1966 Dodge Charger: “King of the Road”

Greg Zyla
Greg, I follow your car column every month in Classic Car Round-Up and especially enjoy the older cars I remember seeing as a child.
My Dad had a 1932 Plymouth convertible that my Mom hated because she thought my brother and I would fall out of it. Dad also had a 1949 Dodge and a 1953 Pontiac Chieftain and I believe there was also a Rockne before I was born, but my Dad would only talk about that car using a lot of words I didn’t under-stand. When he spoke about the Rockne, it made my mom yell at him as she covered our ears! (Author note: The Rockne was a Studebaker model named after Notre Dame’s famous football coach Knute Rockne. It was trouble-plagued and only available in 1932 and 1933).
I keep looking for you to do a piece on a 1966 Dodge Charger, which was my first car. I know they are not considered too highly and that Playboy magazine described them in their annual new car review as a cross between a grand piano and an aircraft carrier, but they were neat! It had a front grille that looked like an open mouth until you flipped up and opened the hidden headlights. At the rear, the Charger had a full car’s width of tail lights. Inside, my Charger fit like a glove when you sat behind the wheel, and it had an instrument panel that resembled an airplane instead of a car. The speedometer went to 150 (wishful thinking!), and it also had a padded console where my girlfriend sat every date night so she could be close to me.
But the best thing about my 1966 Charger was four bucket seats, two in front and two in back! The back two folded down to make the back an entire carpeted area, with an added carpeted panel that folded into the trunk. This rear bucket seat accessibility was all under a huge back window that followed the contour of the fast back style.
I eventually blew the 318 V8 engine at 115k miles and then had a 440 V8 from a 1969 Road Runner put in. However, the mechanic would not put the four-barrel on it because he said I would kill myself or others so it stayed a two-barrel—and he probably saved my teenage life.
Anyway, I thought I’d drop a line for the sake of old car nostalgia. Thanks for your time. Dave Krull, Hobbie, PA.
Dave, I’m happy to oblige writing about the 1966 Dodge Charger, one of Chrysler Corporations first really radical designs that generated much attention upon introduction in late 1965. As you mention, the theme was a complete reversal from the “normal” cars during that era, especially the two bucket seats in the rear and its full fastback design.
Although other manufacturers were already delivering fastback designs (Mustang comes quickly to mind), no car maker had a fastback pattern implemented into a near full-size car with a novel four-passenger seating arrangement and large rear window.
To say the Charger attracted lots of eyeballs at the dealerships would be putting it mildly. Although not everyone could consider a Charger for purchase based on its four passenger bucket seats, those who did buy were rewarded with driving one of the coolest cars on the road. And for every magazine that was critical of the Charger, there were twice as many that gave it rave reviews and even a “Top Performance Car of the Year” award from CARS Magazine.
Built on a 117-inch wheelbase, the Charger shared assembly time with sibling Dodge Coronet, and when it came to engine availability this is where the Charger became in many ways a modernized muscle car. Specifically, only V8 engines were available and the Charger also offered the “Boss Hoss” 426 Street Hemi V8 as an option. With just a bit of extra tuning and some aftermarket bolt-on pieces including exhaust headers, the Charger Hemi would produce way more than its advertised 425-horsepower resulting in a street car that not only was futuristic for its time, it would run the quarter-mile in less than 12-seconds with slicks and proper gearing. So regardless of whether you just wanted a mild modern cruiser with the 318 or a killer street Hemi, the Charger delivered.
Even though growing families probably went with the Coronet line in 1966, sales were promising as the new Dodge Charger sold 37,344 units that debut year with a base price of $3,100. As for the engines, the Hemi option cost an additional $1,000 and just 468 were ever delivered. Not surprisingly, the slant-6 was not available in the Charger line, but the V8 engines in addition to the Hemi included the 230hp 318, a 265hp 361, and the popular 335hp 383.
Most impressive is the fact that the Dodge Charger has survived all the decades, and to this day is a popular choice at Dodge dealerships. During the years leading to 1970, the Charger dropped its two rear bucket seat arrangement and made room for three rear passengers resulting in better sales. The front and rear consoles were options, and admittedly added to the interior’s unique personality.
Personally, although I liked the 1968-1970 Charger patterns better than the 1966-1967 four-seat fast-back, I have much respect for the design and always felt it looked better with the front headlights showing. With the five-passenger design change in 1968, sales jumped to over 96,000 Chargers and at mid-year, even the Slant-6 engine was added to the powertrain lineup. I’m out of room this week, but I’ll touch on the Charger again in the future as they made a huge impact in NASCAR thanks to a special Charger 500 that led to the winged Charger Daytona.
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