Originally published January 11, 2008
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Chrysler is reviving its Dodge Challenger, a name from the 1970s, to cash in on the nostalgia trips evoked by such retro models as the Volkswagen Beetle, Mini and Ford Thunderbird. It will revive memories of such “pony cars” as the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Mercury Cougar and AMC Javelin, all now out of production. But the original pony car, the Ford Mustang, still flourishes after more than 40 years, and GM is returning the Camaro.
The Pony Car concept began with the Falcon-based Ford Mustang in 1964, which caught the rest of the industry flat footed. Arch rival Chevrolet took until 1967 to launch its competitor, the Camaro. Others followed, like the Pontiac Firebird, AMC Javelin and Mercury Cougar. The Plymouth Barracuda with its huge wrapover rear window arrived at about the same time as the Mustang, but it didn’t spark the imagination the way the Mustang did and was completely overshadowed by the new Ford sportster.
Chrysler’s Dodge Division took until the 1970 model year to launch its pony car, the Dodge Challenger. They were almost too late; the bloom was just starting to go off the pony car market.
The Challenger was fairly large for this class, although not quite as big as the Mercury Cougar which was seen as its main competitor. The Challenger measured 4,851 mm (191 in.) long and 1,943 mm (76.5 in.) wide, with a 2,794 mm (110 in.) wheelbase. But it was low, being only 1,308 mm (51.5 in.) tall.
To stimulate interest among young buyers, Dodge offered the Challenger in what it called “High Impact” colours with whimsical names like Top Banana, Sub Lime, Go Mango, Plum Crazy and Hemi Orange.
The Challenger had the classic long hood/short deck pony car profile, and came with a wide variety of options. Engine choices ranged from the base 3.7-litre slant six to a 7.2-litre V-8. Really dedicated performance buffs could order the legendary 7-litre 425-horsepower “Hemi” V8 with twin 4-barrel carburetors. Power went to the rear wheels through an all-synchromesh three- or four-speed manual transmission with floor shift, or an optional three-speed “Torqueflite” automatic.
Underpinnings of the unit construction Challenger were the usual Chrysler Corporation fare, with longitudinal front torsion bars and a basic solid axle on leaf springs at the rear.
Styling was clean and attractive with quad headlamps and a nice accent crease that ran the full length of the body, and kicked up over the rear wheels for a stylish touch. With its ample beam and low silhouette it looked wide, squat and purposeful, in keeping with Dodge’s performance image. It made competitors appear tall and narrow, and the Challenger’s well proportioned lines made it quite a handsome car.
The Challenger came as both a convertible and hardtop in two series: regular, and R/T (Road/Track). The R/T had such upgrades as a 6.3-litre Magnum V8, stiffer suspension and heavy duty brakes.
A mid-year limited production addition was the Challenger T/A, named after the popular Trans-Am road racing series. It featured a more aggressive look and such goodies as a 5.5-litre V8 with three two-barrels, bigger tires and a lift-off fibreglass hood with an impressive looking scoop. The T/A was discontinued after the 1970 model year.
As expected, the Challenger with a big V8, performed well. Car Life magazine (12/69) tested a convertible with the 390-horsepower 7.2-litre V8 fitted with three two-barrels. It sprinted from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.3 seconds and reached a top speed of 206 km/h (128 mph). Being a convertible it was heavy at 1,769 kg (3,900 lb). A closed car would have been faster.
The Challenger was carried over into 1971 with few appearance changes, but under the hood engine power quoted was down due to the change from SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) gross to SAE net ratings. SAE net was a much more realistic figure, and the result was, for example, that the 6.3-litre Magnum V8 went from a 1970 rating of 335 horsepower to a 1971 figure of 250.
By this time the imposition of brutal insurance rates for high powered cars were biting into pony car sales, and tightening emission requirements and tougher safety standards were taking the bloom off performance. These factors, plus the arrival of a stunningly restyled mid-1970 Camaro, caused Challenger sales to plunge from over 83,000 1970 models to less than 30,000 ’71s.
The 1972 Challenger was redesigned, but the convertible was gone; the only offerings were the standard two-door and the Rallye in place of the R/T. Engine options were down too, with the largest V8 now the 5.6 litre. Sales shrank to under 27,000.
With compression ratios reduced to accommodate the unleaded fuel needed by catalytic converters, power dropped to the point where the slant six was discontinued in 1973. Sales recovered to over 32,000 for 1973, but after only some 16,000 74′s were sold, Chrysler pulled the plug on the Challenger. It had arrived just a little too late to really cash in the pony car flurry of the 1960s.