By now, many of you are undoubtedly familiar with the automotive eccentricities of my dear departed father. Of course, that’s just the automotive ones; as Stephanie will attest, his many eccentricities and personality characteristics are impossible to convey readily with words; you either experienced them, or you didn’t. It was an eye opener for her.
Although he was quite status conscious and always easily impressed with others’ nice automobiles, he denied himself brutally, insisting on wearing his automotive hair shirts proudly. In 1968, he traded in his Opel Kadett A for a new car, for his twice-daily 45 minute commute to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was a professor of Neurology and the head of the EEG Clinic. You might think that he might have gotten something with a wee bit of comfort for that drive, which included lots of stop and go traffic and Maryland’s famously sweltering summer heat.
He bought a baby-shit brown stripper Dodge Dart, with absolutely no options, like this one but certainly without the white wall tires. I’ve written up that mostly dismal chapter here. It had the base 170 cubic inch slant six, three balky gears on the column, slow manual steering, and little 9″ manual drum brakes. And slick black vinyl seats to enhance that summer time experience.
But my father was also surprisingly impulsive at times, and on rare occasions even highly suggestible. In an alternate scenario, what if he had taken up my admonition to buy a Dart GTS? You know, the one that came standard with the highly underrated 275 hp 340? Or the optional Magnum 383?
Nein, Paul. The most horsepower a car should ever have is 250. That’s an absolute limit. Anything more than that is grossly superfluous and possibly dangerous in the wrong hands (mine).
But Papa; that’s only an extra 25 hp. You could just not decide not to open the throttle all the way. I have a better idea! I can attach a little (easily removable) piece of wood on the back of the gas pedal so that you’ll never be able to worry about accidentally having all that power on your hands. And the GTS comes standard with a Rally suspension which will make it handle so much better. It’s time for you to have something a bit classier. A GTS!
This 1969 version will have to stand in for what my father proudly came home with in that alternate scenario:
Paul, I took your advice and got a Dart GT!
A GT? But that’s missing the key ingredient, the “S”. And what engine?
Oh, not the standard engine, the 170 cubic inch six, Paul. They said I’d have to order one, that no dealer would have one in stock. So I got one with the optional Charger 225 cubic inch six. Very nice power. And an automatic transmission. And even power steering. You’re right, I need to be able to enjoy my drive to Hopkins more.
Does that mean you got air conditioning?
No, Paul. You know how much I hate cool drafts. I’m quite comfortable in the summer without it; I just take off my jacket and one of my two sweaters. But I did get a radio!
But the underground, I mean classical music station is on FM.
That’s true. But I like to listen to news and talk radio in the car, and now I don’t have to take my little portable radio in the car anymore.
And it came with bucket seats, Paul! Very European! A real Gran Turismo!
Yes, a real Gran Turismo. Such is the power of names. And imagination.
The Dart GT goes right back to its first year as a compact, 1963. And the deception was there right from the get-go: “America’s First Sports Compact”. Obviously it wasn’t; this bucket seat pretender like all the others of its ilk were of course trying to keep up with that runaway success, the Corvair Monza. And a ’59 Studebaker Lark V8 was certainly a legitimate sports compact, even without the buckets.
But the Dart GT does have the distinction of being the first American car to use the “GT” acronym, if we agree that Studebaker used the full name “Gran Turismo”, but not the letters “GT”, especially as a suffix to a line of cars. Or have I forgotten someone?
The raised expectations of its standard 170 inch six are a reflection of the GT’s role as a trim package with bucket seats, and no more. And what was the case in 1963 was still very much the case in 1969: the 170 inch six was still standard. The GTS and the Swinger 340 were the hot stuff. Why there were two hot Darts is a good question; the same reason there was a Dodge RT and Super Bee, obviously. But still not very logical.
In perusing the 1969 Dart brochure, I came across an unexpected tidbit: an optional fast 16:1 ratio manual steering gear. Whoa! Now that would have really helped my dad’s real Dart, whose slow manual steering could be a handful in the fast tight twisties of Northern Baltimore County’s back roads. That and a four speed stick shift would have turned it into a…real GT!
Back to the real world: this lovely Dart GT has graced a nearby street for several years now. I don’t know what’s under its hood, but I suspect quite likely it’s either the 273 or 318 versions of the LA V8. But of course it might also be the 225 slant six. It still has a very stock-looking single exhaust, so it’s not easy to tell from the outside.
The 14″ styled steel wheels are of course not original, but sure suit it well.
The Dart and the ChevyII/Nova were the two best selling compacts at the time, selling around 200k each. Of course that would all change drastically when the Maverick arrived in 1970, but that was really more of a semi-sub-compact. The Dart and Nova both offered a combination of value, economy and style that resonated with a certain segment of the market at the time, and the Dart would carry that through right to the end of its run. It was already looking a bit old-school by 1969, but that would become one of its most endearing features.
And there’s no question that buyers like my father accounted for an increasing share of those sales, even if most of them didn’t go for the full hair-shirt version.
In fact, 1969 would be the end of the road for the GT; from here on out it was just plain Dart sedans and Swinger coupes. Although it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine my father in a Dart GT, it’s even beyond my supple imagination to see him drive a Swinger.
On second thought…