Muscle car fanatics know an iconic Golden Era ride when we see and hear it. A high output, big-block V8. A mid-to full-size body brimming with crisp lines and muscular haunches. An exhaust system that belches sounds piped-in directly from the lower levels of hell.
We all have our favorites. Chevy guys lust after ’69 Camaro COPO ZL1s and ’70 Chevelle SS454 LS6s. Ford guys love themselves a Boss 429 and a Shelby GT500. Buick and Olds guys dig their Stage 1s and Hursts.
But I’m a Mopar guy, and have been for the better part of 35 years. As such, I potentially have sundry muscle icons to choose from as my top dog. There are Chargers and Superbirds, GTXs and Roadrunners, Coronets and Daytonas.
For my money though, there are two cars from the House of Pentastar that rise above all others. They are the twin E-Bodies from Plymouth and Dodge; The Barracuda and the Challenger.
While the two cars might outwardly seem like completely distinct models, under the skin they shared drivetrains in addition to the chassis. And what drivetrains they were, with the two top offerings being the legendary 440 Six-Pack and 426 Hemi.
The latter, of course, was the motor that struck abject terror in the hearts of stoplight racers across the country. It came at a high cost though, and as such, it became one of the scarcest offerings in the Chrysler family playbook. In the 1970 Dodge Challenger this was no different, with only 356 examples leaving the factory with the Elephant under the hood.
In most instances, that would be considered outrageously few, but with this being Rare Rides, it’s actually quite a high number. More in keeping with these pages though is convertible version of the ’70 Hemi Challenger R/T, which constituted a mere fraction of that total. And that’s why it’s the subject of this month’s column.
So let’s dig in and have a look!
Dodge’s halo car from the muscle car era will inexorably have its genesis linked to an offering from another member of the Big Three automakers.
The Ford Mustang, launched in April, 1964 as a 1964 ½ model, astonished the automotive world by creating an entirely new segment of the car market – the Pony Car – on its way to racking up over 680,000 sales in its first year and a half.
While the other American automobile manufacturers were mostly producing massive, boat-like boulevard cruisers, Ford had come in and offered a small, lightweight, and nimble car that could be made quite sporty with the addition of a V8 backed by a manual transmission. What’s more, the Mustang, even in high-performance K-Code GT trim, was affordable to almost anyone.
Chrysler had been on the same track as Ford in designing an entry for the sporty-compact segment, and its Plymouth division actually beat the Mustang’s introduction by a mere two weeks with their Barracuda.
But where the Mustang captured the country’s zeitgeist, the Barracuda, with its odd styling and Valiant-sourced components, fizzled by comparison in the marketplace. A redesign of the Barracuda in 1967 also failed to make a dent in the Mustang’s hegemony.
At the same time, Chevrolet scrambled to produce a competitor and was able to bring the Camaro to market in 1966 as a ’67 model. Sales were brisk, if not on par with the number of Mustangs rolling off the line. Nonetheless, 220,906 Camaros found new homes in its first year, proving that America’s appetite for the Pony Car was not an ephemeral anomaly.
With both Ford and Chevy having scored big hits, Chrysler realized it needed to take drastic action if it was to cash in on this craze.
The company developed a new chassis for their Mustang competitor, a shortened version of the A-Body christened the E-Body, and decided that two corporate divisions would build a car based on it. Plymouth would manufacture it as a new version of the Barracuda, while Dodge would create a new car, ultimately named the Challenger.
The two cars, although sharing the same chassis, would be dimensionally different, reflecting the characters of the Chrysler divisions that would build them.
Dodge, seen as the sporty, luxurious department, would create a Challenger that was larger in overall size and wheelbase (at 191.3 and 110 inches respectively), whereas Plymouth, long considered the low-cost sporty division, would build a smaller Barracuda at 186.7” and 108”.
This was clearly a page taken directly from the FoMoCo playbook, as the Mercury division had built a larger, plusher version of the Mustang in the form of the Cougar.
The design of the new Challenger was assigned to Carl “Cam” Cameron, who had previously been responsible for conceiving the exterior of the 1966 Dodge Charger.
Incorporating several cues from a previous stillborn concept that was to use the Chrysler turbine engine, Cameron’s design was a thing of sinuous grace, muscle and beauty. It featured a classic, long hood/short deck configuration, with a deeply inset full-width grille encompassing quad lamps, sensuous hips that rose up to meet the B-pillar, and a tidy rear end. The flanks of the car featured a crease that gave visual impact to the car’s profile.
The long hood was a prerequisite, given the fact that Dodge wanted the car to be able to accept a broad spectrum of engines, including its largest big blocks. A dizzying array of lumps would indeed ultimately find their way under the Challenger’s hood.
Base model Challengers, known as the Challenger Deputy, came standard with a 198 cubic-inch slant-6. Optional engines included a 225 cubic-inch slant-6, the venerable 318 V8, and the lusty 383 in V8 in 2- and 4-barrel configurations.
The SE or Special Edition was the next step up and came standard with the 2-barrel 318. Buyers could opt for the full range of Chrysler V8 engines.
The R/T or Road and Track trim was the range-topping, high-performance Challenger model and is the car we are concerned with here. A standard R/T came with the 383 Magnum 4-barrel good for 335 horsepower and a very respectable 425 lb-ft of torque.
The 440 Magnum 4-barrel added 40 ponies and 55 pounds of twist to the proceedings, while the 440 Six-Pack, so named for the three 2-barrel carbs that rode atop the engine, produced 390 horsepower and a whopping 490 lb-ft.
Of course, the top dog was the 426 Hemi.
The 426 Hemi’s genesis dated back to 1963, when it was developed as an engine for racing the 1964 Daytona 500. Using the Chrysler cast-iron “RB” block, engineers installed heads containing hemispherically shaped combustion chambers and a top center located spark plug for maximum performance and burn efficiency.
In 1970 street form, with a 4.25” x 3.75” bore and stroke, a 10.25:1 compression ratio, an aluminum intake, iron exhaust manifold, and a pair of Carter AVS 625-cfm four-barrel carbs, the 426 put out a sarcastically underrated 425 brake horsepower and 490 lb-ft of torque. This was enough to propel a Challenger R/T Hemi to a 0-60 sprint in 5.8 seconds and a 14.1-second quarter-mile at 103.2 mph. King of the streets numbers for 1970.
Transmitting this massive amount of power was a standard three-speed 727 TorqueFlite automatic, with an A-833 four-speed manual topped by a Hurst Pistol Grip shifter optional. The slushbox cars were equipped with an 8 ¾” rear axle, while the four-speed cars sported the heftier Sure-Grip limited-slip Dana 60, 9 ¾” unit with a 3.54 ratio, or a 4.10 ratio as part of the Super Track-Pack option.
The usual Chrysler design characteristics were present on the 1970 Challenger R/T chassis and suspension. They included a heavy-duty, independent, front torsion-bar suspension system with leaf springs out back, all secured to a unit-body foundation. 426 equipped cars were provided with extra heavy-duty parts such as different front K-frames, a standard front anti-roll bar, optional rear anti-roll bar, and 5 ½ leaves per rear spring.
For stopping, Challenger R/T Hemis came stock with heavy-duty drums measuring 11 x 3.00 and 11 x 2.50-inches front and rear, respectively. Power front discs were optional and came with vented rotors measuring 10.97” in diameter. When equipped with front discs, rear drums would be 10 x 2.50-inches.
Body-color 15 x 7-inch steelies with “dog dish” hubcaps were standard equipment. 14 x 5.5- or 15 x 7-inch Rallye wheels and 14 x 5.5-inch five-spoke Magnum 500-style wheels were optional. All Hemi Challengers came with Goodyear Polyglas E60-15 RWL tires.
In R/T Hemi trim, the already gorgeous Challenger looks were accentuated by a twin-vent hood with engine call-out badges as standard, a chrome gas cap, and R/T badging on the grille, fenders, and trunk lid.
Exterior options for the R/T Hemi included such niceties as hood tie-down pins, chrome or body-color mirrors, vinyl tops available in black, white, green, or Gator Grain, a rear spoiler, a luggage rack, and hood, longitudinal and “Bumble-Bee” stripes.
The N96 Shaker Hood option was extremely popular and replaced the twin-vent hood with a functional fresh-air scoop that poked up through the hood. Mounted directly to the engine, the scoop would therefore shake along with throttle blips.
Rarest of all was the M51 Power Sunroof option which was available on hardtops.
The paint color selections were outstanding and included the basics such as white and black, as well as the “High-Impact” colors, which included Sublime green, Go Mango orange, Plum Crazy purple, Panther Pink, Hemi Orange, and Bright Yellow. In total, 21 hues were available to choose from.
The interior of the Challenger R/T was luxurious by standards of the class and was a firm step-up from that of the ‘Cuda. Tall bucket seats were standard equipment, as were an electric clock, color-keyed carpet, a padded dash, a Rallye instrument cluster, and faux wood-grain instrument and door inserts.
Interior options were legion and included a selection of radios, variable speed wipers, cruise control, a floor console, vinyl, and leather upholstery choices, power amenities, pedal dress-up, and three steering wheel models. Of note, air conditioning was not available on Hemi or 440 Six-Pack cars.
Certainly, the most dramatic option of all for 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T Hemis was the convertible top. Available in black and white vinyl, and in manual and power configurations, the convertibles required stiffening and strengthening of the body and chassis at key points.
Adding it to an already pricey Hemi engine option was an expensive proposition, and as a result, in 1970 only 9 customers outfitted their cars that way, with four people opting for the automatic, and five deciding to row their own gears.
Such scarcity has resulted in exorbitant contemporary prices being paid for these fabled beasts at auction, with a record price of $1,650,000 being fetched at the 2016 Mecum Auction in Kissimmee, Florida.
Serious money for sure, but alas, such is the price to own one of the world’s great Rare Rides.