Putting the ‘fast’ in fastback: From the Dodge Charger’s debut, it was meant to turn heads with its polarizing design

When the Dodge Charger arrived, it added sparkle to the midsize car category, while elevating Chrysler Corporation’s design and performance to the next level.

When the Charger was officially launched on January 1, 1966, Detroit’s horse race was at full gallop. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were busily cramming monstrous V-8s and various high-quality parts into mid-sized cars originally intended to pack low-power six-cylinder engines or modest-power V-8s.

At the same time, the so-called “pony cars” led by the Ford Mustang began to flex their pecs with high-revving, small-displacement V-8s that could hold their own—for the first half block, anyway—against some of the bigger contenders at the local stoplight trails.

Dodge’s stylists took a significantly different approach to battling this intoxicating blend of power and bravado. Their entry, aptly named the Charger, was nothing short of a striking eye-popper.

Based on the mid-sized Coronet coupe, the Charger’s signature swept back roofline completely transformed the low-key family car into a fashionable luxury sports machine. While not the first car to take the fastback route, the Charger’s massive signature hardtop with its elongated rear window was an extreme variation on an emerging theme.

Power-operated concealed headlamps enhanced the Charger’s forward-thinking look, as did the taillights, which extended the full width of the aft deck.

As stunning as it was on the outside, the design was polarizing. Love it hate it, the interior was also groundbreaking. Vinyl-covered bucket seats for both front and rear passengers were standard and, combined with a full-length floor console, gave the appearance of a lavishly equipped corporate jet. The rear bins and the partition between the trunk and the cabin could be folded flat to create a padded load floor.

But what made the Charger so special to the eager crowd was the range of engines available. The starting point was a 230 hp 318 cubic inch V-8 that came standard with a three-speed column manual transmission. Next up was the 265 horsepower 361 cubic inch V-8 and the 325 horsepower 383. Both were mated to floor-mounted four-speed manual shifters, with the three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission available as an option.

For an additional $1,000 (US), the equivalent of one-third of the Dodge’s starting price, buyers could upgrade to Chrysler’s 426-cubic-inch “Hemi” V-8. With an advertised 425 horsepower, a four-speed Hemi charger could reach 60 miles per hour (96 kilometers per hour) in 6.4 seconds and cover the quarter mile in 14 seconds, making it one of the most powerful muscle cars in the world . away at the time. Heft and skinny tires were the limits to faster acceleration.

By ordering the Hemi, the powertrain warranty was automatically reduced to one year or 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometers), compared to the standard coverage of five years and 50,000 miles. Buyers were also sternly warned that even that coverage wouldn’t be honored if the car was “subjected to extreme surgery (i.e. drag racing).”

In the first year there were only 468 Hemi loaders out of a production run totaling almost 40,000 vehicles.

Except for a few minor changes, the 1967 Charger continued as before. The 361 V-8 was canceled and replaced with a new 440-cubic-inch engine that produced 375 horsepower. It was almost as fast as the Hemi, and a lot cheaper and less temperamental. It was also eligible for the full factory warranty.

From a sales standpoint, the 1967 Charger was a flop, with output falling to less than half of sales in its first year, including a meager 118 Hemi-equipped vehicles. Shoppers had many new pony and muscle car entries to choose from, including the second-generation Mustang, the new Plymouth Barracuda, GM’s new Camaro/Firebird duo and Plymouth’s GTX.

Both Dodge and Plymouth intermediate bodies received new sheet metal the following season. The Charger’s fastback roofline gave way to a concave, “flying mainstay” silhouette.

However, the dramatically different roof of the first generation helped position the car as an exciting niche vehicle, and Dodge as a builder of products that moved fast, pampered passengers and looked good while doing both.

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