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Dodge Dart a mini muscle car that's fun to drive

The lightweight 2014 Dodge Dart was a ball

The lightweight 2014 Dodge Dart was a ball to drive. Credit: Dodge

The true stars of the so -called Muscle Car era were usually based on much less glamorous modes of transportation.

In the case of the Dodge Dart, the number of famous GTS and 340 Swinger models that were built pales in comparison to the thousands upon thousands of six-cylinder and 318-V8 powered four-door grocery-getters that littered suburban driveways.

Today, it's the high-performance cars that everyone remembers, but, then again, that's why car companies built them: brand image. And it worked like a charm.

Dodge was, and still is, Chrysler's performance brand. It was the Dart, the Charger and the Super Bee then, and the Viper, Challenger and Charger SRT8 today.
But the Dart didn't start out that way. As part of the low-cost group of 1960s compacts, it was intended to compete with Ford's Falcon and Fairlane as well the Chevrolet Corvair, Chevy II and Pontiac Tempest. All were innocuous automobiles that stressed interior and trunk space while holding power and price to a minimum.
But change was in the air. The 1964 GTO rocked Detroit like a meteor and the shockwave rippled right across the country.

Based on the mid-sized Tempest chassis, the GTO's philosophy was surprisingly simple: small car; big engine; and jazzy looks. Pontiac figured on 5,000 first-year sales. Shockingly, the division sold more than 32,000 before running out of time and production capacity.

Competing manufacturers struggled to come up with their own version of GTO, which is consider to be the first "musclecar."

Dodge was tackling this new and untapped market from two angles with hardware it had at its disposal. A fastback roof was grafted to a Coronet body and, voila, the 1966 Charger was born with one significant advantage over the 389-V8-powered GTO. You could pick your engine - any engine - whether a 383, 440 or the 426-cubic-inch "Hemi" V8.

Dodge was also fiddling with the Dart, but it wasn't until the second-generation model was unveiled for 1967, and the injection of real image and horsepower in 1968, that Dodge could finally say "we're ready."

Success and Dodge's image hinged on one particular version: the GTS hardtop fitted with a high-revving 340-cubic-inch V8, underrated at 275 horsepower (315 was closer to the actual number). Most importantly, with the high-flowing cylinder heads, 350-375 horsepower was within easy reach after a few simple upgrades to the intake and exhaust systems were made.

For big-block fans, a 300-horse 383 cubic-inch V8 could also be had in the baby Dodge, but the lighter weight of the 340 cars made for a better-balanced package. In fact, equipped with a stout 3.91:1 rear gear and a four-speed manual transmission, the light-weight unitized (frameless) 340 Dart was an even match for most bigger-engined competitors whose extra horsepower was offset with plenty of extra heft.

The GTS trim package featured a unique hood with dual chrome-trimmed "340 Four Barrel" humps, bucket seats, "rallye" wheels, red-line sidewall tires, dual exhaust with chrome tips, sport suspension, 15-inch wheels and an optional Hurst-shifted four-speed gearbox. A special "Scat" stripe was wrapped around the tail to signify membership in Dodge's elite "Scat Pack", granted only to Dodge cars that could cut a 14-second or better (less time) quarter-mile time.

A fully loaded GTS cost about $3,200, a little more than the no-frills 383-powered Plymouth Road Runner, which was a runaway sales smash. So, for 1969, Dodge brought out the Swinger 340, its own no-frills street stormer that sold for about $400 less than the previous year's GTS. It was performance that just about anyone could afford and performance that flew well below the radar screens of insurance companies that began clamping down on premiums for high-horsepower equipment. The 440 and Hemi were in sharp decline after 1971 and the Dart became a recluse for buyers seeking hassle-free speed.

In fact, by the early 1970s, the compact Dart line had become Dodge's bread-and-butter brand and was split into two distinct series: Dart Swinger coupes and Custom sedans; plus a shorter-wheelbase Demon fastback, the mate to Plymouth's Duster. Most came with the fuel-sipping 225-cubic-inch six-cylinder (called a "Slant Six"  because of its angle in the engine bay), but the 340 V8 remained a popular option.

After receiving sufficient flack for the Demon name from vocal groups who saw little humor in the devilish cartoon character planted on the Dodge's fenders, the car was renamed the Dart Sport for 1973.

At mid-decade, the Dart enjoyed unprecedented sales success even though the era of high performance was by then only a fond memory. Stringent government smog controls all but killed the hot little 340 and subsequent 360 V8.

The once-proud and popular Dart name eventually disappeared in 1976, replaced by the frumpy Dodge Aspen.

For more than a decade, the Dart served the needs of young and old alike, who, strangely enough, appreciated it for entirely different reasons.

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