1966 Dodge Charger
1966 Dodge Charger. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The mid-1960s saw the arrival of the muscle car and the pony car, both in 1964. The muscle car resulted when Pontiac fitted a big 6.4 litre (389 cu in.) V-8 engine into an intermediate-sized Tempest body, and made it the GTO option. It was so successful that it spawned a whole gang of straight-line-rocket imitators, and started the muscle car craze.

Pony cars grew out of a compact car when Ford draped Falcon underpinnings with a stylish, long-hood, short-deck body and created the Mustang. It was an instant success, and launched the pony car genre which is still with us today.

There was another body style that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in that era too: the fastback, a subset of the muscle and pony cars. The fastback body style was not new to the ’60s, having seen brief appearances as the “Torpedo Back” just before and after the Second World War on such makes as Chevrolet and Buick. But the fastbacks of the ’60s were more pronounced, with a combination rear window and deck that sloped in an unbroken line from mid-roof to rear bumper.

The fastback Mustang came out for 1965, along with the Plymouth Barracuda with its huge, wrap-over rear window, and the American Motors Marlin in 1965-1/2. The Mustang and Barracuda were based on compact-car components, while AMC used the intermediate Rambler Classic as the foundation for the Marlin.

When Dodge entered the fastback game it chose to follow the AMC lead and used its intermediate body for the development of its fastback Charger. This meant that like the Marlin it had much more rear legroom than the compact-based models, although the sloping roof limited rear headroom.

The Dodge Charger was arguably the best-looking fastback of them all. Its long smooth roofline sloped down between tiny rear fins, ending at wall-to-wall tail-lights. A fine, vertical-bar grille extended across the full width of the car and concealed the headlamps in each end, the first use of hidden headlamps by the Chrysler Corporation since the short-lived 1942 DeSoto.

Because it was based on a mid-sized car, the Charger was not small. It rode on a 2,972 mm (117 in.) wheelbase and extended 5,171 mm (203.6 in.) over-all. And at 1,810 kg (3,990 lb), it wasn’t light either. Such heft requires a substantial powerplant, and in keeping with the times, the Charger had several. The standard engine was the corporate 5.2 litre (318 cu in.), overhead-valve V-8. Next up was a 5.9 litre (361 cu in.) V-8, but most buyers chose the optional 6.3 litre (383 cu in.), four-barrel V-8 that developed 325 horsepower.

Those interested in really ground-pounding performance could take the ultimate step and order the 7.0 litre (426 cu in.), 415-horsepower hemispherical combustion chamber V-8. Chrysler’s fabulous “Hemi” had been a bombshell when introduced back in 1951. It was built until 1958, when Chrysler discontinued it in favour of a conventional “wedge-head” V-8 that was cheaper and lighter. The Hemi was reincarnated and redesigned in 1964 when Chrysler needed a big, tough engine for racing.

The new ’66 Charger did quite well in its first year, finding 37,300 customers. Fastback novelty wore off quickly, however, and 1967 would see only 15,788 of them go out the door. As with earlier examples, the fastback didn’t stay around long. Dodge completely redesigned the Charger for 1968 and abandoned the true fastback.

But the division retained some of the fastback appearance through the use of “flying buttresses” on each side of the inset rear window. Pinched-in sides gave the body the then popular “Coke bottle” look. The full-width grille and hidden headlamps were retained, but with the wall-to-wall tail-lights replaced by four round ones.

The corporations’s 3.7 litre (225 cu in.) slant six was made available in the 1968 Charger, although few buyers would choose it. At the other end of the spectrum the R/T (Road/Track) model came with a 7.2 litre (440 cu in.) “Magnum” 375 horsepower V-8. This 1968-70 Charger would form the basis for one of the wildest American cars every produced: the high-winged Dodge Charger Daytona.

Dodge was back in racing, and one of the reasons for producing the 1966-67 fastback Charger was that the engineers thought it would be faster on the track. But it was not as fast as the competition, and neither were the restyled ’68s. When the aerodynamicists discovered that the inset rear window and recessed grille were the problems, a special Charger 500 was developed with a flush grille and rear window. This was faster, and lead directly to the famous, and even faster, high-winged Charger Daytona.

The Charger was restyled for 1971 and began to look much like a large pony car. The Hemi was discontinued for 1972, and in 1974, the true Charger, like other muscle cars, succumbed to killing insurance rates, emission control legislation, and the first oil crisis.

The Charger name was carried on, but as a clone of the Chrysler Cordoba specialty hardtop. The early Chargers were another example of a fastback that failed to really catch on.

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