Roots of the Dart Dynasty and ‘Cuda Kingdom – Part 3

A Fork In The Road: The Fish Becomes a True Pony

As we’ve seen in Part One and Part Two of this series, the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda flew in tight formation throughout the 1960s, but 1970 brought a massive change. The compact A-body platform on which both were based remained beneath the Dart through 1976, while the 1970 Barracuda adopted an all-new, larger chassis platform based on the mid-size B-body passenger car series. The new Barracuda platform was called the E-body.

Even though the new E-body Barracuda’s 108-inch wheelbase was identical to the 1967-’69 second-generation A-body-based Barracuda, the new E-body platform allowed Barracuda body stylists to maximize the long hood/short deck lid proportions that were essential to success in the pony car market space, one of the industry’s most profitable at the time. Since Ford’s Mustang burst onto the scene with its long hood and short deck lid configuration in 1965 (as a 1964-1/2), every successful imitator followed the same formula.

A quick look at pony car contenders like the 1967 Camaro/Firebird, 1967 Mercury Cougar, 1968 American Motors Javelin and AMX reveals how most of Detroit was playing “follow the leader” in their efforts to capture some Mustang sales with their own long hood/short deck lid responses. Why re-invent the wheel?

As for Barracuda, this was problematic. Since it was anchored to the A-body platform (which was most often rendered as a 4-door Valiant sedan), the baked-in cowl-to-front-axle and cowl-to-rear-axle distances couldn’t be manipulated to achieve the necessary long hood/short deck body proportion. The 1964-’66 and 1967-’69 fastback models hid the matter with long, flowing B-pillars, but when the Barracuda hardtop and convertible body styles were introduced in 1967, their lengthy rear overhang and long deck-lid accentuated the A-body’s limitations in achieving the classical pony car hood / deck proportions.

Though it’s logical to assume buyers would prefer – and buy – the car with the more spacious trunk, or back seat, that’s not the way things always work. In the pony car realm, function almost always took second place to form. Simply put, pony car buyers were most attracted to cars with the long hood/short deck configuration because it adds a bunched-at-the-rear, ready-to-pounce feel. If Barracuda was to succeed, Chrysler Corp. planners knew it had to be separated from the A-body and its inherent styling limitations.

So while chanting “long hood/short deck lid, long hood/short deck lid” over and over, the stylists of what would become the 1970 Barracuda got to work in mid-1966. To help spread the cost of developing this completely new offering, Dodge was brought into the act. It’s version of the E-body was dubbed Challenger and would be Dodge’s first pure pony car…and a legend unto itself.

To maximize the long hood/short deck lid proportions, the E-body designers took the Plymouth B-body’s 116-inch wheelbase and sliced out a full 8 inches, mostly from the rear seat area. Over at Dodge, the Charger/Coronet B-body rode on a 1-inch-longer 117-inch wheelbase. For the Challenger, 7 inches were deleted, to deliver a 110-inch span between the front and rear axles. In both cases, the effect was stunning. Sure, rear seat leg room was reduced from 36.3 to 30.9 inches, nearly half a foot, but again, this wasn’t a function-over-form game.

When viewed from the side, the Barracuda (and Challenger) gave the impression of muscle, especially when fitted with the double-bulge ‘Cuda hood or optional rollicking Shaker hood scoop. Better still, at 186.6 inches, the 1970 Barracuda was 4 inches shorter than the 1969 Barracuda and less than 100 pounds heavier (when similarly equipped). Best of all, with its B-body ancestry, the E-body engine bay was built to take the 426 HEMI® without the need for an expensive trip to an outside modification center like the Hurst-built 1968 HEMI Super Stock program. The full line of Chrysler Corp. engines was offered. This included the 198 and 225 cube Slant Sixes, 318 2-barrel, 340 4-barrel, 340 6-barrel (aboard the AAR ‘Cuda), 383 2-barrel, 383 4-barrel, 440 4-barrel, 440 6-barrel, and The HEMI.

The 1970 Barracuda (and Challenger) should have been massively successful, right? Sadly, they weren’t. A combination of market saturation, shifting consumer tastes, skyrocketing insurance costs for young buyers, the distraction of the Vietnam war and a soft economy conspired to dull the sword. Though the all-new 1970 Barracuda boosted sales by nearly 74 percent over the outgoing 1969 (A-body) model, only 50,617 were built. At Dodge, the new Challenger scored 76,935 sales. No doubt, Plymouth and Dodge accountants were disappointed by the poor sales. It is hard to imagine that cars which now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars – even millions – among collectors, once sat on dealer lots unappreciated. The mind boggles.

But again, things were tough all over. The same market conditions saw sales of Camaros tumble from over 243,085 in 1969 to 124,901 in 1970, a nearly fifty percent drop despite the 1970 being a totally new car. It wasn’t much better for Ford. The originator of the pony car movement watched Mustang sales slide from 299,824 in 1969 to 190,727 in 1970. Comparatively, things could have been much worse for the new E-bodies. But the writing was on the wall. The 1970s were not going to be an extension of the swinging sixties. Concepts that made sense when the E-body was conceived in late 1966 were no longer valid by the time it hit the market in 1970.

The muscle car boom was over – for the time being – and thirsty big blocks were no longer in demand. But with multiple millions invested in the E-body program, Chrysler Corp. wasn’t about to quit without a fight. The Barracuda (and Challenger) were refined, convertibles, big block V8s, beefy Dana 60 rear axles, and Shaker hoods were dropped after 1971. The new emphasis was placed on handling prowess and the fun factor. But sales continued to slide; 16,159 in 1971 (just 1,146 convertibles), 16,142 in 1972, 19,281 in 1973, and 11,734 in 1974. Oh, if we only had a time machine to go back and buy up a bunch of E-body convertibles, HEMIs and Six Packs. Heck, even a clean, base model 1970 Barracuda with the 198 Slant Six and 3-speed manual can draw nearly $20,000 today.

Things were better for the Dodge Dart in 1970, much better. As Dodge’s low-priced, entry-level offering, as long as people were buying new cars, the Dart was safe. Being Dodge’s entry level, bread-and-butter offering, the Dart lineup was the least affected by the lousy economy and actually prospered while more expensive models languished. Darts accounted for between 40 and 50 percent of total annual Dodge passenger car sales through the early 1970s. Sales were strong; 210,104 in 1970, 250,420 in 1971, 263,368 in 1972, and on it went.

And for good reason, with millions of satisfied buyers of the 1960-’69 offerings, many returned to buy new replacements throughout the 1970s and became life-long Dodge loyalists. The dependability of the Slant Six engine and TorqueFlite automatic transmission, crisp handling of the torsion bar front suspension and inherent toughness of the unitized A-body made it a legend. And there’s no doubt many Dart buyers chose Dodge after watching Dick Landy, Don Garlits, Sam Posey or Richard Petty win a race on TV or reading about it in a magazine.

For 1970, Dodge dropped the slow-selling Dart convertible, 2-door post sedan (after 1968) and limited-demand 383 and 440 GTS big block muscle machines (there were no Dart station wagons built after 1966). That left the 2-door and 4-door hardtops, plus (for 1971) a new semi-fastback called the Demon. Not to be confused with today’s 840-horsepower, wheel-standing, 9-second (wink-wink) commuter car, the first Demon was an outgrowth of the 1970 Plymouth Duster.

Essentially a Valiant with a nicely integrated semi-fastback roofline, the Duster became Plymouth’s lowest priced model, replacing the boxy Valiant 100 series 2-door sedan of 1969. A no-option 1970 Duster with the 198 Slant Six and 3-speed manual transmission stickered for a mere $2,172, giving stiff competition to the Chevy Nova and also-all-new-for-1970 Ford Maverick and AMC Hornet and Gremlin in the highly competitive compact car class.

Though only offered as a 2-door (Novas, Mavericks and Hornets could be had with 4 doors), the Duster still sold 217,192 units (24,817 as potent Duster 340s) in that first year on the market. In a seeming repeat of the Valiant’s launch in 1960, Chrysler Corp. made Dodge Division wait one model year before allowing a Dodge-branded version of the A-body platform (the 1961 Lancer).

A decade later, when the 1971 Demon arrived in Dodge showrooms, it shared the same 108-inch wheelbase as the Duster (3 inches less than the Dart’s 111-inch wheelbase), but got a different grille, tail light panel and interior upholstery treatment. The most controversial feature was the Demon’s name. Despite the use of a cute, harmless looking cartoon devil mascot, the reference was offensive to certain sensitivities; so for 1973, Dodge re-named the car the Dart Sport.

None of this hurt sales and the Demon sold 79,959 units (10,098 as Demon 340 muscle cars) in its first year, then 48,580 for 1972 (8,700 as Demon 340 muscle cars). The 31,379 unit year-over-year Demon sales drop is misleading. Dart also offered 2-door hardtops (called Swingers) and 4-door sedans along with the Demon. Overall Dart sales for 1972 were 263,368 units, up 5.17 percent over 1971.

Regardless of the name badge on the fender, Darts offered excitement under the hood. Thanks to its unit construction, the Dart’s 2,800 to 3,200 pound curb weight (depending on options) offered an excellent power-to-weight ratio. Engine choices included the 198 (1970-’74) and 225 Slant Sixes: the 318 2-barrel, the 340 4-barrel (1970-’73) and the 360 4-barrel (1974-’76).

Even when equipped with the Slant Six, performance was peppy and burnouts just a foot stomp away. All over the country, high school parking lots were jammed with Slant Six A-bodies. New and used, they were cheap and plentiful enough to serve as first cars for thousands of new drivers. If you went to high school in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably have many happy Dodge Dart memories.

Beyond the torque-laden Slant Six, approximately 30 percent of Dart buyers chose to pay the extra $79 for the 230-horsepower (gross rating, 150 after 1970) 318 V8. This transformed any A-body into a surprisingly quick car. But with its single exhaust system and small 2-barrel carburetor, insurance adjusters didn’t recognize it as a performance package. That wasn’t the case with the wicked little 340 V8. For $378, buyers got a total vehicle performance package centered on the same engine offered in Plymouth’s 1970 ‘Cuda 340 and Challenger A66, the legendary 275-horsepower 340.

First offered as the 1970 hardtop Swinger 340, then the 1971-’72 fastback Demon 340, heavy-duty brakes, wheels, suspension and cooling were included. And like most mid-size Dodge muscle packages, the 340 engine was never offered with a 4-door body style. The 340 saw the same compression ratio cut as all Detroit engines in 1971 to prepare for unleaded gasoline, but 14-second quarter-mile performance was still possible. When equipped with a 4-speed stick and optional 3.91:1 rear axle ratio, Demon 340s were true big block slayers.

The 340 was replaced by a similarly prepared 360 for 1974-’76 Dart Sport 360 applications with one significant exception. The 220-horsepower 360 was offered for one year – 1976 – aboard 4-door Dart (and Valiant) hardtop A38 Police Pursuit models. Favored by law enforcement agencies seeking better fuel economy and in-town maneuverability than bigger Band C-body police cars, the 1976 Dart Pursuit marks the only time a 4-door A-body was factory-built with a full-length dual exhaust system (California Emissions cars got single exhaust).

After serving for over fifteen years, the A-body platform under the Dart was beginning to show its age. For 1976, Chrysler Corp. introduced a replacement, the Dodge Aspen (and Plymouth Volare). Known as the F-body platform, the Aspen shared the A-body’s rear wheel drive layout but replaced the longitudinal torsion bar front suspension with a novel transverse torsion bar setup that offered a smoother ride. Elsewhere, the Aspen was more refined with higher quality upholstery materials, instruments and convenience options. The 225 Slant Six, 318 2-barrel and 360 2-barrel and 4-barrel engines were offered in the Aspen, though the placement of the gas tank hinted at a significant shift in philosophy.

Secured to the under-side of the trunk floor, against the driver-side rear frame rail, the Aspen’s rectangular 16-gallon fuel tank stood ready to supply the needs of the engine for many happy miles of motoring. But positioned as it was, the layout left no room for a conventional full-length dual exhaust system. There was no place to run the tail pipe out the back of the car. In other words, the F-body design team intentionally chose not to “protect” the platform for dual exhaust systems, a key part of any high-performance V8 powertrain. The catalytic converter age had arrived.

For 1976, Dodge dealers sold new Aspens and Darts side by side. That ended in 1977. The Dart was finally discontinued. But was it gone forever? No way. Just as the HEMI brand has a valuable recognition factor with the general public, Dodge knew enough folks would recall their “indestructible” Darts of younger days. For 2013, the Dart nameplate was revived for use on a high-content sub-compact model, much like the original Valiant/Lancer.

Benefiting from the 2010 merger with Fiat, which gave rise to Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the new Dart blended existing European Alfa Romeo and Fiat components with upgrades made to better suit the North American marketplace. For instance, to gain interior volume, the width of the body shell was increased 1.5 inches and the wheelbase extended 3.7 inches, the result being a sub-compact model with more interior space than some competing models in the next-size-up compact segment.

Your author was invited to be part of the Dart’s publicity program in 2013 with something called the Dodge Dart Road Trip. I was handed the keys to a shiny red Dart and drove it throughout the Midwest on a 1,000-plus-mile tour. Along the route, we stopped at many Mopar® hot spots and created videos that you can still watch online; just Google “Dodge Dart Road Trip” to see some of them.

Demonstrating how huge the SUV and crossover segments are in today’s market, despite representing a solid value, the final Dart was built on September 2, 2016. The Dart’s Belvidere, Illinois, assembly plant was needed to meet demand for Jeep® vehicles. It turned out, the Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, was making – and selling – so many Jeep Wranglers, the room for building Jeep Cherokees was getting squished. To solve the problem, the Dart was discontinued and Jeep Cherokee production moved from Toledo to Belvidere. Problem solved. And because the Dart and Cherokee are quite similar under the skin, the Belvidere plant required only minor tweaks to transition from Dart to Cherokee production.

So that’s the story of how the Dodge Dart Dynasty and ‘Cuda Kingdom grew out of the same A-body platform, but took off in very different directions after the first decade. Will the world ever see a return of the Dart or Barracuda nameplates? Only time will tell!

 

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