'68 DODGE CHARGER Storming New York in the most iconic muscle car of all
Within a minute of pulling out of the garage and onto the highway I have the sensation of being watched - a feeling that never leaves me all day. In the corner of my eye I spot a leather-clad biker astride his Harley. He lifts his visor, eyes agog, shakes his head in wonder and stares at the Charger I’m driving, ‘that’s an amazing car, man,’ he shouts. ‘I love it!’ Despite the fact that we’re both driving at considerable speed on the highway, he continues to gaze in disbelief, this, I discover, is the effect the Charger seems to have on nearly everyone who sees it.
The moment I saw my first Charger, and experienced something similar, was when I watched Bullitt at the age of 16. Yes, Steve McQueen is effortlessly cool in his slightly beat-up Mustang, but to me it was the Charger that really stood out. Seeing this beast of a muscle car dwarf the Mustang as it swung wildly round bends, losing hubcaps along the way, blew my mind. With its broad, cavernous grille deceivingly void of any lights, its double-scalloped doors and its all-black paint, it looked mean as hell. While my mates were raving about the latest hot hatch they wanted to modify, I was daydreaming of the muscle cars of a bygone era. And the ’1968 Charger was the ultimate.
Talking with the current owners of this particular Charger at the Classic Car Club Manhattan in New York only strengthens my belief that this is the king of muscle cars. ‘Dodge Chargers are the villains’ car,’ says the club’s Mike Prichinello. ‘that’s why they’re the king, right? Muscle cars are mostly powerful, a little bit mean, sometimes a little menacing, depends on which ones. Corvettes are very feminine in a way; Camaros, they’re a bit small, the Dodge Charger, man, that’s just the villains’ car. It’s a bank robber’s car. And it’s achingly beautiful.’ the Charger belongs to a golden age of muscle cars, an age when they had really started to stand out, but hadn’t yet become grandiose or vulgar. It was a time before go- faster stripes, eagle motifs and sidepipes, and there was no obligation to wear a stetson or sport a handlebar moustache while driving them, the Charger may be a good five-and-a-bit metres long, but it’s sufficiently understated, especially in black, to conjure up that brooding, bank-robber atmosphere perfectly, the Charger R/T - Road/Track, the quick one - badge, the overhanging wheelarches and little touches of chrome such as the NASCAR-style filler cap add a hint of sophistication.
This car’s predecessor, the 1966-1967 Charger, was loosely based on the body and chassis of the Dodge Coronet, the design team introduced a fastback roofline and an ‘electric shaver’ grille but, lovely as it looks, it’s a little underwhelming. It’s hard to see how that car evolved into the iconic ’68; apart from the flip-up headlights hidden in the grille, there’s little resemblance, the ’68 was a bold leap into the future.
Yet the ’1968 Charger was born out of chance. Indeed, it was almost scrapped before the idea had even left the design office. Fifty years after it went into production, the ’68s creator, Richard Sias, tells me how it came into being. Sias was a young designer at the Chrysler office in Detroit back then and in his spare time - with no brief or direction - he started to sketch out an idea he’d had. It was a concept, at best.
‘I made this little two-seater model, the boss came by one day, he kind of liked it and wanted to know if I thought it would fit on a full-size car.’ Without any commitment or expectation, Sias’s supervisors gave him the opportunity to take it a little further with the help of some skilled modellers. ‘We got a ton of clay, and we started whittling away, there was no dream at that point of it even being a real car. It was just kind of a fun thing.’ From there, the concept snowballed. Sias’s colleagues and bosses clearly saw the potential of his design, although one chief designer had other thoughts. ‘It almost got destroyed once in those earlier stages,’ says Sias. ‘the guy that didn’t like it went on holiday, leaving orders to tear up the car. Fortunately, my supervisor stuck his neck out and overruled him.
‘We kept working on it, and when the guy came back from his vacation he was rather upset to see it still there.
But - and here’s fate again - right at that moment the vicepresident in charge of styling, Elwood Engel, walked in behind him, slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Boy, now that’s what a car should look like!”’
Sias’s concept was assigned to Chryslers B-body line and chosen as the successor to the ’67 Charger. So, how does it feel today to have created such an icon, a car coveted by petrolheads the world over, myself included? ‘Well,’ says Sias, ‘that’s hard to say. It was certainly an emotional experience. Initially, it was a bit of a battle, because it broke with tradition, and there’s always a little hesitation to break away from where you are and what you’re used to. For its day, it was a wild step into the unknown, here’s nothing else like it out there.
‘It has such a strong identity - I call it the Coke bottle effect - and we got lucky, the world loved ’em!’ the world certainly did, with Dodge reportedly selling more than 96,000 of the ’1968 model in the first year alone.
For our conversation, Sias is on the phone in Montana where he now lives among the rolling hills, having long ago left the Motor City behind. He talks of the Charger with warmth and enthusiasm, but is quick not to take all the credit. ‘It takes a lot of people. You don’t just do it by yourself. Yes, I can say it was my concept, but it took the modellers working with me to fully realize the project. Many of the modellers had good ideas, and you should always listen to everybody because somewhere in all that creative input there just might be a better way to do it.’
So the truth is revealed: who knew that the world’s boldest, baddest muscle car had such humble beginnings, dreamed up by a kid still in his twenties?
It’s a surreally wonderful experience navigating the blocks and backstreets of Brooklyn and Manhattan in Sias’s legendary creation. On the flight over to New York I’d imagined what it would be like to drive. It would surely be a handful; I could picture myself wrestling with the wheel as the Charger lumbered round corners, tires screeching, V8 roaring, all to that Bullitt soundtrack, the reality could hardly be more different.
As I slide into the sumptuous black leather driver’s seat and clip the lap-belt, I take a second to peer round the cockpit. It’s surprisingly subtle, the monochrome trim and silver dials and controls complementing the exterior look, the 383ci V8 (it replaced this car’s original 440) rumbles into life after a couple of tries. Each time I open the throttle the Charger wobbles and pivots from side to side with the torque reaction, eight pistons of Mopar muscle pumping away. It’s a delicious sensation.
God, I love this car already. But I’m bracing myself a little in anticipation: this is my first time in NY, and driving something with such presence is a prospect both mouth-watering and intimidating. Will it be all I’ve hoped for or, with its huge proportions, will it handle like a kids’ bouncy castle on skates?
The Charger proves much easier to drive than I ever thought it would. Perhaps it’s the wide, sprawling American traffic lanes, but from the moment I pull away I feel totally at ease, the automatic transmission is not as keen as I’d like, but in a 50-year-old that can be forgiven. Manhattan’s labyrinth of grids, one-way streets and underpasses provides few opportunities to open it up, although the V8’s guzzling soundtrack goads you to find a gap in the traffic or a green light to squeeze the throttle, the acceleration is hardly breakneck, but it’s fast enough to keep me - and onlookers - satisfied.
There’s a moment when I become almost too comfortable cruising through Brooklyn, soaking up the uber-cool vibe that emanates from the Dodge. Mike Prichinello, with me for the ride, suddenly shouts ‘Stop!’ I’m about to run a red light, heading straight for the side of a garbage truck.
So I stamp my foot on the brake pedal, the front brakes have been upgraded from drums to discs and we speedily come to a halt - although, with all four wheels locked, the 1800kg Charger feels like a giant sled as it slides into the junction. Apart from the brakes, this Charger has been kept refreshingly unmodified, heavier sway bars and an aftermarket exhaust being the only major additions. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: that’s clearly Prichinellos motto, the more I drive through the streets of Brooklyn, the more at home I feel. I don’t find the need to get the tires screeching, this car is perfect for cruising, soaking up the atmosphere, here’s no better way to see NY.
I’d expected that the streets of such a famously creative and wealthy city would be littered with supercars, the odd classic here, a few hot-rods there, and that muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s would be a dime a dozen. Bizarrely, the Big Apple seems devoid of anything special on wheels. In my four days here, I see only one vehicle of significance on the streets - our Charger. And I can’t emphasize enough just how much attention it gets; I’ve never experienced anything like it. Every time we stop, people can’t help but yell their approval. Construction workers stop work to give us a thumbs-up; old ladies put down their shopping just to talk about it. At one point, a teenage girl peels her eyes away from her phone for a second just to say, ‘that’s a seriously cool car, man!’
Being British, I feel awkward at being showered with so many compliments, but soon I’m loving every second of it. I ask Prichinello if such a reaction is usual. ‘If you’re doing something correctly in New York, people will let you know. It’s like a social media device, a conversation piece. Each kind of car gets a different reaction, and there’s something about muscle cars in New York. It’s a very posh city where everything is digital and modern, and then you drive around in something like this. You don’t see it very often, and there’s something about a muscle car that makes people really happy.’
On the way back to the Charger’s home in what was once the New York Police Department’s stables and is now CCC Manhattan’s HQ we pull up at traffic lights, here’s just enough time for a suited man to lean out the window of the beige sedan next to us and say, ‘that’s gorgeous. I love it. Is that a ’1968 or ’1969? How long you had it?’
As the lights change, Prichinello shouts back: ‘A little while. We’re gonna go rob a bank now...’
'MIKE SHOUTS "STOP!" I'M ABOUT TO RUN A RED LIGHT, HEADING STRAIGHT FOR THE SIDE OF A GARBAGE TRUGK'
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1968 Dodge Charger R/T
Engine 6292cc V8, OHV, Edelbrock four-barrel carburetor (originally 7206cc V8)
Max Power 340bhp (375bhp) @ 5000rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 425lb ft (482lb ft) @ 3200rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Three-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Steering Recirculating ball
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers
Brakes Front discs, rear drums
Top speed 126mph
Clockwise from here: Charger is the sole classic car we see on New York’s streets; cabin is as black-and-silver as the exterior; later 383 motor replaced monster 440; author Moss fulfils a dream; check out ‘double-diamond Coke-bottle’ profile.