Curbside Classic: 1965 Dodge Dart GT – The Elemental MoPar

(first posted 4/9/2011)   Chrysler Week has barreled by as fast as a hemi Ramcharger; so many cars still left for another day. But let’s wrap it up with what I consider to be a fine example of the most elemental of Chryslers: the Dodge Dart. I have a few in my files, but this is not only one of my favorite Darts, but a real CC gem. This is how I like them.

There can’t be a better choice for a vintage daily driver than an A-Body. And the Darts from 1963 through 1966 were a bit more distinctive than the Valiants, with their Chrysler Turbine Car front end styling and otherwise unique sheet metal. After the restyle of 1967, Darts and Valiants became much more similar; almost generic.

The styling of the new 1963 Dart poses a bit of a question to unravel. It’s well known that Virgil Exner left Chrysler in 1961, but not before a much more toned down 1963 line of cars were prepared. Elwood Engel’s influence really began in 1964, and reached its full implementation in 1965, with the new slab-sided big cars.

But the 1963 Dart clearly shows influences from both of them. The front end with its big headlights is almost straight from the Turbine car. But One sees touches of the Exner school in the rear end and a mixture in the middle. The Dart looks like a genuine hybrid, and Engner-mobile.

I have to admit that the ’63 Dart was a bit of an acquired taste, at least for me. When it was new, I was a bit wary of Chryslers of the Exner vintage, not quite knowing what to make of them. Part of me wanted to embrace their eccentricities, but I was pretty stuck in the tasteful but safer GM camp at the time. The Dart looked a bit goofy, even if not as out there as the pre-’63 Mopars had been.

The 1963 Dart was trying hard to be a step up from the Valiant, with a wheelbase stretched a full five inches to 111, except the wagon, which shared its body with the Valiant except for the nose. The Dart had the Comet and the GM compacts in its visor, especially the sporty GT.

That’s not to say it had an engine to back up its GT name, in its 1963 incarnation. The venerable slant sixes, in 170 and 225 CID versions were the only choices. Excellent ones indeed, and they had potential to be turned into very powerful mills indeed. But that’s not what sits under this Dart, so let’s talks V8s.

The smallest Chrysler V8 then, the polyspheric A 318 was a very wide thing indeed, and wouldn’t fit in the A-Bodies. That’s probably the biggest reason Chrysler redesigned the L-Block to come up with the LA: new heads that were conventional wedge shaped and much narrower as a consequence.

It appeared in 1964 in 273 CID (4.5 L) form, initially in only a two-barrel 180 hp version. Hardly a rip-snorter, but the 273 was the starting point for one of the finest engine families ever. The LA version of the 318 did yeoman duty in gazillions of Mopars, and the 340 and 360 distinguished themselves in everything from Trans Am racing to motorhome duty (as in my ’77 Chinook). Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I happen to think (and I’m not the only one) that the LA was just a wee bit all-round better than what the other two’s small blocks.

Without starting a pissing match, I mean that in the sense of the LA’s consistency; it just doesn’t seem to have any really substantial weaknesses, throughout its long life. Maybe I’m just trying to buy brownie points with the LA gods, hoping my very original 360 keeps burbling for a decade or two longer.

I don’t actually know what sits under the hood of this Dart; it could well be the original 273 or a snorting 340 or 360. Either way, its backed up by the almost ubiquitous TorqueFlite. I would bet that Chrysler sold a higher percentage of automatics that the other two, on the basis of its superb unit. Certainly, that was the case with the hard core performance crowd, but then the high-winding small block Chevy just begged to be unleashed from its two-speed Powerglide with a four speed stick.

This car just has it all: mostly original except for that blissfully crude hand-wrought hood scoop. That looks like what something I would come up with: “I know I have some old heater ducting here somewhere that’ll do the trick…”

This Dart has it all: attitude yet so practical at the same time. There’s a certain type of personality that’s just naturally attracted to A-Bodies; count me among them. Not too big, long-lived, simple to fix, a bit of stylistic flair, some get-up and go. I prefer the bolder ’63 – ’64 front end, but other than that, this Dart is a major CC winner. Now it does have another Dart competitor for my affections, but we’ll leave that for another day. One Dart at a time.