And it didn't return for over 30 years.
Without question the second generation Dodge Charger has gone down in history as a beloved muscle car icon. The General Lee from "The Dukes of Hazzard" gave it even more attention when the TV show premiered a decade or so after the car first went on sale. Although it only lasted for four model years, there was a sudden need for it to be redesigned, mainly because of some internal competition at Dodge, and that competition was called the Challenger.
What Dodge needed to do was find a way to make the Charger different and, at the same time, regain some of its lost sales. And so in 1971 the third generation Dodge Charger had its debut. It needs to be noted that this was really the last Charger muscle car until 2006. In fact, the third-gen was the last Charger muscle car ever.
Its present day namesake is, as we all know, a sedan (and a damn awesome one at that). Like its two predecessors, this new Charger was only on the market for three model years before a complete redesign happened. And like its immediate predecessor, it retained its V8 engine lineup. Customers could select the familiar 318 5.2-liter V8, the 440 Magnum and the 426 Hemi. However, 1971 was the final year for both the 440 Six-Pack and the 426 for a number of reasons, mainly because of rising insurance rates and gas prices. Also after '71 the majority of those so-called "High Impact" colors (such as Top Banana and Plum Crazy) were eliminated.
Styling wise, this new Charger featured what was called the "fuselage" body style, as opposed to the coke bottle look. That split front grille returned along with the hidden headlights, but those were now optional. Also new was the "Ramcharger" hood and a rear spoiler. Black body decals also returned. For 1972, the Charger R/T was replaced by the new Rallye trim. The two-barrel 440 was still available, but instead of its previous 350 hp-rating it delivered just 280 ponies. And because the US government was beginning to impose more strict emissions regulations, all Charger engines were given hardened valve seats that allowed for the use of regular leaded or unleaded gas as opposed to premium fuel.
This resulted in reduced outputs for all engines. And to make matters even worse, that Ramcharger hood scoop option was eliminated as well. Yes, there was very much a downward spiral trend going on here; the death of Mopar muscle was, year by year, quickly coming. As much as Chrysler may not have wanted to put an end to its big and powerful V8s, outside forces gave it no other choice. By 1973, the year the oil crisis began, the Charger's decline sadly continued. This time, however, it received new sheet metal. Thing was, the car was now longer, wider, and even a bit taller than before. Along with a new front grille and taillights, the Charger was changing for the worst. For example, those hidden headlights were no longer even an option.
The 318 remained as the standard engine while the 340, two-barrel 360, 400, and 440 remained optional. Another new styling addition was the "triple opera window" on the SE model. Oh, and Chrysler added 5 mph bumpers front and rear, which only grew in size for 1974. For that model year, the 340 V8 was dropped in favor of the 360. If you were to look at a year-by-year spec performance output list of the third-gen Charger, you'll clearly see a decrease in performance while styling was shifting more towards luxury. Remember, beginning in the mid-70s, personal luxury coupes became the next big thing, effectively replacing muscle cars. These coupes were bigger, much less powerful (despite being V8-powered), and had no street cred whatsoever.
The 1974 Charger was the last of its kind before the 1975 personal luxury coupe replacement came. The era of the muscle car was over. Before that happened, however, the third-gen Charger had a successful racing career in NASCAR. Famous names like Buddy Baker and Richard Petty drove them. In fact, Petty has gone on record proclaiming this generation Charger was his favorite. He even won 25 races with it between 1972 and 1977. Wait? What?! 1977? Wasn't this Charger replaced for 1975? Yes, but Dodge still wanted to continue competing in NASCAR and the fourth-gen model wasn't designed for racing.
NASCAR basically gave Dodge permission to continue racing its now discontinued Charger simply because the automaker didn't have a replacement. Can anyone really imagine a personal luxury coupe competing in motorsport? Still though, Dodge introduced the third-gen Charger with the intention of boosting sales, which, despite its gradual decline, it managed to do. In fact, total sales for the '73 model year were over 100,000 units. Did that have something to do with the fact that that was the year when the Charger began to pivot away, styling wise, from muscle car to a personal luxury coupe? Probably, yes. Trends come and go. But when the redesigned fifth-gen Charger appeared in 1975 it was, literally, a completely different car than before.