1966-1967 Dodge Charger

by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

The long-forgotten shape of the fastback coupe suddenly returned to prominence in the 1960s as a symbol of speed and style. Dodge jumped on the bandwagon to create the 1966-1967 Dodge Charger, a big fastback that could be as potent as it was pretty.

1966 Dodge Charger fastback
Although it didn't arrive on the market until January
1966, the new Charger quickly gave Dodge
a strong presence in the fastback revival that
sprouted in the mid-1960s.

Between 1962 and 1964, Chrysler Corporation stylists likely were the busiest in the industry, and for good reason -- they had the biggest job to do. The "Forward Look" fins of the 1950s were dead, and the new styling direction set by Virgil Exner -- first with the Valiant and then with the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge -- had failed in the marketplace, in part due to the disastrous downsizing of Exner's designs dictated by former Chrysler president William Newberg.

Chrysler's market share plummeted, and Exner was forced out. He was replaced in the fall of 1961 by Elwood Engel of Ford, who was supposedly responsible for the stunning 1961 Lincoln Continental, a car also drastically downsized, but with more fortunate results.

Engel had orders from Chrysler President Lynn Townsend to get the styling of the company's cars back into the mainstream, and designers and product planners worked overtime to accomplish the task as quickly as humanly possible. Once, during a tour of the studios, Townsend reportedly urged the stylists on with the words, "You guys are saving the corporation."

The last thing the harried staff needed was extra work. But Engel knew about the "pony" coming down the pike from Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, and pushed Chrysler execs to get moving even faster. Additionally, over at the General Motors Tech Center, designers and engineers were busy fashioning the upcoming Oldsmobile Toronado. Thus, despite their weighty workload, competitive pressures forced Chrysler's overburdened staff to create two new specialty vehicles.

The first of these was the 1964 Plymouth Barracuda. "The industry was rife with rumors of Ford's new Mustang," remembers Gene Weiss, retired Chrysler-Plymouth and Dodge product planning executive. "But the extent of how changed the Mustang was from the Falcon was not learned until it was too late, from a tooling standpoint, to do as much."

The Barracuda was a nice enough car, although, admittedly, an inadequate answer to the Ford Mustang. But as far as the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer body was concerned, at least it was something. The other specialty model was, of course, the Dodge Charger that followed the Barracuda to market 22 months later.

Although size-wise one was a compact and the other an intermediate, these two vehicles shared a common design signature -- both were fastbacks. Or as Weiss succinctly put it, "The Dodge Charger was the conceptual twin of the Plymouth Barracuda."

Consequently, both the Barracuda and the Charger were created from (and handicapped by) the same formula. Of necessity, both were "make-from" cars whose differences from their respective Valiant and Coronet siblings were essentially in the roof, backlight, and decklid.

What caused this sudden 1960s fascination with fastbacks?

Origins of the Fastback Body Style

Culturally, the two fastbacks from Highland Park -- the Dodge Charger and the Barracuda -- were part of a revival that was gathering momentum in the mid-1960s. But the fastback body style traced its design roots back 30 years earlier to Cadillac's fabulously sleek V-16 Fleetwood Aero-Dynamic coupe, which was specially built for the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair.

The coupe's severely sloped roofline was soon mimicked by equally avant garde Chrysler/DeSoto Airflows and Lincoln Zephyrs. By the late 1930s, most marques offered fastback designs in two- and four-door versions; some, like Buick, even offered fastback convertible sedans.

But the practicality of the companion "notchback" sedans, with their increased trunk capacity so obvious to the customer, might have caused the early demise of the fastback had General Motors not introduced a spate of fastback coupes in 1941 and 1942. These were lovely cars, whose finely honed, sloped, and tapered roof and rear body surfaces exhibited the feline grace of a fine-featured woman, face to the wind, with her long hair streaming behind her.

During World War II, pulp magazines and Sunday supplements ran stories for a car-starved public with glowing predictions of postwar models -- most were fastbacks. And when the dreamed-about postwar cars finally did arrive, most were, as predicted, fastbacks. Again, the loveliest examples came (in 1948-1949) from General Motors.

Others were notably less successful: Nashes being depicted as "bathtubs" and Packards being described as "pregnant." Those who bought -- and millions did -- soon learned it was difficult to see out the rear window of their streamliners, whose near-horizontal glass often became obscured with snow or road dust.

And even when clear, the sloped backlites made backing up a risky maneuver. Once their impracticalities became apparent, fastbacks disappeared after 1952; only the cash-starved like Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer (with its compact Henry J), firms that couldn't afford new tooling, continued the style.

As in a Greek tragedy, it was the parent of the fastback who killed it. When GM introduced its two-door "hardtop convertible" in 1949, the flashy newcomer quickly replaced the fastback coupe as the glamour car. The fastback was dead, and more than that, as discredited as fins were to become in the 1960s.

But suddenly, in the early 1960s, fastbacks were, well, back -- and with renewed respectability thanks to cars like the new Studebaker Avanti and the 1963 Corvette's oh-so-sexy split-window coupe. And, in a fortuitous concurrence, stock-car racing was also back -- a precursor of the muscle-car era just over the horizon.

But the upright, squared-off, aerodynamics-be-damned Thunderbird-style roofs and backlights of most existing Big Three two-door hardtop vehicles were anathema to racers, who pleaded for more wind-cheating rooflines to increase speeds and handling.

Ford, quick to appreciate the "race-it-on-Sunday, sell-it-on-Monday" possibilities, responded first in mid-1963 with its semi-fastback Galaxie 500/XL Sports Hardtops and companion Mercury Marauders. Although their functional disadvantages remained, fastbacks once again meant speed and style.

A specialized Dodge Polara featured in 1964 auto shows eventually gave its name to the Dodge Charger.
The Dodge Charger took its name from this
customized Polara, which made the rounds
of the auto show circuit in 1964.

Aside from its newfound credibility and glamour, the fastback style also had a built-in advantage from design, tooling, manufacturing, and marketing standpoints. Because the creation of a fastback involved changing basically only the roof and rear end, the fastback was the easiest, most obvious way to make a marketable difference on "make-from" cars like the initial Barracuda and Charger.

Designing the Dodge Charger

Coming immediately on the heels of Dodge's fastback Barracuda program, design work on the Dodge Charger was one of the projects in progress in the spring of 1963, when designer Jeffrey Godshall joined the Dodge Exterior Studio.

"Naturally, from a corporate standpoint, there was little point in duplicating Plymouth's compact-based fastback," he explains. Or, as then-Dodge Division General Manager Byron Nichols reportedly said, "Give us a car halfway between the Barracuda and the T-Bird, and we'll have a whole big chunk of market all to ourselves."

Creating the Dodge Charger off the company's intermediate "B-body" platform would meet that goal, plus provide an important advantage via the option sheet: Charger buyers would have access to all of Dodge's hot high-performance engines and other go-fast goodies. Thus, the Coronet-based fastback had the same wheelbase (117 inches, advertised; 116.5 inches, actual) and emerged barely 3/5 inch longer overall than the Coronet's 203-inch length.

At the time, much of the development of the all-new 1966 Coronet was well under way in the Dodge studio under the direction of studio manager John Schwarz. A team led by product planner Chuck Kelly, his boss, Burt Bouwkamp, and Dodge chief designer Bill Brownlie was charged with making the proposed fastback variant as distinctive as possible, yet having it retail for under $3,500.

The principal exterior stylist responsible for this initial Charger was Carl "Cam" Cameron, an extremely talented and prolific designer who several years ago retired from his position as manager of Chrysler's Product Identity Studio. Carl, who had worked at Ford and the Detroit-based industrial design firm of Sundberg-Ferar, came to Chrysler in 1962.

A preliminary sketch for a customized Polara that eventually led to the Dodge Charger.
This July 1963 drawing by 'Cam' Cameron, with its bold
"silverside" two-tone treatment,
eventually became a
customized 1964 Polara for the auto show circuit.
The Polara then gave its name -- and perhaps some of
its features -- to the Dodge Charger.

He was -- and is -- a unique guy who favored black cars and was a master at detail. He liked to begin his mornings -- often arriving late -- with a "sugar high" consisting of a candy bar and a Coke. When he sketched, his tongue hung out of his mouth, moving in conjunctive concentration with his Prisma-color pencil. ("We used to kid Carl that if he could have attached a pencil to his tongue, he could have sketched twice as fast," recalls Godshall.)

Designed around the limitations posed by using the Coronet's cowl, windshield, A-pillar, and hardtop door, the fastback roofline quickly took shape, with the side daylight opening drawn back to end in a vertical drop just forward of the rear wheels. Although the design emerged as a hardtop, Cameron recalls that a fixed B-pillar was also considered for structural reasons.

In the end, the hardtop style was chosen, even though it meant adding stiff reinforcing panels in the C-pillars and across the upper deck panel, the boxed-in construction of which doubled as a torsionally rigid support for the decklid. This also served as a plenum chamber for venting air from the passenger compartment through two large, concealed, rubber-covered vents.

Dodge Charger Design Details

One of Dodge Charger principal exterior stylist Carl "Cam" Cameron's sketches, dated July 10, 1963, carries a Monte Carlo moniker -- a name that would have made a neat soulmate to Dodge's upcoming full-size Monaco.

One of designer Carl Cameron's preliminary sketches for the 1966-1967 Dodge Charger.
When Dodge designer Carl Cameron drew this
'Monte Carlo,' he
imbued it with a number
of key elements that
would be found on the
production Charger.

That sketch and others show design details of the nascent Charger still with the carryover Coronet rear quarter panel with its low wheel opening. But in clay, it soon became apparent that the fastback design required a full rear-wheel opening to offset the visual weight of the huge triangular C-pillar.

The long arc of the Charger's fastback roof (highlighted by a narrow accent stripe available in red, black, or white) was delineated by slender rails or ridges that formed the outer perimeter of the roof. The outer edges of the rectangular, 1,421-square-inch backlight curled upward to flow into the inner contours of the side rails, which flowed down past the sloping rear deck.

Instead of terminating just above the taillights, Cameron wanted these ridges to angle sharply outward to the fender tips, then down, then back underneath a floating horizontal taillamp. Traced by bright moldings, the design would have mimicked a similar workout on the hood with the added plus of imparting a hint of the delta taillamp that was quickly being picked up by all studio stylists as a Dodge signature.

Urged on by design chief Elwood Engel, Cameron sketched a series of tantalizing variations, including one with woodgrain cascading down the roof panel and deck lid, and another substituting vinyl.

Chrysler stamping experts, who trekked into the studio for a look, deemed the hoped-for quarter panel/rear deck design impractical. Stamping did allow, however, for the unique-to-Charger twin simulated louvers pressed into the kicked up quarters forward of the rear wheels.

Floating above the Coronet rear bumper (modified to include back-up lamps) was a slender, vee-section ribbon of red lens, outlined in chrome, behind which were located six bulbs. All lit simultaneously for taillamp and brake functions, but activating the turn signals allowed either the left or right halves to flash your intentions. (Cameron wanted the turn signals to flash sequentially in three stages, but cost ruled that out.)

So there'd be no doubt as to what just passed you, individual letters spelled out CHARGER across the lens. One rejected idea was to use a clear lens lit by red bulbs, as on the early 1965 Chrysler New Yorkers.

The nearly flat surface of the decklid was set off by a large, handsomely detailed circular medallion, its red-amber plastic center topped with a floating "fratzog," Dodge's triangular trademark since 1962. Underneath, the spare tire was recessed into a well concealed by a hardboard panel that kept the floor level, a trick Chrysler years before had picked up from Kaiser-Frazer.

The front clip was mostly standard-issue Coronet. But what made the Charger's front end truly unique were its hidden headlamps. Chrysler had tried this idea once before, on the 1942 DeSoto, but its manual cable system delivered less than satisfactory results. But Charger competitors like the Corvette and Buick Riviera were to have disappearing lamps, so perhaps the time had come to take another look.

Pitching the Dodge Charger

Sketching the idea for a new fastback Dodge Charger was one thing, selling it was another. In order to pitch the Dodge Charger, the clay model was tricked up with actual working rotating lamps and dispatched into the Styling showroom.

After some preliminaries, which included darkening the showroom, design chief Elwood Engel flicked a remote switch and the grillework magically rotated around to reveal all four lamps, lit. This spectacular showmanship (something Engel loved) awed the surprised executives, and Styling carried the day over the somewhat dispirited objections of the engineers, who, of course, had to make sure the darned things worked -- every time.

preliminary idea for the 1966 Dodge Charger
The hidden-headlight grille stayed when this
prototype became the 1966 Dodge Charger . . .

preliminary idea for the 1966 Dodge Charger
But the through-the-bumper exhaust ports
and rear-deck 'ears' did not.

Veteran Chrysler engineers were still haunted by distant memories of "one-eyed" 1942 DeSotos trundling along with one lamp door open and the other closed, or worse, both half-open in a "sleepy" position. Consequently, great care was taken to make the Charger's headlamp system as foolproof as possible.

On the clay styling model, Dodge Exterior Studio clay supervisor Ed Getner and his crew employed a single electric motor and a sturdy broomstick handle connecting the twin assemblies to rotate the lights, but Engineering claimed the "broomstick" approach would block too much cooling.

So when the driver of a production Dodge Charger pulled on the headlamp switch, twin miniature electric motors with 450:1 gear reduction ratios rotated the lights into the "on" position while a red lamp on the instrument panel remained illuminated until the units were fully revolved into position.

A separate toggle switch allowed the driver to override the rotating motors so the headlamps would remain in the open position while the lamps were off (for washing the lenses, etc.). A manual adjustment allowed the lamps to be locked in the open position in case of power failure to one or both of the lamp assemblies.

Additionally, by opening the hood and loosening screws on the rotating motors' mounting straps, the lamp assemblies could also be rotated open by hand if necessary.

The disappearing lamps looked great, and their execution "three-upped" the guys at Chevy: First, the Charger's grillework pattern of slim vertical diecast chrome bars allowed the cut line of the headlamp doors to be invisible to the eye, something not true on the Corvette.

Second, when the lamp assemblies were rotated into position, the grille pattern was faithfully replicated around the five-inch diameter lights so that the car's face looked "natural" regardless of which mode the lights were in -- again, most assuredly not true on the Corvette.

Finally, in the Charger, all front lamps were concealed, even the parking lights and turn signals, which lay hidden at the extreme outer ends of the grillework.

Principal Dodge Charger exterior stylist Carl "Cam" Cameron recalled several other ideas that were considered: One encompassed three-sided assemblies with closed, city driving or fog, and country driving positions. Another idea was to cover the headlamps with clear plastic that could be washed as the lamps rotated.

a preliminary idea for the 1966 Dodge Charger
This mock-up photographed on December 15, 1964,
wears an ultimately discarded proposal for a vinyl
roof covering between the Charger's raised side rails.

Highlighted by a circular center medallion, the Dodge Charger's slightly recessed grillework appeared to float in its opening, which was surrounded by a bright collar. Other exterior trim was minimal, confined to a full-length molding that traced the upper fender line, plus sill and wheel lip moldings.

The expansive areas of the Dodge Charger's roof sail panels were decorously decorated by a Charger nameplate and a unique red, black, and chrome Charger medallion, which was designed by Frank Ruff. Engine designators were located high up on the front fenders aft of the wheel openings.

New deep-dish wheel covers, with a die-cast simulated knock-off hub within a concave dish of bright stainless steel, were standard. (These were also available on Polaras and Monacos.) "Many of the 1966-1967 Chargers also sported optional imitation 'mag' wheel covers, which, if memory serves, were not designed at Chrysler but rather by an outside supplier," said former Dodge stylist Jeffrey Godshall.

The Dodge Charger was not being created in a vacuum, and many other ideas were in play -- both at Dodge and in competitors' design studios.

Other Dodge Charger Options -- and Some Competition

After the basic 1966 Charger design was set, someone at Chrysler got the idea that the new Dodge fastback might be just the vehicle for installing a production version of the much-hyped Chrysler gas turbine engine -- the "power plant of the future" Chrysler engineers had worked on for years -- thereby creating other Dodge Charger options.

First shoehorned into a 1954 Plymouth to show off to the press, this gas turbine engine -- in ever-more refined versions -- was installed into a series of Plymouths (and one Dodge), culminating with the production of 50 specially built Chrysler Turbine cars in 1963. Amid much fanfare, these Thunderbird-like vehicles were turned over to typical American families for several months to plumb customer reaction.

Expectant reporters asked what Chrysler planned to do next, and someone came up with the idea of fielding a limited run of 500 or so turbine-equipped vehicles -- but installed in which vehicle? The Dodge Charger was the newest, most glamorous car under development at the time. It had the right look, and its size and weight were appropriate. A sketch program was authorized.

Turbine cars had their own cooling requirements, so designer Carl Cameron developed a unique grille opening that was set into the Charger front end. Flanked by exposed headlamps, the gas turbine car grille featured a camera bellows-inspired frame that led to a deeply recessed, very open eggcrate.

a preliminary design for the gas turbine Dodge Charger, which was never produced
The large grille opening on this styling study from
February 5, 1965, suggests the front Carl Cameron
designed for an abortive gas-turbine Charger.

Eventually, the project was canceled and Chrysler never did field a production gas turbine Charger. But the styling work was not in vain. When it came time to design the grille for the 1970 Challenger, the bellows design from Cameron's turbine Charger was successfully resurrected, intact, for Dodge's first pony car.

So Dodge remained focused on its gas engine Charger, but what about the other manufacturers? Although fastback styling elements were seen on a number of mid-1960s cars, the first-generation Charger's only direct competition came from the American Motors Marlin. Introduced in February 1965 on the 112-inch-wheelbase Rambler Classic chassis, compared to the Charger, the Marlin looked, well, lumpy.

It didn't start out that way. The idea came from the Tarpon, a nifty little fastback show car based on the equally nifty and new 1964 Rambler American. But when it came time to "productionize" the idea, AMC President Roy Abernathy insisted the design be based on the larger Classic for a couple of reasons.

For one, the car had to have a V-8, and AMC's existing V-8 was too big to fit inside the American's engine bay. For the other, as then-AMC styling chief Dick Teague later explained, "Abernathy didn't like little cars. . . . He liked big cars because he was a big guy."

Teague protested, but to no avail. The resulting six-passenger fastback bombed, with only 10,327 units produced in 1965 and 4,547 the following year. A restyle for 1967 on the full-size Ambassador's 118-inch platform produced a much handsomer car (its longer front end gave it better proportions), but only 2,545 were built.

Teague redeemed himself the following year with the debut of the sporty Javelin and the even sportier AMX, both fastbacks and both good looking. And, blessed as he was with a good sense of humor, he even learned to laugh at all those Marlin jokes.

When 1966 arrived, the Dodge Charger was finally ready to be released. How was it received?

1966 Dodge Charger

Despite the assertion of the late Dick Teague, former vice-president of styling at American Motors, that "there has never been a successful big fastback," the 1966 Dodge Charger looked pretty decent -- much better than Teague's own much-maligned Marlin.

In its January 1966 review of the new Dodge Charger fastback. Motor Trend stated flatly, ". . . [E]yeing it from every angle, nowhere could we find evidence of that compromise so evident in some other recently introduced fastbacks. . . . Look at it from where you may, you won't find an ungainly or awkward aspect -- proof of the Charger's superiority in styling."

Details of the new fastback, designated "The Leader of the Dodge Rebellion," were released on December 6, 1965, although the introduction date was the following New Year's Day, a curious choice because the dealerships were closed. Much was made in the press releases of the Charger's being a production version of the Charger II show car that had been touring the auto show circuit for the past year.

A white 1966 Dodge Charger fastback.
Dodge's mid-size Coronet, which was being
redesigned for 1966, was a point of departure for
Charger stylists. But aside from the roofline, the 1966
Charger further separated itself from the
via details like full-width taillights and open
rear-wheel cutouts, shown here.

Dodge chief designer Bill Brownlie was quoted as saying, "We've retained about 90 percent of the [show] car in the production version." The truth is the production Dodge Charger was created first, then the show car -- a doubtful turnout with exaggerated rear quarters that looked out of balance with the rest of the car.

Although 16 other hues were available, the featured color at the Dodge Charger's introduction was an extra-cost buffed silver-metallic paint. During January 13-16, 1966, Dodge dealers from all over the country were flown into Miami International Airport to participate in the giant "Silver Charger Driveaway," motoring back home in their sleek silver steeds.

At $3,122 to start, the Charger cost $417 more than a V-8 Coronet 500 two-door hardtop, with $125 of that difference supposedly going for the 318-cid V-8 that came standard with the fastback, as opposed to the 273-cid engine in the Coronet. Considering all he was getting, the 1966 Dodge Charger buyer drove out of the showroom in a bargain.

A hemi engine -- one option for the 1966 Dodge Charger fastback.
Engine choices that ranged all the way up to the
new 426-cid Hemi could give the 1966
Dodge Charger a decidedly racy feel.

Aside from the distinctive roofline and hidden headlamps, the Charger boasted an unusually complete bag of tricks inside. Early development photographs show that a conventional -- possibly fixed -- rear bench seat and package tray were under consideration, which, in Motor Trend's words "would have made Charger just another fastback."

But in the end, a lot of attention -- and even more money -- was lavished on the "personalized" four-place interior, available in blue, saddle tan, red, white, black, and citron gold.

Under a design team that included Bob Janosko, Rod Lloyd, Dave Long, Jack Eason, Gene Wagner, and Fred Victory, no expense was spared in making this first Charger interior a very special place.

1966 Dodge Charger Interior

Highlights of the 1966 Dodge Charger interior included front bucket seats that were Chrysler's new clamshell type, with the seating surfaces set into gracefully curved molded shells delineated by bright finish moldings.

The twin rear buckets featured 11/4-inch urethane foam pads. Even the backs of the rear seats were expensively trimmed, boasting both upper bolsters and bright-edged lower carpeted areas, separated by a bright-metal luggage stop. Front and rear seating areas were covered in Cologne-grain padded vinyl in a style that featured slender horizontal pleats divided into three sections by crossrib stitching.

Separating the bucket seats was an elaborate, full-length console handsomely dressed with a costly chrome die-cast trim plate overlaid with a brushed-aluminum appliqué. Up front, part of the console sidewalls were carpeted. Each side featured a courtesy lamp set in a bright circular frame.

1966 Dodge Charger's interior console unit
A swanky console unit and bucket seats
highlighted the 1966 Dodge Charger's interior.

Behind the chrome shift lever and nicely detailed knob was a padded floating center armrest that opened to reveal a handy lighted storage bin. A console-mounted clock, angled toward the driver, was optional.

Rear seats were divided by yet another padded armrest, which could be flipped forward 180 degrees (via an expensive die-cast chrome handle) to expose a bright-edged, carpeted underside that became level with the height of the trunk floor.

Cargo capacity and cargo/seating versatility were key features of the 1966 Dodge Charger interior. To begin with, there was nearly two feet of utility cargo room behind the rear seats and the angled, hinged security panel that separated the rear compartment from the trunk. With this carpeted panel folded flat, however, more than five feet of space was created from the rear seatbacks to the end of luggage compartment.

Unlike the less-expensive Barracuda (with its one-piece rear seatback that folded forward), each one of the Charger's two individual rear buckets also folded flat. When in their stored positions, the area from the back of the front seats to the security panel measured nearly 41/2 feet. With the security panel folded flat as well, the result was nearly eight feet of carpeted cargo area that stretched all the way from the backs of the front seats clear to the taillights.

Usable width at the floor between the rear wheel wells was 46.5 inches; the width of the deck opening measured 44 inches. Although the height of the opening between the trunk and the passenger compartment was a limiting factor, still a 4 X 8-foot sheet of plywood could be stuffed inside. It's no wonder some of the literature referred to the Charger as a "sports wagon."

1966 Dodge Charger Styling

On top of its versatility, the 1966 Dodge Charger's cabin was expensively trimmed, giving the fastback a definite edge in styling.

The sculpted surfaces of the door trim and rear quarter panels were vacuum-formed foam-filled ABS plastic. Recessed into the doors just above the lower carpeted areas was a horizontal brushed-finish aluminum appliqué, onto which was mounted a floating armrest incorporating the door handle. This same treatment was extravagantly repeated on the rear quarters. Just aft of the rear quarter windows, on each side, a large courtesy lamp was designed to be a continuation of the side windows.

With all this cosseting of the passengers and their luggage, the driver wasn't left out. "Want something without idiot lights or tacked-on tach?" queried one Dodge ad. With the 1966 Dodge Charger, you got it.

The cluster display featured four large circular pods with full instrumentation, the speedometer and 6,000-rpm electric tach in the middle. The elaborate pods had raised spun centers that originally came to a point, but these were soon truncated, presumably for safety.

The 1966 Dodge Charger fastback's instrument panel
Distinctions between the 1966 Dodge Charger and
Coronet included a special four-dial instrument
cluster with electroluminescent lighting.

Best of all, the four pods were illuminated by the glare-free, bulbless glow of electroluminescent lighting, a concept company engineers pioneered on the 1960-1962 Chryslers with their elaborate "gumball machine" instrument panel.

Soft EL lighting was abandoned due to high cost, but the fact that it enjoyed a brief return engagement on the first Dodge Charger demonstrates the willingness on the part of Product Planning to spend the money necessary to make the car unique and differentiate it from the Coronet.

The rest of the instrument panel was carryover Coronet, featuring a basic linear section carried cross-car to maximize the width, and a high crash pad then favored by the company's interior stylists. An inside hood release was standard.

Charger drivers sat behind a "sports-type" tri-spoke steering wheel with a simulated woodgrain rim and padded, circular hub. Overhead was a new, exclusive, one-piece fiberglass headlining, covered by a special non-woven nylon fabric that allowed interior noise to pass through and be absorbed instead of reflecting back into the passenger cabin.

What kind of a car was the Dodge fastback? Said Car and Driver in its February 1966 issue, "The Charger is a good automobile, no mistake about it, but we had somehow expected more when we first got behind the wheel. Maybe it's because the sporty styling conjured up the fantasy of all sorts of exotic engineering underneath. At any rate, we failed to get terribly turned on with the car during our initial tests. It wasn't that we didn't like it, it was just the fact that we've been here before -- in an ordinary Coronet."

True enough. The Charger was first of all a styling statement. All the mechanicals -- brakes, suspension, etc., both in standard and heavy duty iterations -- were picked from the B-body parts bin. The all-V-8 engine family was pure Coronet, which meant that the Charger was a much faster fastback than the Barracuda.

Standard was the 230-horsepower, 318-cube engine with a two-barrel carb and single exhaust. Upgrades included two "low block" engines -- a 265-horsepower, 361-cid version, again with a two-pot carburetor and single exhaust, plus the 383-cid variant with four-barrel carb and dual exhausts putting out 325 horses.

The 1966 Dodge Charger's most heavy-duty engine option, a Hemi.
The optional 1966 Dodge Charger Street Hemi
was nominally rated at 425 horses.

At the top of the food chain was the high-performance version of the all-new "raised block" engine, the legendary 426-cube "Hemi," good for 425 horsepower -- at least. In the hip prose of the Charger catalog, with one of these you could just "Turn up the wick and you're gone, man, gone."

Despite this marketing, just 3,629 street and racing Hemis were built in 1966 and 1,258 in 1967, distributed among Dodge and Plymouth intermediates, including Charger. Transmission choices included a three-on-the-tree manual (318 only); a four-speed manual with a short-throw shift pattern (except for the 318); and Chrysler's best-in-class three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.

1967 Dodge Charger Engines and Options

The standard engine for the 1967 Dodge Charger remained the 318 V-8, although this workhorse was completely reconfigured for 1967. Bore and stroke, horsepower, and torque ratings remained unchanged, but the 318 was made over into a small-block V-8, becoming the second engine in Chrysler's LA series, after the 273-cid V-8.

A change to thin-wall, high-precision casting techniques helped trim 60 pounds. Available upgrades included two 383-cid engines -- with 270 and 325 horsepower, respectively -- plus the Hemi, and the 375-horsepower, 440-cube Magnum V-8.

New to the corporation's large-body luxury cars in 1966, the 440 was the biggest of the raised-block engines. Offered for the first time in the lighter B-body shells, this performance variant of the wedge-chambered 440 boasted a 10.1:1 compression ratio and alterations such as a longer duration camshaft and low-restriction exhaust manifolds that made it an ideal street-racer power plant. (This hotter 440 reached its torque peak 800 rpm sooner than the Hemi.)

A special engine dress-up package included chrome-plating on the valve covers and oil filter cap and a twin-snorkel air cleaner with an aluminum 440 MAGNUM nameplate. Standard on the new Coronet R/T, the Magnum mill was a $314 option on the Charger, while the Hemi cost $878.

With the two monster motors, brake lining area was upped from 195 to 234 square inches, recognizing that no matter how fast you went, or how quickly you got there, you had to stop eventually.

Of course, all these performance goodies were not meant just for the street. During its year-and-a-half on the market, the fastback Dodge Charger went racing, first with problems, then for trophies.

Once out on the NASCAR high-speed ovals, it was soon discovered that the aerodynamics of the sloping roofline caused the rear end to go airborne at high speed. After some work in the wind tunnel, this problem was solved with the addition of a small aluminum spoiler mounted over the wall-to-wall taillights, an idea that became available in production, with matching end pieces on the quarters that completed the design.

rear spoiler which kept racing Dodge Chargers on the track
When Dodge Chargers first took to the stock-car
tracks, they encountered stability problems. A run
of 85 street-ready NASCAR-replica Chargers was
issued with the small, but important, solution -- a
small rear-deck lip spoiler.

Sam McQuagg picked up a win on the NASCAR circuit while Don White copped a USAC stock-car championship, both driving Dodge Chargers. One of the 15 races David Pearson won en route to the 1966 NASCAR Grand National Championship came in a Dodge Charger.

Cars magazine awarded the fastback its annual Top Performance Car of the Year Award. And Chargers made it into the funny-car exhibition ranks via "Mr. Norm" Kraus and Al Graeber's Tickle Me Pink Charger.

Additional options for street-going 1967 Dodge Chargers included new 11-inch front disc brakes (power required) and a trailering package not available with the Magnum or Hemi engines, or with a manual trans. The optional 7.75 X 14 high-performance Blue Streak tires of 1966 gave way to Pontiac-like Red Streaks in 1967. The latter's low cross-section height nylon-cord construction enhanced directional stability. Sharp, new five-spoke chrome road wheels were offered, too.

1967 Dodge Charger

Despite its half-year production run, an encouraging 37,344 1966 Dodge Chargers were produced, all at the Hamtramck Assembly Plant, the old "Dodge Main." This was all the more exceptional considering this was close on the heels of the cheaper Barracuda (also assembled at Hamtramck), which accounted for 38,029 units with the advantage of a full model run. So what lay in store for the 1967 Dodge Charger?
1966 Dodge Charger, which would remain virtually identical from the exterior for 1967
Other distinctions between the Dodge Charger and
Coronet included the former's use of a unique
fine-tooth grille and hidden lighting. For 1967, only
a turn signal changed the exterior look.

In light of its midyear introduction and abbreviated model run, the 1967 Dodge Charger was the least changed of the corporation's cars for the next model year. About the only exterior modification was the addition of turn signal indicators mounted at the forward end of the fender-top molding.

Later in the model year, on the Charger's first anniversary, a vinyl roof became available, an elective that did nothing to enhance the appearance. Offered in black or white Levant grain, the vinyl top became the key element in the mid-year Charger "White Hat Special," which included other options like white-sidewall tires and power steering, all at a special package price. The name came from the then-current "Dodge Boys" logo and the tag line: "You can tell they're good guys -- they all wear white hats."

Inside, as so often happens after initial launch, the cost cutters whittled away some of the 1967 Dodge Charger's uniqueness. The idea of a singular four-place interior was compromised. Dodge Charger buyers could still choose front and rear buckets divided by a center console, but the new, truncated and now-optional console no longer ran the full length of the interior. (Dodge publicity flacks said this made rear seat ingress/egress easier.)

However, you could also opt for a center cushion with pull-down center armrest, which permitted the choice of two- or three-abreast seating in front. In the rear, the flip armrest between the fold-down seats, no longer with console, was shortened. The slightly altered wood-rim steering wheel became optional, with a Coronet-style three-spoke wheel with horn ring taking over as standard.

Vinyl seat trims were reconfigured into narrow vertical pleats, with a bright rectangular emblem high up and sunk into the seatbacks. New color selections included blue, red, copper, and black, plus a pair of two-tones: white/black and gold/black. Exterior color options were increased to 18, with the roof accent stripe available in blue, white, black, or red.

1967 Dodge Charger Sales Figures

Despite the NASCAR wins, 1967 Dodge Charger assemblies declined steeply to just 15,788 units -- less than half of what they had been for short-run 1966. Perhaps the introduction of the Coronet R/T stole some of Charger's thunder.

Meanwhile, Plymouth's all-new Barracuda, now with three body types, boasted a 1967 output of better than 62,500 cars. (Price couldn't have been a problem; the base sticker was just $6 higher than in 1966.)

Of course, the "Dodge Boys" had an answer waiting in the wings. When the second-generation Charger debuted for 1968, it was minus the fastback roofline (although racing requirements would quickly make obvious the need for another version of it) and fancy interior. But it did retain disappearing headlamps and, with dramatic new "double-diamond" body styling, this second Charger and the equally new Pontiac GTO became the hottest tickets around. Charger assemblies soared to more than 96,000 units.

Quickly eclipsed by its successor and described by cynics as "a good-looking Marlin," the first-generation 1966-1967 Dodge Charger remains an eminently collectible automobile, blessed with unique styling, a feature-laden interior, and a set of engine and performance options ranging from mild to wild. Review these engine options with the chart below.

1966-1967 Dodge Charger Engine Specifications

type/cid boreXstroke
torque@rpm c.r.
V-8/318* 3.91 X 3.31 230@4400 340@2400 9.0:1 2V 1966
V-8/318** 3.91 X 3.31 230@4400 340@2400 9.2:1 2V 1967
V-8/361 4.12 X 3.38 265@4400 380@2400 9.0:1 2V 1966
V-8/383 4.25 X 3.38 270@4400 390@2800 9.2:1 2V 1967
V-8/383 4.25 X 3.38 325@4800 425@2800 10.1:1 4V 1966-67
V-8/426 4.25 X 3.75 425@5000 490@4000 10.25:1 2X4V 1966-67
V-8/440 4.32 X 3.75 375@4800 480@3200 10.1:1 4V 1967

* "A-series" engine
** "LA-series" small-block engine

Despite all of the first-generation Dodge Chargers luxurious options, you don't see many at shows. Maybe restorers and collectors should take another look at this faster fastback.