The rise and downfall of the original Charger

The rise and downfall of the (Original) Dodge Charger
Burton Bouwkamp, Dodge Product Plannerby Burton Bouwkamp (reprinted by permission from a speech given in July 2004)

Acknowledgement: John Benedict was manager of a department in Engineering that I call Technical Services and Publications. I want to thank John for the hundreds of charts, pictures, and slides that his department made for me over the years. When I put the slides together for this talk I fully realized the great service that he provided to me. Today's slides came from my file, my camera, websites, books, magazines and the Chrysler Museum. Allpar did not use images from books or magazines except the Townsend magazine covers.
I have titled this “The Birth and Death of the Dodge Charger.” We created it and we buried it - not intentionally of course. We launched the product in a favorable direction - improved it - made a wrong turn but then we stood by while it drifted off course and eventually ran into a ditch. It was mostly our doing - but we had some help from the newly established CAFE standard, consumer nervousness about gasoline prices and availability, high insurance rates on sporty cars, the sagging economy, and our own corporate financial limitations.
In the 13 year life of the Dodge Chargers we built slightly more than 710,000 of them. Today they are a collector's item and there are several active Dodge Charger Owner's Clubs.

Dodge charger sales chart
Let's spend a few moments on this chart. It shows by different color the four generations of Charger. First shown in blue is the "fastback Coronet" design. Then in 1968 and shown in red the unique skin - and probably the most recognized Charger style. Then in green a sleek new design in 1971 on a shortened wheelbase. ') And finally in purple - the 1975 Cordoba derivative which was not admired - or purchased - by Charger's fan club. In hindsight a formal up market style was not the right product for Dodge. In 1974 at a consumer research study to learn how to merchandize the 1975 style - a Charger owner probably expressed it best when he said to me, "I see the nameplate on the car but that is not a Charger!"
Please remember that what I am talking about happened more than 30 years ago and my 77 year old brain is not what it used to be. But in a way a perspective from 30 to 35 years away is better because now I can see the forest. When I was embroiled in the details of the car business every day- sometimes all could see were the trees - and I "rattled" around in them.
Lynn Townsend
The Dodge Charger was born as a result of a new market plan for Dodge that was -mandated by Chrysler's new President Lynn Townsend. Lynn was appointed to this position in 1962. His vision was that the Chrysler carline competed with Oldsmobile and Buick, Plymouth competed with Chevrolet and Ford, and Dodge competed with Pontiac. A logical plan - BUT - that is not what the Dodge Dealers - or the Dodge Sales Division wanted. They wanted to continue to compete with Chevrolet and Ford - and Plymouth!
I was appointed Chief Engineer and Manager of Dodge Passenger Car Product Planning in 1964. On my first day on the new job, John Hussey - Bob Anderson's administrative assistant - welcomed me to the Product Planning Department. I commented how happy I was to be there and went on to say that my new position was like having a 50 yard line seat at a football game watching the Corporation in action.
John's response was memorable - and prophetic. He said that he thought I would find out that my seat was more like sitting behind the goalie at a hockey game because now and then I would get a puck in my mouth. John was right!
Actually, I was not really a Chief Engineer - but in those days a car company had to have a Chief Engineer - so that was in my job title. I was really just the Manager of Dodge Passenger Car Product Planning. Here's the Product Planning Office cast of characters in 1968.
In the Product Planning Office we facetiously defined Product Planning as a series of product mistakes sufficiently corrected to show a profit.
Shortly after my appointment to the Dodge job I was asked to go to Mr. Townsend's office. This was the first of three one-on-one meetings that I had with "the Boss." When you are a 38 year old newly appointed manager you don't forget one-on-one meetings with the President. Anyway, Lynn's message to me was "think Pontiac." He wanted to be sure that I got the message that there was a new market plan for Dodge. For the next year the Dodge Dealers took every opportunity to tell the management they wanted to sell in the Ford-Chevrolet-Plymouth market. They formalized their responses through recommendations of the National Dodge Dealers Council to the Corporation.
The argument got pretty hot. At a Dodge Dealers National Council meeting in Detroit in 1964 Lynn Townsend briefly addressed the Council of approximately 25 dealers. He restated the new Dodge market plan and told the dealers that they were not going to tell us how to run our business and if they did not like the Dodge franchise to go get a franchise that they did like. Then he abruptly marched out of the room and left us all sitting there with our mouths open.
1968 Dodge cars product planning team
The conflict went on and the pressure got so high that in 1965 we were authorized to plan one Chevrolet-Ford-Plymouth competitive model. It was a 121"WB "C" Body 4 door sedan with a 318 cu. in. V8. We called it the "Polara 318". It wasn't the 119" WB model that the Dodge Dealers wanted but it gave them a fleet model that was priced to compete with Chevrolets, Fords, and Plymouths.
You're probably wondering - what does this have to do with the Charger? I had to paint that picture to explain Lynn's next product move.
Why did the Charger have different side marker lights every year, for three years?
Lynn Townsend was at odds with the Dodge Dealers and wanted to do something to please them. So in 1965 he asked me to come to his office - for the second time. He noted that one of the Dodge Dealer Council requests was for a Barracuda type vehicle. The overall dealer product recommendation theme was the same - we want what Plymouth has. The specific request for a Mustang type vehicle was not as controversial to Lynn. His direction to me was to give them a specialty car but he said "for God's sake don't make it a derivative of the Barracuda": i.e. don't make it a Barracuda competitor.
So the 1966 Charger was born.
Money and timing dictated a derivative of an existing product so the first Charger became a fastback derivative of the Coronet 2 door hardtop. Considering the limitations of relatively short Coronet front sheet metal and long "B" body rear overhang, Bill Brownlie and his team did an exceptional job in designing this vehicle. You can fully appreciate this great design job by comparing the first Charger to the Marlin which was a similar size fastback derivative of a conventional 2 door model.
dodge charger show car
rear bucket seats
We built a Charger "idea" car which we displayed at auto shows in 1965 to stimulate market interest in the concept. It was the approved design but we told the press and auto show attendees that it was just an "idea" and that we would build it if they liked it It was pre-ordained that they would like it.
With a January 1st introduction we sold 37,000 Dodge Chargers in 1966. The interior featured-four bucket seats and a full length floor console.
In 1967 we removed the rear seat floor console because customers complained about the console interfering with access to the left rear seat from a curbside entrance. In this picture the rear seats and arm rest are folded down.
We only sold 15,000 Chargers in 1967 which shows that the desire for this unique looking fastback was largely satisfied in 1966.
The aerodynamic fast back C shape was not as good a race car as we hoped. The body shape caused so much lift at the rear wheels above 180 MPH that the drivers had difficulty controlling the car at Daytona - especially in the "D" shaped curve in front of the main grandstand. The drivers said it was like driving on ice. To add down force and make the car handle better at these speeds we riveted a 2" to 3" high spoiler to the rear of the lift gate - which added downforce and some "drag". The spoiler was approved by NASCAR as "stock" because we made it available as a dealer installed option. With the spoiler addition the 1966-7 Charger was competitive — but it was no better than Richard Petty's notch back Satellite. A bright spot came on July 4th when Sam McQuagg won the Firecracker 400 in a spoiler equipped Dodge Charger.
1968 dodge charger carsThe 1968 Product Plan for our "B" body cars - Coronet, Satellite, Charger - was a new exterior skin and new roofs. The degree of change was, essentially, a new car above the platform. For the Charger we proposed a unique skin including door outer and roof but with a common cowl, windshield and roof rails with Satellite and Coronet hardtops. The increased degree of uniqueness for Charger was obviously more expensive then the 1966-7 formula but it was approved.
Bill Brownlie and Burt BouwkampBill Brownlie and I then put our heads together to plan the design alternatives. Bill wanted to do another fastback but I did not because it committed us to a level of trim in the rear seat and cargo area that would cost more than $25 a car. I wanted to spend that money in other ways - ones I thought would get a more favorable response from the customer. Styled road wheels instead of decorative wheel covers would be an example. We reached a compromise roof design which the press called a "tunnel roof' or a "flying buttress" design. Anyway, it gave Bill the fast C-pillar design that he wanted and it gave me $25 to spend somewhere else because we were able to do a conventional rear seat and shelf panel design.
Bill Brownlie was the man behind the design of the first three generations of Chargers. Here's a picture of Bill and I at a Los Angeles show with another Charger idea car. Bill is deceased but he is here in spirit.
One other controversy arose during the design of the '68 Charger and that was over the exposed decorative gas cap. It was a polarizing design feature - management was either strongly for it - or against it. I did not get directly involved because Chuck Kelley (Dodge's "B" Body Product Planning Manager) and I felt that the car design was so good overall that it would be successful with or without the exposed gas cap. Finally, the Corporate Product Planning Committee resolved the issue by deciding in favor of the Design Office proposal for a decorative gas filler cap.
1968 dodge charger
The first time we showed the car to the Long Lead Press at the Proving Ground in June of 1967 we knew we had a "winner". They went crazy over it. We had to enforce the time that Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, and Hot Rod magazines were scheduled for driving evaluations and pictures. The dealer shows in August confirmed the enthusiasm for the design.
Even our competitors admired it. Ed Estes, the son of Pete Estes the President of General Motors, was my backdoor neighbor in 1968. Ed told me that his Dad drove a Dodge Charger a lot. I asked, "Why?" Ed said "Because he likes it."
Product Engineering magazine featured the new Charger in its September 1967 issue. In the 1968 model year we sold 96,000 Chargers which was all we could build. The '68 Charger appealed to young people - the median age of the Charger buyer was only 30 years old, which was 20 years younger than Dart, Coronet, Polara and Monaco buyers.
We changed the Charger very little in 1969. New grille and new taillights - and we still sold 90,000.
The 1970 Charger changes were more extensive but still modest - a new loop bumper which surrounded a new grill. Sales dropped to 50,000 in 1970 partly because the Corporation's product and merchandizing emphasis was on the new Dodge Challenger.. a new market entry for Dodge. The new 1970 Challenger and Barracuda - we called it the "E" Body - almost cost me my job. But that's another story that I'll tell you about next year.
dodge charger racing record
During the 1969 model we added two aerodynamic models to reduce aerodynamic drag and improve the performance of the Charger on the longer NASCAR race tracks. At the beginning of the year we added the Charger 500 model. We changed the tunnel roof backlite to a flush fast roof line and we pulled the grille forward so that it was not recessed. Actually, this input came from our race teams. To respond quickly to this need we had a vehicle conversion vendor - probably Creative Industries - modify regular production vehicles to create Charger 500's. Now we had a competitive race car.
The Charger 500 first raced at Riverside on February 1st. From February 1st until September 14th Dodge won 15 races against Ford's 22 wins. Not a winner but we were at the ballgame". With the debut of the second aerodynamic model in September 1969 - the Charger Daytona - at Talladega, Alabama it was a new ballgame. From September 14th through the next year we won 45 out of and the next 59 races.
After September 14, 1969 through the 1970 race season this is what the racing fans saw. During this year and a half Dodge and Plymouth dominated NASCAR .. winning 75% of the races. I remember being at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall of 1969 watching our cars running 1 st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in a diamond formation. They looked like the Blue Angels circling the speedway. I looked at Bob Rodger - our head of racing - and although he was dying of leukemia tears of joy were streaming down his cheeks.
The Daytona.. and its sister car - the 1970 Plymouth Superbird were so successful on the NASCAR long tracks (called "superspeedways") that a new rule for 1971 required these "winged warriors" to reduce engine displacement to 305 cu. in. NASCAR decided that our domination of the sport was not good for racing. They also decided to slow all the cars down by requiring 426 hemi engines and 429 Ford Boss engines to use carburetor restrictor plates.
Dodge Charger Daytona - at Daytona Speedway
How did the Charger Daytona come about? The credit goes to Bob Rodger. He was already tagged as the "father of the Chrysler 300" when he was Chief Engineer of Chrysler in 1955 - and my boss. Fourteen years later Bob worked for me because I had moved to Director of Product Planning. Bob had just returned from the 1969 Daytona race and reported that Ford dominated the race with a new model having unique aerodynamic front sheet metal on a Torino fastback roof body. Ford called this special model the “Talladega.” At that time manufacturers only had to build 500 cars to qualify a model as “stock.” Bob said that this amounted to “funny car” circuit racing and he proposed that we build 500 of the ultimate race car no matter how impractical it was. I approved his proposal - after all, the man used to be my boss and I still looked up to him even though on the organization chart he reported to me.
Bob went to Morgan Dawley, Manager of the Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, and Gary Romberg, Chrysler's aerodynamist, and asked them to develop an aerodynamic racecar based on a Dodge Charger. Morgan and Gary went to work based on their fluid flow knowledge and experience. Their development work was supported by high speed testing at the Chelsea Proving Ground. We did not have a wind tunnel at that time so we had to test scale models in a rented wind tunnel or full size models in the real world. Morgan and Gary used proving ground drivers and professional race car drivers for Ihe high speed testing. The result of this work was the Charger Daytona. Bob Rodger then arranged for Creative Industries to build 500 Charger Daytonas from Charger 500s.
Seven of the "winged warriors" showed up for the September 14, 1969 race at Talladaga, Alabama - a brand new NASCAR superspeedway. After practicing at near 200 MPH most of the best known drivers got together in a newly formed Professional Drivers Association and boycotted the race. They said that the track was "too rough" and the cars were "too fast for the tires." Bill France called their bluff and said there was going to be a race on Sunday even if he had to enter the Grand Touring cars that raced on Saturday. After a number of heated meetings with NASCAR, six of the seven "winged warrior" drivers loaded up five of the seven Daytonas and left the track Saturday afternoon. Bobby Isaac never joined the PDA and stayed at the track to drive a Ray Nichols Daytona. Richard Brickhouse, a relatively unknown driver, saw an opportunity to get behind the wheel of a competitive car and Saturday afternoon he quit the Professional Drivers Association so he could substitute for Charlie Glotzbach in the other Ray Nichols Daytona. The race went on as scheduled on Sunday and Dodge swept the first four positions with Richard Brickhouse in 1st and Bobbie Isaac in 4th because of some tire and overheating problems.
Plymouth Superbird
Plymouth dealers wanted a competitive race car - so we did the Superbird. By this time NASCAR upped the "stock" requirement to 1500 vehicles. We contracted with Creative Industries to build 1500 1970 Superbirds. It was hard to sell 1500 Superbirds - we learned that 500 of these “birds” were not enough, and 1500 was too many.
Today, a "winged warrior" in restored condition with a Hemi engine will bring around $100,000.
The “winged warriors” were parked in 1971. With a 305 cu. in. engine they would not be competitive. We continued to support NASCAR racing in 1971 - but to a lesser degree after our race cars were disallowed and our race engines were "handicapped." We did a contract with Richard Petty to run two 1971 cars - a Plymouth and a Dodge. By July they had converted these cars to wedge engines because they found out that the same displacement wedge was faster than a hemi with a 1 1/4" restrictor plate. Wedge engines finished 1-2-3-4 at the Firecracker 400. Our corporate interest turned to Trans Am racing with our new Barracuda and Challenger carlines under the direction of Dan Gurney.
I did not intend this to be about racing - but racing is interesting and it is fun - but only when you win in this high stakes game.
Back to Charger.
The Hemi engine was installed in less than 2% of Chargers but it made an immense contribution to the image and the desirability of the carline. It's still doing it today.
The "B" body was new above the platform in 1971 - which meant all new Chargers and Coronets. The intermediate segment market plan and the sheet metal interchangeability were different for 1971. All 2 doors were Chargers and were on a 115" wheelbase. Coronets were 4 doors at 117" wheelbase. There were four price classes of Chargers and two performance models - R/T and Super-Bee. Chargers and Coronets did not share any exterior sheet metal. That gave the stylists more design latitude and this 1971 Charger style evolved. It was modern, sleek and sporty. It received an enthusiastic response from dealers and customers and Charger sales climbed 50% to 75,000. In 1972 with minimal changes 68,000 Chargers were sold.
1973 Charger sales were 108,000 - the highest ever - and were stimulated by this distinctive SE roof treatment. Sales in 1974 of a mostly carryover Charger design were 60,700.
Yogi Berra said when you come to a fork in the road - take it. Charger came to that fork in the road in 1975. Chrysler Division needed a personal luxury car to compete in the market segment with Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Thunderbird, Riviera, and Toronado so a new market entry - the Cordoba - was created based on the B - Body. It was the right move - selling 150,000 Cordobas in the first year. But it left a dilemma for Dodge Charger product planners.. either share a new skin with Cordoba or with the new Satellite/Coronet 2 doors - or carry over the 1974 skin. We chose the Cordoba alternative which brought the formal style to the Charger. The Satellite/Coronet skin would have been sportier but it would have sacrificed a distinctive appearance for Charger. Carrying over the four year old 1971-1974 skin would have sacrificed a new appearance which is important to this style conscious market. An all new unique design was the optimum solution for the 1975 Charger but that alternative was not affordable and the additional skin would have caused unacceptable manufacturing complexity.
We asked Bill Brownlie to "put some hair" on the formal design through ornamentation, but we could not stimulate buyer interest in the Charger. Our sales in 1975 were only 31,000. In 1976, sales were encouraging - up 70% to 53,000 but then back down to 36,000 in 1977. I think the young man's words "I see the Charger nameplate but that's no Charger" defined the problem.
In 1978 the Magnum SE - using a facelifted Charger/Cordoba skin - was introduced -and only 2,700 Chargers were built in its last year.
So ended the Dodge Charger.
I moved to Europe in January of 1975. From that time my knowledge of Charger was only what I read in newspapers, magazines, and sales reports. However, I can't escape that I was Director of Product Planning and was part of the fateful 1975 model decision that sent the Charger on a path to oblivion. Maybe Charger would not have made it even with a new unique sporty appearance in 1975. After all the Cordoba was the right design for 1975 and that nameplate latest only through 1983.
The Dodge Charger is coming back. This is a picture of the latest Charger idea car with 1969 and 1970 Chargers in the background. If we like it they will build it. I think they will build it anyway because I doubt that the new Dodge Magnum wagon will sell at the Intrepid 4 door sedan volume level which was more than 100,000 per year.
Remember that I told you that we dreamed up cynical definitions and slogans in Product Planning to amuse ourselves. Here is one of my favorites which we called "Phases of a Program."
Gary Rombert wrote: “Bob Rodger was a major driver. Dale Reeker and Larry Rathgeb were the major executors. John Pointer was the proving grounds engineer and Bob Marcel was Morgan Dawley's Aerodynamic engineer. I came in the middle of 1969 and was the Aero guy after Marcel left for bigger and better things. As you said, we didn't have a wind tunnel to do the development work in. We rented the Wichita State wind tunnel in Wichita, Kansas. We not only did the high speed testing at our proving grounds, we also rented various race tracks and had the NASCAR drivers test for us. Yes, Creative Industries did the modifications which turned the D series race car (Charger 500) into the Charger Daytona.”