Makeover reality shows may not have been popular in the 1960s, but Chrysler went through its own version of What Not To Wear in real life during the 1960s. During that time the company’s styling department graduated from exhausted 1950s influences to become a design leader.
Chrysler (and its Dodge and Plymouth brands) were already known for innovative engineering, with powerful Hemi engines and sophisticated torsion bar suspension. But in the late ‘60s the design department also gained renown thanks to new design boss Elwood Engel. Engel’s cars were clean, sleek and simple, where Chrysler’s earlier models had been busy and contrived.
Dodge’s big coupe, the Charger, benefited from Engel’s direction with a fresh design that ran from 1968 through 1970. Its lean greyhound profile whispers “speed,” at first sight. Today, this generation of classic Dodges are best-known when finished in orange with blocky “01” numbers on each door, thanks to the ’69 Charger’s turn as the repurposed stock car General Lee on CBS’s Dukes of Hazzard.
That show blighted the Charger’s gorgeous curves with garish orange paint, an incongruous off-road brush guard on the front bumper and an unfortunate flag atop its roof, but beneath these distractions lies one of the best-looking cars ever to come out of Detroit.
The car also made a memorable film appearance as the villain car pursuing Steve McQueen in his ’68 Mustang through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt.
“The second-generation Charger was an instant classic,” observed Brandt Rosenbusch, manager of historical services for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. “It’s wide, aggressive styling made the car look fast even when it was standing still.”
“The Dodge designers gave it enough subtle cues that it was set apart from the rest of the crowded muscle car field,” he continued. “It’s side and hood scallops, along with the hidden headlights gave it an almost sinister look.
The ’68 Charger’s flying buttress style fastback roof was called a “tunnel roof” back in the day and it was specifically sculpted to suit the demands of racing on NASCAR’s high-banked superspeedways. An exposed racing-style fuel filler cap underscored the car’s racing intent.
This wasn’t just for show. Dodge backed up the speedy styling with massive available power under the hood. The base engine was a 230-horsepower, two-barrel carburetor 5.2-liter 318-cubic-inch V8 with conventional “wedge” style combustion chambers.
A 290-horsepower two-barrel or 330-horsepower version of the 6.2-liter, 383-cubic-inch edition of this engine were available options. Chrysler’s famous slant-six, a 225-cubic-inch inline six-cylinder motor that leaned to the side like one half of a V12 was also available for economy-minded drivers, but few six-cylinder Chargers were ever built.
Drivers with a real need for speed could order the 375-horsepower Max Wedge 440, the 440-cubic-inch, 7.2-liter big block V8. In 1970, the 440 was available with the Six Pak, a trio of two-barrel carburetors in place of the single four-barrel, boosting output to 390 horsepower.
But the Max Wedge 440 was a “wedge” combustion chamber engine. The legendary Hemi, with its semi-hemispherical combustion chambers came in the form of the 425-horsepower 426 cubic inch, 7.0-liter “street Hemi” V8.
Car and Driver magazine, in its November, 1967 issue, found the Hemi Charger ripped to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds, finished the quarter mile in 13.5 seconds and reached a top speed of 156 mph.
For 1969 and ’70 Dodge added a chiseled nosecone to create the Charger Daytona, an aerodynamic missile created specifically for winning in Nascar stock car racing. A huge wing towering over the car’s trunk. Chrysler says this was the first production car capable of nearly 200 mph, a speed it did achieve in racing form at the track that lent this special edition Charger its name.
Then the Charger rolled out of production and into history. But fans never stopped loving the stunning muscle car, and its popularity for custom builds continues today. A black 1970 Charger was Vin Diesel’s hero car in several iterations of The Fast and the Furious movies.
Renowned custom car builders, the Ring Brothers, built a stunning deep green Charger they dubbed “Defector,” that swapped the car’s 1969-vintage powerplant for a modern fuel-injected 6.4-liter Hemi V8.
“The Charger has stood the test of time and is revered as one of the icons of the first muscle car era,” Rosenbusch remarked. “Even today it still looks good, sounds good and is the dream car for most Mopar lovers,” he added, referring to the “Motor Parts” shorthand for Chrysler vehicles.