Taking a big engine out of a big car and stuffing it under the hood of a mid-sized car was the start of the whole muscle car scene in the early 1960s.
But the 1969 Dodge Dart GTS 440 shows just how far automakers were willing to take that idea by the end of the decade, and how many safety and convenience compromises they were willing to make to bring that power to the streets.
The regular Dart GTS is not one of those muscle cars that makes the Top 10 lists. A compact rival to Chevy’s Nova, it looks a bit square, both in the literal sense and in the 1960s sense, and most of them came with small-block V8s, or maybe a 383, meaning they pushed out of the way by the enthusiast Hemi Chargers and Challengers in muscle retrospectives.
But they were well respected in their day, especially the little 340 cu-in. (5.6-litre) version, widely believed to be significantly underrated at 275 hp (279 hp). Car & Driver took one to 60 mph in September 1968 and the quarter mile in 14.4 seconds in September 1968 and suggested actual horsepower was closer to 350 horsepower. The only thing the magazine really disliked was the braking power of the optional power-assisted disc-drum brake setup.
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“Any kind of maximum effort stop… sends the rear axle into a violent jump and the disc/drum arrangement is proportioned to eliminate straight-line stops,” the C&D tester wrote. “After an 80-0 mph panic stop, the Dart was invariably wide in the direction of travel, the only consolation being that it consistently turned in the same direction at every stop. Inside, the driver has the feeling of a violent, quivering doom, compounded by the screws loosening and raining down on his legs from under the instrument panel.”
Yes, it seems that slowing down was not the GTS’s forte. So what did Dodge do? It put an even bigger engine under the hood, made the brakes even worse, and cut off the power steering so you had less chance of saving the day when things went wrong.
The car pictured here, currently for sale on Bring-a-Trailer, is an M-code Dart GTS, one of only 640 Dart hardtops equipped with the massive 440 cu-in. (7.2-liter) V8 from the Charger in 1969. The transplant idea came from legendary Mopar messator Mr. Norm, who had sold about 50 440-swapped Darts from his Chicago dealer in 1968. Thinking a factory-sanctioned car was just what it took to capture some drag racing trophies in the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) Factory Super Stock Class, Chrysler tasked Mr. Norm with developing the cars, then production was outsourced to Hurst.
And that goal of dragstrip glory helps make sense of the car’s somewhat bonkers specs. The 440 imbued the M-code GTS with a massive 375 hp (380 hp) and 440 lb-ft (597 Nm) of torque, but it was also physically massive. So massive that there was no room in the engine compartment for a brake booster, meaning this compact car of almost 400 hp came with unactuated drum brakes and a slow, driverless steering. Dodge really pushed the boundaries of product liability with the Dart 440, and while it built some even crazier 426 Hemi-powered darts for the competition, only the M-Code made it to the streets as a true production car.
But even though it was available at Dodge dealers, those dealers knew exactly why you were buying it. So hardware like the rear axle, universal joints and driveshaft, the sort of thing that was destined to take a beating, was exempt from warranty coverage. Available only with a three-speed Torqueflite automatic, reportedly because Dodge was concerned the rear axle wouldn’t be able to cope with manual gear shifts, the M-Code apparently ran in a 12.7-second quarter-mile at 110 mph when it Drag Racing magazine chose the stock rubber for something more capable of cutting power off the 440 during a June 1969 test.
That should make the modest-looking GTS one of the best sleepers ever. Delivered new in Pennsylvania but currently based in Michigan, this one was originally white but is now presented in even more stealthy black with just the red hoop around the tail and small 440 badges on the twin hood bulges to rival rivals in the next lane to tip. Just imagine how much fun you could have, even today, catching other motorists ignorant. Remember to leave enough space (in any direction) to stop.