Five Decades Of Hard Chargin’: The History of the Dodge Charger


For enthusiasts of a certain age, the utterance of Dodge Charger conjures up images of the General Lee soaring across a ravine in “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, or the sinister black ’68 R/T from the movie “Bullitt” careening through the streets of San Francisco with its big block 440ci V8 at full song and Steven McQueen in hot pursuit. But as iconic as that second generation coupe was, it’s easy to forget that for a younger group of enthusiasts, the Charger has played a much bigger role in their lives as a full sized sedan – one which has been in production for nearly as long as the original B-body coupe was.

With 2016 marking the 50th anniversary of the Charger, what better a time to look back at the history and evolution of the legendary nameplate – from its origins as a head-turning concept car and its performance dominance in 1960s both on and off the track, to its brief reemergence during the 1980s, and its current state as one of the most sought-after grand touring sedans on the market.

Above: The Dodge Charger (specifically the second-generation) has remained one of the single-most popular classic muscle cars for Hollywood heroes and villains alike. Can you name all of these films?

Origin Of The Species
In 1964, the massive and near-immediate success of both the Ford Mustang the Pontiac GTO had just about every automaker in the industry rethinking their product strategy on some level, and Chrysler was certainly among them.

They weren’t caught completely off guard though – in fact, Plymouth had introduced the Valiant-based Barracuda more than two weeks before Ford made industry shockwaves with the Mustang. But when Ford’s pony car sales showed a six-to-one advantage over the Plymouth, the Pentastar folks knew they needed to revitalize their portfolio if they were going to complete in this new youthful marketplace.


Above: The original ’64 Charger concept was based off of the then-current Polara. 

Between 1964 and 1965, Dodge would unveil two Charger concepts. The first was a one-off open roof sports car based on the Polara and powered by a 413ci V8. But its overall design was deemed too conventional, and Dodge knew they needed to turn heads with this new model.

Sloping fastback rooflines were a hot ticket design feature in the mid-1960s and Mopar was keen to get another sporty car into showroom as soon as they could under the Dodge banner, as dealers had been hounding Chrysler corporate for a vehicle similar to what Plymouth dealers had with the Barracuda offering.

The Dodge Charger Concept II debuted in 1965 with a dramatically different design than the first concept car, instead going all-in on the fastback design, and the new concept spurred the market interest that Chrysler had been searching for.

Above: The Charger Concept II featured a long, rakish roofline, extended quarters and sharp, angular lines.

Using the chassis and the lion’s share of the mechanicals from the mid-sized Dodge Coronet sedan, the Charger went into production not long after as a 1966 model. Larger than a Mustang but still sportier than personal luxury coupes like the Thunderbird, the Charger came out of the gate swinging with four different V8 engines on offer, including the new 426 Street Hemi as a mid-year option.

Eager to make a name for itself in motorsport to capitalize on the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” axiom of the day, Dodge entered the new Charger into the NASCAR series with hopes that its radical fastback design would translate to quick lap times. Racers soon discovered that the Charger’s sleek silhouette produced high speed lift, making the car difficult to control on faster race tracks, so engineers quickly developed a lip spoiler for the trunk lid to add downforce to the rear.

Above left: The ’66 Charger proved a desirable platform for competition but encountered certain aerodynamic drawbacks. Above right: Engineers developed a lip spoiler to help plant the tail from high speed lift.

The Charger proved to be a dominant force in NASCAR that year, with David Pearson in the #6 Cotton Owens Charger taking no less than fourteen first places finishes that season before securing the 1966 NASCAR Grand National championship.

But despite its competitiveness on the race track and the introduction of the more street-friendly 440ci big block V8, 1967 would see Charger sales drop to half of what had been seen in the previous year. With the Charger suddenly facing an uncertain future, it was clear that Dodge needed to make some big changes to align themselves with the demands of the buying public – and fast.

Above: The redesigned second-generation Charger introduced the brand’s “Coke bottle” design aesthetic and proved one of Dodge’s most popular designs.

The Birth Of An Icon
Although it retained all the mechanical underpinnings of the first generation Charger, the second generation car was a complete aesthetic rethink for Dodge’s big coupe. Gone was the massive swooping roofline of the 66-67 model, replaced by a sculpted Coke bottle-shaped body with an integrated trunk spoiler inspired by Group 7 race cars. To say the design was a success would be a massive understatement; not only is it one of the most eye-catching designs to roll out of a Chrysler factory in the company’s history, it is arguably the most recognizable and lusted-after muscle car design from the era.

Bill Brownlie, the designer responsible for the first three generations of the Charger, knew his team had struck gold with the new car even before the second generation Charger went into production. Just as the design was being finalized, Brownlie got word of concerns from Chrysler executives that the flip-top gas cap design was impractical and might be prone to freezing over in northern states during the winter. “I told them,” Brownlie later related in an interview, “that anyone who bought a Charger would carry an ice pick with them so they could have this car.” His depiction proved correct, and in 1968 Dodge would go on to sell almost 100,000 Chargers, nearly six times the amount of the previous year.

Above: The ’68 Charger featured a great deal of jet-set era design features that helped elevate the car in to the “classic” category within its own time.

By 1968, the muscle car wars were in full swing, and Dodge had ensured that the Charger was equipped to go toe-to-toe with any would-be contenders. The coupe could now be optioned with no less than four different big block V8s, ranging from the fairly pedestrian 270 horsepower, two-barrel 383, to the notoriously underrated 425 horsepower Hemi.

In terms of the standard model, 1969 would see some minor tweaks for the Charger. These included a split grill that replaced the full-length piece from the previous year, and the ‘68’s four round taillights were swapped out for a pair of elongated hockey stick-style bezels. But the 1969 model year Charger is perhaps most notable for Dodge’s motorsport development efforts with the coupe, which would serve to bolster the second generation car’s legacy even further.

Above: Changes to the ’69 model over the previous ’68 were kept mainly to the grille, tail lights, side marker lights, and interior materials.

The Wing Cars
Although the second generation Charger’s design turned heads everywhere it went, it came at a serious compromise to aerodynamics, and that posed a problem for would-be race teams campaigning the car on the high-speed NASCAR oval tracks. In 1968, Dodge sought to address this with the limited edition Charger 500, which used a flush-mounted rear window to mitigate rear end lift and a Coronet grille to reduce aerodynamic drag. Dodge built 500 examples of the Charger 500 in 1968 in order to satisfy homologation rules.

But with the Ford Torino Talladega still dominating the NASCAR series, Dodge engineers ultimately felt that the Charger 500 didn’t go far enough in addressing the aerodynamic issues, and they began to develop a significantly more comprehensive solution for 1969.

Above: Pushing the 4,000 pound Charger to 200-plus-mph required extensive work, including a 3-foot-high rear wing, flush back glass, A-pilar shrouds, fender cowls, and a foot-and-a-half long nose cone with hideaway lights.

After months of research and development, including extensive wind tunnel testing at the Lockheed-Martin facility in Georgia, Dodge engineers finally had the aero kit required to bring the heat to Ford on race day. Dubbed the Charger Daytona, these wild looking B-bodies featured an 18-inch fiberglass nose extension up front along with a massive 23-inch wing over the trunk lid. The outlandish design soon proved its worth when the Charger Daytona became the first stock car to officially break the 200 mph barrier, doing so at Talladega Superspeedway on March 24th, 1970, with racer Buddy Baker at the helm.

The Dodge Charger Daytona and its stable-mate, the mechanically-identical Plymouth Superbird, proved so effective on the track that NASCAR officials essentially banned wing cars from competition after the 1970 racing season by limiting their displacement to 5.0 liters. 1969 would end up being the sole year of production for the original Charger Daytona, with just 503 examples built for the street, 70 of which were powered by the legendary 426 Hemi.

The Malaise Era Sets In
Although the 1970s began with an earnest effort toward high performance, the writing was on the wall for the automotive industry as whole, and the Charger could only stay immune for so long.

1971 brought with it the second major redesign with the introduction of the third-generation Charger. Although initially well-received with plenty of performance still on offer, it’s “fuselage” body style was a significant departure from the second generation car’s look, sporting exaggerated curves that were in line with the style of the early 1970s.

But with rising gas prices, insurance premium hikes, and looming federal regulations all conspiring against muscle cars as a whole, the Charger’s fall from grace was as rapid as any other. By 1975, the Charger had been repositioned as a personal luxury car and shared its mechanical underpinnings with the Chrysler Cordoba. Larger than ever at 218 inches – a full foot longer than a 1971 Charger – the fourth generation car was available with either a two-barrel 360ci V8 rated at 180 hp or an the optional four-barrel version making 200 horsepower, and a three-speed automatic was the sole transmission available.

Above: Long before the advent of a four-door Charger, Dodge dabbled with non-performance, personal luxury and 4-cylinder FWD Chargers.

After 1977, Dodge decided to pull the plug on the Charger altogether. Yet it wasn’t too long before the name resurfaced, though this time it would be affixed to a substantially different vehicle altogether.

In 1981, Dodge sought to inject some enthusiast credibility into the front-wheel drive Omni by reviving the Charger name as a performance package for the coupe. Called the Charger 2.2, the package included special gear ratios and a new 84 horsepower four cylinder motor developed by Chrysler, along with a handful of visual enhancements. The Omni name would eventually be dropped in favor of Charger.

A more concerted effort toward high performance made its way into the platform when Carroll Shelby worked his magic on the 2.2-liter mill, cranking out as much as 174 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque with the addition of a turbocharger and intercooler, but the Charger nameplate would once again bow out after 1987.


A New Hope
As the 1990s came to close, technology had finally started to catch up with government regulations and high performance was seeing a modest resurgence. In 1999, Dodge debuted a Charger R/T concept car, one which took some clear styling cues from the second generation model.

Although the concept’s design featured coupe-like proportions and discreetly integrated the rear doors into the bodywork, this new Charger was envisioned as a four-door sedan from the outset. Its rear-wheel drive platform bode well for performance enthusiasts, but in an interesting twist, the concept sedan was powered by a 4.7-liter V8 designed to run on compressed natural gas rather than typical gasoline.

While certainly a crowd-pleaser, the concept’s design was such a departure from Chrysler’s lineup at the time that concerns about engineering costs caused development of the new Charger to stall out, and work on the next generation of LH cars was scrapped when the partnership with Mercedes-Benz took shape.


The LX Juggernaut
Nineteen years after putting the nameplate to rest for a second time, Dodge reintroduced the Charger in 2005 as an all-new model for the 2006 model year. A new LX platform underpinned the sedan, consisting a chassis derived from the Chrysler LH platform and adapted to work with components from the Mercedes-Benz E- and S-Class models.

This rear-drive, full-sized sedan offered legitimate performance prowess right out of the box in its inaugural year with the debut of the Charger SRT8. Powered by a 6.1-liter Hemi V8 dishing out 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, the SRT model boasted forged aluminum wheels, Brembo brakes, upgraded interior appointments, and no shortage of aggressive bodywork. Moreover, the standard Charger quickly caught on with both the general public as well as municipalities for use as police cars, an encouraging sign that the platform would stick around for many years to come.

Above: With the return of the Charger moniker to Dodge, so came a bevy of performance packages, from the 345-horsepower R/T, to the 425-horsepower SRT8 models – as well as classic badges like the Super Bee and Daytona.

2011 would see the LX-based Charger’s first major refresh. With it came more aggressive bodywork to complement the new 6.4-liter Hemi in the SRT model, which now delivered 470 horsepower and an equal amount of torque. By this point there was no disputing that the LX-based Charger SRT was the most capable vehicle to ever wear the badge, regardless of how many doors were attached to it.

But Dodge engineers still wanted more from the platform. So when 2015 brought with it another big update for the Charger, which ushered in a revised look, interior updates, and other upgrades, they unleashed the Tsar Bomba of high performance sedans with the Charger SRT Hellcat.

2016 Dodge Charger SRT 392

Below: The new Scat Pack 392 Charger provided a brutish 485 horsepower with reduced interior frills that come standard with the SRT 392 (Above) and Hellcat packages.

Powered by a 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V8 that cranks out 707 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque and routes the grunt to the rear wheels by way of an 8-speed, paddle-shifted ZF automatic transmission, the Charger SRT Hellcat was declared as the fastest sedan money could buy when it debuted, one capable of reaching over 200 miles per hour and knocking out 10-second quarter mile times with a simple tire swap, creating an instant classic in the process.

FCA has a policy of not commenting on future product, but the word on the street is that the LX platform will likely be replaced by an Alfa Romeo Giulia-derived chassis in the next few years, one which will likely yield a significantly smaller and lighter Charger (and Challenger).

This too bodes well for performance enthusiasts, though the end result of these development efforts may result in a substantially different driving experience than the grand touring vibe currently on offer with the big LX-based Charger. Only time will tell whether or not that’s a positive or a negative for the Mopar sedan. But right now one thing is certain: Fifty years on, the Charger has truly never been better.

Above: Of course, the coup d’grace is Dodge’s Hellcat Charger option. At no time before has a more powerful, menacing package been offered in a five-person sedan. The Hellcat Charger is capable of 10.8-second quarter mile passes (with drag slicks) and a staggering 204-mph top speed.

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Bradley Iger

Brad is not only a Mopar aficionado and contributor to Directly Connected, but the Editor-in-Chief of Winding Road Magazine, offering in-depth looks at new vehicles as well as a unique perspective on the driving experience through online video.

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