Curbside Classic: 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 Coupe – Lean Mean Green Pleasure Machine

According to family lore, my car obsession started pretty early – as it must have for many of you. I had learned to read by age three and liked to decipher the make and model of my toy cars. Those were typically written on the bottom, so I would try to go underneath actual parked cars in my neighbourhood, much to my family’s merriment, to discover what they were. Sometimes, identifying the exact nature of a CC can require a bit of detective work, but this particular Dodge proudly displays its moniker, and even some of its spec sheet, for all to see.

I wish it were always so easy. Japanese and American cars are not the ones I’m most familiar with, for obvious reasons: there were not many around where I grew up. The ones I used to try and ID by looking under them were usually Citroëns, Simcas, Fiats or Opels. Peugeots and Renaults were easy enough to suss out, as they always wore a model number (on the hood for Peugeots, on the back or the front wing for Renaults); Mercedes were similarly clearly recognizable to young T87 – just as a marque, but that was plenty. Anything more exotic, such as Eastern bloc or Japanese cars, warranted closer scrutiny. American cars like this Coronet were beyond exotic and into unicorn territory.

But if I had seen this particular one, not only would I probably have loved the sight of it (Mr Engel, you are really spoiling us!), but the sheer abundance of scripts and badges all of this thing would have made my day then as it did now. Cherry on top, thanks to the quirk of Japanese license plates, the model year was also part of the deal. Too kind.

Of course, I have virtually no frame of reference when I encounter something like this – certainly not compared to folks who grew up with these. With some exceptions, my knowledge of Detroit metal is broadly categorized under marque headings, not nameplates. Dodge? Sure, that’s Mopar’s Oldsmobile / Mercury equivalent, sort of. One rung up from Plymouth, one down from Chrysler.

But although “Coronet” is a name I associate with Dodge, if you had asked me that point blank (and before I found this CC and did a bit of reading) where exactly in the range the Coronet belonged, I’m not sure I would have guessed correctly. After all, it was on and off Dodge cars for many years, and the segmentation of the car market became ever more complex after the one-full-size-fits-all ‘50s.

And just to add a layer of complexity – it was the ‘60s after all, so nameplates were routinely divided into trim levels – the specific “Coronet 500” name is not something that rang any particular bell for me.  I’m now aware that it’s the top of the heap for Dodge intermediates (Coronet, Coronet Deluxe, Coronet 440, Coronet 500). So there.

But why this strange obsession with the number 500, which was also used by Ford, Chevrolet and probably others? Unlike Buick, where the mystery number was 225? And wasn’t 440 supposed to be an engine, as opposed to a trim level? Detroit numerology will always baffle me. At least the Peugeots numerals were metric – Cartesian, even.

There is also this displacement-related puzzle piece to add. Fortunately, this three-digit number actually makes sense. Our Coronet proudly announces to the world that its hood hides the largest of the readily available V8s (barring the special order-only 426 Street Hemi) for this series of cars that year: a 383 ci (6277cc) big block with about 330 gross hp to provide the rear wheels.

Coronet 500 coupes only came with V8s, but the sedan was apparently available with the 225 (but non-Buick, I assume) slant six. The 500 series was also available in drop-top form, which JP Cavanaugh covered a few years back, but other Coronet variants, such as the two-door sedan or the wagon, were not deemed up to snuff for the nameplate’s prestige trim.

Unfortunately for those of us of the metric persuasion, “383” only makes sense in US measures, which have always confused me. I mean, simple things like miles, pints, pounds and feet, I can sort of handle. But cubic inches, for some reason, give me a headache. (As do Fahrenheit temperature readings – my mind panics when people talk of the “twenties” or “thirties” especially, as those commonly occur in both the Celsius and 451 system. Speaking of which, isn’t “451” a thing in cubic inches too? Aaaaargh! I’m completely lost now!)

All joshing aside, for a moment: this car is an absolute stunner. The sole detail that kind of curbed my enthusiasm when I photographed it were the chrome wheels, but this Dodge only reinforces my feeling that the post-war automotive world reached some sort of esthetic peak in the mid-‘60s.

This is amply confirmed by the interior. Just enough of the Buck Rogers ‘50s feel still present to give it a sense of dynamism, but by this time the chrome excesses of the past were toned down enough to unclutter the dash and make for something more elegant, simple and comfortable. This deteriorated quickly: by about 1970, “wood” appliques and padding had engulfed the cockpit and even contaminated the steering wheel.

In this bright world of vinyl and chrome, seat belts are still a seldom-ordered optional extra. It was a tougher time. You’re a rear passenger in this fine machine and you want fresh air? Well sunshine, you’re going to have to work for it.

I didn’t manage to take a full-on profile shot of our CC (Coronet Coupe) – just did not have the room. And it’s a pity, as the profile is what I find most striking in this car’s design. Fortunately, Dodge shot this excellent publicity pic themselves back in the day, so I can include it here. It also reminds us what the factory wheels look like, i.e. a damn sight better than the ones fitted to our feature car (nitpicky, nitpicky).

The feature that kills me about this generation of B-body coupes is the tapered C-pillar. This greenhouse is as iconic, in my view, as the GM ’59-’60 flat-top sedans, or the Ford Mustang fastback. Underlying this masterpiece, the four decorative “air intakes” on the flanks are mercifully restrained, compared to Chrysler products of the dreaded Exner fever dream era. Elwood Engel strikes again. Genius.

The front end is perhaps not as memorable as it could be, but at least it doesn’t offend. And the front overhang isn’t fifteen feet long (do I have that right?), another annoying Detroiter trait that really became an issue in succeeding years.

The rear, for its part, is perfectly sculpted and detailed – not always a given with Engel, whose inspiration in this regard was sometimes lacking. These taillights are somewhat aggressive and eminently distinctive, but also perfectly accentuated by the shape of the fender. Some cars of this period look like they’re an amalgam of unrelated designs, which they essentially were (the Big Three products especially), but this one feels whole.

American intermediate size cars of the ‘60s seem usable in present-day Japanese traffic, but I bet a full-sizer from this era would be pretty challenging to navigate. This is plenty of car to handle already, and that 383 probably makes it lively enough to still hold its head high 55 years later. No two ways about it: alongside a ’64 Studebaker (Cruiser or Wagonaire, I’m not fussed), a ‘65 Corvair sedan and a ’65 Buick Riviera (and a few others), the ‘60s Detroit section of my fantasy garage now holds a 1966 Dodge Coronet coupe.


Related posts:

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

Cohort Outtake: 1966 Dodge Coronet Two Door Sedan – A Splendid CC Find, by PN

Cohort Outtake: 1966 Dodge Coronet Deluxe – Farewell Poly 318, by PN