Curbside Classic: 1970 Dodge Challenger – The Life Of The Party

(first posted 4/4/2011)    1970 was quite the party indeed, the grand blowout of the sixties muscle car explosion before the drugs were suddenly yanked away. There were plenty of reasons too: insurance, emissions, and the complaining neighbors. But one of the biggest reasons were the cars themselves: the svelte little compact-based pony cars binged on anabolic bulkers, and were suddenly 3800 lb heavyweights. Dodge wanted in on the party too, and crashed it in highly memorable style, hemis blazing. Who cared about tomorrow? The way the Challenger partied, obviously not it.

I’ve been wanting to find a Challenger since I started this gig. Then the other night, strolling down to the river under a spectacular sunset, I see a wrapped car on a side lot. Aha; a chance to do another well-wrapped car contest. Without really looking at it, I knocked on the door to ask permission, which was duly granted. But as soon as I got a closer look, I realized it would instantly be recognized: the Challenger’s distinctive mouth, side accent crease, and roof line were way too obvious. But these generous folks instantly offered to unwrap it, undoubtedly sensing my sudden increase in interest.

This particular Challenger’s owner came about her toy through the power of suggestion. As a six year old, she had a toy Challenger that she was always playing with. Her father told her that someday she was going to have the real thing. Six years ago, she took the plunge, and her toy now sits outside, waiting for summertime and play time.

She picked well too; it has a 340, upgraded with 360 heads. And with a four speed stick, to take full advantage of that high-winding mill’s 6,000 rpm redline. Yes, the Challenger (and ‘Cuda) of this generation are famous for their big-block 440 six-pack and 426 Hemis, but in the real world, the 340 was the way to go. These E-bodies were less than famous for their handling and braking prowess in stock form, and the big motors only made things worse. A little reality check: unless you ordered otherwise, your bad-ass hemi Challenger came with drum brakes all around: what a party! And the optional discs weren’t the last word in braking performance either.

The story has been told many times, but these E-Bodies shared much of their under structure with the new 1971 mid-sized Mopars. The Challenger essentially was a shortened Charger, much like today, actually. The odd thing was that the Barracuda had a 108″ wheelbase while the quite similar under-the-skin Challenger had a 110″ wheelbase. Why bother? And on which end was the wheelbase lengthened anyway?

I actually got out my fine-graduated architect’s ruler to try to answer that question on this picture of the two of them, but I’m still not 100% sure. My best guess is that the Challenger’s rear wheels are further back, but it seems odd that they would change that basic rear inner structure for two inches. Or maybe it wasn’t that hard to just push the wheel wells back a bit. Anybody know for sure?

What is a bit more obvious is the inspiration for the Challenger’s mouth. Yes, the Challenger’s eyes are recessed, but the fundamental resemblance to the Lamborghini Espada is inescapable. Unless of course you see a ’69 Camaro’s gaping maw with quad lights instead. I guess I’m trying to give Chrysler a bit of a break from the more common accusation that the Challenger is nothing but a bigger, badder gen1 Camaro. Which it was, mostly.

That of course leads to one of the two problems that the Challenger encountered almost immediately. The 1970 Camaro redefined the pony car for the seventies with a sleek new international look that made the cartoonish ‘Cuda, Mustang and Challenger look so…last decade. The Camaro also resisted the steroids, and as a result, pretty much owned the segment for the whole decade.

The other challenge was in-house: the Plymouth Duster 340 that arrived the same year redefined what the pony car market really wanted: a cheap, compact and reasonable-stylish coupe that could fly on a peanut budget. The Duster and its Dodge Demon clone were a huge success, while the Challenger was a flop. It staggered along through 1974, but its original vast arsenal of available engines was cut to just the 318 and the 340/360, and sales steadily petered out.

Yes, the splash the Challenger made at the party of 1970 was highly impressive, like that big drunk buxom girl who appeared in the early hours of the morning, took off her top, climbed on the picnic table and shook her hemis to the beat of Led Zeppelin. Fast rides for all!  But when the hangover finally lifted, she was but a distant memory. Forty years later, the memory has returned, with a vengeance, at least to some.

Fortunately, your Dodge dealer has the solution. Just don’t bring your tape measure, scales, or most of all, a clear memory. Not likely.