Dodge Charger SE: Muscle turns to personal luxury, 1975-78
The original Dodge Charger was a turbine-car-styled version of the Dodge Coronet with, in 1967, the potent 426 Hemi as an option. A highly successful, comprehensive restyling in 1968 jump-started sales, but as the muscle car era wound down, so did Charger sales, which peaked in 1973 and plummeted in 1974. Product planners looked at the market and the competition, and decided to move towards “personal luxury,” (mid-sized cars with high-end trim, sound insulation, and comfort); GM and Ford were doing very well in that segment, while muscle cars, in addition to having high engineering and production costs, were languishing.
As Burton Bouwkamp, Dodge’s product planner, said:
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 two-doors — or carry over the 1974 skin.
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 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... 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.
Thus, in 1975, Dodge brought out the Charger SE, a clone of the Chrysler Cordoba; even its front clip (grille, headlights, and bumpers) was nearly identical to the early Cordobas. (See Charger SEs and Cordobas being made.) The Charger SE had a huge amount of standard equipment, in keeping with its luxury-car market niche. The base engine was a 360 two-barrel, a decent enough performer with 180 net horsepower; $153 would buy a four barrel carburetor good for another 20 horsepower. Those seeking better mileage could trade down to a 318 V8 with 150 hp; but with the 360, the Charger SE was sprightly, yet far more economical than with the 400 cubic inch, 245 horsepower four-barrel V8 (a $73 option).
A new Charger Daytona had bigger tires and wheels than the standard SE; it bore no functional resemblance to the original Dodge Charger Daytona which took NASCAR by storm.
Chrysler’s brochure called the Charger SE “an all-new expression of personal luxury ... luxurious without being pretentious.” They pointed out its 24-ounce shag carpeting, electronic digital clock, indirect front and rear interior lights, radials, front and rear sway bars, power steering and front disc brakes, automatic transmission, electronic ignition, and sound insulation.
Charger SE had the newly popular “formal styling” which moved numerous Valiant Signets and would be notable on the Volare and Aspen; it was sold only as a two door hardtop coupe, with a long hood, short rear deck, opera windows, and rear pillar louvers. The formal styling did not help aerodynamics, and Dodge’s NASCAR drivers gained 14 Grand National wins — in 1974 Chargers.
The strategy did not seem to work in 1975, as Charger sales fell yet again, this time to just under 31,000 units. But in 1976, sales ticked upwards of 50,000.
A running change in 1976 was the new seven-step autophretic coating system to fight rust, presumably a response to the Volare/Aspen problems; it cleaned parts numerous times with recirculating and fresh water (both standard and de-ionized) before coating with an autophoretic chemical coating and being dried and cured. The system used less energy than asphalt-based rustproofing, while reducing fire hazards and pollutants. The Charger and Charger Sport joined SE, having more of a Dodge Coronet look, but sales were under 18,000, and they disappeared again.
Changes for 1977 included bucket seats with thinner backs to increase passenger space, new colors, door-mounted courtesy lights, and recessed armrests. Every corporate V8 was available, but the 318 moved from its old 3.2:1 rear axle to an economy 2.7:1 axle. T-bar roof and power sunroof were optional. The Charger’s performance suspension greatly increased cornering ability, at the expense of comfort, versus the Cordoba; visually they remained nearly identical.
In 1977, the Charger SE was good for a little over 36,000 sales; new features for the year included a high-efficiency, low-slip torque converter, new wire terminal system, double-contact starter relay, upgraded batteries, and weight losses from changes such as aluminum transmission cases (manual) and lighter fans. Radios, including those with tape decks and CBs, were built by the Huntsville Electronics Division. Specific Charger changes included bucket seats with thinner backs to increase passenger space, new colors, door-mounted courtesy lights, and recessed armrests.
In 1978, the Charger SE was joined by the Dodge Magnum, which was, save mainly for its front clip, identical to the Charger SE. In its final year, not quite 3,000 Charger Special Editions hit and left the lots, compared with nearly 48,000 Magnums. The Charger name would continue, moving in the 1980s to an Omni-based “pocket rocket” and in 2004 to a rear wheel drive, four door sedan.
|Specifications||1971-74 Charger||Charger SE|
|Wheelbase / length||115” / 205”||115 / 215.3|
|Headroom, front/rear||37”/36”||37.7 / 36.6|
|Cargo volume||14.2 cubic feet||14.5 cubic feet|