Dodge performance had its genesis in Charger

1966 Dodge Charger was based on the Dodge Coronet, but given a fastback, hidden headlights, as well as a sporty interior and a lot of power under the hood. Photo from Top Speed

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Dodge was a respected but staid division of Chrysler Corporation, and much like Mercury at the Ford Motor Company, was sometimes ignored and taken for granted by its parent corporation.

At Chrysler, a lot of attention was paid to the more expensive Chrysler division.

Plymouth, the corporation’s value leader and chief competitor for Chevrolet and Ford buyers, was also the subject of attention and corporate investment.

But Dodge was left to its own devices, the dependable sibling that could be counted on to do chores without complaint, and whose good graces and mild manner were often assumed and expected.

Dodge was the corporation’s oldest division, having been organized as Dodge Brothers in 1914. Its founders, John and Horace Dodge, were original investors in the Ford Motor Company, and were contracted by Ford in 1903 to build and supply engines, axles and transmissions.

The brothers broke with Henry Ford in 1914 to build their own cars and were very successful. Their stake in the Ford Motor Company was sold in 1919 for $25 million.

Tragically, the two brothers died in 1920s, and their widows – both of them Canadian-born from the Windsor area – were left to manage Dodge Brothers.

The widows in 1925 sold the company to a group of New York investment bankers for $146 million. But the bankers subsequently mismanaged what had been a lucrative enterprise, so that Dodge Brothers was burdened with debt and losing money.

Walter Chrysler, in putting the pieces together to form Chrysler Corporation, purchased Dodge Brothers in 1928 in a deal worth $170 million. It was his intention to build Dodge cars to compete with cars such as GM’s Oldsmobile. The problem was that Chrysler had just created DeSoto to perform the same marketing service, so Dodge immediately faced sibling rivalry within the corporation.

At first, Dodge products were priced higher than DeSoto, but the roles of the two divisions were switched in the mid-1930s, and Dodge became more competitive. That was likely a good thing, as DeSoto struggled for the rest of its existence and would be closed in 1961.

Dodge cars were generally reliable but unexciting … but there was always a market for reliable and unexciting cars. It can be argued that Pontiac had the same role for much of its early life with General Motors.

But there was an immense sea-change in this thought in the mid-1950s, and as plans were made to phase-out DeSoto, Dodge was given a larger role. That role became better defined by the mid-1960s, as the division became known for performance. Although Plymouth would have cars like Barracuda and Roadrunner, the halo division for performance at Chrysler would always be Dodge.

What helped define that new role was Charger. It’s a name still used by Chrysler, but the original Charger was quite different. It was ostensibly launched as a Mustang-killer, but Chrysler brass didn’t want Charger to jeopardize Barracuda sales, which was Plymouth’s direct assault on Ford’s successful pony car.

Part of the problem was that while Plymouth dealers had a pony car in Barracuda, Dodge dealers had nothing except for Dart, a twin to Valiant, which provided the platform for Barracuda. And so the corporation decided that Dodge’s midsize platform would serve as a bridge between a pony car and a larger luxury car, like Ford’s Thunderbird.

Charger was launched in January 1966 as a ‘66 model. It was based on Dodge’s mid-sized B body, the Coronet. Dodge designers basically put a fastback onto a standard Coronet, hid the headlights behind a clever vertical grille, and sketched out a distinctive taillight assembly that went the full width of the car, spelling out CHARGER in chrome lettering.

Inside, they gave Charger bucket seats, a full-length console that went from the dash to the rear seat, and an instrument panel that included various gauges and lights not usually found in the standard Coronet. The shifter was on the console floor, and buyers had four V8 engines at their disposal – a base 318-cubic-inch engine, a 361-cubic-inch engine, a 383-cubicinch engine, and the all-new 426-cubic-inch Hemi. The Hemi Charger for 1966 is very rare, as only 426 were sold.

The V8 was mated to either Chrysler’s three-speed TorqueFlite three-speed automatic transmission, or a three-speed or four-speed manual gearbox.

Charger was not a small car. Mustang was rather compact, and was soon to be joined by the compact-sized Camaro and Firebird from General Motors, and the new Cougar from Mercury. But Charger was larger, allowing ample room for four adults, as well as providing for an enormous trunk. Its overall length was 203.6 inches, and it had a 117-inch long wheelbase. Charger was 75.8 inches wide.

Despite the fact that Charger was definitely on the large size, its credentials as a performance car were impeccable, and its initial sales were encouraging. Although introduced several months into the model year, 37,344 units were sold.

Dodge didn’t tinker too much with the 1967 Charger. There were minor changes, such as fender-mounted turn indicators, and an available vinyl roof. Inside, the distinctive full-length console was gone, replaced with a regular console.

There were more engine options. A 440 “Magnum” engine was available, rated at 375 brake horsepower. The 426 Street Hemi, meanwhile, was tweaked to produce 425 brake horsepower, but only 117 Chargers were sold with the Hemi.

Yet 1967 Charger sales were a disappointment, with only 15,788 units sold. It’s probable that the growing pony car boom was part of the reason. Sales for the new Camaro, the Mustang, the new Firebird and the new Cougar, were immense. But Dodge had big plans for 1968 – and the 1968 to 1970 Chargers are usually the models showcased to illustrate what a 1960s Charger looks like.

Despite that, the ‘66 and ‘67 Chargers remain important because they helped define Dodge’s new role within Chrysler Corporation. No longer would Dodge be pushed around by its corporate siblings; rather, the middle child had muscles and was ready to use them.