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The (original) Dodge Charger marks its golden anniversary

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1966 Dodge Charger. Photos courtesy FCA.

If ever there was a car with an identity crisis, it was the B-body Dodge Charger. Introduced in 1966 as a sporty personal luxury car, the Charger would evolve to become a legitimate performance standard-bearer for Dodge before ending its life, in 1978, as a rebadged Chrysler Cordoba. In 2016, the B-body Charger marks its 50th birthday, and given the car’s impact on the American landscape, it’s one worth celebrating.

As the 1960s reached the halfway point, Dodge dealers were impatiently pressuring the automaker for a response to the Ford Mustang. At Chrysler headquarters, the challenge was to market the Barracuda more effectively in an effort to counter Mustang sales, which did nothing to help the Dodge brand. The compromise was to create a new car, on an existing platform, that would drive traffic into Dodge dealerships without pirating customers away from Plymouth showrooms.

1965 Charger II concept

The 1965 Charger II concept car, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the 1966 production version.

Instead of focusing its attention on a Mustang-fighting pony car, Dodge looked to counter the AMC Marlin and the Ford Thunderbird with a sleek fastback two-door hardtop, perched atop the Coronet’s 117-inch-wheelbase platform. A Charger II show car was displayed at auto shows throughout 1965, but the public wasn’t told that a car remarkably similar to the concept had already been approved by Chrysler management.

426 Street Hemi

426 Street Hemi, available in Chargers from 1966-’71.

The production Charger made its public debut on January 1, 1966, in a television commercial aired during the Rose Bowl. Viewers were introduced to the “Leader of the Dodge Rebellion,” and the 1966 Charger immediately garnered both criticism and praise from the public and reviewers alike. Some panned its fastback styling for being too similar to the AMC Marlin, while others questioned the value of its $3,122 starting price, which was over $400 more than the Marlin’s $2,707 base. Detractors even complained about the car’s “electric shaver” grille, with its hidden headlamps, and its radical, full-width taillamp assembly, both unconventional design elements.

1968 Dodge Charger

1968 Dodge Charger R/T, with the 426 Hemi.

Inside, the Charger was designed to stand out from the crowd. A full-length console split seating into a 2+2 configuration, while the rear seat backs folded flat to provide additional cargo room. The trunk was carpeted instead of just lined with a vinyl mat, a subtle nod to luxury that would also be mirrored in the Charger’s electroluminescent gauges, set in aluminum bezels and powered by a 200-volt AC transformer.

1968 Dodge Charger

The base engine for the 1966 Charger was a V-8 topped by a two-barrel Stromberg carburetor, which produced 230 horsepower and 340 pound-feet of torque. Buyers could also opt for a two-barrel V-8, rated at 265 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque; a four-barrel 383 V-8, rated at 325 horsepower and 425 pound-feet of torque; or the top dog in the range, the legendary 426 Street Hemi. Topped with a pair of Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors, the 426 V-8 was good for a conservatively rated 425 horsepower and 490 pound-feet of torque.

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, built for NASCAR homologation purposes.

In 1966, buyers took home 37,344 Dodge Chargers, but sales fell off to 15,788 units for 1967 as buyers turned to smaller cars like the Mustang and the newly introduced Chevrolet Camaro. To counter the slide, Dodge debuted a newly styled Charger for the 1968 model year that did away with the earlier model’s fastback roof in favor of a more conventional flying buttress design with a recessed rear window. The Kamm-style rear opted for four taillamps over a full-width panel, and to give the car an even sportier look, Dodge moved the racing-inspired fuel filler cap to the left rear fender.

1970 Dodge Charger

1970 Dodge Charger R/T, the last year for the second-generation model.

Though the base engine was now Chrysler’s “Slant Six,” buyers of the second-gen Charger could opt for no less than three performance-centered V-8s, including the four-barrel 383, rated at 330 horsepower; the four-barrel 440, rated at 375 horsepower; and the 426 Hemi, rated at 425 horsepower. The Charger’s new emphasis on performance over personal luxury helped land it a starring role in the 1968 Steve McQueen film Bullitt, and consumers once again gave the car a second look. In 1968, Dodge sold 96,100 Chargers; in 1969, the division moved another 89,200 units; and in 1970, the final year of the body style, roughly 49,800 Chargers were built.

1971 Dodge Charger

1971 Dodge Charger R/T, showing the available color-matched bumper.

The second-generation Charger went racing, too, first in Charger 500 guise (which featured flush rear glass to reduce rear-end lift and a flush grille to reduce drag) and later in Charger Daytona form, with its distinctive aerodynamic nose and massive basket-handle rear wing. Both variants were offered for sale in limited numbers to the public (to meet NASCAR homologation requirements), and remain among the most collectible of B-body Charger models.

1972 Dodge Charger

1972 Dodge Charger.

A new Charger debuted for 1971, and though it still carried a familiar shape, the trend away from performance and (again) towards personal luxury became apparent by the 1973 model year. The 426 Hemi was discontinued after 1971, and by 1973 the most powerful engine available was the 280 horsepower (net) 440 V-8, topped by a single four-barrel carburetor. The third generation ended with the 1974 model year, and while sales peaked at 119,318 units in 1973, they struggled to reach 37,000 units in 1974.

1972 Dodge Charger

The final generation of B-body Chargers appeared in 1975, wearing sheetmetal that was remarkably similar to the Chrysler Cordoba. Gone were any real nods to performance, and while a V-8 remained available, output was down to 215 net horsepower. Even NASCAR teams avoided the new body style, which was deemed too blocky to be fast or stable at high speed; instead, NASCAR allowed the third-generation Charger body style to be raced up until January of 1978, when the Magnum replaced the Charger in competition.

1975 Dodge Charger SE

1975 Dodge Charger SE, the first year of the final B-body generation.

Compared to earlier generations, sales of the fourth-generation Charger were disappointing, peaking at 65,900 units in 1976 but falling to 36,204 in 1977 and 2,735 in 1978 (a carryover year in which the last Chargers were built from remaining parts inventory). Perhaps the B-body Charger had exceeded its shelf life, or perhaps Chrysler intentionally removed the car from life support to focus on smaller and more fuel-efficient models. For a storied model that once brought racing glory to the brand (on street, strip and oval tracks), it was, perhaps, an ignoble end.