What really separates the hard core car freaks from the semi-pros is in what mental image they conjure up when you say “early Dodge Dart”. Even those of us who were around in the first Dart incarnation, the full-size low-end ugly space ships from 1960-1961, have largely repressed them. The real Dart started in 1963, when it and the Valiant got a major fare-well restyle by Virgil Exner, and went on to eventually dominate the compact class with its stablemate. And although they eventually ended up looking almost indistinguishable from each other, they didn’t start out that way.
Our featured Dart is a 1964, but it was only subtly restyled from the 1963. The main differences were a different grille, and some trim changes.
Of course there’s obvious family similarities with the rather cleaner and tidier ’63 Valiant (CC here), but the stylists did a pretty effective job of differentiating the two.
That started below the skin, even. The Valiant sat on a 106″ wheelbase, while the Dart had an extra 5″, all of it right behind the rear door, as is rather obvious. The wagons shared the same 106.5″ wheelbase, but the Dart sedan was decidedly stretched out back there.
That played itself out in rear seat legroom, which was…5″ longer, I presume. It certainly was generous for a so-called compact, which with 111″ wheelbase was stretching the term a bit. The Dart was to the Valiant what the Comet was to the Falcon; it was a successful strategy for Ford, so why not repeat it?
The front was valiant but not very successful effort to distinguish itself from its slightly cheaper Plymouth stablemate. In 1963, the Torqueflite push-buttons were making their farewell appearance here.
That tufted rear seat upholstery was thanks to this being the top-tier 270 model. Consider it the pre-Brougham era Brougham of Darts. Of course there was a model above the 270, but in that sporty era, that would be the GT. We did a CC on a mighty hot one of those here.
The 170 CID slant six with 101 (gross) hp was standard in the Dart, but I’ll make a substantial wager that this one is packing the optional 225 inch version (145 hp). Most automatic Darts, especially with anything other than stripper trim level, tended to come with the 225, which made a much more harmonious package with the automatic than the 170. And for 1964, the new 273 CID LA V8 was also optional, rated at 180 hp.
Leave it to hardcore cheapskates like my Dad to drive a Dart with the 170 and three-on-the-tree; Dr. Niedermeyer’s drive to Johns Hopkins Hospital every day, where the cafeteria there had his beloved baloney sandwich awaiting him for lunch.
The major 1967 re-style for both of the A-Bodies in 1967 gave the Valiant two extra inches in wheelbase, but the Dart stood pat with its 111″. The gap was thus narrowed down to 3″, and it wasn’t quite so obvious anymore, unless you knew where to look. Otherwise, they looked substantially closer related, with their refrigerator boxiness. But in 1963, the Dart was still reflecting some of that Dodge-premium, which in this case was not all that insubstantial. This 270 was $300 dearer than the comparable V200 sedan, or right about 15%. By 1968, that difference shrunk to $50, or 2.5%. It was all part of Plymouth and Dodge become co-equals, in the new Chrysler (non) hierarchy.
The Dart getting cheaper probably explains why it didn’t rate unique sheet metal anymore; there’s a price to be paid for abandoning higher ground, shaky as that sliver of semi-premium compact ground was. The Comet morphed into a genuine intermediate, and the Dart became a Valiant. Fortunately, everyone else pretty much abandoned the true compact corral, and so the Dartiants romped in their heyday, from about 1968 through 1975, until Chrysler decided to join the party one notch higher too. That didn’t work out so well.