COAL #14: 1970 Dodge Challenger – A Secretary’s Special in Hemi Clothing

The 1970 Dodge Challenger was a stylish new entrant in the hard fought Pony Car Wars of the late 60’s & early 70’s.  But like the sorority party girl who spent all night getting her makeup perfect and getting ready for the big party, she arrived just as the party was ending, looking confused as the lights turned off and wondering where everyone went.

My Dodge Challenger experience was like briefly dating that cute sorority girl, only to find out that her stylish and shapely exterior concealed a fairly vapid space between her ears.

In all fairness though, this was never going to be a long term relationship…

So what was I doing with a Dodge Challenger when I already had my perfectly good Camaro?

In the mid 70’s I was working as a 2nd mechanic at a pipeline company, enjoying life and making more money than my young imagination thought possible.  Every day was different, as my focus for the day often depended on which vehicle the employees had abused the day before.  Replacing brakes and clutches, rebuilding carburetors and engines were all fair game, and sometimes I felt like a short order cook working to quickly get the trucks back in the field and earning money.

There was no need for a gym or weight lifting in those days, as I still remember removing and installing GM SM465 transmissions – all 175 pounds of them, without a transmission jack.  Just young stupid American muscle doing what he’s told.  I’m all for hard work, but I can still feel the weariness I experienced at the end of the day doing a clutch job on our dump trucks.  Ah, the joys of youth.  But I digress…

Speaking of digressions, did you ever wonder why gas pumps tell you to stay with the vehicle while fueling?

Our company had its own fuel island in the yard, as all vehicles were filled when they came in for the night.  Each superintendent drove a 1975 El Camino as a company car so they could carry parts as necessary between jobsites.  One hot afternoon, a superintendent came in, parked at the fuel island, started fueling then went inside to the office.  Twenty minutes later, something didn’t smell quite right, so I went over to the fuel island and saw the numbers “118.6” (!) appear on the rapidly progressing gallons meter.  I quickly shutoff the pump and ran to the office to sound the alert.

Coming back out to assess the situation, we watched as the fuel flowed down into the loading dock area – where an automatic sump pump lived to pump out the rain water that would collect there.  We cut the power to the pump before it could start and called the fire department, as this seemed like a disaster waiting to be featured on the 5:00 o’clock news.  Let’s see – 100 gallons of gas, hot Southern California sun, construction workers and Marlboro cigarettes – what could go wrong?  Fortunately, the fire department came and took care of the growing pool of fuel and we escaped our 15 minutes of fame.

Wait, where was I going with all this?  Oh, right.  One of the secretaries at the company had a sharp looking 1970 Dodge Challenger.  It wasn’t racy, but it looked good and sounded good – until it didn’t.  A quick perusal of the engine compartment confirmed that the engine had a valve problem and that was playing havoc with the other seven cylinders.  Her mechanic had given her a price that made her toes curl, so she just wanted to dump the car and get something else.

Between the time the car was built (1970) and my purchase (1976) you might remember that leaded fuel was being phased out and automobile manufacturers had gone to hardened valve seats to cope with the change.  As I recall, the Challenger did not have hardened valve seats until late 1972 or 1973, so having valve problems in that time frame was not unusual.

So – a valve job, some detailing in and out, a quick sale and presto – Project Challenger was born.  A quick exchange of $500 and car keys meant that the seven cylinder Challenger was mine.  So what exactly was this car?

The Dodge Challenger has been covered extensively here a CC, but this wasn’t one of those fire breathing Hemi’s that people drool about over at Barrett-Jackson.  This was a secretary’s special draped in Bright Blue Poly paint with a black vinyl top.  Motivation was by a special seven cylinder version of Chrysler’s normally excellent 318 V8, backed by a column shifted torqueflite transmission.  It also had the power steering, power brakes and AC required to complete this typically optioned automobile.

Looking back to almost 50 years ago, it would be easy to think that most Challengers had Hemi, 440 Six Pack or at least a high performance 340 under the hood.  The truth is, most pony cars were sold as personal transportation with a little bit of style, and this car, as equipped, is a perfect embodiment of that.

This being Southern California, rust wasn’t an issue like it was on the east coast.  My friend John and I decided to take this on as a joint project, so the right cylinder head was removed and sent to the machine shop.  A couple of days later, the head was retrieved, some gaskets procured and everything put back together.  A quick repair of some interior and exterior bits, a deep cleaning and detailing and the car was ready for a new owner.

My impressions of the Challenger?

The Challenger was one of the most stylish of the pony cars, but it was also huge when viewed against its competition.  Compared to my 1967 Camaro (not exactly a tiny car), it was 500 pounds heavier, seven inches longer and four inches wider (on the outside of course).  On the inside, it didn’t seem any larger and the doors and door panels were some of the largest and thickest that I’d ever seen.

I don’t have the exact measurement, but the door & molded door panel appeared to be about 11 inches thick.  Our company’s owner drove a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado, and while the Challenger’s door wasn’t as long as the Cadillac’s, it was far thicker.  The door panel was also not well secured by design and carried no insulation, so closing the door didn’t result in a solid Mercedes like “thunk” but rather a cacophony of loose plastic on metal, loose door glass rattling even after the door was closed, and door hinges and striker plates that didn’t want to stay in alignment.  The interior door panel was a one piece injection molded affair that felt like it was attached with two fasteners, six weak magnets and a wad of chewing gum.

Dodge provided a full set of gauges (sans tachometer) even on its base model Challenger.  The interior with its round gauge cluster was beautiful to look at, but the steering wheel was flat with a longer steering column (instead of a concave wheel).  It looked great, but in use it was unusual.  The dash wasn’t yet cracked (a common malady) so that was a plus.

Most photos show Challengers with a center console and floor shift.  With a column shift however, that center tunnel looked pretty sparse, reminding me of my friend’s Camaro that had a 327 V8 and three on the tree transmission.

Driving the car didn’t enhance my opinion of what Dodge had done either.  The engine and transmission were faultless, and certainly better than the powerglide that Chevy had earlier included with its small V8’s.  The suspension however, felt loose and the E78-14 tires howled at the mere hint of any change of direction.  The steering was typical “Highland Park numb”, devoid of any steering feel – and strangely similar to my Mom’s 1966 Mercury Park Lane.

Challengers (and Barracudas) looked great with their ultra-wide (for the time) 60 series tires, but the standard rubber and wheels made the car look like a Canadian Pontiac built on a Chevrolet chassis.  Nice body but built on a too small chassis, like one of those parade floats built over a small car.  When searching for pictures for this COAL it was almost impossible to find a vehicle that still had its base 14 inch wheels – apparently everyone has purchased larger wheels by this time.

The car went down the road well enough, but it always seemed like “4,000 parts traveling in the same general direction” due to the numerous squeaks and rattles.  With the windows up however, the Challenger had some of the best car ventilation that I’ve ever experienced.

All that tumblehome and frameless curved door glass were great to look at, but get above 60 mph and the door glass slowly, relentlessly began pulling away from the body weatherstripping.  Ventilation and air flow certainly increased, as did the noise and entry of any rain that may have originally been on the outside of the vehicle.  Depending on the wind direction, you could actually see the glass flap against the weatherstripping.

Chrysler wasn’t exactly known for their first year quality control during this time, and the half-baked nature of much of the car overshadowed the sharp looks and excellent engine and transmission.

I had originally thought that I might keep the Challenger for a few months as a kind of automotive diversion, but I found few redeeming qualities in this example.  Like that shapely sorority girl that drinks too much and can’t hold a conversation to save her life, I quickly grew bored and decided to allow another to enjoy her charms.  There’s a saying that goes “behind every beautiful girl there’s an ex tired of putting up with her $hit”.  I’m not being sexist, as that saying certainly goes both ways for all sexes and orientations.  But that’s where I was with the Challenger.

An ad in the local Auto Trader brought a buyer pretty quickly, and for $1,500 they were the proud owner of a beautiful if slightly tipsy Dodge Challenger.

Dodge had wanted in on the Pony Car action since the Barracuda hit the market, but the late timing and decision to build the car around the larger “B” body cowl doomed what could have been a contender.  The lackluster quality control, increasing smog controls and insurance premiums sealed its fate, and by mid-1974 production ended with a whimper.

I still consider the Challenger to be a beautiful car with flawed timing and execution.  I happily tip my hat to those that love this Curbside Classic and its shapely body.  But, like that sorority party girl, I’ll just enjoy her from a bit of distance, just out of earshot so her vapid personality doesn’t spoil the curvaceous fantasy.