This is my 1969 Dodge Charger. I know all about the legendary muscle cars, the General Lee, Bullitt, Fast and the Furious, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Hemis, NASCAR Daytonas, timeless styling, etc. etc. etc. I get it, I’m a fan. And yes, I know, what they sell for at Barret-Jackson.
I don’t own one for the bragging rights or to make a profit on a flip. I just love Chargers.
My deep love for Chargers, and actually my love for cars in general, started out like many other Gen X males: The Dukes of Hazzard. I spent most of my growing up in New York’s Long Island but my family is deep-rooted in the South so it just made sense to me. For the entire run of the show from 1978-1985, I was glued to CBS on Friday nights.
And then there were my brothers. I am the youngest of 3 boys, so while I had to be in bed after the Dukes on Friday nights, my older brothers were tearing up the streets in the heyday of the street machine era; oldest brother Jimmy in his yellow ’73 Road Runner and Tommy 2 years later in his root beer brown ’73 Camaro, each jacked up on Cragars and dotted with Hi-Jackers and STP decals, obnoxiously loud exhausts, Kraco stereos blaring great music from Marshall Tucker, ZZ Top, Boston, The Cars, Rush, Van Halen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and trunks filled with empty beer bottles.
Jimmy’s best friend Freddy had a brown ’69 Charger that held the title of fastest car in neighborhood; I found out later it was a real 440/automatic R/T, and I’m sure it wast stock. I even think it had side pipes. Cheap, used, clapped out muscle cars were everywhere it seemed at the time. To my 8-year-old self, these cars were scary, but in a way that a roller coaster is frightening to a kid; you’re scared because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen but you want the rush anyway.
Immediately after I graduated from high school in 1991, I joined the Coast Guard, left home, and within a few years got married and had 2 children. I still desperately wanted a Charger, though, and while I was serving in the military and through the course of a few moves, a 1970 and a 1969 Charger came and went. Both had 383s but were in various states of disrepair, and required more work, time, money for my young enlisted salary and new husband and father status could keep up with, and neither one lasted for more than a year. Eventually, I left active duty and settled in the Tidewater area of Virginia in 2003 and into a law enforcement career. Now that I was grounded, I was set on finding just the right Charger, the one I always wanted, the one I would have spec’d out had I bought one new in 1969.
I found one in 2005. But not really. The mid-2000s were the height of Mopar muscle car prices, and along with the E-Body Barracudas and Challengers, 2nd generation Chargers were (and still are) sitting at the top of the market. Nice Chargers were too far out of my public servant salary’s reach. Rotten carcasses, which just a couple of years earlier wouldn’t have even been considered parts cars, were now selling for five figures.
And I bought one of those cars. When it was new, it was a gold 1969 Charger R/T SE with a 440 Magnum, Torqueflite automatic, black vinyl top with a black leather interior, AM/FM stereo, disc brakes, air conditioning, and even a luggage rack. It was a pretty cool, rare, well-optioned Charger, right? Well, a lot changes in 40 years because by the time I got a hold of it, almost all of those parts, including the engine and transmission, were gone. And so was a lot of the body. It needed floors, quarter panels and a valance panel. But I figured since I had some (very) basic welding skills and those parts were finally being reproduced that this would be an easy project and a blank canvas for me to build the Charger I always wanted. And since I had a couple of complete 440s in my garage, I can whip an engine together pretty quick, so no problem right?
There was a problem. At the time, I also had a pretty nice 1968 Coronet R/T, also a factory 440 car but with a 4 speed. It was a nice, fast, reliable car that I found in 1998 when I was stationed in Texas and I pretty much built myself in the course of the preceding 7 years. It already took up much of my very little spare time and money, but I guess there are worse problems to have.
By 2008, my marriage was beginning to fall apart (for reasons other than the cars) and my civilian career wasn’t going in the direction I wanted, so, since I had stayed in the reserves after my discharge from active duty, I went on extended active duty orders at Camp Lejeune, NC, almost 200 miles away. In the 3 years I had it up until this point, I did manage to get the floors done in the gold Charger, but not much else; it was still basically a shell of a car. Now that I was going to be what’s known in the military as a “geographic bachelor,” which is where a military member’s family stays in their home location while the serviceman works at his duty location, spare time didn’t exist and I was losing patience as I really wanted a driveable Charger. It didn’t have to be fast and it didn’t have to be pretty, I just wanted a running, driving 1969 Charger.
Every year since moving back to the east coast, I attend the annual Chryslers at Carlisle megashow and swap meet in Pennsylvania. If you are even a tiny hint of a lover of anything Chrysler, Carlisle is a must-attend. When I made the trip in 2009, they held a 40th anniversary tribute to the cars from the 1969 model year and among all of the meticulously restored show and race cars, I found a lone survivor Charger, sitting by itself as if it were ostracized from the show community. Its original blue paint was faded, its quarter panels were rusty, it sagged on its springs, and the engine was “just” a 318 instead of a sexier 440 or Hemi.
The owner, who I believe was the original owner’s nephew, wasn’t interested in selling at the time, but 6 months later, I stumbled across an online ad for it; he needed the cash for another child he had on the way, so in January, 2010, we agreed on a price, I sent him the cash, he sent the title, and I sold the gold Charger that I knew would never get finished under my ownership to a well-known restoration shop.
A nice bonus for me was that since it wasn’t a tarted-up, overbuilt show poodle Charger, the seller was asking a reasonable enough price for it that would allow me to hold on to my Coronet. Early 2010 was a “snowmaggeddon” year on the east coast so I had to wait until late March to pick it up for enough snow to melt for him to be able to pull it out of the storage building where he had it parked in central Pennsylvania; that was a long 2 months!
The car itself was a stripper model with manual steering and brakes, no air conditioning, AM radio, and standard hubcaps; the only options are the light package, which feature the cool hood mounted turn signals recessed into the simulated hood scoops, and a floor shift with console. I fell in love with it immediately. That’s my kind of car as I really have no interest in owning an over-built, over-restored show car. Its just an honest car that’s not trying to be anything that it isn’t.
Remember I said I was geo-batching to Camp Lejuene, which is a 3 1/2 hour drive from my home, and I went home every weekend that I didn’t have duty. That’s a lot of driving, and I refuse to be confined to a penalty box like a Civic or a Prius, which is what a lot of guys in my situation did. The previous year, I bought a clean, low mileage 1973 Duster with a /6 and plugged it into service as my primary commuter car. Why not? It got 25+ mpg and had a decent stereo plus I carried some key Mopar-centric spare parts (ballast resistor!) and tools in the trunk, and, wouldn’t you know it, I never needed them in the 3 years I used that car for commuting duties. While I was spending so much time driving, I decided that I may as well make it fun and committed myself to taking old cars and making them reliable and safe enough for the daily drive. I was going to demand that safety and reliability from my new Charger.
When I got the Charger home, I found that it was just about to turn the 200,000 mile mark but the car was so well-loved by its original owner, who took great care of it and kept all of its records, that the 318 literally ran as good as new, save for some oil burning presumably from leaky valve guides. It still had good compression in all cylinders and didn’t leak fluids. Not only did it run fantastic, but it appeared that it had never been rebuilt-the original cylinder head and intake manifold gaskets were still on the car!
The Torqueflite transmission was equally as reliable, though it appears it may have been rebuilt at some point. I also got a large folder of records with the car, including the original bill of sale and assembly line build sheet, and the car itself was incredibly original, down to its original hubcaps. Based on its records, it has been registered and on the road constantly since it was delivered in late 1968. The interior is in incredibly good condition and every light and switch works the way its supposed to; its like the car thinks it’s still 1975. The original owner was a Vietnam veteran who purchased the Charger after coming home, trading in a Rambler convertible for it. He wasn’t particularly a car guy, just a meticulous owner that loved the car and took very good care of it until he passed away in 2008, when the nephew I bought it from took ownership. The car stayed in Delware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania throughout its life, and thanks to factory undercoating and a careful owner, the rust has been confined to just the lower quarter panels.
After driving the car locally around town for a few weeks to test out its road-worthiness and reliability, which didn’t reveal any major concerns. I deemed it mechanically sound and put it into a regular weekly Lejeune rotation, along with the other cars I owned at the time, which included the Duster, the 1977 Grand Prix, my late-model pickups, and occasionally the Coronet (all will their own COALs in the future.) Surprisingly, the Charger still wore its original (ugly) hubcaps and tiny 205-series tires, which immediately were swapped out for a set of 15″ Magnum 500s on BFG Radials, for both looks and safety reasons; a car that big should not be on tires that small.
The Charger still has its original 10″ drum brakes at all 4 corners, and since I’m not going to do any competition driving with it, they have proven to be fine for normal street driving. For the next 2 years, I drove that car on my weekly road trips on the rural Virginia and North Carolina highways between home and the base, silencing my cell phone and leaving the stereo turned up, and trying to forget how much of my children’s lives I was missing by being away from home so much, and how close my wife was to becoming an ex-wife. During those drives is where I became very attached to my Charger.
Other than one tire blowout on the VA/NC line in the summer of 2010, the car also did not need any of the tools or parts I carried in a milk crate in the trunk. I remember driving home at around midnight one warm early fall evening with all the windows down, feeling good, and one of my favorite songs, Blackfoot’s “Train, Train” came on the radio; I looked down at the speedometer and saw 100 mph. He he.
In the summer of 2011, my orders at Camp Lejeune came to an end and I was reassigned to a new unit locally in Portsmouth, VA for another 2 years on active duty in Uncle Sam’s Confused Group. Also coming to an end was my marriage as my wife declared that she was leaving. We came to an agreement on the house, the kids, and of course, my cars, and I was able to keep them all. The Charger, along with with the rest of my little fleet, got to stay with me without having to play any custody games, which was nice. Professionally, I was doing well; I got a billet that I wanted close to home, which also allowed me to be promoted one more time before I would retire, but personally I was miserable. Just as I was getting back home and could once again see my family everyday, or at least as much as a military officer can, my wife moved out and I filed for divorce.
I had spent so much time driving (as opposed to having to work on) my Charger that I had grown about as attached to a car as anyone can and it was very much a part of my life now; my kids too, as we use it so much in everyday life. Normal routine everyday car duties such as school dropoffs and grocery shopping were now a part of the Charger’s routine and it never once failed. It’s never driven in rain or snow but one record-breaking cold winter morning when it was 1 below zero, I went out to start it just to see if it would, and of course, it did.
One of my duties while I was in Portsmouth was to periodically get underway on various local USCG Cutters. On one such mission, as I pulled up to the pier in the Charger, one of the young Coasties came running excitedly up to the car, saying that he had never seen a real 1969 Charger in person before, only in the movies and TV. I tossed him the keys and let him drive it around the base before we got underway. I like to think that he will never forget that.
In July, 2012, I made the trip back up to Carlisle again for the annual Chrysler show in the Charger. The show is normally held the second week of July and central Pennsylvania is usually pretty hot and humid in the summer anyway, but that summer was particularly hot. Like Iraq hot. The trip that year was memorable for several reasons. The first was the weather. When I left the fairgrounds on that Saturday afternoon, it was a 116 degree heat index. Did I mention that the car has a black interior and no air conditioning?
The second was that I got to meet up with the original owner’s widow, who lives not far from the fairgrounds in central PA, and, after a ride around town for a trip down memory lane, decided that the un-air conditioned black vinyl interior was too much. I agreed. And the third most memorable reason for Carlisle ’12 was that I had yet another tire blowout, this time on I-81 in West Virginia on the drive home, and this was on the new set of tires that followed the blowout in NC the year before. This was at about 4 PM, the hottest part of the day. Now I’m a pretty big fella (6’2″ 270) and I naturally sweat a lot. After changing the tire, getting back on the road, drinking all of the water I had in my cooler, and opening all of the windows and dash vents, I just couldn’t cool off. I pulled off my sweat-soaked shirt and that helped dry off my torso but my groin and legs, not so much, so off came my khaki shorts and I made the remaining 200 mile drive home in my tighty-whiteys. Very refreshing. Thankfully I didn’t get pulled over, because as a cop, I would have a hard time believing that I wasn’t some kind of pervert. I still go to Carlisle every year but now only in air conditioned cars.
(Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, AKA James Best, signing the trunk lid of the Charger at Carlisle in 2010.
I left active duty again in late 2013, returned to the reserves and accepted a new position with another civilian law enforcement agency which required that I go to training in Georgia for 7 months. I took the Charger with me and of course I drove it. I hated that I had to leave it outside for all that time but since it was south Georgia in the winter, it wasn’t exposed to extremes and it already had faded paint and rusty quarter panels. I took the car on weekend drives to Daytona, Savannah, Jacksonville, and to see my family in central SC, and people everywhere were shocked that I actually drove a 45 year old Charger from Virginia to Georgia and points beyond. My response was always “that’s what cars are for.”
As we come to the end of 2018, I still have the Charger and still drive it regularly, though not as much as I did from 2010-2013 since now I work locally, but it remains as the most reliable member of my little fleet of 10 cars(!) and I know that at any time, all I have to do is top it off with gas and oil and it is ready to go on an extended road trip anywhere. It makes friends wherever it goes and gas stops usually take a few extra minutes because of people that want to look at the car, with the inevitable stories of “you know my brother had one just like it except it was a GTO.” Either that or they suggest that I paint it orange with a Confederate flag on the roof.
Now I’m married to a great new wife, with whom we had our first date in the Charger, and a new baby daughter, but my oldest daughter has claimed the Charger as her own so it will be fun to watch them all fight over the rights to the car. Its gone through several wheel and tire swaps; like I mentioned earlier, immediately after I bought it, the original hubcaps became garage art and are hanging over my work bench, and its been through the Magnum 500s, followed by Keystone Klassics, Appliance slotted mags, and now its rolling on my favorite wheel, Cragar SS’s that were cast in 1972; I only like period-correct aftermarket wheels on musclecars.
(the Charger in 2016 showing off its Cragars)
The 318 is pushing 250,000 miles and runs as good as ever; I want to see at least 300K before a rebuild and there’s no reason to believe it won’t make it. In fact, in the years I’ve owned it, the only repairs I have made have been replacing the ball joints, U-joints and motor mounts, plus I have tossed out the ignition points and installed an electronic ignition, and I put a dual exhaust on it with Charger R/T tips. It burns about a quart of oil every 1000 miles and I’ve changed plugs once or twice. The rust in the quarter panels had gotten to be too much to ignore so last year, I finally got the body work done. Several years ago, I picked up a pair of new replacement quarter panels at Carlisle and thankfully, as is often the case when restoring old cars, there was no surprise additional rust hiding anywhere else in the car so I was able to get by with just replacing the quarters and rear valance panel. Unfortunately, we had to paint over the original paint but its still the original B5 blue.
(fall of 2017 just after we sprayed the paint)
Last summer, after checking the weather forecast and determining that it wasnt going to be oppressively hot, I returned with the Charger to Carlisle for the first time since the Great Skivvies Run of 2012. This time, I was approached by a vendor that was selling therapeutic soft shop mats who liked my car so much that he asked to use it for his display; I said sure, as it would give him the opportunity to sell more mats and it gave me a shaded parking spot right in middle of the show. As I was packing up at the end of the first day, and because I get easily distracted, I locked the keys in the trunk. I’m sure passerby’s found it amusing watching my 270 lb self gut the backseat and crawl into the trunk to retrieve them. But at least I kept my shorts on.
The Charger and I are coming up on our 10th anniversary together, and the car just had its 50th birthday in October. I sometimes fantasize about swapping in a big engine but I feel that would destroy the character of the car, plus, I mean, the car has survived for 50 years the way it is so I think it would be an automotive deadly sin to change that. There are dozens (maybe hundreds?) of muscle-era Chargers that go to the Carlisle show every year and mine is one of only a handful of intact 318 cars that I can remember seeing; all the rest are R/Ts, R/T clones, modified hot rods or General Lee clones. I’ve gotten some serious cash offers for the car but I think my faithful Charger and I will keep chugging along on our adventures together, and I will be writing up more COALs on it’s garagemates soon, each with adventure stories of their own.