Since I started working for Street Muscle Magazine in 2015, I have had the pleasure of penning a variety of articles, ranging from show coverage, the history of manufacturer’s engines, project cars, new products, and most notably, three long-running columns.
The latter editorials, Rob’s Car Movie Review, Rob’s Movie Muscle, and Rare Rides have given me the most pleasure, as two combine my college film education and work experience in Hollywood with my love for cars; and the other, a long form look at some of the scarcest versions of my favorite muscle cars.
As the saying goes though, life is change, and in spite of the satisfaction I still get from writing my monthlies, I recently began to feel like I needed to shake things up and add something new to my repertoire.
Thanks to the superlative editorial staff I have above me who commiserated with my aspirations, a pitch I readied for a new column was warmly received and approved.
So it is without further ado, that I’d like to welcome you on board That was Then, This is Now. In this column, we’re going to have a look at an iconic car from the golden era of muscle, and compare it to its modern iteration. In the process, we’ll determine how the car has changed over time, and see if the current version captures the spirit of the original.
As most of you who are regular readers of my stuff know, I’m a Mopar guy, so what other car would I choose to kick things off than the original and modern Dodge Challenger?
Are you with me? Then let’s dive in!
The year was 1967, and an all-out war was brewing in the automotive world. Ford had fired the first salvo three years earlier with the release of the Mustang, a car that created an entirely new category of vehicle – the pony car – on its way to selling an astonishing 680,000 units in its first year-and-a-half.
Suddenly, the boat-sized boulevard cruisers of the 1950s were as passe as dancing the Charleston. Everyone wanted a sporty, two-door of mid-sized proportions that could be had cheaply in base form, or loaded up to include some prodigious performance.
General Motors recognized the shift in the market, and by ’66 had launched their own versions of the Mustang in the form of the 1967 Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.
But what of the other member of the Big Three, Chrysler?
The House of Pentastar knew of Ford’s plans as the Mustang was being developed, and rushed to create their own version – the Plymouth Barracuda – which actually beat the Mustang to market by two weeks.
The Barracuda’s design and Valiant-sourced components left many cold though, and failed to capture the zeitgeist like the Mustang did. Chrysler execs knew something drastic had to be done to capture their own slice of the pie.
In 1967, the company began work on its next generation of pony car. Developing a new chassis, the E-body, Chrysler decided that two corporate divisions would build a car based on it. Plymouth would manufacture it as a fresh version of the Barracuda, while Dodge would create a new car, ultimately named the Challenger.
The design of the new Challenger was a thing of sinuous grace, muscle, and beauty. It featured classic, long hood/short deck proportions, an inset grille encompassing quad lamps, sensuous hips that rose up to meet the B-pillar, and a tidy rear end.
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-six, the 318 V8, and the lusty 383 in V8 in two- and four-barrel configurations.
The SE was the next step up and came standard with the four-barrel 318, but buyers could opt for the full range of Chrysler V8 engines.
The Challenger T/A was a special model, built to homologate the Challenger for racing in the SCCA’s Trans Am series. Packing a 340 cubic-inch V8 topped with three two-barrel carbs, the T/A was outfitted with a matte black, fiberglass hood with a functional air scoop, side stripes, front and rear spoilers, a side-exiting exhaust, and special suspension. Only 2,399 were made.
The R/T or Road and Track trim was the range-topping Challenger model. A standard R/T came with the 383 Magnum four-barrel good for 335 horsepower and a very respectable 425 lb-ft of torque.
A 440 Magnum four-barrel added 40 ponies and 55 pounds of twist to the proceedings, while the 440 Six-Pack, so named for the three two-barrel carbs that rode atop the engine, produced 390 horsepower and a whopping 490 lb-ft.
The top dog though was the legendary 426 Hemi. It featured a cast-iron block, with heads containing hemispherically-shaped combustion chambers and a top center located spark plug for maximum performance.
The 426 put out an underrated 425 brake horsepower and 490 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel a Challenger R/T 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.
A three-speed TorqueFlite automatic was standard, with a four-speed manual topped by a Hurst pistol grip shifter as an option. Slushbox cars were equipped with an 8 ¾” rear axle, while the four-speed cars sported the heftier Sure-Grip limited-slip Dana 60 unit.
The interior of the Challenger R/T was luxurious by the standards of its class. 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.
The paint color selections were outstanding and included the basics such as black and white, as well as “High-Impact” colors including Sublime green, Go Mango orange, Plum Crazy purple, Hemi Orange, and Bright Yellow that epitomized the muscle car era.
While the Dodge Challenger was a certified success and today stands as one of the most iconic cars of its era, it and the Barracuda failed to make a dent in Mustang sales that was their purpose. Stringent EPA and insurance standards introduced in 1972 put an end to the big-block engines, and performance dropped off substantially.
As a result, both the Challenger and Barracuda were discontinued after the 1974 model year, both to become relics of a bygone era of performance.
The Challenger name was briefly revived by Dodge in 1978, but the car was merely a rebadged version of the plebeian Mitsubishi Galant coupe that only lasted until 1983. After that, the Challenger name faded into memory, seemingly never to return.
Ah, but you can never truly say never.
In 1997, Volkswagen released a new Beetle. With modernized looks that borrowed heavily from the classic VW, the car ushered in a retro-themed craze in the automobile world.
What followed was a retro-styled Ford Thunderbird, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Mini Cooper in 2001, and throwback styling applied to the Ford Mustang, and Ford GT in 2004.
Dodge took notice.
In a surprise move that set the automotive world alight, Dodge revealed an astonishing new Challenger concept at the 2006 North American International Auto Show.
Incorporating modernized, but thoroughly retro design elements that resembled the shapes and proportions of the fabled E-Body Challenger of the 1970s. The car packed a Generation III Hemi engine of 6.1 liters displacement that put out the same 425 horsepower rating as the original 426 street Hemi.
Muscle car fans rejoiced and universally begged Dodge to build a production version. And build it they would.
Constructed on a modified version of the Daimler-Chrysler era LH platform, the first year, limited production version of the Challenger would debut in 2008. All 6,400 units for the inaugural edition were in “SRT8” configuration, which incorporated a modified version of the concept car’s 6.1-liter Hemi.
Many of the new Challenger’s components were sourced from units developed during the Daimler-Chrysler merger period, including Mercedes’ control arm front suspension, five-link rear suspension, five-speed automatic gearbox, along with other major systems and parts.
Owing to more rigorous modern safety standards, the new Challenger was considerably heavier than the original at 4,140 pounds versus the 3,402 of the first generation model. Nonetheless, performance of the 2008 car compared favorably the old one, thanks to wider tires, as well as a more modern drivetrain, gearing, and suspension components. 0-60 took only 4.7 seconds, while the quarter mile was tripped in 13.1 seconds at 108.3 MPH.
Exterior looks and performance weren’t the only ways the 2008 captured the essence of the 1970 car. Indeed, the new Challenger’s interior mimicked the original with a similarly shaped dashboard and gauge cluster, an old school looking floor console, and seats that echoed the past. The interior did incorporate some modern touches though, including available navigation, satellite radio, heated seats, and the like.
With demand for the Challenger skyrocketing, Dodge released a full line of cars with no cap on production for 2009.
The proceedings began with the SE model, equipped with a fuel-efficient 250 horsepower 3.5 liter V6 and a five-speed auto.
Next up was the R/T, which included Dodge’s venerable 5.7-liter Hemi V8, and was available with the five-speed auto or a Tremec-sourced six-speed manual. Output was 375 horsepower and 403 lb-ft of torque.
The R/T Classic was an homage to the 1970s R/Ts, with retro script Challenger badging, classic R/T side stripes, and vintage-styled “Torq-Thrust” wheels added to the basic R/T package.
The range-topping SRT8 returned unchanged save for the availability of the Tremec tranny and a limited slip diff.
A variety of high-impact colors that paid tribute to the golden era originals, such as Furious Fuchsia, Sublime Green, Hemi Orange, Plum Crazy, and others were available across the trim lines.
Minor changes came in the years to follow, along with the 6.1 liter V8 being replaced in the SRT8 by the 470 horsepower, 470 lb-ft, 392 cubic-inch Hemi in 2011.
2015 brought wholesale changes to the Challenger lineup though. All trims received redesigned front and rear fascias which incorporated grille and taillight styling that evoked those of the 1971 Challenger, and the automatic transmission was upgraded to an eight-speed TorqueFlite. What’s more, the entire interior was redesigned to bring it up to contemporary standards of appointment.
But all of this paled in comparison to the real star of the Challenger lineup for 2015 – the introduction of the long-rumored Challenger SRT Hellcat model.
Taking Challenger performance to an entirely new level, the Hellcat offered buyers a monster 707 horsepower, 650 lb-ft supercharged 6.2 liter Hemi V8. Along with a host of performance upgrades that made the SRT8 392 look tame, the Hellcat became the fastest muscle car in the world with a 0-60 sprint falling in 3.6 seconds and a quarter mile time of 11.6 seconds at 125 MPH. Top speed was 199 MPH.
Facing stiff competition from Ford in the form of the Shelby GT500, and Chevy with their Camaro ZL1, Dodge took it upon itself to throw down the gauntlet again in 2017 with the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon.
The Demon was a drag-oriented, but street legal juggernaut. Sporting a modified version of the Hellcat’s 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi with a larger 2.7-liter supercharger, along with trick ancillary systems including a transbrake, line lock, a “Power-Chiller,” widebody fender flares, 18-inch wheels with drag radials, and a massive ram-air scoop on the hood, the 808 horsepower, 770 lb-ft Demon could scream to 60 in 2.3 seconds, and the quarter mile in a scant 9.65 seconds at 140.09 MPH.
A ”Demon Crate” was available, and amongst assorted performance goodies included a PCM that allowed the Demon to run on 100+ octane race fuel, bumping horsepower to a ludicrous 840. Demons were only made for one year and were limited to 3,300 units.
Also in 2017, a T/A package was released for R/T cars, which included hood and stripe treatments that virtually mirrored the classic T/A from 1970 in a fabulous nod to company history.
A Hellcat Redeye, which combined a slightly detuned, 797 horsepower version of the Demon engine in a more street-oriented package appeared in 2019, and in 2020, the drag-oriented Super Stock emerged, filling the gap between the Redeye and the discontinued Demon.
Combining the spirit of the original Challenger with modern powertrains and technology made the new Challenger an exponentially better and more popular car than its antecedent. While many still hail the original E-body car as the pinnacle of Dodge muscle, the truth is that any 6.1, 6.4, or 6.2 liter supercharged new generation Challenger would run rings around the original in every metric, and do it with way more comfort and luxury.
Sadly, in early 2022, Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis announced that the Hemi Challenger as we know it would be going the way of the Dodo after the 2023 model year, to allow the company to pursue an electrified muscle future.
By this time next year, the factory in Brampton, Ontario which has produced over 750,000 Challengers in the past 16 years will be shuttered, and a bright, shiny Hemi Challenger will never roll forth again. A poignant end to a second golden era…