Car History Year 1966
Date: Monday, September 27 @ 00:37:30 UTC
If you're involved with the decision-making process at the upper end of management for a division of a large auto corporation, it is accepted that there will be a great deal of give and take. In all probability, you do not wield enough influence to insist on your division being able to produce a brand new model from the ground up - you have to share the basic corporate platforms with the other divisions and make as many alterations as is allowed within the constraints of the budget available. In this respect, Chrysler in the Sixties was no different from the many other large companies leading the automobile industry.
However, just once in a while, restrictions such as these engender creativity which produces something very special and the 1966 Dodge Charger is an outstanding example of what the art of compromise can achieve.
Around the mid-1960s, the fastback body style enjoyed a period of popularity as the result of the rest of the auto industry rushing to come up with their own versions of the ultra-successful Ford Mustang. Dodge were offered the opportunity to share the Plymouth Barracuda platform with this in mind but, instead, they decided to go their own route and use the larger Coronet model as a basis for an entry into the burgeoning muscle car market.
The leading lights at Dodge behind this policy were product planner Burt Bouwkamp and stylist William Brownlie -both newcomers to the division and both self-confessed performance car buffs who simply loved the work they were doing.
Even so, the merits of the Sixties fastback are hard to define from a practical point of view. Rear seat passengers had restricted headroom and minimal leg space, the large area of glass created a greenhouse effect causing the interior to heat up rapidly in the sunshine and, to cap it all, luggage space was abysmal. On the plus side of course, the fastback Charger does look great. Even when it is standing still, it seems ready to spring into tire-blistering action -and, when talking about muscle cars, that counts for a whole lot more than how much shopping can be accommodated in the trunk or the niceties of passenger comfort.
The starting point for the Charger actually came about almost by chance rather than being attributed to part of some grand corporate marketing strategy. Facing the lack of an attention-grabbing exhibit for an auto show in the summer of '65, Bouwkamp asked Brownlie to come up with an idea for a show car that could not only be built quickly, but at minimal cost. It was a tall order, but the designer rose to the challenge and suggested putting a fastback roof on the popular Dodge Coronet model. Following Brownlie's specifications, a 2-door hardtop was speedily modified and readied for the show.
Dubbed "Charger II" (Dodge had used the Charger name before on another show car a year or two previously), this car was not, as is often supposed, intended as an official prototype for a proposed new model but was simply created as a last minute showpiece. However, public reaction to the fastback was so enthusiastic that plans were immediately rushed through to put the Charger into production.
Brownlie's show car had, naturally enough for something designed to attract attention, several rather exaggerated styling features and it was deemed necessary to trim these excesses back for the version intended for sale to the public. Nevertheless, the production Charger retained all the good points of the original concept. The sloping fastback roof remained unaltered, and the full-width tail lights were incorporated in a flat rear panel with the slab-sided fenders neatly squared off at the back and a razor-sharp top edge picked out with a bright metal strip.
But it was the front end that provided the most radical departure from the show car's original appearance. In place of the simple grille with five thin horizontal bars and single rectangular head lights, the Charger presented a blank face made up of fine vertical lines interrupted only by the round medallion in the center. Hidden head lights, another Sixties styling fad, were in vogue and the use of them on the Dodge represented the first time that they had been seen on a Chrysler Corporation car since the 1942 DeSoto. When turned on, the four round head lights rotated into view but there was an override switch allowing the lights to be left exposed without being on. This feature was a clever Dodge engineer's solution to the problem of head light mechanisms being frozen shut in harsh winter conditions, which had blighted this feature on other makes.
The interior of the Charger, especially the dashboard and instrument layout, was taken almost directly from the show car and used unaltered, providing one of the most comprehensive packages on offer at that time. Elsewhere, it was luxury all the way with deep plush carpets and foam-padded bucket seats, plus a fake wood rimmed steering wheel as the final touch. In addition, the rear seats folded flat to give increased carrying capacity but, without a full hatchback, it didn't really help much on a practical level.
Because of the low budget allocated, the Charger II show car had a meek 318 cu.in. V8 under the hood, but the majority of '66 Chargers were ordered with the 325 horsepower 383 cu.in. engine. Thus equipped, the hefty fastback could reach 60mph in eight seconds, cover the quarter mile in sixteen at over 90mph and run on up to reach a 120mph top speed.
But for the serious performance devotee, there was only one powerplant - the mighty 426 Hemi. Fed by dual Carter AFB four barrels and rated by the fa ctory at a very conservative 425bhp, this engine gave the Charger a 0-60mph time of six seconds, and quarter miles in the 13 second bracket. As befits a road-going race car, underneath everything about the Hemi Charger was heavy duty, from the vented four-pot front disc brakes, massive torsion bars and anti-roll bar to extra rear springs and Dana 60 axle.
There was one thing that the Hemi-Charger didn't come with - a factory warranty. Instead, there was a bright yellow sticker which stated: "This car is equipped with a 426 cu.in. engine (and other special equipment). This car is intended for use in supervised acceleration trials and is not intended for highway or general passenger car use. Accordingly, THIS VEHICLE IS SOLD
'AS IS', and the warranty coverage does not apply."
Driving a Hemi-powered Dodge Charger could undoubtedly be a very exciting experience, but the year's ultimate piece of steering must go to astronaut Neil Armstrong who, when piloting the Gemini 8 space craft, performed the first docking maneuver and described it as "Just like parking a car." Other people on the way up were Ronald Reagan who was elected as Governor of California, and The
Monkees pop group who were launched into the limelight through a madcap television series. Also riding high were the hems of womens' dresses and skirts across the nation, as high fashion saw the mini skirt become all the rage.
Dodge used the success of the Charger to launch a campaign called "the Dodge Rebellion" and the new fastback sold well on the back of some heavy media promotion and race-winning results, but the '67 body looked identical and sales halved in the following year. A completely new shape arrived in 1968, making the first Dodge Charger very much a child of its time.
1966 was the year that civil rights movement leader Stokely Carmichael brought the term "Black Power" into the forefront of the American political debate, but for an automotive enthusiast it was the year of "Hemi Power" and the Dodge Charger.
V8 - cast iron block silicon/aluminum crankcase
318 cu. ins
Bore and stroke
3.91 x 3.31 ins.
No. of seats
OLDSMOBILE TORONADO DELUXE
V8 - cast iron block
400 cu. ins
Bore and stroke
4.00 x 3.98 ins.
No. of seats
FORD BRONCO SPORTS UTILITY
Cast iron block - 6 Cylinders in line
170 cu. ins
Bore and stroke
No. of seats
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