Looking back on the Golden Era of muscle cars in the 1960s and ‘70s, it is easy to identify specific models whose aesthetics struck a perfect balance, and subsequently became iconic examples of automotive design.
There’s the 1966 Pontiac GTO, the 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS, the ’67 and ’68 Shelby GT350s and 500s, and the 1967 thorough ’69 Camaros. All cars in which the designers’ pens seemingly did not draw a faulty line or stroke.
For some though, there is one car from the period whose design rises above even these titans: the 1968 Dodge Charger.
From its recessed grille, to its Coke-bottle shaped flanks, and flying buttress treatment flowing from the trailing edge of the greenhouse, it cemented the Charger’s station at the top of the muscle car pantheon.
So profound was the memory of the Charger that in the mid-2000s, Dodge saw fit to resurrect the name, albeit applied to a vastly different vehicle.
In this installment of That was Then, This is Now, we’re going to go back to the beginning of the Charger lineage and compare the vintage incarnations to the modern, four-door versions that prowl the streets today. We’ll examine design elements of each generation, and of course, elucidate the mechanicals that lurk underneath the skin.
So buckle up, and get ready for a white-knuckle ride through Mopar history!
The Charger story begins in 1964. In response to the stunning success of the Ford Mustang, Dodge hastily put together a concept vehicle with an open, speedster cockpit aimed at showcasing what the company’s version of a pony car might look like.
A subsequent Charger II concept was released the following year that seemed to draw some inspiration from AMC’s Rambler Marlin, with a rear window that blended into an elongated, sloping trunk section. Public reception was positive, and just a few months later, a production version of the Charger hit the market that looked similar to the second concept.
The new Charger was built on the Dodge Coronet’s B-body platform and borrowed a good deal of the latter car’s mechanicals. A two-door fastback with long-hood/short-deck proportions, the production Charger featured such design elements as a full-width “electric shaver” style grille with hidden headlamps, sculpted contours along its flanks, and a “wall-to-wall” taillamp.
Inside lived unusual bucket seating front and rear, a full-length floor console, and a stylish dash with a complement of gauges housed in bezeled faces lit by electroluminescence.
Also atypical was the fact that the Charger was only offered with V8 engines. They included a base 318 cubic-inch two-barrel, a 361 cubic-inch two-barrel, a four-barrel 383, and the new 426 cubic-inch Street Hemi, derived from the powerplant used in NASCAR racing. All were backed with a choice of a three-speed manual, a four-speed manual, or a TorqueFlite automatic.
Despite robust performance, especially with big-block models, the Charger was not a sales success, with only 37,344 units finding new homes. Undeterred, Dodge continued to offer the Charger in a largely unchanged form for 1967, while they readied an all-new model for 1968.
Once again incorporating the B-body platform, the new car, designed by a team led by Richard Sias, was no longer a somewhat eccentrically styled fastback, but was instead transformed into a graceful, sinuous beauty, reminiscent on some unspoken level of a gazelle or other swift animal.
Up front, the second-generation Charger retained the full-width, hidden headlight grille concept of the original car that was now inset like a jet intake. The hood was elongated, and the Coke bottle flanks featured doors that were embellished with dual-scallop detailing.
The short deck was accentuated with a slight dovetail at the rear for increased downforce. Two pairs of small, round, “jet-age” style taillights adorned the rear.
Backing up the sporting looks of the ’68 Charger were muscular powertrains largely carried over from the 1967 model. Entry-level cars could be had with a 225 cubic-inch slant-six, which supplanted the 230 horsepower 318 midyear, and two versions of the 383: a two-barrel good for 290 ponies, and a four-barrel with 330.
New to the Charger line was the high-performance R/T trim, to which the big engines were reserved. The 440 Magnum with 375 horsepower was the base R/T motor, while the king-of-the-roost lump remained the 426 Hemi “elephant motor” with its 425 horses.
Base Chargers with the slant-sixes or 318s came standard with a column-mounted, TorqueFlite three-speed automatic. The larger V8s could be had with the four-speed topped by a Hurst shifter, or a three-speed TorqueFlite on the console.
The sales malaise of the first generation was put to bed. 96,100 cars were produced in the first year of the new car, and out of that number, roughly 17,000 were R/Ts.
Flush with this success, Dodge stuck with this body style for the next two years. Changes were limited to new grille and taillight designs each year, minor trim changes inside and out, and the replacement of the 440 Magnum with the 390 horsepower, 440 Six-Pack with three two-barrel carbs in 1970.
Two different homologation specials of the second-gen car were produced to qualify them for NASCAR racing. The first, the 1969 Charger 500, was designed to address the aerodynamic inefficiencies of the standard Charger.
A flush grille with fixed headlights and a thinner bumper addressed drag issues, and a conventional fastback treatment was incorporated at the rear of the greenhouse to negate lift. 392 street cars were built in total, all fitted with either the 440 Magnum or the Hemi.
While the Charger 500 provided some much-needed aero stability around the NASCAR ovals, it did little to improve top speed on the long superspeedways. To attend to that shortcoming, Dodge engineers went all out to create one of the most stunning and unconventional cars in history: the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona.
Utilizing wind tunnels, an 18-inch steel nose cone extension was designed, which incorporated pop-up headlights on road-going models. An under-nose spoiler massively reduced front-end lift.
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 decklid was the car’s most radical feature, a 58-inch-wide, aluminum rear wing. Towering nearly two feet above the trunk, this airfoil provided downforce to plant the car’s rear.
The 440 Magnum V8 was standard on street Daytonas, with the Hemi the sole engine option. Transmission choices were likewise limited, with the four-speed with Hurst shifter as the base, and the TorqueFlite automatic as the option.
So radical was the look of the Daytona, that dealers had a hard time selling them. Only a total of 543 were sold to the public. On the racetrack though, the Daytona proved to be a juggernaut, and was the first stock car to break the 200 mph barrier.
For the 1971 model year, Dodge decided to completely redesign the Charger.
Although initially well-received owing to the serious performance it still offered, for most, the “fuselage” styling of the 1971 Charger, which incorporated a semi-fastback roofline and an unconventional shape to the rear window, was not an improvement over its predecessor.
What’s more, as stringent EPA standards and insurance concerns saw the end of large-capacity, high-horsepower engines across the industry at the end of the 1971 model year, the Charger’s cache dimmed significantly. Sales progressively dropped off each year after ’71.
Realizing that the muscle car era was well and truly over, Dodge decided to reposition the next-generation Charger as a luxury car.
Sharing its mechanical underpinnings with the Chrysler Cordoba, the 1975 Charger was a massive, ponderous vehicle with a 218-inch length, a full foot larger than the 1971-1974 models.
Styling was less than stunning, with a baroque front end, an ungainly, lengthy hood, a greenhouse that could be equipped with a half-vinyl roof known in Dodgespeak as a “Landau Top,” and an oddly contoured rear section.
Making matters worse for those who remembered earlier Chargers was the fact that the four available engines consisted of a milquetoast, 150 horsepower 318 V8, a 180 horsepower, two-barrel 360, a 190 horse, four-barrel version of the 360, and a top-of-the-line, four-barrel 400 making a paltry 193 ponies. A three-speed automatic was the sole transmission offering. As one would expect, performance was dismal, with 60 mph taking a molasses-slow 12.1 seconds for a 400 cubic-inch car.
Sales of this version peaked at 52,761 in 1976, and dropped to a dismal 2,735 units by 1978. With that, Dodge pulled the plug on the Charger, which would not return until 1981.
In that year, Dodge attempted to lend some enthusiast credibility to their underperforming front-wheel drive Omni model. For $399, buyers could add the Charger 2.2 package, which added a 2.2-liter inline-four cylinder engine, a hood scoop, quarter-window treatments, aggressive gearing, a rear spoiler, and “Charger 2.2″ graphics.
In 1983, the entire Omni line was rechristened as the Charger, a Chrysler-Peugeot 1.6-liter four-cylinder became the standard engine, and Carroll Shelby developed a sporty model, known as the Dodge Shelby Charger.
Instead of focusing on raw speed, the Shelby model saw an emphasis on styling and handling. The main changes consisted of aggressive gears, shorter springs, more powerful brakes, special wheels, a quicker steering rack, a high-performance exhaust, and a bespoke front fascia and body kit.
In 1985, the Shelby Charger received a performance boost when a turbocharged engine was added to the car that boosted power from 107 to 146 ponies. In 1987, after Dodge announced that the Charger would be discontinued, Carroll Shelby procured the last 1,000 cars to roll off the line and converted them to GLHS (Goes Like Hell, Shelby) models.
The conversion consisted of a turbocharged and intercooled 2.2-liter engine with a modified intake that churned out 175 horsepower, Koni adjustable shocks, special wheels, Goodyear Eagle GT tires, and a black exterior with Shelby badging replacing all mention of Dodge.
And with that, the Charger name sailed off into the sunset, seemingly forever.
Ah, but you can never truly say never. In 1999, Dodge unveiled the Dodge Charger R/T Concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It was a sleek design that borrowed some elements from the second-generation cars, but was configured as a four-door sedan and had a supercharged engine that ran on compressed natural gas, much to the surprise of most Dodge enthusiasts.
Nonetheless, it rallied the spirits of many, as it suggested that Dodge was prepared to dust off the Charger name and perhaps bring it back into production.
And so, the Mopar faithful waited. And waited.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Dodge announced the release of the new Dodge Charger, a rear-wheel drive vehicle riding on the LX platform that it shared with the successful Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum.
Although it didn’t look anything like the concept car, it did retain that design study’s four-door format, causing quite a few Charger purists to cringe. Many were able to look beyond this though, once they learned of the car’s features and mechanicals.
The entry-level Charger SE came with an efficient, 250-horsepower V6 that kept the car’s price down, but buyers could step up to the R/T trim and its 5.7-liter Hemi capable of a more spirited 340 ponies. Topping the lineup was the SRT8 model, which came with the 6.1-liter Hemi, a brute of a mill that could pump out 425 horsepower, just like the 426 Hemi of old. All Chargers were equipped with automatic transmissions, with a four-speed in the V6, and a five-speed in the V8 models.
Leaning into Mopar history, Dodge also released two special editions later in 2006 and 2007 respectively. The first was the Charger Daytona R/T that came with the 5.7 Hemi, an upgraded suspension, a throatier exhaust, a unique front fascia, a rear wing, and Daytona hood and rear fender graphics. The second was a Super Bee version of the SRT8, that came in Detonator Yellow only (in 2008 it was offered in B5 blue) and had retro, throwback Super Bee fender graphics.
Sales of the new Charger started off a bit sluggish as Mopar enthusiasts initially eschewed the four-door Charger, but then ballooned to a very respectable 114,201 cars in 2007.
All-wheel drive was added in the SXT and R/T trims as an option that year, and the V6 received a five-speed slushbox. 2008 brought a refreshed interior, while the 5.7 Hemi got a 40-horsepower boost to 370, and Chrysler’s uConnect system with navigation and Bluetooth phone connection became available in 2009.
2011 brought wholesale changes, with a redesigned, modern interior, and refreshed exterior styling which featured a new front fascia, scallops along the front and rear doors that echoed the second generation Charger’s side detailing, and a full-width LED taillight. Base cars saw their 3.5’s replaced by the brand-new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, good for 292 horses.
Another large step forward came the following year when the five-speed was ditched in favor of an eight-speed on V6 models, and the SRT8 was treated to Chrysler’s newest and baddest Hemi: the 392 with 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of twist. This made the 2012 Charger SRT8 the fastest and most powerful Charger Dodge had ever built.
An extensive makeover in 2015 saw a lower, more aerodynamic nose with LED headlights, a “racetrack” LED taillight, a refreshed interior, the eight-speed replacing the five in all models, and upgraded brakes and suspension. These changes brought the Charger up-to-date, and looking like every bit the modern muscle car.
But the biggest news for 2015 was the addition of the monstrous 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi engine in the Charger. Putting out 707 horsepower and a stump-pulling 650 lb-ft of torque, the addition of this powertrain made the Charger SRT Hellcat the fastest sedan money could buy. Zero-to-sixty took a mere 3.4 seconds, and the quarter-mile flashed past in 10.8 seconds at 128 mph on the way to a 200 mph top speed. Supercar territory performance.
The 392 Hemi was placed in a new model, known as the Charger R/T 392 Scat Pack, that afforded excellent performance without the Hellcat price tag.
Since 2018, Challenger buyers were able to purchase an even more prodigious powertrain for their cars in the form of the Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye, but this was unavailable in the Charger. That changed in 2020 with the release of the Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Widebody.
Incorporating the 6.2-liter Supercharged lump that utilized components handed down to it from the Challenger SRT Demon, this high-output version pushed the power to an astonishing 797 horsepower and 707 lb-ft, making the Charger a true street beast that all earlier incarnations couldn’t touch.
All Charger Scat Packs, Hellcats, and Redeyes also received a widebody treatment with flared fenders that enabled wider tires to be used for better traction.
In a final upgrade, Redeye power was upped to 807 ponies in 2022 with the release of the Jailbreak Edition model which also allowed buyers more flexibility in ordering color combinations and equipment.
In 2021, Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis announced that the LX-platform Challengers and Chargers would be going the way of the Dodo after the end of the 2023 model year, to be replaced by what he termed “E-Muscle” cars.
A 2024 Dodge Charger SRT Banshee was revealed in 2022 with sleek modern lines that simultaneously hinted at the past, and all-electric 400- and 800-volt powertrain architectures. Rumor has it that downrange models will utilize the twin-turbocharged inline-six “Hurricane” engine in gas-only and hybrid forms.
While most Mopar enthusiasts would undoubtedly point to the second-generation Chargers as the zenith of the breed in terms of looks and coolness factor, there can be no argument that the modern versions of Dodge’s close to 60-year-old muscle car have power, performance, and amenities that are light years ahead of the classics.
Regardless of one’s preference – classic or modern – it’s good to know that the Charger will soldier on into the future.