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The History and Evolution of the Dodge Challenger

When it comes to muscle cars, very few models can rival the Dodge Challenger. The Challenger made its official debut in 1969, with 165,437 models availed to the public. The Dodge could be identified by its luxurious interior, large dimensions, and long wheelbase. It was extremely popular and was mostly advertised to young rich Americans. Despite heavy criticism from the press during that time, the Challenger was adored by the public. It introduced something that the other rivals lacked: the largest variety of powertrain options in the industry, from the big “Elephant Motor” – the 426 HEMI – to the small but robust 225 cubic inch “Slant Six”. During its short five-year tenure, the Dodge Challenger managed to secure its place in the automotive history. In fact, there are very few examples available today, and they each go for 6-figure prices. Perhaps then, this is a good time to reflect on the history and evolution of the Dodge Challenger.

1970 – First Production Model

The first production models for the Dodge Challenger came in 1970. The car was frighteningly similar to Chrysler in terms of the “E-body” short deck, long hood platform, but its wheelbase was 2 inches longer to create more space on the inside. The Dodge Challenger was available as a convertible or 2-door hardtop, Trans-Am (T/A) trim, Road/Track (R/T), and Special Edition (SE). Perhaps the most impressive feat was the wide range of powertrain options. These included: 390hp 440 cubic inch V8; 375 hp 440 cubic inch V8; 425hp 426 cubic inch V8; 335hp 383 cubic inch V8; 330hp 383 cubic inch V8; 290hp 383 cubic inch V8; 275hp 340 cubic inch V8; 230hp 318 cubic inch V8; and 145hp 225 cubic inch I6.

The different engines came with driveline options such as a 3-or 4-speed manual or Chrysler’s TorqueFlite automatic. Customers could also order big block Challengers with a heavy duty Dana 60-differential integrated with limited slip differential. Everything about the muscle car screamed performance, including the paint schemes with colors such as HEMI Orange and Plum Crazy, highlighted with “bumblebee” stripes. Additionally, customers could customize their cars with rear deck wings, “shaker” hoods, and twin scooped hoods.

Keeping in line with the marque’s legacy of performance, the Dodge Challenger entered racing in its debut year. The limited edition T/A model was chosen to represent the car as it adhered to the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Trans-Am racing requirements. Sam Posey was behind the wheels of the Trans-Am racing Some reputable drag racers such as Ted Spehar and Dick Landy also drove Challengers in the Pro Stock class of the National Hot Rod Association. The HEMIowered Challengers would go on to dominate this class between 1970 and ’71. A 1970 Challenger R/T also appeared on the big screen in the movie: Vanishing Point – considered one of the greatest high speed pursuit films of all time. Some of the other movies where the 1970 Dodge Challengers have starred include Phantasm I and II, Natural Born Killers, and Used Cars.

1971 – Second Production Model

For the 1971 production model, the Dodge Challenger received some minor styling changes, particularly around the grille and tail lamps. The single tail lamp styling in the 1970 model was modified into 2 distinct lights while a new twin inlet grille was incorporated with silver painting on the standard models and black painting on the R/Ts. The latter were also equipped with a set of fiberglass quarter panel louvers. In addition, the lineup received a new coupe model featuring fixed quarter windows. The Dodge Challenger retained the exterior colors, striping options, and wide range of trim levels that made the car remarkably special but then dropped the R/T convertible, SE models, and the T/A.

EPA emission standards were also adjusted during this period, leading to some changes in the powertrain. For starters, the 340 cubic inch Six pack-equipped power-plant and the optional 440 cubic inch 375hp engine were eliminated. The compression ratio for the 440 cubic inch 375hp engine was lowered, resulting in a power output of 300hp for improved emissions. A Dodge Challenger graced its presence at the 1971 Indianapolis 500 race.

1972 – More Changes

The introduction of new EPA emissions standards and escalating insurance rates resulted in further changes in the Dodge Challenger for the 1972 models. What’s more, the horsepower and torque rating test was revised to a “net” (from a “gross”), leading to a 20 to 30 percent reduction in all ratings. When the 1972 Dodge Challenger was finally released, it offered only three engine options: the 240hp 340 cubic inch V8, the 150hp 318 cubic inch V8, and the 110hp 225 cubic inch Slant Six. These were all designed to use the just introduced unleaded fuel. Due to the previous drop in convertible sales, only hardtop models were available.

The 1972 Dodge Challenger received a new front-end design that incorporated a larger grille painted black for the Rallye performance model (which replaced the road truck edition) and argent for the standard Challengers. Both sides of the tail lamp design were equipped with twin lights, with the same color on the grille being applied on the center panel.

1973 – New Bumper Impact Standards

From 1973, the federal government pushed new standards for the bumper impact, leading to the incorporation of 5-miles-per-hour bumpers on the exterior with bigger rubber guards that protruded from the bodywork. The only seating material available on the inside was grained vinyl, although the Rallyle version benefited from a new instrument cluster styling. The Rallyle was later eliminated as an independent model, but customers had the ability to create one with options. The 6-cylinder engine was also jettisoned, leaving the standard 318 cubic inch 150hp V8 and the optional 340 cubic inch 240hp V8.

1974 – Safety

Due to a rapid increase in insurance rates for performance vehicles, the 1974 Dodge Challenger was armed with more safety equipment. This included lap & shoulder belts with an inertia reel and a government- mandated seatbelt ignition interlock that prevented the car from starting if the driver/passenger were not buckled up. A new engine option was also introduced to replace the 340 cubic inch V8 – the 245hp 360 cubic inch V8. In April 1974, production ended for the Challenger, having sold around 188,600 examples over a 5-year period.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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