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The Birth and Death of the (Original) Dodge Charger

general lee

by Burton Bouwkamp
(2004)

I have titled this “The Birth and Death of the Dodge Charger.” We created it and we buried it — not intentionally.

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 new CAFE rules, 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. Today they are a collector’s item and there are several active Dodge Charger clubs.

dodge charger sales chart

Let’s spend a few moments on this chart. It shows the four generations of the Charger. First, in blue, is the “fastback Coronet” design. Then, in 1968, the unique skin, probably the most recognized Charger style. Next, in green, a sleek new design in 1971 on a shortened wheelbase.

Finally, in purple, the 1975 Cordoba derivative which was not admired, or purchased, by Charger’s fan club. In hindsight, a formal upmarket style was not the right product for Dodge.

charger SE

In 1974, at a consumer research study to learn how to merchandize the 1975 style, a Charger owner said to me, “I see the nameplate on the car, but that is not a Charger!”

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.

charger

The original Dodge Charger was born as a result of a new market plan for Dodge that was mandated by Chrysler’s new-for-1962 President, Lynn Townsend. His vision was that the Chrysler cars 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!

Lynn Townsend

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 both 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!

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.

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, I was asked to go to Mr. Townsend’s office for 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.

product planning

For the next year, the Dodge dealers took every opportunity to tell the management they wanted to sell in the Ford-Chevrolet-Plymouth market, formalizing 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 around 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.

1966 polara

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-wheelbase C-body four door sedan with a 318 V8. We called it the Polara 318. It wasn’t the 119" wheelbase model that the Dodge dealers wanted, but it gave them a car 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. One of the Dodge Dealer Council requests was for a Barracuda type vehicle; the theme was the same — “we want what Plymouth has.” This request was not as controversial to Lynn. He told me to give them a specialty car, but he said, “For God’s sake don’t make it a derivative of the Barracuda” — that is, don’t make it a Barracuda competitor.

dodge charger show car

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 two-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.

dodge charger with burton bouwkamp

rear bucket seatsYou 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 two door model.

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.

1964 dodge charger concept car

With a January 1st introduction, we sold 37,000 Dodge Chargers in 1966. The interior had four bucket seats and a full length floor console. We removed the rear seat floor console the next year, 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.

rear of the 1966 dodge charger

The fastback shape was not as good a race car as we had 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 downforce and make the car handle better at these speeds, we riveted a two or three inch high spoiler to the rear of the liftgate. The spoiler was approved by NASCAR because we made it a dealer installed option. With that addition, the 1966-7 Charger was competitive, but it was no better than Richard Petty’s notchback Satellite.

A bright spot came on July 4th when Sam McQuagg won the Firecracker 400 in a spoiler equipped Dodge Charger.

1968 dodge charger cars

The 1968 Product Plan for our B-body cars (Coronet, Satellite, Charger) was a new exterior skin and new roofs. It 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.

1968 dodge charger

(Design chief) Bill Brownlie and I then put our heads together to plan the design. 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, such as styled road wheels instead of decorative wheel covers.

We reached a compromise roof design which the press called a “tunnel roof” or “flying buttress.” 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 and Burt Bouwkamp

Bill Brownlie was the man behind the design of the first three generations of Chargers. Here’s a picture of Bill and me at a Los Angeles show with another Charger idea car. Bill is deceased but he is here in spirit.

Another controversy arose during the design of the ’68 Charger — the decorative gas cap. It was a polarizing design; management was either strongly for it or strongly 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 either way. Finally, the Corporate Product Planning Committee decided in favor of the Design Office proposal for a decorative gas filler cap.

fuel capThe 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 were scheduled for driving evaluations and pictures. Even Product Engineering magazine featured the new Charger in its September 1967 issue. 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.”

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.

interior of a Plymouth Sport Satellite

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 emphasis was on the new Dodge Challenger, which almost cost me my job. But that’s another story.

dodge charger racing record

During the 1969 model year, we added two 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. We changed the tunnel roof backlite to a flush fast roof line and we pulled the grille forward so that it was not recessed, at the request of our race teams. To respond quickly, we had a conversion vendor, Creative Industries, modify regular production vehicles to create Charger 500s. Now we had a competitive race car.

Charger 500

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, it was a new ballgame. From September 14th through the next year we won 45 out of the next 59 races.

Dodge Charger Daytona - at Daytona Speedway

From 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 1st, 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.

dodge daytona

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 cubic inches. NASCAR had 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.

Charlie Glotzbach

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 (and my boss) in 1955. 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.

charger daytona

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.

wind tunnel

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 the 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, 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.

cars on the oval

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; on 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 requirement for stock class to 1,500 vehicles. We contracted with Creative Industries to build 1500 of the 1970 Superbirds. It was hard to sell 1500 Superbirds - we learned that 500 of these “birds” were not enough, and 1500 was too many.

road runnerToday [2004], 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 cubic inch 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 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.

hemi in charger

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.

dodge charger pictures - 1971 R/T

The B body, including all Chargers and Coronets, was new above the platform in 1971. Both the intermediate car market plan and the sheet metal interchangeability were different for 1971.

All two doors were Chargers, on a 115” wheelbase; all Coronets were four doors on a 117” wheelbase. There were four price classes of Chargers and two performance models, R/T and Super Bee.

1971 dodge charger 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 dodge charger

1973 Charger sales were 108,000, the highest ever, stimulated by this distinctive SE roof treatment. Sales in 1974 of a mostly carryover Charger design were 60,700.

dodge charger dashboard

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 with Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Thunderbird, Riviera, and Toronado, so a new entry, the Cordoba, was created, based on the B body.

Chrysler Cordoba

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, share with the new Satellite/Coronet two doors, or carry over the 1974 skin.

1975 dodge charger

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 the Charger. Carrying over the four year old 1971-1974 skin would have sacrificed a new appearance, which is important to this style conscious market.

A new, unique design was the optimum solution for the 1975 Charger, but that was not affordable and the additional skin would have caused unacceptable manufacturing complexity.

1978 Dodge Charger

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.

1978 Dodge Magnum

So ended the Dodge Charger.

I moved to Europe in January 1975. From that time, my knowledge of Charger was only what I read in newspapers, magazines, and sales reports. However, I can’t escape the fact that I was Director of Product Planning and was part of the fateful 1975 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 lasted only through 1983.

Dodge Charger cars

The Dodge Charger is coming back [written in 2004]. 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 four door sedan volume level which was more than 100,000 per year.

I told you that we dreamed up cynical definitions and slogans in Product Planning to amuse ourselves. Here is one of my favorites:

Postscript

Gary Rombert wrote:

Bob Rodger was a major driver [of the Charger Daytona]. 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. We rented the Wichita State wind tunnel. We not only did the high speed testing at our proving grounds, we also rented race tracks and had the NASCAR drivers test for us.”

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, I fully realized the great service that he provided to me.

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