Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Ben Hosking
It’s ironic that the Dodge Challenger is a favourite with Mopar fans today, as that certainly wasn’t the case when it was new.
Debuting as a 1970 model, the Challenger was a late entry into the ‘pony car’ market started by Ford’s Mustang. It lasted five years in its original form, suffered the indignity of having its nameplate applied to Japanese imports in the 1980s, then lay dormant for more than two decades before being revived, first as a concept, then an all-American production model in 2008.
The modern Challenger is a bolder and arguably better take on the original in both its styling and drivetrain, but there’s always room to make an original Challenger bolder and better, too – as shown in the car featured.
When it debuted in 1964, the Mustang’s success caught everyone by surprise and all other US manufacturers scrambled to create a rival. All, it seems, except Dodge.
Chevrolet had their Camaro ready to go in late 1966, followed by the Pontiac Firebird a few months later. Mercury offered a luxe version of the Mustang with their Cougar for 1967, while American Motors released their Javelin later in the same year.
Plymouth, with their Valiant-based Barracuda, had actually beaten Ford to market with the ‘pony car’ concept back in 1964, but the Barracuda got trampled in the Mustang stampede.
So, what about Dodge?
They had nothing in the pony car market until the arrival of the Challenger for the 1970 model year – more than five years after the Mustang’s debut.
Some may regard the Charger as a Mustang rival, but that was a bigger car in a different class and not a true like-for-like competitor to the Mustang.
Why it took so long for Dodge to come to the pony car party is a bit of a mystery, especially since they’d demanded - and received - a compact car (the Valiant-based Lancer) when that market segment took off at the start of the 1960s. Parent company Chrysler’s fractious state in the early 1960s likely played a part in the delay.
What laid the groundwork for the Challenger’s introduction was the success of Dodge and Plymouth’s ‘B-body’ intermediate cars for 1968. Restyling of both resulted in the now iconic Charger shape, along with the introduction of the Coronet-based Super Bee as a stripped down muscle car. On the Plymouth side, the new-for-1968 Road Runner followed the same formula as the Super Bee, while the GTX was split off from the Belvedere to become its own model.
The market’s response to these cars not only gave Chrysler the funds required to restyle the Barracuda for the 1970 model year, but to add a Dodge sibling, too.
Dodge’s entry into the pony car market would be called Challenger, and while it would appear to be similar to the Barracuda, it was different in several areas.
Both models would be built on an all-new ‘E-body’ that was larger in most dimensions than the previous generation Barracuda’s A-body, as well as the rival Mustang and Camaro.
This was driven by the need to ensure an engine bay that was large enough to fit the range of big Mopar V8 engines that buyers were clamouring for. The B-body met this requirement, so some elements of this were transferred across to the E-body.
Changes between the Dodge and Plymouth pony cars started with the wheelbase. At 110 inches, the Challenger was 2 inches longer than the Barracuda and 4.7 inches longer overall. Front and rear track was the same, but the Dodge was wider and fractionally taller, too.
When it finally launched in August, 1969, the Challenger was offered in hardtop coupe and convertible body styles, plus two variants – base and R/T (for Road and Track). The latter ran a 383 V8 as standard and was identified by a “performance” bonnet with two air scoops and model-specific badging and striping outside. Inside, the R/T featured a ‘Rallye’ instrument cluster that added a 150mph speedo, 8000rpm tacho and oil pressure gauge.
From launch, there was also a ‘Special Edition’ available on both variants that added a vinyl roof, smaller rear windscreen, leather-trimmed seats and an overhead console with warning lights.
Engine choices ranged from a 225ci six-cylinder all the way up to a 426ci Street Hemi V8. In between these extremes, buyers could go for a 318 V8, 383 V8 in three output levels and the 440 V8 in two output levels. Transmissions covered three-speed manual, four-speed manual and three-speed TorqueFlite automatic. Choose the bigger engines and the four-speed or TorqueFlite were mandatory. Choose the 340, four-barrel 383 or four-barrel 440 and you could also option a shaker bonnet scoop that was functional and added some visual flair (the shaker was standard on Challengers equipped with the 426 Hemi).
Challenger pricing started at US$2,851 and stretched to US$3,545, which put it against the Firebird and Cougar, but reflecting Ford’s practise with the Mustang, there was a wide array of options available, from floor mats to a sunroof and air conditioning, plus specific performance parts that included engine, suspension and braking upgrades. Drum brakes all round were standard on the 1970 Challenger, with disc brakes optional and only available on the front end.
When the Challenger was signed off back in 1967, the pony car market was booming and expectations were high, but that market was starting to shrink by 1970. First-year sales of 83,032 were good, but less than half the 200,000 that Dodge expected.
To boost the Challenger’s exposure and market penetration, Dodge entered the 1970 SCCA Trans Am racing season, which required the development of a special homologation model that was introduced partway through the model year.
This was the Challenger T/A, which featured a 340ci V8, heavy-duty suspension, power-assisted front disc brakes, a model-specific bonnet, rear spoiler, Rallye wheels and several cosmetic additions. This added US$865.70 to the base V8 hardtop, pushing the price over US$4,000 – big money when a Mustang Boss 302 was US$3,720.
At the other end of the scale, there was the Challenger Deputy, designed to offer a cheaper entry into Challenger ownership. To cut costs, a 198ci six-cylinder engine was standard, the rear side windows were fixed, the steering wheel and seats were lower grade items from the Barracuda and other features that were normally standard were moved to the options list.
The T/A and Deputy only made a minor contribution to Challenger sales in 1970 and neither would return for the 1971 model year.
From a promising start in 1970, Challenger production plummeted to 29,883 in 1971 and not even a starring role in the cult movie Vanishing Point was able to arrest the slide. Production fell again to 26,658 in 1972. For 1974, the Challenger’s final year in the marketplace, just 16,437 units were built.
The reason for this decline was the same as that which hit other big muscle and pony cars of the era – sky-high insurance premiums for high-performance cars, increased fuel prices, anti-pollution emissions regulations and a general change in customer tastes.
Spending the least time in the market meant the Challenger was the least prodigious pony car in terms of numbers, which partly explains its popularity today.
When classic American muscle cars began to boom in the new millennium, E-body cars were at the forefront, particularly Hemi-equipped ‘Cuda convertibles that were selling for multi-million dollar amounts at auction. Challengers have yet to reach that mark, with mid-to-high six-figure sums being the peak so far, including $660,000 for a Hemi-powered 1970 Challenger R/T in 2019.
Spotted at the Servo
The Challenger featured here, a 1970 R/T coupe, has been in Anton Polkamp’s possession since 2004 and is the product of more than a decade's restoration work.
There’s a JUST CARS connection to this car, too. But before that’s explained, you need to understand Anton’s long-term love affair with Mopar.
Instant cool points go to Anton for having a ’71 Valiant Charger with a 265 Hemi and 4-speed as his first car - when he was just 15! Since then, he’s had six other Chargers, including R/Ts, a pair of VH Pacers and various Valiant sedans.
Occupying the (big) garage now is a 2014-model Chrysler 300 SRT daily driver, a ’72 Valiant Charger and ’89 Nissan R32 Skyline GT-R, while projects on the go at time of writing included a VH Pacer and ’68 Dodge Charger.
“I guess I’m just a Mopar guy through and through… except for my GTR,” Anton laughed.
This Challenger is Anton’s first and he came across it by chance.
“I saw it on the cover of a JUST CARS mag while getting fuel at the servo. I rang the guy and the rest is history!”
That was back in March of 2004. The car had been freshly imported from the US and Anton suspects the first Aussie owner got a shock at what came out of the shipping container, so wanted to move it on quickly.
What you see here was far from what Anton bought.
“The car needed a lot of work,” Anton explained. And by ‘a lot,’ he means replacement of every exterior panel, the front floors, boot floor, beaver panel and both bumpers before even looking at the engine bay or interior. Impressively, all the work was done by Anton in his home garage.
A project of this magnitude would be too much for some, but Anton credits his wife Kathi with a common-sense approach to getting the job done.
“Kathi told me to just do an hour on the car each weeknight. ‘Before you know it, it well be done,’ she said. And she was right.”
After many of those one-hour stints spent on the body, including stripping it to bare metal, then all the panel prep and primer, the Challenger was ready for paint. Given Anton’s a fan of Vanishing Point, you may have thought he’d go for white, but he chose a custom-mix orange.
A bold shade that’s in the spirit of the High Impact colours offered by Dodge in 1970, the orange extends to the bumpers, which was a factory option when the Challenger was new.
But unlike a factory spec Challenger, the colour here is offset by a set of gunmetal grey Boss Motorsports 338 alloys, in 18x8-inch on the front and 18x9.5-inch on the rear.
Under that fresh orange body is a suspension set-up that’s in the factory configuration – torsion bars up front and leaf springs with shocks at the rear – but upgraded with Caltracs gear at each end.
As bought, the Challenger was equipped with a 440 and manual, but during the rebuild, Anton had the driveline comprehensively updated.
The car now runs a 440 stroked to 493 cubes and fitted with Trick Flow heads, a solid roller camshaft, JE pistons and K1 Technologies conrods, with compression now at 12.0:1. Built by Dominator Engines in Guildford, NSW, the 493 Stroker is topped with a Holley Ultra XP race-spec 950CFM four-barrel carby, while the exhaust system is made up of 2-inch headers and 3-inch dual pipes.
To this potent package, Anton bolted on a Magnum T56 six-speed manual gearbox and Dana 60 diff with a 4.3:1 ratio.
Anton’s tested the engine and it’s achieved 700hp (565hp at the rear wheels), while the completed package has done an 11.1 at 129mph over the quarter mile.
Ensuring this Challenger can stop as good as it goes, the factory brake package has been extensively upgraded with 12-inch discs at each end, gripped by Wilwood 6-piston calipers up front and 4-piston calipers at the rear, backed by a hydro-boost master cylinder that’s more efficient than a traditional vacuum booster.
The interior is mostly factory, including the high-back bucket seats, door trims, wood grain steering wheel and Hurst pistol grip shifter, but Anton has added a large AutoMeter tacho, as well as AutoMeter water temp and oil pressure gauges.
On the Road
Anton’s patient approach meant the Challenger was finally completed and ready for the road in 2016. Even though the project took twelve years, Anton says the first drive in the completed Challenger made all that time worth it: “I just love the way it drives.”
Those drives have been near and far, including a run down to Chryslers on the Murray in 2019, where the upgraded driveline, suspension and brakes were given a good workout in the driving events.
Topping the results on the dyno for the best naturally aspirated big block at Chryslers on the Murray that year, Anton's Challenger was runner-up in the Best Dodge Muscle category, too.
In bringing this Challenger back to life, Anton extended thanks to Darren, Rob and Paul from Elko Performance who supplied the parts and Russell from Dominator Engines for building a weapon of an engine. He saved a special thanks for his friends and family, especially Kathi, who supported him all the way, and kids Ryan and Eloise.
Given all the time he put into this Challenger and the pleasure he gets from driving it, it’s no surprise that Anton has no plans to sell it.
Under the cloud of COVID, driving opportunities have been limited of late, so Anton’s spent much of the past year putting time into his Pacer and Charger projects instead.
If this Challenger is an indication of what’s to come on the Pacer and Charger, both will be worth seeing!