Curbside Classic: 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 – This B-Body Earns an ‘A’

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The year 1966 was an exciting time in the American intermediate-car market, with each of the Big Three serving up a fresh, new model.  At the time, the Dodge Coronet, although an excellent car, was hampered by its Chrysler parentage–but time is, after all, the great equalizer, and this car has since become a sought-after icon of its era.

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After decades of cutthroat competition, the U.S. auto industry had settled into a sort of equilibrium by the mid-1960s.  General Motors was the undisputed king, selling just under half of all new cars and trucks purchased in the U.S.  Ford Motor Company, good for around (or a bit more of) 25% of the market, was a not-too-close second,  Chrysler had settled into a distant third-place niche that seemed to fluctuate between 15-16%, with AMC and imports making up the rest.  No matter how good or bad a company’s product might be in a given year, there was a steady base of buyers ready to lap up whatever their favorite company was serving, and it took some doing to move a buyer from one member of the Big Three to another.

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It seemed that poor Chrysler in particular could not catch a break.  The company had vaulted to second place in the industry during the 1930s and remained there, until its increasingly conservative ways caused their products to lose appeal–and the company itself to lose its second-place status to a resurgent Ford Motor Company.  The 1957 line was Chrysler’s play to regain its rightful place, but quality woes stopped it dead. Then, in the early ’60s, the company went on a strange-styling binge, just in case the quality problems hadn’t repelled enough buyers already. Worse yet, the new standard-sized 1962 Plymouths and Dodges were significantly smaller than the competition–as well as singularly unpopular cars.  By 1962, Chrysler was down to a 12% market share.

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After Lynn Townsend took control of the company in 1962, everything seemed to be coming together.  Chrysler had a new styling chief (Elwood Engel, who’d been plucked from Ford) plus a new quality push (resulting in the five-year/50K warranty) to go along with Chrylser’s well-known engineering prowess.  The result would be a 1-2-3 of new products designed to finally lead Chrysler out of the woods: the 1965 full-sized C-body; the 1966 intermediate B-body; and finally, the 1967 compact A-body.  The C- and A-cars have been discussed previously (here and here, for example), and will certainly be addressed again in the future. Meantime, the B-cars (the Plymouth Belvedere/Satellite and the Dodge Coronet) were solid hits that at once provided us with all of the good–and bad–attributes of both their larger and smaller siblings.

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In truth, the 1966 B-body was not really a new car at all, but a thorough reworking of the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge.  Although the 1962 Dart and Fury were too small to be competitive as full-sized cars, they did make for generously sized intermediates.  In booming 1960s America, the happy result was that the Mopar mid-sizers offered more car than the competition.  This Coronet’s wheelbase (117″) and front track (59.5″) significantly best the measurements of the competition.  The new 1966 Fairlane rode a 116-inch wheelbase, and the Chevelle’s measured 115 inches–and both employed a narrower 58-inch front track.

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There is one area in which this car excelled: It could be almost anything to anyone.  Has there ever been a car with such a wide spread of available power trains?  After all, six engines and three transmissions should have been enough for anyone.  Not only could a thrifty buyer choose the 225 Slant Six (except in the 500 model), but also available were no fewer than five different V8s: the 273 LA block; the 318 Poly (Wide Block); 361 (two-barrel) and 383 (four-barrel) B-blocks; and, finally, the 426 street Hemi.  Throw in a choice of three-on-the-tree, four-on-the-floor, or the great Torqueflite automatic, and a buyer could have a choice of power teams perhaps unparalleled with any other 1966 car.  If any car before or since had a wider choice of engines, I’m having trouble thinking of it.  Because the car had been designed as a trimmer full-sized car instead of an enlarged compact, the big-block engines fit in from the beginning.  The Ford engineers must have been jealous, what with none of Earle MacPherson’s intrusive shock towers (here) to deal with in Chrysler cars.

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This inaugural B-body (since this was its first time to actually be called a B-body) was a very good car.  That’s a good thing, as the basic platform would remain in production through the end of the R-body (New Yorker, St. Regis, etc.) in 1981.  Its torsion bar suspension was credited for the car’s good handling (relative to its Ford and GM counterparts), and the rigid Unibody gave the car a solid feel.  The buyer could get power unavailable in a Ford, and a modern three-speed automatic unavailable in anything from GM.  A Popular Mechanics Owners Report from 1966 detailed owners’ praise of their cars’ power, comfort and handling.  However, as was typical with Chrysler-built vehicles of the era, there was a vocal minority whose cars were plagued with significant problems.

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The 1966 Dodge Coronet line did quite well–for a Mopar.  The production lines turned out around 251,000 of them, up about 40,000 units from the 1965 model.  This was a particularly good showing, considering that the industry as a whole was down a bit from 1965’s record-setting year.  Add in the 185,000 units from corporate sibling Plymouth and it it’s plain that Chrysler had a hit on its hands with what was then quite a respectable showing for a Chrysler product. Still, despite its many attributes the B-body could not catch the 487,000 combined Fairlane/Comet sales, let alone the successful GM A-bodies,  whose sales included 438,000 Chevelles and 344,000 Tempests.  So, even though the car was both attractive and talented, it never broke into the leaders’ circle.

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As we stated up front, however, time is the Great Equalizer, and today these cars are highly valuable and sought-after. The Hagerty website estimates the value of a car like this as virtually tied with a corresponding Chevrolet (itself no small thing), and significantly more valuable than either a Fairlane or LeMans–that is, unless we’re talking about the roughly 700 Coronets made with the Hemi. In their case, the value triples, into the upper-five-figures. If you thought that 40% of Coronet production got the Hemi based on the numbers that seem to live on the show and auction circuits, you could be forgiven.

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The Coronet 500 model was the very top of the line in 1966 (the R/T would not be along for another year).  The 500 accounted for about 55,000 cars, of which only about 3,000 were convertibles.  Glenwood76.com, which has some detailed production breakdowns, claims that this is one of just 454 1966 convertibles built with the 383 and automatic transmission.

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Highly prized, collected and restored as these cars are, it was thrilling beyond belief to find an original version–and particularly a convertible–that appears to see occasional but regular use.  This really is one of my favorite cars of the 1960s, as well as one of  my photographic prizes.  Even I, however, have tired of the never-ending parade of brightly-colored, Hemi-powered “tribute” cars that seem to be everywhere that fans of high performance can be found.   An attractive, largely original top-of-the line convertible is a treat that all of us should savor for a moment.

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While its styling was perhaps a bit outdated measured against the GM yardstick, it wore those crisp and angular lines extremely well.  The mechanical components were (usually) first-rate, and these were very good-driving cars.  Thinking it over, I am not sure I would have ordered anything different from what’s on this example.  The 383 4-BBL/Torqueflite combo  probably represented the best trade-off in terms of performance and temperament.  And is it just me, or does this car look stunning in its silver paint and its red vinyl interior?  I am not normally a silver-car guy, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prettier example than this one.

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The mother of my sister’s childhood best friend, who lived down the street, owned this car’s Plymouth twin in champagne- gold.  I remember being quite smitten by it when I was on safety patrol in the sixth grade.  Even though it was getting a little dated by 1971-72, even then something about that car told me it was a classic, and that turned out to be right.  It is one of the great car-regrets of my life that I did not latch onto one of these in the ’70s, when they were cheap used cars, much cheaper than the corresponding Chevelles and Fairlanes everyone wanted back then.  The way things have turned out, one of these is not likely to be in my budget for the foreseeable future.

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Most people look at a 1962 Dart or Fury and see an ugly, expensive flop–and reasonably so, I might add.  Look a little closer, however, and you will see the foundation of what became one of Chrysler’s best and most successful platforms when it was turned into the freshly-cleaned-and-pressed 1966 model we have here today.  This car does not mark the dawn of “Mopar Performance”, but it does represent the beginning of its full flowering.  The 1966 Coronet 500 was an easy car to be proud of  then, just as it is now.

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