled the end of the original Dodge Challenger. The name lived on, despite being applied to one of two imported versions of the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda coupe. It could not replace the once and mighty E-body. There was no way it could – and it did not!
As I mentioned before, my father bought a 1970 Barracuda as soon as the 1971s hit the showroom. It was great looking and all, but I recall favoring the Dodge over the Plymouth before we even brought it home. Did I tell Santa in 1969 that I wanted a Challenger? I think I recalled this…I probably did, given how my brain was wired at the time.
Why the Dodge over the Plymouth? The first thing that gets you is the grille and the quad headlamps. The formula for being upscale is the number of headlamps standard on the car. This was true for the original Firebird over the Camaro. The Dodge’s four headlamps gave the Challenger a certain flair that also gave it some fight.
Barracudas may have been the big collectable, but the Challenger shows its resonance in the lexicon of muscle and pony cars. Plymouths are rare now – you cannot find a base model 1970 anywhere these days. You would be lucky to find a 1970 Gran Coupe. In contrast, there are more 1970 Challengers still on the road than Barracudas – in a variety of models and engine combinations.
Does two inches of wheelbase make any difference which E-Body to love? Given my own history, it should not make any difference. The resolution is to embrace both the Barracuda and Challenger equally. However, the Challenger was chosen as the inspiration for a new sports coupe for Chrysler in the modern age. It would survive Bankruptcy and the arrival of Sergio Marchionne. It became an icon because of the Moparian faithful and their love for the product – both old and new.
While the 2008-2014 Chally represented the 1970 model well, Chrysler chose to update their coupe to resemble the 1971 model. Though the 1970 Challenger was the focal point for the breed, there were many memorable 1971s to count off. The Challenger was subject to the annual grille and trim update as all cars were of that era. A new dual grille treatment and split tail lights distinguished the latter model year’s offerings. They did retain the quad headlamps and the upscale trimmings inside that still gave Dodge customers a stronger choice than their counterparts at Plymouth for 1971.
It was exactly the thinking that went into the 2015 Challenger. To resurrect the best of 1971 onto a new car is an appropriate move. Some might say that there was some deviation in the interior design. So what? What matters is what we look at every day, whether we drive one or not.
Some might say that the 2015 SRT with the supercharged Hellcat engine is an extreme deviation. Again, consider what was available to consumers in 1971 – a choice of V8s that remain simply mind blowing. Without the heritage of the 426 HEMI, the Magnums and the Six-Pack, there would not be the Hellcat. Nor would we see a production vehicle of its kind with 707 horsepower.
The 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT is capturing the imagination of a continent. Just like the original Dodge Challenger did 45 years ago. No matter what trim – then and now – there is no other car like it, in my humble old man's opinion.
All photos by Randy Stern