Early drag racing: whose car was quickest from a standing start through a quarter-mile. Southern California high schooler Bill Bagshaw went to a 1959 event at Pomona where undefeated drivers were crowned as the Eliminator, the quickest. Bill was soon building a car that launched his career as a winning, record setting driver.
Rules changed: instead of quickest through the traps, drag racing became bracket racing where drivers were disqualified for going too quickly. Many drivers wanted old-fashioned drag racing, no break out, heads up. By the mid-1960s, Chrysler Corporation was heavy into promoting its 426 Hemi powered mid-size lightweight Super/Stock cars, the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda, and Bill's reputation secured a Hurst-built Hemi Dart during 1967.
Painted in USC's red and gold colors, Bill's 'Red Light Bandit' became a Super/Stock B record setter during 1968 and 1969. Then, with so many top drivers wanting a 'no break out' class, Pro Stock was invented that required cars to weigh at least 7 lbs for each cubic of engine displacement with wheels, engine, and driver seating in the stock location. For 1970, Chrysler shifted promotion to their newer body styles, and Bill received this car. He and next door neighbor, Ron Butler, built this 'Red Light Bandit' into a state of the art Pro Stocker that was campaigned mostly on the west coast to numerous wins, including the NHRA Division 7 Pro Stock Championship, posting records of 9.20 second ET at 147 miles per hour along the way.
In 1968 Dodge began creating prototypes for the Challenger. Designs had been created since 1965 and by the middle of 1969 Dodge was producing the Challenger, complete with nine engines to select. The base engine was the slant six with the top of the line engine being the 426 Hemi. Along with the engine choices, there were various body styles, optional equipment, and interior/exterior colors. Dodge offered both a hardtop and a convertible version. The platform had been borrowed from the Plymouth Barracuda and then stretched by a couple of inches to provide the passengers with extra interior room.
Dodge offered an SE package that included luxurious items, configuration, and amenities. The R/T, representing Road/Track, was the performance package. It came equipped with dual hood scoops, a heavy-duty suspension and the 383 cubic-inch engine producing 335 horsepower. Other engines offered were the 440, 340 and 426 cubic-inch engines. The base engine was the 225 cubic-inch slant six that produced 145 horsepower. Power steering and disc brakes were offered as optional equipment.
During the introductory year in 1970, 53,337 examples were created with the base engine. A little over 13,800 units were created in the R/T configuration in both coupe and convertible form. Nearly 3,700 examples were built with the SE configuration.
The Dodge Challenger T/A series, meaning Trans AM, was Dodge's attempt to build a street-worthy version of its race car. It was only offered in 1970 because the racing version did not perform well on the track and Dodge left the Trans Am racing at the end of the season. The street version was fitted with a 340 Six Pack created by the addition of an Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold and three two-barrel carburetors. The result was 350 horsepower. Disc brakes were standard as was a heavy-duty Ralley suspension with wide tires in the rear and thinner tires in the front. Dodge offered a TorqueFlite automatic or a Hurst four-speed transmission. 2,142 examples of the T/A series were created. The quarter-mile was accomplished in just fourteen-and-a-half seconds and zero-to-sixty was around six seconds.
For 1971 Dodge discontinued the T/A package and the R/T was no longer offered in convertible form. A new grille was the most distinguishable change when compared with the 1970 Challenger.
Government safety and emission regulations, and increasing insurance premiums meant the horsepower rating and size for all manufacturers were on the decline. To comply with the new requirements, many of the engines were detuned. This was true for Dodge as well. The 383 cubic-inch engine was now producing 300 horsepower, a loss of 30 horsepower over the prior year. The 440 Six Pack was detuned by five horsepower. The base 440 was no longer offered. The good news was that the Hemi was still available and kept its 425 horsepower rating.
Sales for 1971 were devastating. There were just over 25,000 units of the six-cylinder Challenger sold in 1971. A sharp decline in interest for the vehicle in only its second year sent the dealers trying to unload their inventory. Fifty vehicles were offered as 'official pace cars' for the Indianapolis 500 race. These specialty series were painted in Hemi orange and had white interiors. All were convertibles.
The front of the Challenger was reworked for 1972 including the addition of a new grille. Dodge dropped the R/T package and the convertible option. A Rallye edition was added in place of the R/T. It was outfitted with a 318 cubic-inch 150 horsepower. This would be the only year the Rallye option would be offered. The horsepower rating was now measured in net SAE which meant all horsepower figures were decreased dramatically. Dodge did not offer the Hemi or the 440 for 1972. This left the 340 with a horsepower rating of 240. The zero-to-sixty run could be accomplished in 8.5 seconds and the quarter-mile took sixteen seconds. Sales were slow with less than 25,000 units being produced.
The big news for 1973 was the introduction of the 360 cubic-inch eight-cylinder engine which appeared mid-way through the year. It produced 245 horsepower but it also increased the overall weight of the vehicle. Sales continued to be slow but they did increase over the prior year. In 1974 Dodge decided to cancel the Challenger series. Motivated by only 16,400 units sold, the decision was easy but sad, with only five years of production under its belt. Two engines were offered, the 318 cubic-inch and the 360 cubic-inch. Horsepower ranged from 150 to 245.
The Challenger had been introduced at the close of the muscle car era. It faced stiff competition from the pony cars, and the high-performance, economical, and lightweight machines. By offering both a luxury component and a performance package, the Challenger was a versatile machine. Its stylish designs and large Hemi engines are legendary.By Daniel Vaughan | Aug 2009