Dodge Challenger makes its mark in pony car marketplace

Being late to the "Ponycar wars" wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It actually allowed Dodge to create a proper response.

With the Challenger's arrival in the fall of 1969, Chrysler had finally leveled the playing field with its General Motors and Ford rivals, in the showroom, on the street and on the track.

By that time, the well-established Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were matched against the even-better-established Ford Mustang (the car that began the ponycar wars) and Mercury Cougar. Out of step with the others - mostly from a styling standpoint - was Plymouth's Barracuda, the lone Chrysler entry in this hotly contested category (AMC's Javelin rounded out this group of mighty steeds).

Until the Challenger's launch, Dodge's product planners stayed out of the fray and instead concentrated on the Charger as the division's performance champ.

That was until the premium Mercury Cougar was launched in the fall of 1966. Not only did the Cougar offer a wide range of engine choices than the smaller Mustang, but it was significantly more luxurious with a softer look and ride.

Seeing where the market was headed, it was time for Dodge to cash in.
Believing they should also compete at the premium end of the ponycar spectrum, Dodge management elected to develop one of its own. However, by the time the finished result was ready for its initial bow, the original concept of personal luxury had yielded to bold styling and serious horsepower.

The Challenger, which was unveiled for the 1970 model year, was developed on an all-new unitized (no frame) E-body platform in conjunction with a new third-generation Barracuda.

At first glance, the Dodge and Plymouth designs - both available in coupe and convertible - appeared remarkably similar. In fact, none of the body panels were interchangeable and the Challenger's wheelbase had been stretched two inches for extra rear-seat legroom.

As with the Barracuda, the Challenger's paint schemes were a wild and crazy mixture (a sign of the times), and included Plum Crazy purple, Panther Pink, Sub Lime green and Go-Mango.

Under the hood, customers could order just about any engine in Chrysler's diverse arsenal. The entry point was the economical 145-horsepower 225-cubic-inch "slant-six" inline six-cylinder engine, while five V8s ranged from the base 230-horse 318-cubic-inch unit all the way up to the tread-shredding 425-horse 426-cube "Hemi," a pricey $1,200 option that represented nearly half the cost of a base-model Challenger.

In between, a 275-horsepower 340-cubic-inch V8 was optional on base cars while the better-equipped R/T (Road and Track) could be had with a 335-horsepower 383 or a beefy 375/390-horse 440 V8.

Dodge finally had its premium ponycar, but that wasn't enough. To prove worthiness on the street, the Challenger hit the road courses of the 1970 Trans Am series, a 10-event championship fought tooth and nail throughout the United States and Canada. The Challenger T/A (Trans Am) street car, with its 340 V8, three two-barrel carburetors and wild paint scheme was created in support of Dodge's participation in the series.

That year, the manufacturer's cup was won by Ford, while the lone Dodge finished fourth. It's the only year a Challenger would compete in Trans Am.

The car's first-year production of more than 83,000 units seemed like an impressive beginning (in fact it was double the Plymouth Road Runner's first-year production). For 1971, however, Challenger sales plummeted to less than 30,000 units, the result of rapidly escalating insurance premiums combined with a general shift to larger and roomier vehicles. Convertibles everywhere were also on the wane and the coupe became the only available body style by 1972.

There were also a variety of safety and emissions regulations to contend with and, by 1973, the Challenger's engine choices were limited to the base 318 or the optional 340 V8.

What began as a bold and brilliant package was dying on the vine, a helpless victim of rapidly changing times.

In its final, shortened year, an optional 360-cube V8 replaced the '73 Challenger's high-strung 340 unit. As it turned out, the effort was too little, way too late, and the struggling Dodge was quietly dropped in mid-season after just 16,437 coupes were built.

Forty years after the final Challenger reached the streets, interest in the car has grown to a fever pitch. Given the general build quality of the day, rust-free survivors, with their original engines intact, are almost impossible to find. Cars in perfect shape or restored to new, or better-than-new condition, are worth a small fortune.

These days, the Challenger's struggle for respectability and acceptance is strictly in the past, especially since Chrysler has built a modern Challenger that pays obvious homage to a time when horsepower and style were king of the road.

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