Racing is and always has been an alluring endeavor for automakers. In addition to being an invaluable forum for technical research and development that ultimately enables the building of better road cars, it also bolsters brand recognition in a way that normal television and print advertising cannot.
Perhaps most significantly though, it allows a manufacturer to prove itself as being superior to its competition in one of the most demonstrative methods there is: winning.
Many legendary automotive rivalries have been born on the track. Ford versus Ferrari at Le Mans; Peugeot versus Lancia in European rallying; and most recently, Red Bull versus Mercedes in Formula 1.
But perhaps no on-track clash of the titans is better remembered by American racing fans than the monumental battles between Ford and Chrysler in NASCAR during the late 1960s. Such was the fierceness of their competition that entirely new methods of going faster sprang forth, including innovative engine designs, unique suspension systems, and never before seen aerodynamic aids.
Owing to NASCAR’s homologation rules at the time, any car destined for the track had to have a small number of roadgoing versions produced and sold. What resulted was some of the rarest and wildest street machines ever seen; and it could be said with a good degree of assurance that no NASCAR-inspired road car was scarcer and more outlandish than the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona 426 Hemi.
Because of this, it is an absolutely perfect vehicle to explore in this month’s installment of Rare Rides!
Chrysler, a proud company and one of America’s Big Three automakers, spent the first half of the sixties – a period when the leading NASCAR teams were largely factory-backed efforts – watching Ford dominate the proceedings with their Torinos and Galaxies. Its Dodge Coronets and Plymouth Belvederes were largely no match for the cars from Dearborn and failed to bring Chrysler even one manufacturer’s championship title.
Feeling that this was an embarrassment and a threat to road car sales, the top corporate brass sought to rectify this problem as soon as possible. They needed a new car to form the basis of their NASCAR ambitions.
They tried with the brand new, first-generation Dodge Charger in 1966. The car featured a low roofline and fastback design with a wraparound rear window. These two attributes piqued the interest of Chrysler’s motorsport department, as it was assumed that they would make the car aerodynamically efficient and capable of taking advantage of the slipstream on the high-speed NASCAR ovals. They had found their contender, or so they thought.
Chrysler racing engineers installed the 426ci Race Hemi motor and the Chrysler A-833 four-speed transmission into their new steed, with an 8 ¾” Posi rearend with 3.23:1 gears to put the power to the track. The stock suspension was heavily modified with reinforced control arms and air shocks in the rear to enable height adjustability.
The car hit the NASCAR ovals and right away, drivers voiced lurid tales of massive rear instability, likening it to driving on ice. Chrysler engineers looked at the problem and determined that the Charger’s body shape generated a large amount of lift. They rectified the situation to a degree by installing a rear spoiler, but it was too little, too late. The car had failed to be the dominator they had hoped for, and Ford once again took the manufacturer’s title.
Not having a replacement yet, Chrysler ran their Charger again in ’67 to similar results.
That year, though, Dodge was already at work on the second generation of the Charger and sought to develop it into an even more potent muscle car for the street and track.
Riding on its predecessor’s B-body platform, the car featured all-new sheet metal designed by a team led by Richard Sias. It would end up becoming one of the most iconic muscle car shapes in history.
Up front, the second-generation Charger retained the full width, hidden headlight grille concept of the original car, but it was now deeply inset like a jet intake, and featured flip-up headlight covers.
The hood was elongated, and the Coke bottle flanks featured doors that were bequeathed with dual-scallop detailing. Most notably, the first-gen’s fastback roof went the way of the dodo, replaced by a glorious flying buttress design with recessed rear glass. The new car’s short deck was accentuated with a slight dovetail at the rear for increased downforce, and two pairs of round, jet-age style taillights adorned the rear.
Inside, the Charger had become decidedly less upscale than the prior model. The original’s four-bucket seat design was ditched, with a conventional bench seat occupying the rear. Up front, buckets could be ordered to replace the standard bench. The dash was noticeably downscaled, with the elaborate gauges of the outgoing model replaced with a more conventional layout.
In terms of drivetrain, Dodge went all out. While the standard 225 slant-six was rather anemic, there was a roster of healthy V8 options to choose from, consisting of the 318ci, the 383ci two-barrel, and the 383ci four-barrel. A new high-performance model, known as the Road/Track or R/T trim afforded access to the big blocks, which included the 440ci Magnum and, of course, the 426ci Hemi.
Base Chargers with the slant-sixes or 318s came standard with a column-mounted, 904 TorqueFlite three-speed automatic. The larger V8s could be had with a heavy-duty A833 four-speed manual with a floor or console-mounted Hurst shifter, or a 727 three-speed TorqueFlite.
Differential choices were legion and included gearing from 3.55:1 all the way up to 4.10:1 with big Dana 60 axles.
10 x 2.5-inch drum brakes were standard across the base Charger line, while R/Ts came with 11 x 3-inch front and 11 x 2.5-inch rear drums. 11.19-inch front discs were available as an option.
1968 Chargers used two versions of Chrysler’s Torsion-Aire front suspension depending on the trim line. Non-R/T cars used .90-inch steel torsion bars coupled with shock absorbers in the front, with leaf springs and rubber-isolated springs in the rear. R/T Chargers carried .92-inch torsion bars, a .94-inch anti-roll bar, and heavy-duty shocks up front, with staggered leaf springs out back.
Base cars came with 14×6-inch steel wheels as standard and could be covered with a handful of different hubcaps, while the high-performance models came with 15-inch steelies with two covers to choose from. 14-inch Magnum 500-style wheels could be added to any Charger as an option.
The reaction from the public and automotive press upon the new car’s release was dramatic. It was hailed as a masterpiece, and 96,100 ’68 Chargers found new homes, a six-fold increase in sales over the ’67 model.
Chrysler’s motorsport engineers prepped the car for the forthcoming NASCAR season with a fortified Race Hemi, which was the class of the field in terms of power. In spite of high expectations, they were once again left wanting though.
The Charger’s recessed grille induced drag, and its flying buttress rear produced lift. This combination made the car unable to reach competitive top speeds on the series’ Superspeedways and made the rear end loose and tricky to keep from oversteering. Dodge found themselves trailing the pacesetting Ford Torino Talladegas and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler IIs for the first half of the season.
Working around the clock, designers set out to address the issues with the car. As the Hemi was producing the maximum power to be had from the design, they focused on the car’s aerodynamics to address the drag issues limiting its top end.
At the front, the flush-mounted grille from the Coronet was transplanted onto the Charger, and a thinner bumper was installed. Chromed elements were added to the A-pillars to smooth out the airflow. Out back, the flying buttress design was trashed and replaced by a more traditional fastback treatment, replete with a shallower angled rear glass.
The car was rechristened the Charger 500, and Dodge ramped up to produce 500 street-going versions to comply with the NASCAR homologation rules. All were to be fitted with either the 440 Magnum or its big-block stablemate, the 426 Hemi.
At some point though, someone noticed that NASCAR’s governing body wasn’t really keeping track of how many cars were being built, and so only 392 ever left the factory to be purchased by the public.
While performance was markedly improved on the track, the Charger 500 was no gamechanger, and thus Chrysler went back to the drawing board. The solution they would come up with would startle the automotive world, and start a revolution in NASCAR racing.
With a target goal of raising the Charger’s top speed by a mere 5 mph to make the car a consistent winner, Chrysler engineers sought to create a radical body shape that would reduce drag significantly.
Utilizing computers and wind tunnels, they designed an 18-inch steel nose cone extension, which incorporated pop-up headlights on road-going models. Its shape cleaved the wind over and beneath the car like a knife blade. An under-nose spoiler massively reduced front-end lift and provided stability at high speeds.
Special fairings were mounted atop the front fenders that were vented at the rear, allowing turbulent air in the wheel wells to exit smoothly into the airflow.
Mounted to the rear fenders along the trailing end of the decklid was the car’s most radical feature, a 58-inch-wide, aluminum rear wing. Towering nearly two feet above the deck to enable the trunk lid to open without striking it, this airfoil provided a massive amount of rear downforce to plant and stabilize the car’s rear.
The new car’s underpinnings were largely stock Charger R/T, with Chrysler’s four-barrel 440 Magnum V8 standard, and the 426 Hemi as the sole engine option. Transmission choices were likewise limited, with the A833 four-speed with Hurst shifter the base box, and the 727 TorqueFlite three-speed slushbox the option.
Selecting an automatic resulted in 3.23:1 gears as standard in the Chrysler 8-3/4-inch rear axle regardless of engine, and the four-speeds came with 3.54:1 gears in the Sure-Grip-equipped Dana 9-3/4-inch rear axle.
The auto-box cars could be optioned with 3.55:1 gears in a Sure-Grip 8-3/4-inch axle that came with the Performance Axle Package or 4.10:1 cogs in a Sure-Grip equipped Dana 9-3/4-inch axle as part of the Super Performance Axle Package. Four-speed buyers could bump up to the Super Track Pak, which gave them 4.10:1 gears in the Dana 9-3/4-inch axle.
Wheels and rubber consisted of 14-inch steelies with hubcaps and F70-14 redline or whitewall tires on 440 cars. 15 x 6-inch stamped steel wheels with hubcaps and Goodyear Polyglas F70-15 tires with red or white walls came with the Hemis.
Fetching a $400 premium over a standard Charger R/T, the car, dubbed the Dodge Charger Daytona after NASCAR’s most famous track, was made available to a public that did not know what to make of its radical design. As a result, only 543 Daytonas were built and sold, of which 40 went to Canada.
Only 70 cars in total were outfitted with that legendary Hemi elephant motor.
Owing to new Federal bumper regulations the following year that made the nose cone an impossibility, the Daytona would ultimately die after only one model year of sales.
The NASCAR version hit the track halfway through the ’69 season and performed brilliantly. Featuring a drag coefficient (Cd) of only .28 and packing that monstrous Race Hemi, it exceeded the performance goals that Chrysler had set, and was the first car to ever break the magic 200 mph barrier in the series.
What’s more, it captured six Grand National NASCAR wins between 1969 and 1970 and finally enabled Chrysler to capture that fabled manufacturer’s crown in the latter season.
In the process, the Daytona forced the other manufacturers to create their own “winged warriors,” to compete in an aero war that was only stopped after NASCAR decided to outlaw the designs on safety grounds.
Today, owing to their scarcity and wild appearance, road-going 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona 426 Hemis are amongst the rarest most expensive muscle cars there are, with Concours quality, numbers-matching cars routinely fetching close to a million dollars at auction.
For such a piece of muscle car and racing history, I, for one, can fully understand why.