Cohort Classic: 1968 Dodge Polara – He’s A Tramp, But I Love Him

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Chrysler’s C-body full-sizers, particularly the first generation, built from 1965 until 1968 (and more controversially, the second generation), but as a lover of four-door hardtops, the sight of this particular Polara, captured by Triborough, provided a double dose of excitement.  Built as its popularity ebbed (something not really resolved by the 1969 restyle), this car is less common than its rivals GM and Ford, not to mention its two-door and convertible sisters which are more frequently preserved.  So even a mangy example like this one brings a smile to my face, which is fitting for what amounts to the rascally dog of the era’s full-size cars.

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Like many cars sold during the peak of the muscle car era, the emphasis for these big Dodges was sportiness, but as the basic body of 1965 was ultra-conservative and rather elegant, Dodge needed to shake things up, doing so with a 1967 restyle meant to bring a more youthful feel to the overall appearance.  Buyers of the day were seemingly unconvinced, but in four-door hardtop form, forty-six years later, I can read the stylists’ intentions quite well.  I’m reminded, in fact, of the Infiniti M45 (Nissan Cedric/Gloria) of the early 2000s.  That appeal of that car, with its cramped interior and orthodox sedan styling, was lost on American buyers, but its high-powered swagger was obvious to me.  This barrel-chested original, then, has even more of the same magic, combining mass and power with tidy styling which belies the magnitude of its true proportions (much to the chagrin of the buying public).

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Less flattering views are understandable.  Emphasizing size was important back then (and often still is), and the 1965-1968 cars looked smaller than they were; it takes standing up close to these cars in person to realize that they are lower and longer than their upright shape suggests.  GM’s 1965 B and C bodies flaunted their mass with their tasteful array of swoops and curves, and next to them, it takes a different mindset to appreciate Highland Park’s finest.

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The increase of nearly seven inches in length which accompanied the 1967 redesign (one inch of which went between the wheels) went some way toward solving this “problem,” but from some angles, it’s apparent that it was a sub-optimal solution meant to generate interest while an all new model could be hatched.  The rear clip in particular looks somewhat exaggerated and the resulting lack of cohesion also spoils the clean, understated look which distinguished the 1965/1966 cars, like the one seen above.

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It’s still an attractive shape, mind you, and in four-door form, manages to avoid the obvious disharmony manifested in the fastback’s very thick reverse-slant C-pillars.  Better yet, 1968 models ditched the openly aggressive rear light clusters in favor of a full-width set-up that matched the rest of the car’s formal lines while still looking serious.

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But what made Chrysler famous in those days was under the skin and here, the Polara lived up to its maker’s reputation.  All manufacturers were offering powerplants whose outputs were steadily increasing, and Dodge newly offered the Polara with the 440 beginning in 1966.  For 1968, output for the 440 in Magnum trim (new for ’67) was 375 horsepower with 480 lb-ft of torque at a reasonable 3200 rpm.  These engines were especially famous in B-body cars and in a full-sizer weighing up to 4500 pounds, the effect was somewhat blunted.

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The big Dodges were nevertheless a fast way to whisk three well-dressed couples to social functions and truly, that’s what I see as this car’s ultimate calling in hardtop form.  As our featured car isn’t a pillared sedan, there’s some reason to hope the original buyer ponied up for the big engine, even if it isn’t likely.  The 440 was much more popular in the B-bodies and highway patrol cars; despite the C-body’s genuine capability, people who were looking for sport in their big cars went elsewhere.

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The 1960s were, of course, Pontiac’s golden years and their famous style was still evident in their 1968 line-up.  Buyers chasing the high-octane dragon found themselves behind the wheel of Catalinas and Bonnevilles while for big cars, sporty or otherwise, Dodge was increasingly playing catch up.  Sales for 1967 (about 40,000 units) were at their lowest after reaching a high of about 105,000 for 1966.  With 65,000 moved in 1968, the efforts by The Dodge Boys to salvage their big car clearly had an effect, but not as big as Chrysler would’ve hoped.  As much as that gives the Polara underdog appeal, the sales of similar cars from Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury were often more profitable.  Chrysler surely thought they had a solution in the dramatically curvy cars which were to succeed it, but almost as soon as they were introduced, the hottest big cars went with a decorated and formal look–even youthful, dynamic Pontiac.  The “standard sized” Dodges and Plymouths, and soon Chryslers, just couldn’t catch a break.

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It’d be unwise to discount the impact Plymouth’s similarly restyled Furies had on the Polara, while at the other end, Chrysler’s more basic Newport weren’t all that much more expensive.  Dodge and Plymouth dealers did much brisker business selling Valiants and Darts, B-body based muscle cars and modest Coronets, Satellites and Belvederes; most Polaras and Monacos which were sold went out the door with 318s or maybe 383s–thank goodness they were good engines.  Big Dodges, despite selling well in ’65 and ’66, were overlooked for fresher medium priced full-sizers and many those which were sold with bigger engines have donated them to smaller Mopars before being unceremoniously scrapped.  Built before Chrysler’s dark years and serious efforts at curbing emissions, however, they are far from impossible to take care of and are among the cheapest cars of their era to acquire today–think of it as compensation for very low gas mileage.

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The low price naturally reflects the fact that so many people overlook the big Mopars in favor of their more famous B-body and A-body siblings, in addition to the era’s more famous full-sizers.  Such mirrors the situation Chrysler faced when the cars were new, making a big deal about the Polara’s price in period advertising and little else.  But why box yourself in by the reputations of the past?  These are more than engine donors and offer an easy, comfortable way to stand out from other oldtimers, if I may use the word in an American context.  It’s to the credit of this car’s owners that it is alive and with us today, far from any place where it’d be put to sleep.

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Related reading:

1968 Dodge Scat Pack Engines: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Curbside Classic: 1969 Dodge Coronet 440 – Bread and Butter B-Body

Curbside Classic: 1968 Chrysler Newport – Da Garage Is In Debasement

Cohort Classic: 1967 Dodge Polara – Substance Over Style