Curbside Classic: 1968 Dodge Charger Six – Rarer Than An (Original) Hemi Charger

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(first posted 11/8/2013)     What are the odds of stumbling into an original 1968 Dodge Charger these days, never mind a red one? Take if from me: not good, as I’ve been on the lookout for one (in any color) ever since starting on this endless treasure hunt. Between the hundreds that were destroyed on the Dukes of Hazard and all those turned into pristine, fire-breathing hemi-clones, unmolested, rusty, red ’68 Chargers are about as rare as an original daily-driver ’69 Camaro six. Oh wait; I did find one of those. So let’s narrow those odds a whole lot further: a six cylinder version. There were exactly 906 made, and you’re looking at one of them. Maybe we should change our name to Curbside Musclecar Sixes.

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Before we pop the hood on this one of maybe a handful of six cylinder survivors, let’s put the 1968 Charger in context. As if that was necessary. Is it not the most iconic muscle car of the era along with the 1969 Camaro, and maybe the GTO? Oops; I guess muscle car doesn’t quite apply, in the case of a six cylinder version, or even the base 318 V8. So what exactly was the Charger?

Dodge Charger-Marlin-vert

What originally appeared in 1966 was intended to  compete in a new class of cars that turned out to be a dead end: the sporty-upscale-mid-sized-based fastback. The 1966-1967 Charger (bottom) and the Marlin (top) both chased that mirage; the Marlin just petered out, but the Charger was given a second chance in 1968.

Dodge Charger 66 int fr

The ’66 Charger carried a stiff 15% premium of the top-line Coronet 500 on which it was based. To justify that, it had a mostly unique high-quality interior with four bucket seats with a console between all of them, and a tasty instrument panel with backlit electroluminescent gauges. And the Charger was strictly V8 only.

But already in 1967, de-contenting started, which would erode that premium price (and feel). When the dramatically restyled 1968 Charger appeared, it was still V8 only, but its price premium was now down to 6%. The poor sales of the ’66 made it clear that folks were not very interested in that genre.

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The 68’s bulging hips and tunnel-back roof were heavily cribbed from the madly successful 1966-1967 GM A-Bodies, none more than the GTO. Ironically, the 1968 GM mid-sizers abandoned that look, for a sleeker, more compact semi-fastback body. But it would appear that buyers weren’t really ready to leave that ’66-’67 GM look behind, because they snapped up the new Charger with a vengeance. Sales exploded; from a measly 16k in 1967 to a bang-up 93k in 1968. Thank you GM!

Dodge 1968 Coronet 500

The Charger’s lower price undoubtedly helped, as that extra 6% over a Coronet 500 (above) really just bought some cosmetic changes to the exterior, like the recessed grille and hidden headlights, and the C-Pillar sails. Most everything else was the same.

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The Charger’s one semi-original aspect was it gaping blank maw. The ’66-’67 already had a blank face with retractable headlights, but now it was deeply recessed. This semi-featureless face was quite influential too: one soon saw variations of the theme all over the world. And of course, it was a look that Chrysler would adopt extensively in their fuselage large cars that appeared in 1969. It became quite a trademark look, actually.

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It’s a face that doesn’t really like close scrutiny, though. Of course that goes for Chrysler products in general during this era: quality was not their calling card, at least in terms of body assembly and such. Admittedly, this one has seen better days.

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The rear end styling was also also unique to the Charger, and it merited its unique bumper too. Not surprisingly, the ’69 Charger trounced its Coronet 500 stablemate in sales. For $165, the Charger’s distinctive styling that clearly set it apart from the plebeian Coronet was money obviously well spent.

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Those extra bucks also scored a unique instrument panel, although it obviously wasn’t nearly as expensive as the Chrysler-esque ’66-’67. And at least for 1968, the Charger still came with a console standard; it was a carry-over, minus the nice armrests. And the seat upholstery quality also showed some cost-cutting. It’s a sign of the times...By 1969, the console was optional, and a split-back bench seat standard.

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The instrumentation is complete, though. But that steering wheel give me the willies, as it’s the same one that my father’s ’68 Dart had, minus the horn ring. In 1968, Chrysler went to some new plastic formulation, which made it feel greasy. And never looked quite clean, with a perpetual haze. Yuck. Enough suspense already; let’s get out and pop the hood.

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There it is! And it’s even called “Charger 225”. Now that’s a bit ironic, as the 225 slant six had been called that already before it first found its way under a Charger’s hood. It hadn’t been available in the original Charger. In fact it wasn’t in 1968 either, at the beginning of the model year. But for some rather odd reason, in the spring of 1968 it was also listed as being available. And a grand total of 906 folks took advantage of it.

For those not familiar with this engine, the darling of the taxi-cab crowd, the 225 slant six had a one-barrel carburetor, and was rated at 145 (gross) hp, or about 120 of today’s net horsepower. One often forgotten fact: the slant six had mechanical valve lifters until 1980, giving it a distinctly metallic overtone at idle and low throttle, before induction and other sounds drowned that out. And it shared that distinction with the 426 hemi, the only other engine in Chrysler’s stable with mechanical lifters.

If my father had been seduced by the Charger’s seductive lines due to a mid-life crisis instead of his stripper Dart in 1968, this would have been the one he would have gotten. I almost made up a fictional story about how that would have happened, but given how rare these are, I decided to write it straight, instead of with a slant.

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So why did Dodge decide that the Charger needed a Charger slant six under the hood? Beats me. What makes it a bit odder is that the Coronet 500 was strictly V8 only, according to my Encyclopedia. Now, according to some forums I visited, supposedly two of those 906 ’68 Charger sixes came with the three-speed manual with column shift. Which begs the question of what happened to the console in those cars?

It also begs the question of just exactly was the standard transmission on the ’68 Charger. Sadly, there’s no brochure available online. Given that the ’68 came standard with buckets and the console, presumably it was a floor shift three-speed. Or? Because these accounts of the those two three-speed manual slant six Chargers are adamant that they were column-shifted. Such important mysteries of life still to be unraveled, most likely by one of you out there.

Dodge 1968 Charger RT ad

Needless to say, there weren’t any ads for the Charger six, at least not what I could find. The base V8 was the 230 hp LA 318. Optional were 290 hp (two barrel) and 330 hp (four barrel) versions of the 383. I’ve read at least one claim that the under-rated 335 hp 383 that was specifically developed for the Plymouth Road Runner and Coronet Super Bee was available too, but the Encyclopedia doesn’t confirm that.

Of course the real performance version was the R/T, which came standard with the Magnum 440 (375 hp), and optionally with the mighty 426 Hemi (425 hp).

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Here’s what the Hemi looked like installed in the Charger. It rather fills up the engine compartment a bit better than the little six, eh?

Dodge 1968 Charger-RT-426-Hemi-engineimages courtesy motor trend

And just for good measure, lets pull off the air cleaner. Good for about 13.5 in the quarter mile, at 105 mph, bone stock on skinny little bias-ply tires. Not so good as a daily driver, as the hemi’s torque curve peaks rather late. The 1968 version of the hemi had an even more aggressive cam than the ’66-’67 street hemi, so there was a good reason the 440 was recommended for real folks. The result was that only 475 1968 Hemi Chargers were built, split roughly 50/50 between four speed sticks and the Torqueflite.

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If you’ve been an astute reader, you might have picked up on a theoretical discrepancy regarding the headline of this post. Yes, about twice as many Charger sixes were made than hemis, but I don’t think I’m taking much risk in asserting that undoubtedly many more of the hemis survived than the handful of sixes still out there. And don’t even ask how many hemis found their way into Chargers after the fact. Probably into a few of the sixes, if I had to guess.

Dodge Charge-Bullitt

The 1968 Charger’s propensity for taking to the air started early. Its appearance in the 1968 movie Bullitt immortalized the chase scene with Steve McQueen’s ’67 Mustang.

Bullitt _011

The 440 R/T Charger was driven by veteran stunt driver Bill Hickman. One of the stunt drivers involved in the movie later was quoted as saying that the stock 440 Charger was so much faster than the specially prepared and heavily modified 390 Mustang, and that the Charger drivers had to keep backing off the throttle so as to not got ahead of the Mustang.

The Charger was a pretty good sized car; with its 117″ wheelbase, it was rather closer to a full-sized car than GM’s 112″ wb intermediate coupes. But the shipping weight of a Charger six is listed at 3100 lbs. And even the 440 R/T was listed at 3575 lbs. No wonder they take to the air so readily.

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Technically General Lee, star of the Dukes of hazard, was a 1969 Charger, but making ’68s look like a ’69 was easy enough. In total, either 256 or 321 ’68 and ’69 Chargers gave up their lives for the sake of tv audiences, depending on which source you chose to believe.  I do wonder whether they would have used a six cylinder version? Maybe that’s why this CC survived the great Charger Genocide of the seventies.

Dodge Charger Genl Lee fest

Well, a few others obviously survived too; no less than 100 showed up for this Dukefest held in 2006 in Nashville. The truth is, in the last season or two of that show (true confessions: I’ve never watched it), they resorted to using models for their ever-more unbelievable stunts, like the high-flier one picture up. Time to close that brilliant chapter.

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The Charger’s explosive popularity in 1968 was very short-lived, like so many other fads of the moment. In 1969, sales were still good, but down almost 20%. In 1970, sales shrunk to under 40k. Comparisons with the new 1971 Charger are irrelevant, since it now encompassed all two-door versions of what had been the Coronet, which became a strictly four-door/wagon nameplate.

Dodge 1971 Charger coupe

Plenty of 1971 six-cylinder stripper Chargers would now be sold to little old ladies looking for something to replace their ’65 Coronet six sedan. The high-flying Charger was firmly back to earth. Even with a full model-range, total sales of all Chargers in 1971 was well below the ’68’s stellar year.

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The muscle-car phenomena had quickly run out of gas. The ’68 Charger found a sweet-spot right in the final peak years of of that phenomena, and its somewhat unusual approach to offering a wide range of engines may well have fueled that meteoric success. Given how hot the Charger was in 1969, it’s still a bit hard to fathom why a six cylinder version was added late in that model year. Were folks begging their Dodge dealers for a slant six Charger? Or did it just seem wrong not to offer the Charger 225 in its namesake?

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 Maybe you’re wondering why I would happen to find a rusty original Charger with Pennsylvania antique plates on Main Street in Springfield, Eugene’s sister city across the river. It turns out that the shop it was sitting in front specializes in Mopar B-Body restorations. This car was shipped out, and is going to get a full body and interior re-do. But the shop foreman assured me the engine and drive train was not getting swapped out, nor getting rebuilt because it was still rock solid. Of course not; that slant six is probably just barely broken in.

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This really is a reflection of the changing times; ten or fifteen years ago, I can assure you the odds of this Charger surviving a restoration without a new crate hemi would have been almost zilch. Who says the world isn’t getting better?

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