Curbside Classic: 1967 Dodge Charger – Chrysler’s Marlin

(first posted 9/1/2012)     For Chrysler, just getting up off the canvas after the “plucked chicken” fiasco of 1962 was hard enough without Ford doing something crazy by dropping its Mustang bombshell on the market. What’s more, the personal-luxury coupe market was heating up by the day. So what was a beleaguered Chrysler to do? Fake it, that’s what. And do so with a memorable and venerable name.

The earliest Charger I remember (at least referring to something other than a hay-consuming equine) is this car, which a sporting band of Chrysler engineers campaigned on the drag strip. This car was the “High and Mighty” (actually a ’49 Plymouth). According to Alpar, it existed as seen above into late 1958. The original 354 truck engine, fitted with 392 heads, eventually gave way to an all-392 Hemi. Obviously, the car sacrificed aerodynamics on the altar of weight transfer and traction.

Chrysler cashed in on several subsequent cars bearing some variation of the Charger name. The FX class identifies this one as a factory car whose race parts or other modifications distinguish it from stock. (Such cars could run as factory super stock if at least 50 of them were built.) While this factory car uses the Charger name, apparently less than 50 were made. In any case, “FX” seems a pretty standard designation throughout racing’s various sanctioning bodies.

Around this time, the actual production Charger we know began to emerge.

 The Charger name showed up on this customized ’64 Dodge Polara–a typical example of cars the Big Three would put on the car show circuit with no genuine prospects for production.  Anyway, there were more important things to think about, other than Polaras trying to imitate a T-Bird Sports Roadster. In 1964 arrived a name that literally transformed the automotive landscape: Mustang.

Chrysler knew the Mustang was coming. Like most folks in the industry, they assumed it was going to be just a sportier Falcon, and not something with all-new proportions and a totally fresh look. Chrysler had grafted a fishbowl onto the back of the Valiant, and called it good. Actually, Barracuda. The market called their bluff.

Naturally, the Dodge dealer-boys wanted in on some of that sporty/personal car action. Knowing to some degree what was coming down the pike at Ford and Plymouth, they demanded a car “like Plymouth has.” Be careful what you ask for, as they say. Chrysler boss Lynn Townsend wanted the dealers off his back, and summoned Dodge’s head designer to his office. He demanded a car sized between the Barracuda and Thunderbird, one that resembled (but would not directly compete) with the Barracuda. Their solution? Another giant fastback, this time attached to the redesigned-for-1966 Coronet body with a few flourishes.

The Charger II concept car is shown here. Actually, Dodge had constructed it before getting an official go-ahead, and was showing it around the country in order to gauge public response. While the story you get depends on who’s telling it, it’s likely Dodge considered public acceptance a foregone conclusion. The theory was, so we’re told, that public reaction to the concept would be helpful in tweaking the production model. Sources disagree on the exact time frame, but generally acknowledge that the building of the production car started well before the concept car hit the show circuit. At the time, such shenanigans were typical of Detroit: “Let’s show a deliberately juiced-up concept to get buyers’ juices flowing!”

The Charger’s giant fastback was thought to be the hot new thing. By whom, who knows. Maybe that had been the case when it was first penned, around 1963, but that dud of a  1965 Rambler Marlin should have been the tip-off: Putting a full-length fastback on a boxy, mid-sized car wasn’t all that brilliant an idea after all.

OK, maybe the Charger wore its long back somewhat better than the Marlin. And it did make an impression on most of us who were around at that time. It simply wasn’t a long-lasting one, as the sales figures show.

Dodge felt that the fastback would make the car very aerodynamic, and actual racing proved it to be quite slippery.  In combination with the 426 Hemi, it could also provide unwanted lift at triple-digit speeds, both on the strip and in a banked oval–which required Dodge to fit its 50 copies with this little spoiler (known as a “Nascar Spoiler” or “Nascar Lip”). It was claimed to be the first spoiler on an American production car.

In any case, it helps to be able to outrun the good old boys. The Charger hit the showrooms just months after the 426 Hemi became a regular production option.  Coincidence? David Pearson didn’t think so, and proceeded to pilot his Charger to the Nascar Grand National Championship. In fact, in that season Pearson and his Charger won races enough to inspire this ad. Nor did one of my shipmates, who had a ’66 Hemi Coronet. Of course, he also didn’t regard as coincidental the six mpg he got on a regular basis.

These are typical of the ads that flooded contemporary magazines and newspapers. They were part of a pretty effective campaign that sold over 37,000 1966 Chargers in the car’s first six months. In contrast, the ’67 model sold only about 15,000 units over its entire model year.

What happened? For one thing, the competition didn’t stand still. The 1967 Camaro and Firebird hit the market while the Mustang and the others evolved. The handsome 1967 Mercury Cougar redefined the luxury-sporty-personal coupe. What’s more, the Charger’s fastback design wasn’t wearing all that well with consumers, many of whom  insisted for some crazy reason on being able to see out the back window. Of all the cars in its segment, the 1967 Charger was the least changed from 1966–and holding fast in a torrent of revolutionary change is a surefire way of losing customers. Just ask a certain general.

Maybe the Charger should have been a Chrysler? The interior it had in 1966 surely seemed up to Chrysler levels. It had a dramatic chromed console that swept all the way back.

The rear seats could be folded flat individually, and the armrest flipped forward too. With the trap door between the the “trunk” and the rear seat area open, the Charger could haul 4×8 plywood, just like a station wagon. As if. But the fittings and hardware were all of the high quality that Chrysler produced then but wouldn’t much longer.

The Charger might have shared the Coronet’s basic dash structure, but it still contained very Chrysler-ish big round gauges that were electroluminescentally backlit, just as on the ’60-’62 big Chryslers. Nice, expensive, wouldn’t last. Too bad.

 The cost-cutting started right with the ’67 model, which ditched the big console, rear buckets, and seating for four. In 1967, the buckets remained available, but now the console stopped at the front seat backs.  This particular car has a rear bench and, except for the fine gauges, is again just a Dodge. Those gauges would be gone by 1968.

 I happen to think Dodge missed an opportunity: This could have been an excellent hatchback– even better than the Nova–if anyone had wanted a pricey and luxurious big hatchback in 1966, never mind the structural challenges.

The Charger is the only car (at least of its time) to have the Fratzog symbol fore and aft. Supposedly the name meant absolutely nothing and was dreamed up by engineers who’d consumed too many adult beverages.

I found this ’67 in a shopping mall parking lot, and it is in beautiful shape. Its grille and disappearing headlights represent Chrysler’s first flirtation with hiding headlights since the problematic ones on the 1942 DeSoto. This time, the stylists demanded and the engineers gave in.

I agonized for some time over whether this was a ’66 or a ’67. The “zits” (actually external turn signals) on top of the fenders identify it as a 1967. In fact, those fender-top signals were the only visible exterior difference between the two models. OK, so maybe the special “1967” front plate I saw while checking the photos helped me out as well.

As we know, the next year the Charger traded in its fastback for a tunnel-back, and showed the results of some serious estrogen infusion. That did wonders for its hips and popularity. Over 90,000 were sold in the first year of the second generation…and there’s no telling just how much a certain movie had to do with it.