It's a Dart!

2013 Dodge Dart
Photo courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC via Flickr

Remember the Dodge-Alfa Romeo compact I "speculated" a month or so ago? Well…it's got a name…

Much to the glee of everyone even remotely not in the automotive industry, the Dart name is a throwback to a simpler time. The nomenclature's reappearance was received with such joy never seen of any automobile in a very long time. It received huge media coverage – one of the television outlets in the Twin Cities had a piece on the Dart's return.

Perhaps I should explain why there was so much coverage on Chrysler's announcement of their new compact's name this week (and why it took so long for me to write something about it). Long time ago, the Dodge Dart was one of the most popular cars in North America. Its name resonated everywhere it roamed. A Dart was a sturdy, trustworthy steed that got through all four seasons without complaint. If it didn't have the bulletproof Slant Six under the hood, it had one of Chrysler's fire-breathing V8s propelling it along. The Dart symbolized what was right about Chrysler in the 1960s. Even into the 1970s, we loved the Dart despite the encroachment of emission controls and safety regulations that bogged down the great cars of the time.

But, the Dart was pure poetry. Q-Tip rapped about driving his mother's 1974 Dart from Brooklyn to El Segundo on one of A Tribe Called Quests most famous tracks. Scour through any television show of the 1960s and 1970s and you'll see one or more plod around the scene. It was never the star, mind you. It always played a character bit.

My memories of the Dart came around 1970, when they revised the front and rear ends for a more modern look. They grafted a variation of the "fuselage" look, inspired by the recently introduced full-sized cars of 1969 (Dodge Polara/Monaco, Plymouth Fury, Chrysler Newport/300/New Yorker and Imperial). It made the Dart a handsome car for its class. With a few adjustments, the interior carried over from a recent makeover in the late 1960s. The readouts and switches were brought to 1970 standards, though some things dated back to 1965. In some models, you got high back bucket seats for the first time. All of the sudden, your Dart Swinger became a mini-Charger.

The 1970 revision also enhanced one of the best Darts of its time: The Swinger. In 1968, Dodge changed the roofline of the two-door hardtop with a distinctive "curved-in" rear glass and a sharp window profile. This is the reason why it was called the Swinger. Back then, a "hardtop" meant that there is no B-pillar separating the doors and the rear window area. When you rolled down the side windows, there was a free flow of air coming through the entire cabin from the side. Imagine this is today’s airbag culture.

A two-door fastback came a bit later for 1970, but it yielded one of the most daring trims in Dart history – the Demon. While Plymouth took the same body style and named its Valiant version the Duster, Dodge used the Dart's fastback to create some devilish delights – all with V8 power. Sadly, the Demon name never made it past 1972. The rechristened Dart Sport soldiered on through the rest of the Dart's life.

If you've ever started a Chrysler from that era, you remember a distinctive starter turnover sound. You also remember the Pentastar-shaped key that you slotted to make it happen. It began low with the first few turns, but ended on a high crescendo until the engine came to life. It was a second tenor, at best. Back then, you knew the difference between the sounds of a company's starter motor.

Photo courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC

In the early 1970s, the Swinger had the upper hand on sales. It balanced Dart's conservative side with a youthful flair that dictated that part of the decade. As the 1973 oil crisis came about, the Dart was seen as too big to compete with a new wave of smaller cars permeating showrooms across North America. However, the mighty Dart remained a solid seller as consumers looked to downsize from even larger cars. The once handsome fuselage-inspired design gave way to a boxier restyle in 1973. Chunky "five mile-per-hour" bumpers were tacked on to placate the Nixon Administration.

Yet, there is beauty in the 1973-74 models. To drive one with the bulletproof Slant Six may not excite the soul, but you appreciate a design that stood the test of time. Even Chrysler's 5.2litre V8 felt right at home in a Dart Swinger clogged with an EGR unit, a catalytic converter and a few more pounds of chromed metal.

The Dart's death in 1976 yielded no sadness. Not like the Cadillac Eldorado convertible so celebrated with a shaken fist to President Ford and the faceless minions at the Environmental Protection Agency. Chrysler figured to improve the breed by sending out the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare to sit aside its elders for one year. It was as they changed the formula for Coca-Cola – if you remember the flap over the New Coke a decade after the Dart's death. The difference was…the Aspen was absolutely worse.

Chrysler could have made a better Dart for 1977. They didn't. The company headed towards a path to financial disaster and its factories couldn't build a car of any quality if the management in Highland Park wanted to. The Dart was a short memory lapse that was not part of Lee Iacocca's arrival as savior of Chrysler.

This is why we're excited to see the return of the nomenclature at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. So far, it seems right – based on some of the sneak photos of the new Fiat C-Evo (Wide)-based compact. It brings loads of promise with a turbocharged MultiAir and two new Tigersharks under the hood. The new Dart fuses the present with some touches from the current Charger outside.

On top of all that, the Dart returns to Belvidere, Illinois, where thousands upon thousands were built from 1962 to 1976.

There's a lot of promise for this new Dart. I, for one, cannot wait for next month.

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