The Always Iconic Charger: This Time Carroll Shelby Helped Out


But there was a catch.

As we learned yesterday, by 1978 the Dodge Charger wasn't even a shadow of its former self. The days of its muscle car status were gone, effectively killed off by a combination of factors that mostly were beyond the automaker's control. Still though, perhaps it would have been best if Chrysler simply retired the nameplate instead of turning it into a personal luxury coupe. The fourth generation Charger was literally nothing more than a squared-off, dramatically underpowered land yacht. Chrysler figured it'd be appealing to up and coming Baby Boomers.

By 1978 its sales were absolutely dismal. Only at that time did Chrysler decide to kill the Charger name, but only for a few years. In 1979, Chrysler was now building the L-body cars, the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. These were simple subcompacts that actually remained in production until 1990.

At first they came powered by a Volkswagen inline-four, but that engine went out of production in 1983. However, in the middle of 1981 someone at Chrysler figured it'd be cool to have a "performance" Omni, and thus was born the Charger 2.2. For about $400 more, buyers would get a hood scoop, improved gearing, a rear spoiler, and unique graphics as well as the then new 2.2-liter inline-four with a grand total of 84 hp. Still nothing near what the Charger was a decade prior, but at least the thing was no longer a boat with four wheels. The Charger 2.2 (or Omni 024) sold well enough to earn it a second model year for 1982.

But it was at around that time when newly installed Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca picked up the phone to call his old friend from his days at Ford, Carroll Shelby. The proposal was simple and straightforward: develop a performance version of the front-wheel-drive Omni in order for it to truly earn its Charger badging. The result was the Dodge Shelby Charger, which hit the market in 1983. Shelby actually had very little to work with in the performance department, specifically speed. He had to make do with what he had, in this case handling. Shelby improved the car's suspension in a number of ways, including shorter springs, better wheels, and tires better capable of handling stronger brakes.

The engine did, however, receive a bit of attention but not much. Its compression was raised allowing for a total of 107 horsepower and was paired to a manual transmission. But the biggest changes were obviously most noticeable from the outside. Perhaps the main goal was to alter the styling of the boring-looking subcompact with a bit of attitude. Shelby was the right man to make this happen. The cars were given a new front end and racing stripes along with a few other accessories such as ground effect skirts, quarter window plugs, and a rear spoiler. Cars were painted in blue and silver combinations and the interiors were silver and dark blue. The Shelby logo was embroidered on the headrests.

A total of 8,251 examples were built in 1983 and the Shelby name returned the following year. Buyers could now opt for an automatic transmission if they preferred one and the engine was boosted to 110 hp. There were a few other cosmetic updates such as 2.2 decals and an optional hood scoop. But it was in 1985 when Dodge finally got (somewhat) serious about adding some power. The Shelby Charger received a new turbocharged engine with a total of 146 hp. Right, we know it's nothing all that outstanding but the effort was there. Dodge continued with the Shelby Charger until 1987. Sales during this time were actually pretty good with over 15,000 examples built in '85 and '86 alone.

However, in '87 only 1,011 were built along with an additional 1,000 that were sent directly to Shelby's facilities out in California. It was there where they were converted into the Charger GLHS. Shelby actually bought those 1,000 units. Changes included a different turbo, a Getrag five-speed manual, better-looking exterior graphics, the elimination of the Dodge badging, and unique wheels. All GLHS models were given a dash plaque as well. This time around output finally hit something decent, 175 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. These Shelby Chargers are obviously collectible today but they're not especially sought after.

Remember, they were still not much more than a front-wheel-drive, three-door subcompact hatchback with a lot of body decals, extra body cladding, and a turbo inline-four with less than 200 hp. Having the Shelby name splashed all over it only took it so far. As for the non-Shelby prepped Dodge Charger lineup, well, it (along with its Plymouth Turismo/Duster twin) soldiered on until 1987. It too gained power during its lifetime but, at the end of the day it honestly didn't deserve the Charger name. Upon its retirement, Dodge seemed to have gotten the message that it shouldn't just slap that name on just any of its models.

A Charger needed to be something special. Things like rear-wheel-drive, V8 power and real performance were essential. And as we all know now, that all returned in 2006. Yes, today's Charger is a sedan but at least it carries its name with dignity.

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