Because a big fastback coupe was needed.
If the 1950s was a time when American automakers liked nothing more than to push the design boundaries, then the 1960s was when wicked cool styling and ridiculous amounts of horsepower came together. Gas was cheap, the Baby Boomers liked to drive fast, and the Big Three Detroit automakers were reaping huge profits due to both. In addition, part of the American Dream is to be able to hop in your car and just drive for miles on end. Go coast to coast if you’d like.
With America officially addicted to the automobile, automakers were keen on exploring additional segments; there’s always more money to be made. For example, two of the hottest cars of the 60s were the Ford Thunderbird and, of course, the Mustang.
They represented the so-called "personal luxury" and pony car segments, respectively. But Chrysler being Chrysler, it wanted to do something different. Why copy exactly what the competition was up to? Why not take a chance? The result was the 1966 Dodge Charger, a large fastback introduced mid-year that aimed to compete with the likes of the AMC Marlin as well as the Mustang. We figured not enough young people know the history of the Charger nameplate and only look to today’s Charger and Charger Hellcat when thinking of a muscle car sedan. But remember, the Charger was never a sedan until 2006. Perhaps it’s best to think of the original Charger as a blend between personal luxury and pony cars.
Dodge was fully aware that its radical fastback design was risky but it hedged its bets that buyers would dig it. Based on the Coronet, sharing its chassis and front-end bodywork, the ’66 Charger immediately caught people’s attention. Its price tag? $3,100, which is around $23,000 today. Just to compare, the 2015 Charger bases at $27,995. The original Charger’s risky exterior was accompanied by other interesting design bits such as the “electric shaver” front grille, which also incorporated 180-degree rotating hidden headlights. When closed, the overall effect gave the grille a single piece appearance. Rear end styling was also daring with its six-lamp taillights and the Charger name written in chrome.
And because of that fastback design, the interior was also different from nearly anything else out there. The rear seats and rear center armrest could fold flat, thus creating ample cargo space. Dodge wisely separated the Charger from the Coronet even further by adding unique door panels, premium trim, and vinyl upholstery (hey, it was the 60s). And to emphasize the Charger’s performance cred, designers ditched the more conservative standard instrument panel and gauge light bulbs in favor of electroluminescence lighting that adorned the dash pods, radio, shifter indicator in the console, and even the clock and air conditioning controls.
Along with a 150 mph speedometer, alternator, fuel and temperature gauges as standard, the Charger’s performance creds, at least in a styling sense, were present. But what was under the hood? Only V8s were offered. The standard powertrain was the 318 cu.in. 5.2-liter V8 paired up with a console-mounted three-speed manual. If that combo didn’t suit you then Dodge would gladly sell one of three upgrades: a 361 5.9-liter V8, 383 6.3-liter V8, or the then new 426 Hemi. The latter was actually quite rare for ’66 because it powered just 468 examples. All told, Dodge built just over 37,000 Chargers in ’66, quite an impressive number considering it was a mid-model year reveal.
Not at all surprisingly, the Charger also competed in NASCAR but drivers didn’t take to it, claiming it was too hard to handle. To correct this, Dodge added a lip spoiler on the trunk lid for better traction at high speeds. And because of NASCAR rules, that spoiler had to also be made available on customer cars, making the Charger the first US production car to offer one. Because of its initial success, the Charger returned for model year ’67 with very few changes. Styling wise, one could now get a vinyl roof. There were even a few changes under the hood. The 361 V8 was dropped and the 440 Magnum was added, which produced a total of 375 hp. The base 318 two-barrel V8 was rated at 230 hp while the 383 four-barrel produced 325 ponies.
The 426 Hemi had a total of 425 hp but, once again, very few Charger 426 Hemis were built (just 27 units for ’67). Unfortunately, Charger sales began to drop that year with less than 16,000 examples sold. The likely reason? The first generation Charger was just too damn big. The market had spoken with buyers preferring smaller pony cars to personal luxury cars. But Dodge knew it had a good thing going with the Charger and it didn’t want to give up on the nameplate. The only thing to do, therefore, would be a complete redesign. And that’s exactly what management ordered, and one of the most iconic muscle cars of the era was about to hit the streets.