The 1970-1974 Dodge Challenger
by Kelly Doke and the Allpar staff
1964 was a important time in the Challenger's history, though the car had not yet been created. John Z. Delorean converted the Tempest into the GTO, a car that had young buyers flocking to Pontiac to get their own high-octane-burning cheap thrills. Then, in April, rivals from Dearborn unveiled the Mustang at the World's Fair, grabbing attention and sales despite Plymouth quietly beating them to the punch, weeks earlier, with the Barracuda.
In terms of power, Dodge was no slouch that year. Tom Hoover's brainchild, the 426 Hemi, loosely based on the 426 Max Wedge, dominated Daytona and much of the NASCAR season. To Lynn Townsend' schagrin (or perhaps to his credit), a few 330s with Hemi power were clandestinely let loose on Woodward.
It didn't take a marketing analyst to figure out that the children of the baby boomers were becoming financially aware, and the proliferation of Mustangs and GTOs on the streets were proof of that. Chrysler had to make a move, and make one fast. Thus, in 1968, Plymouth launched the popular Road Runner, which took off like wildfire. Still, some believe they needed a small, lithe, agile compact, much like the "Panther" project GM was cooking up. While the Valiant and Dart had athletic aspirations, they were no match for the Camaro and Firebird.
A sporty car based on the Dart and Valiant (as the Barracuda had been, and the Duster would be) could be perfect. Burton Bouwkamp, product planner, wrote that, in 1967, 1.5 million specialty compacts were predicted for 1970; and Chrysler predicted market penetration of 15%, for 225,000 cars per year. They could, based on those projections, easily make 200,000 Challengers and Barracudas, perfect for plant scheduling.
Clay models for the new "pony car" started taking shape, literally, in 1967. Late 1968, Bill Brownlie and Carl Cameron's mockups looked almost production ready. Roger Struck (Dart/Challenger Product Planner in 1967) wrote,
I was in the styling studio one day when Elwood Engle (VP of design) was reviewing the exterior design of the "'E' Body" Challenger clay model. Elwood suggested to Bill Brownlie (Dodge design chief) that the main character line along the side of the model (I think we called it the "B" line) was a little low and to bring it up so it didn't have a dragging appearance.
In 1968, another event altered the course of the Challenger's evolution. Over at General Motors, Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen had, years earlier, imposed a moratorium on engines larger than 400 cubic inches in the mid-sized (A-Body) model range, along with a ban in official factory participation in motorsports. That year, Pandora's Box was opened with the end of that moratorium, and a 455 cubic inch V8 appeared on the option list for the Cutlass 442. Others followed: Camaros with 427s, Mustangs with 428s.
This was a new problem for Chrysler. The new pony car was only intended to have the 383 as the largest engine (the most the Barracuda could handle), but still remain based on the A-body, as the Barracuda was (the Barracuda itself could only barely handle the 383, and most reviewers preferred the lighter 340). 716 pounds of Detroit pig iron up front in the form of the Hemi wouldn't translate well for a platform based on agility. Chrysler had seen its share of headaches in the Hurst Hemi Darts and Barracudas, and even in the 440 Darts and Valiants. A big motor in a small car, on the manufacturing scale that Chrysler needed, wasn't feasible. Again, to quote Burton Bouwkamp:
The original form was the Barracuda derived from an A Body. We had experience with that approach and knew that we could not get a competitive sporty proportion and B engine options with an A Body plarform. The B engine option forced a wider car. Also we had to add width for provision for bigger wheels/tires. The additional width helped appearance but of course it added weight and cost.
The new car would have to use the B-body cowl (radiator core support to firewall), and most of the underpinnings of the larger cars. The E-body tag reflected current Chrysler Corp. body styles: the compacts were As, mid-size to large were B, and C and D were reserved for oversized Chrysler models. [Challenger creation stories]
In terms of safety, Challenger and Barracuda alone got a new energy-absorbing steering column, added roof rollover protection, crash-resistant inner door beams, and safer latch strikers and door handles.
The 1970 Dodge Challenger arrives
Friday, August 1, 1969 saw a fervor of excitement at Line One and Line Two at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. While numerous plants around the country were producing new 1970 Plymouths, Dodges, Chryslers, and Imperials, Dodge Main was, for the moment, the only one constructing the all-new Challenger and its platform sibling, the Barracuda. (Van Nuys Plant in Los Angeles would begin weeks later.)
The new Dodge pony car rode on a 111-inch wheelbase, while the high-strung ’Cuda had a shorter 108 inches, spindle to axle. The cars shared some parts, glass, underpinnings, and interior trim pieces, but were still unique to each other. The Challenger had enough options, trim packages, and colors (18, including the Hi-Impact colors that added $14.70 to the bottom line) for the most discerning consumer. With styling echoing the contemporary Chevrolet Camaro, and with the Mercury Cougar and Pontiac Firebird market segment in its crosshairs, this car was envisioned for "The Performance Guy Who Is Married With Two Kids."
At Dodge Main, the Challengers were built on two dedicated lines, the R/T models, and convertibles would be built on line 1, along with any big block specialty cars. Line Two would see any Challenger (non-R/T, 383 engine and smaller) that didn't have a big motor or no top built alongside six cylinder Darts, 318 Chargers, and Coronet sedans. A quick check of a fender tag will annotate that by a "LN1 or LN2" on the fender tag.
On the outside, the Challenger featured new, flush pull-up door handles, a new interior door lock recessed in the armrest, and high-back bucket seats with built in head restraints, or bench seats with folding center armrests in the Hardtop. Paint schemes included the colors Plum Crazy, HEMI Orange, and accented "bumblebee stripes." Door glass had no vents and was curved. Roger Struck wrote:
Colin Neale (chief of interior design) loved the sculptured look of the plastic molded door trim panels. He said he would “soften” the hard touch of the molded panel with a textured surface. Well, it was still hard---texture or no ... it had a cost advantage as well as the 3-D freedom of a molded part, but it was unfriendly to the touch and had no sound dampening quality and, therefore exaggerated any rattles in the door.
Burton Bouwkamp added, “The polypropylene material was unstable and every door panel was a little different dimensionally which made a problem for Car Assembly. The material was flexible so the assembler could force it to fit.”
Optional on Special Edition was an overhead console with low-fuel, door-ajar, and seat-belt lights. Seats could be manually tilted and moved fore and aft, or up and down; they were counterbalanced with springs to make movement easier. A stereo tape player, cruise control, rear defogger, power windows, headlight delay, and other luxury items were optional. Safety precautions included a collapsible steering column, two-piece door impact beam, and a box-section roll bar.
A Slap-Stik Shift Gate was sold with the console-mounted TorqueFlite; 60-series tires were on 15 inch wheels, fairly aggressive for the time, as long as you got an engine beyond the non-Magnum 383 (such as the 340 or 383 Magnum); the 225, 318, and 383 non-Magnum engines came with 14 inch wheels. Tires (fiberglass belted) ranged from E78 to F60 (Hemi only). Wheels were 5.5 inches wide, except for the 340 and Hemi, whose wheels were 7 inches wide.
The Challenger R/T started with a 383 cubic inch V8, with a 9.5:1 compression ratio and 335 gross hp at 5,200 rpm; torque was 425 lb-ft at 3,400 rpm. The premium-fuel-only powerplant had a single four-barrel Holley carb, hydraulic lifters, overhead rocker arms, and dual, reverse-flow mufflers.
The standard transmission was a three-speed floor shift with a 2.55:1 first, 1.49:1 second, and 1:1 third; cam timing was 268° intake duration, 284° exhaust duration. Heavy duty drum brakes were standard, along with a rallye instrument cluster (including tachometer, trip odometer, variable speed wipers, 150 mph speedometer, and oil pressure gauge); a bumblebee stripe or longitudinal tape stripe were optional, at no extra cost. Vinyl bucket seats with head restraints and a 3-spoke "simulated walnut" steering wheel helped complete the package (Rick Ehrenberg of Mopar Action noted that these tend to wear out relatively quickly).
Safety features included dual channel brakes, padded instrument panel, day/night rearview mirror (standard on R/T), seat belts in all positions, and an energy absorbing steering column.
According to a contemporary brochure, legendary record-setting drag racer Don Garlits said:
They watched the whole pony car thing develop, then built their own super-tough version... the Challenger R/T. Compact like a Dart. Wide like a Charger. Just the right size for anyone who likes his own personalized backyard bomb. Dodge should sell a million of ’em. Challenger and especially Challenger R/T are young people’s cars with young persons’ price tags.”
Los Angeles-built cars only had one line at the plant in Van Nuys, so a big block R/T could be built in sequence after a Dart Sedan. No Hemi or Six Pack cars came from the Los Angeles plant, due to the extra chassis work necessary for those cars.
A special Hemi Challenger Convertible, the first off the line, was converted into the Dodge Yellowjacket, making the car show circuit for the 1969 season. Painted a honey-gold color, it showcased styling elements for future offerings.
The grille of the car was a harbinger for the '71 model year cars, with a distant rear panel treatment of the '72-'74 cars, and a targa type roof, with fully-faired headrests that stylistically flowed into the rear decklid, much like the Jaguar E-type of the fifties and the Thunderbird roadsters of the early sixties. At the New York and Los Angeles Shows, a beautiful woman was displayed with the car, wearing as little as possible in that era, and served as a living canvas. Passerby could draw on her with markers to their heart's content. The car was largely overlooked. It would reappear the next year as the Dodge Diamante, and thanks to a scratch recieved somewhere between shows, it was now a pearl white.
The second incarnation of the car would have taillights that would be directly duplicated on the '72-'74 cars, and an aerodynamic rubber-coated nose, much like the Elastomeric bumpered cars of the era, along with pop-up headlights. Steven Juliano owns the Diamante now, and it has been restored to its 1970 show season status.
When the Challenger hit showroom floors in the fall, Chrysler expected to send 200,000 units to new homes, so all aspects of the market had been covered, with the low end Deputy Coupe, the bread-and-butter Highline coupes, sizzling hot convertibles, the agile T/A, the posh Special Editions, and the pulse-quickening R/Ts, with two 440s, a stout 383, and the coveted 426 Hemi. These cars were the first in the industry to utilize injection-molded plastic interior panels, and T/As were also the first in the industry to utilize different sized tires on the front and rear axles.
1970 Dodge Challenger models
For 1970, there were numerous Dodge Challenger models, from the low-end (late-introduction) Deputy to the limited-edition top-end T/A, with the luxury SE and hot R/T in between. The company was planning on 200,000 sales, and the wide range of models reflected that.
The model year had started out with the Challenger Highline, JH23, and unlike the Deputy, it was available in almost every trim and luxury option. The base engine was the humble slant six, but the "starter" V8 was the 340, producing a rated 275 hp (gross) and 340 lb-ft of torque at a low 3,200 rpm.
Western Sport Special (WSS)
One unique package was the Western Sport Special. The WSS cars were based on the Challenger Highline, and had small block power, pedal dress up-kit, a vinyl top, and the requisite Western Sport Special Appliqué on the rear quarter panel. These cars were available only to the San Francisco and Los Angeles sales regions, and it was accepted that WSS cars were built at the Los Angeles plant, recently, a handful of 340-powered cars with the documented WSS option were found, having been built at the Hamtramck plant.
One Challenger Trans Am is known that also had the Western Sport Special badging. The T/A cars had a lot of the pre-existing WSS options (pedal dress-up kit, vinyl top), and it was originally an East Coast car, so it is a very likely story that a dealer installed the WSS decals to move the car off the lot.
Dodge Challenger Deputy
The Deputy was a lower priced package, and these cars were very spartan, coming from Hamtramck and Van Nuys devoid of amenities such as air conditioning, power steering or brakes; the JH21 and JL21 Deputies also used base Barracuda seats. Some of the rarest Challengers that year were the 383 3 speed challenger Deputies, with examples numbering in the single digit territory.
1970 Dodge Challenger SE
The Special Edition Challenger, JS23 and JS29 for R/Ts, was a separate model, denoted by the second character in the VIN (The Deputies had "L" for low, Highlines had "H"), S for special. The most obvious difference was the "Formal" or smaller rear window, meant to emulate a limousine’s back glass. A fiberglass plug was placed over the rear window, and covered up by a vinyl top.
SE cars had a velour headliner (non-SE cars had a standard headliner, with fabric and bows), and an SE-only overhead consolette, that had warning lights for low fuel and open door. SE and R/T SEs also had leather seating unique to that series, and a "credit-option" of leather seats with fabric inserts. Opting for these seats meant a credit could be utilized towards another option. The Special Edition would be discontinued for the 1971 season, but the vinyl-covered roof with the smaller window would continue as the A78 formal roof option.
1970 Challenger in review
Between the falloff in the market, hot competition from the company’s own Duster and Road Runner, and criticism of the cars’ dynamics, 1970 Challenger sales were disappointing. There was a tremendous irony there, because two alternative approaches to the same project succeeded wildly, on far smaller budgets.
The Valiant Charger, Australia’s low-budget project which also combined A and B body components, was a wild success, albeit in a smaller market. Valiant Charger may not have worked in the US: the hottest engine was a hemispherical-head, triple-two-barrel carb six. But the other ironic success was a more modest project even than the Valiant Charger: the 1970 Plymouth Duster was merely a fastback Valiant, and with its 340, it was the performance bargain of the year. Challenger and Valiant Charger were both made by combining A and B bodies; Duster was still a pure A-body, with the same semi-formal Valiant front end, yet sales were in the hundreds of thousands.
Meanwhile, in 1970, Chrysler sold 53,337 standard Challengers; 6,584 SEs; 3,173 convertibles; a bit over 1,000 T/As; and 19,938 R/Ts (including convertibles and SEs). In all, 83,032 Challengers were sold; 60% had the base V8, and nearly 90% had automatics. Styled wheels were more popular than big engines; and the slant six seems to have outsold Hemi and 440 Six-Pack combined, easily. As Burton Bouwkamp wrote:
...the compact specialty car market leveled off below 1,000,000 cars per year and our E body sales never hit even 100,000 per year. We lost money (unhappy management) and we did not build the cars well (unhappy customers). 1970-1974 Barracudas and Challengers are admired and collected today but 35 years ago they were seen as problems..
And how did the ironic companion to the Challenger/Barracuda fare? Plymouth sold 217,192 Dusters in 1970, their first year. Though Duster fell somewhat in 1971, sales would then rise every year to a peak in 1974 with 250,000 sold (in 1975 and 1976, the Volare/Aspen cut Duster sales dramatically — but even in 1975 it outsold Challenger’s peak).
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T and Challenger T/A - by Kelly Doke
1970 Dodge Challenger T/A
In May 1969, a Chrysler product planner conceived the Dodge Challenger T/A; it was born nine months later, on February 12, 1970, and issued a “birth certificate” (Technical Service Bulletin 11). Pontiac had Trans Ams prowling the streets, so the name had to be shortened, but the car was created to run in the SCCA Trans America series, so the T/A name was justified.
The T/A was created because automakers had to make actual retail cars to compete in some motorsports; just as they had to make real Charger Daytonas to run the supercars in NASCAR, Dodge had to make 2,400 Challengers T/As for civilians to support one SCCA racing car.
In accordance with the Sports Car Club of America rulings, Sam Posey’s #77 Classic Wax Challenger started life as a Body-In-White, meaning it was a street car that was delivered to a racing group with a unibody structure, and little else. #77 was painted FJ5 Sublime, and at first, the massive amounts of green were overpowering. Longitudal black R/T side-stripes and a black vinyl top were applied to offer visual contrast.
The vinyl top was purported to increase structural integrity, as the Body in White was acid dipped to cut weight; and according to one report, a team member leaned on the roof during a qualifying race, and put a massive dent in the racer’s roof. A Challenger from a local dealer’s lot donated its normal roof, and Sam Posey went on to qualify the next day. Keith Black, of Hemi drag racing fame, built the 303.8 cubic inch LA-based motor that occupied the gloss grey engine compartment.
Sam Posey drove the lone Trans Am racing Challenger in 1970. Drag races Dick Landy and Ted Spehar also campaigned Challengers in the National Hot Rod Association’s new Pro Stock class.
The T/A cars that ruled the streets were a different animal altogether. Starting with a Challenger Highline (JH23), the A53 Trans Am package had a special 290 horsepower 340. Carrying a unique “J” VIN prefix, the engine had increased webbing in the mains, valvetrain revisions, and the ubiquitous trio of troublesome Holleys residing on an Edelbrock intake manifold.
The coveted Challenger Trans Am was based on the Highline, and unlike the big-motor R/T or the Luxurious Special Edition, it was not a separate trim level, but a package available on a pre-existing model.
The A53 cars had unique spoilers front and rear, the N94 Fiberglass hood (the Pilot T/A has a regular R/T dual snorkel hood), and Hemi fenders up front to house the fat F60 series Polyglas up front. On many of these Challengers, fiberglass hood was lifted off (no hinges), and the flat black color and fender pins gave the car a unique look. (Wendell Lane wrote: “my 1970 Challenger T/A had hood hinges, with lighter hood springs for the fiberglass hood, and dual hood pins up front.”)
Out back, the cars had increased camber in the rear, and G60 tires. The antenna mast was relocated to the rear passenger quarter panel, in the belief that the lack of a steel hood impeded radio reception. The cars carried suspensions from the Hemi and 440 Six-Pack cars: the K-frame with a skid plate, thicker torsion bars and sway bars, front and rear, 3/8 fuel lines, torque boxes welded to the unibody just ahead of the rear leaf springs (the passenger’s side has an extra half-leaf, like the Hemi and Six Pack cars did). The T/A cars had a fast ratio steering box as well, along with differently sized front an drear tires, and increased rear spring camber. They could do the quarter mile in 14 seconds.
The T/As had unique striping that extended the character line of the leading edge of the C-pillar, and terminated just before the front fender trim at the front of the car. The manual 3-speed was not available, nor was a bench seat, and the only wheel options were black steel wheels with dog dish hubcaps and trim rings or the Rallye wheels. The passenger side front fender is completely unique to the T/A: it has a rolled wheel well lip like the Hemi Cars did (Hemis had 15” wheels), but no provision for the radio antenna. The T/As also carried unique exhaust (California models included) whose tips peeked out just in front of the rear wheels. Concours restorers should note that few examples had these unique mufflers (exit and exhaust on the same end) painted black, depending on the vendor.
989 automatic and 1,411 four speed T/As were completed from late March to mid-April 1970. While the T/As were pretty much optioned alike, the rarest of those rare breed would be the lone Western Sport Special, which again, may be just a few stickers applied to a slow moving car. The rarest T/A known to be legitimate would be the one with a factory sunroof.
William Fayling wrote: “I have had the pleasure of seeing the first one built and it has T/A striping, fiberglass hood (single scoop), rear and front spoilers.”
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
The Challenger R/T cemented the car’s image in the hearts and minds of fans: a snorting big block, tape stripes, sky high wing, the Shaker hood all made the car memorable. In 1970, the R/T package started with the 383 four barrel. Carrying a separate JH27 VIN prefix, single digit gas mileage, and neck snapping performance, the Challenger made its mark on Woodward Avenue.
The most coveted of the R/T lineup was the 426 Hemi, rated at 425 Horsepower, and its sibling the 440 Six barrel, rated at 390 horsepower. The “R” code Hemi and the “V” code Six pack also carried a laundry list of architectural tweaks in the body structure that differentiated it from the lower performance E-bodies. For starters, both cars did not have air conditioning. Ever.
The R/T’s base 383 cubic inch engine, putting out 335 gross horsepower, was potent; options were the legendary Hemi (425 hp but only 356 buyers), the more affordable 440 Magnum (375 hp with a single four-barrel carb), and the Hemi-challenging 440 Six Pack, with three two-barrel carburetors (sold to over 2,000 people, and featuring 390 gross hp and a stunning 480 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,300 rpm).
While the R/T had a standard dual-scoop hood, the functional scoops simply pushed air into the engine bay, rather than forcing it into the engine; for that, you needed the “shaker” hood, which was essentially an attachment to the air cleaner that protruded through the hood.
The K-frame had an additional skid plate added to the bottom. The cars had thicker torsion bars, 3/8” fuel lines, and structural reinforcements to the floor around the pinion snubber area. Immediately recognizable is the “torque boxes”, shared with the convertibles, which were situated just ahead of the rear leaf spring perches, underneath the rear seat area. Forming a square shape, they reinforced the rocker area with the rear frame rails, and after years of having jack pads and the weight of the car sandwiching them, they suffered lots of beating since leaving the factory. Also of note, most of these cars had the Dana 60 rear end, with an extra half-leaf on the passenger’s side to counter the torque produced by these engines.
Hemi cars also carried unique front fenders, due to the 15” wheel option. What made the fenders unique were that the wheel well openings were rolled more than the 14” wheeled siblings to accommodate the larger wheels. (All Challengers had a 110” wheelbase.)
A heavy duty TorqueFlite 727 automatic transmission was standard on the 440s and Hemi engines, with a four-speed manual optional; the common wisdom was that the TorqueFlite could outrun the manual, despite the latter’s Hurst pistol-grip shifter and Dana 60 rear axle. A limited slip differential was optional, but a heavy duty suspension was standard across the R/T line. Even the Hemi was restricted to 15-inch 60-series tires, which today are reserved to base model economy cars.
While the R/T had a standard dual-scoop hood, the functional scoops simply pushed air into the engine bay, rather than forcing it into the engine; for that, you need the “shaker” hood, which was essentially an attachment to the air cleaner that protruded through the hood.
For 1970, Dodge sold 53,337 standard Challengers; 6,584 SEs; 3,173 convertibles; a bit over 1,000 T/As; and 19,938 R/Ts (including convertibles and SEs). In all, 83,032 Challengers were sold; 60% had the base V8, and nearly 90% had automatics. Styled wheels were actually more popular than big engines; and the slant six seems to have outsold Hemi and 440 Six-Pack combined, easily.
The original Dodge Challenger Trans-Am 340 Product Planning letters
2009 Dodge Challenger | Challenge Creation Stories | Plymouth Barracuda | Forum
C H A L L E N G E R B O O K S
• Barracuda and Challenger, $15.96, by Paul Zazarine (1991) - very good photos of 1964-74 Barracudas and Challengers. Provides production figures by model. Good visual guide despite vague text.
• Challenger & Barracuda Restoration Guide, 1967-1974 by Paul A. Herd (1997) - $29.95
E N G I N E B O O K S
• How to Hot Rod LA Engines (318, 273, 340, 360; through 1989)
• How to Hot Rod Small Block Mopar Engines : 273-318-340-360 C.I.D. - $14.36
• Hot Rod’s Chrysler Engine Swapping Tips and Techniques - $13.56
• How to Rebuild Big-Block Mopar Engines
• Big-Block Mopar Performance : Modifications for Street and Racing Use - published 1999
(Note: all prices above are correct at time of publication to the best of our knowledge. Final pricing will be set by Amazon.com when you order.)