The real stars of the so-called muscle car era of the late 1960s and early 1970s tended to be much less glamorous modes of transport.
In the case of the Dodge Dart, the number of its famous GTS and 340 Swinger models built pales in comparison to the thousands upon thousands of its four-door supermarket getter models that filled suburban driveways.
Today, it’s the high-performance cars that everyone remembers. That’s why car companies built them: brand image. And it worked like a charm. Dodge, on the other hand, was Chrysler’s performance brand in the late 1960s and early 1970s, producing the Dart, Charger, Super Bee, Coronet, and Challenger.
The Dart began as a member of the low-cost group of 1960s compact cars, which included the Ford Falcon and Fairlane, as well as the Chevrolet Corvair, Chevy II, and Pontiac Tempest. They were all harmless cars that emphasized the interior and trunk while keeping power and price to a minimum.
But change was in the air. The 1964 Pontiac GTO shook Detroit like a meteor and the shock wave rippled across the country. Based on the mid-sized Tempest chassis, the GTO’s philosophy was surprisingly simple: small car, big engine and jazzy looks. Pontiac expected 5,000 sales in the first year. Shockingly, the division sold over 32,000 before running out of time and production capacity.
Competing manufacturers struggled to come up with their own version of GTO, which is considered the first muscle car.
Dodge is tackling this new and untapped market from two angles with hardware at its disposal. A fastback roof was grafted onto a Coronet body and voila, the 1966 loader was born, with one significant advantage over the 389 V8-powered GTO: buyers could choose a 383, 440 or 426 cubic inch Hemi V choose. -8.
Dodge also played with the Dart, but it wasn’t until the second-generation model for 1967 was unveiled, and the injection of real image and horsepower in 1968, that Dodge could finally say it was ready.
Dodge’s success and image depended on the Dart GTS hardtop equipped with a high-revving 340-cubic-inch V-8, underestimated at 275 horsepower (315 was closer to the actual number). Most importantly, with the high-flow cylinder heads, 350-375 horsepower was within reach after a few simple upgrades to the intake and exhaust systems.
A physically larger 383 cubic inch 300 horsepower V-8 could also be used in the baby Dodge, but the 340’s lighter weight made for better handling.
The GTS equipment package included a unique hood with chrome “340 Four Barrel” twin humps, bucket seats, rallye wheels, red sidewall tires, twin exhaust with chrome tips, sports suspension, 15-inch wheels and an optional Hurst four-speed gearbox. A special ‘Scat’ stripe was wrapped around the tail to signify membership in Dodge’s elite Scat Pack, which is awarded only to Dodge cars that could achieve an acceleration time of 14 seconds or faster.
A fully loaded GTS cost about $3,200, slightly more than the no-nonsense 383-powered Plymouth Road Runner, which was a runaway sales success. So for 1969, Dodge released the Dart Swinger 340, its own no-nonsense street stormer that sold for about $400 less than the previous year’s GTS.
It was feats that almost anyone could afford and feats that went well under the radar of insurance companies that began to limit premiums for high-power equipment.
The 440 and Hemi were in serious decline after 1971, and the Dart became a recluse for buyers looking for trouble-free speed. In fact, by the early 1970s, the compact Dart line had become Dodge’s bread-and-butter brand, split into two distinct series: Dart Swinger coupes and Custom Sedans, plus a shorter-wheelbase Dart Demon fastback, who was the partner of Duster of Plymouth. Most came with the 225-cubic-inch fuel-consuming six-cylinder, but the 340 V-8 remained a popular option.
After getting enough gibberish for the Demon name from vocal groups who saw little humor in the diabolical cartoon character planted on the Dodge’s fenders, the car was renamed the Dart Sport for 1973.
Midway through the decade, the Dart enjoyed unprecedented sales success, although the era of high performance was by then just a fond memory. Severe government smog has virtually killed the hot little 340 and subsequent 360-cubic-inch V-8s.
The Dart disappeared in 1976 and was replaced by the clunky Dodge Aspen, but for over a decade it has served the needs of young and old, who strangely appreciated it for entirely different reasons.