Pony Car Icons, Part 7: Dodge Challenger

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Although it was introduced a few years after its main competition, the Challenger nevertheless has become a pony car legend.

The Dodge Challenger had the misfortune of being introduced several years after a number of competing pony cars, and therefore had the shortest production run of any classic pony car. This is unfortunate because, having already learned from the Plymouth Barracuda about what makes a good pony car, Chrysler got quite a bit right with the Challenger. For example, the Mercury Cougar and the Pontiac Firebird were conceived as upscale versions of more pedestrian pony cars.

Compared to the Barracuda, the Challenger was slightly bigger and slightly more upscale than the former with which it shared a platform. More specifically, it shared a platform with the second-generation Barracuda, since the Challenger didn't come out until 1970. The Challenger's strength in the market came from Dodge's insistence on a long options list, something shared by other successful pony cars. Most important of these were the available engines, where Dodge offered to nearly any engine they made under the Challenger's hood. This meant two different six-cylinder options, four small block V8 options, and a pair of optional big blocks.

The most powerful of these was the 426 Hemi V8, which produced 425 horsepower and 490lb-ft of torque. Hemi-equipped Challengers could run the quarter mile in 13.2 seconds, a time which is still fast by today's standards, and is .4 seconds faster than the much more sophisticated Challenger R/T of today. The 440 V8 was the more popular of the big blocks, and it was this engine that was famously under the hood of Kowalski's Challenger in "Vanishing Point". The car was a strong seller in its first year, but then, it needed to be. The Challenger was swimming against the tide of automotive trends, and barely more than a third of the 1970 sales figure were sold in 1971.

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Dodge was proud of the car, and took it to the 1970 Trans Am series in 1970. For this year only, Dodge made a Challenger T/A (Trans Am) edition for homologation. Homologation for these cars was done a bit differently than in other cars. The Mustang Boss 302 and Camaro Z/28 also raced in the series, but these cars would race using the same engines found in the street versions of the homologation cars. But Dodge raced the Challenger with a 303cu engine that was a de-stroked version of the 340 engine that would be found in the homologation cars. Like Boss 302 and Z/28 engines, the 340 was rated at 290 horsepower, but, just like the others, actually produced more than 300.

The race cars did reasonably well on the track, but on the street, T/A buyers probably found themselves at a bit of a disadvantage when facing off against similarly homologated cars which had real race engines under their hoods. Of course, the T/A was by no means sluggish, and Dodge went all out to make it look cool as well. It was outfitted with front and rear spoilers, racing graphics, a louder exhaust and a matte black fiberglass hood with a giant air scoop. Four-wheel disc brakes were fitted, as well as improved suspension components, and as a result, the T/A had much better handling than most other pony cars.

The 1971 Challenger was still quite a good car, although Dodge was already seeing the handwriting on the wall for the pony car niche, and they didn't put quite as much effort in the '71 as they had the '70. By 1972, Dodge had dropped many of the options for the Challenger, including both big block options and even the convertible option. Dodge was pretty much phoning it in when it came to the Challenger for the rest of its short production run. 1974 was the last year of the car, and Dodge barely sold any of the '74 model year cars. The name was revived in 1978 for a rebadged version of the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda.

The car was actually reasonably quick for a subcompact of that era, but it is generally agreed that it wasn't proper to have named this car after the legendary Challenger. This four-cylinder version of the Challenger lasted only until 1983, and after this it seemed that the Challenger name had finally been put to rest. But then, in 2005, Ford brought out a new and much-improved Mustang, and both Dodge and Chevrolet decided that it was a challenge that needed to be answered. Thus, in 2008, the Challenger name was reborn, and given to new car which bore a striking resemblance to the original.

The available engines aren't quite as numerous as they were in 1970, but they are enough to grab some decent sales figures, certainly better than the '71-'74 models. What the Challenger doesn't have is anything to go up against the current Boss 302 Mustang, or the top-end Shelby GT500 and Camaro ZL1. A 392 Hemi is offered, and while the 470 horsepower it produces is impressive, it does fall a bit short of the GT500's 662 horsepower. It remains to be seen whether Dodge will be rethinking the Challenger for its next generation or if the rumors will be true that it will be killed off in 2014 and replaced by a new Barracuda.


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