Charger Celebrates 40th Anniversary at AutoFair
What better place than Charlotte, the heart of NASCAR country, to celebrate the 40th birthday of the race-winning Dodge Charger? A historic exhibit of Dodge's legendry sedan will be featured during the Sept. 14-17 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The Charger debuted on New Year's Day in 1966, a stylish contender in the "pony car" segment Ford had defined a year earlier with the introduction of the Mustang. Dodge made no pretense about its market aspirations for the powerful new fastback-the Charger name refers to a horse trained and outfitted for battle.
Built on the company's Coronet chassis and utilizing most of that family sedan's powertrains, the Charger body was uniquely designed to stand out in the showroom. It was available only in fastback form, unlike its competition at GM and Ford, which could be ordered in a variety of styles.
It featured hidden headlamps that gave the car a clean, but aggressive face. The Charger interior was upscale when compared to the Mustang, and it came standard with rear bucket seats that folded flat or could be split to accommodate a single passenger.
Engines ran the gamut from the standard 318-cubic-inch V-8 (producing 230 horsepower) to the NASCAR-derived 426-cubic-inch V-8 (425 horsepower) with hemispherical, or "Hemi," combustion chambers.
Hemi-powered Chargers immediately earned credibility among racing enthusiasts when Earl Balmer drove Ray Fox's No. 3 Charger to victory in a 100-mile qualifying race prior to the 1966 NASCAR season opener at Daytona International Speedway. David Pearson went on to win the championship that year driving a Charger.
Despite its beautiful design and motorsports success, the Charger failed to spark much interest among buyers, and only 53,000 were sold during model years 1966 and '67-less than 570 of which had the Hemi option.
For 1968, Dodge made some radical changes to the Charger's appearance, creating the sort of "Coke bottle" profile that had worked so well for Pontiac's Tempest/GTO a couple of years earlier. The fastback roof was retained but modified to end just before the trunklid, and the full-width grille was recessed several inches to mimic the intake of a jet fighter. Larger than its predecessor in every dimension, reviewers described the new Charger as a "full-size sports car" and a "six-passenger muscle car."
The 1968 design was an immediate hit (Dodge sold more than 96,000 that year), and it is now considered one of the most beautifully rendered performance cars of the era. The Charger R/T, which came standard with a 375-horsepower 440-cubic-inch Magnum engine, has emerged as the collectible model; fewer than 470 Charger buyers chose the Hemi powerplant.
Dodge designers made only slight changes to the 1969 Charger-a split, blacked-out grille and full-width taillamps being the most obvious. As is natural for a design in its second year, sales of the 1969 Charger decreased to 69,000 units. That number includes a couple of NASCAR-influenced models, such as the 503 winged Daytonas and 459 aerodynamically improved Charger 500s. With its massive rear wing and pointy nose, the track-ready Daytona was not warmly received, but in Hemi form it dominated stock car racing's top series until rules were rewritten to decrease its aerodynamic advantage.
The 1970 Charger returned to a full-width grille, with a chrome bumper completely encircling the opening. Dodge sold 50,000 units that year, 10,000 of which had the hot R/T package.
Nineteen seventy-one marked the beginning of the end for the Charger as a performance car. The period started with a re-design, giving the car a rounder, curvier appearance, but '71 would be the final year for legendary powerplants such as the 370-horse 440 and 426-cubic-inch Hemi. Because of tough new emissions standards and a dwindling interest in the muscle-car market, Dodge produced weaker and weaker Chargers from 1972-'74, then transformed the once-proud nameplate into a Chrysler Cordoba personal-luxury clone from 1975-'78.
The first-series Charger's final NASCAR victory came in 1977, when Neil Bonnett won a 500-mile race at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, closing the book on a total of 124 NASCAR victories and five championships.
Dodge revived the Charger from 1982-'87 as a front-drive, four-cylinder hatchback that had respectable performance for the time, along with above-average fuel economy. Carroll Shelby, who had worked his magic on the Mustang two decades earlier to produce the GT-350 and GT-500, introduced a line of Shelby Charger 2.2s in 1983. In 1985 he began fitting them with turbocharged, fuel-injected engines.
After repeated requests to revive the car, DaimlerChrysler brought a new Charger model not only to showrooms but to NASCAR's premier racing division as well in 2005. Sharing a platform with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, the '06 differs from the earlier models with the addition of two extra doors, but the semi-fastback roof, unique styling and available Hemi V-8s recall the Charger's muscle-car glory days.
With 340 horsepower from the RT's 5.7-liter V-8, or 425 from the SRT-8 model's 6.1-liter, the two Hemi-head engines make the Charger one of the fastest "family sports cars" on the road.
The Charger's winning NASCAR legacy, interrupted for nearly three decades, resumed in May of 2005 when Kasey Kahne drove his No. 9 NEXTEL Cup car to victory at Richmond International Raceway. Adding to that winning legacy, Kahne also captured the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Other attractions scheduled for the Sept. 14-17 Food Lion AutoFair include a display of vintage wood-bodied wagons, the Ultimate Surfmobile from Discovery Channel's "Monster Garage," an unusual Ford Model-A pickup covered with a history of cartoons and a 40th Anniversary gathering of another important American muscle car that has recently been revived: the Shelby GT-500 Mustang. Hundreds of examples of vintage farm machinery, courtesy of the Stumptown Tractor Club, will fill the show lot next to the infield Pavilion, and there will be an automotive art gallery.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.