Big-block Clas­sic

Made fa­mous through the cult movie Van­ish­ing­point, the 1970–1974 Dodge Chal­lenger has be­come a firm favourite for many mus­cle-car col­lec­tors and en­thu­si­asts around the world

New Zealand Classic Car - - CONTENTS - Words: Ash­ley Webb Pho­tos: An­drei Dio­mi­dov Photography


The term ‘mus­cle car’ has been bandied around for at least five-and-a-half decades, and most of us have a fair idea what it refers to, though a pre­cise def­i­ni­tion is sub­ject to vary­ing opin­ions. How­ever, two things are cer­tain — a mus­cle car is un­doubt­edly a high-power coupé that can ac­com­mo­date more than two peo­ple, and the late ’60s and early ’ 70s was the time when th­ese mus­cle cars reigned supreme.

Of course, although coun­tries such as Brazil, the UK and Australia pro­duced their own style of mus­cle car, the US was, and still is, con­sid­ered to be the undis­puted king of clas­sic mus­cle-car pro­duc­tion, at a time be­fore any­one thought of world­wide oil crises that would lead to mas­sive power re­duc­tions in a bid to re­duce fuel con­sump­tion. Or in­creased emis­sion con­trols, as sav­ing the planet be­came more of a pri­or­ity for gov­ern­ments than go­ing faster. Or sky­rock­et­ing in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums on per­for­mance cars — all of which ul­ti­mately spelled the end of the clas­sic mus­cle-car era.

Op­tions and Choices

When Dodge of­fi­cially joined the mus­cle-bound ranks of Detroit’s Big Three along­side Ford and Chevrolet, dur­ing the au­tumn of 1969, it did so with the 1970 Chal­lenger — a model based pri­mar­ily on the Ply­mouth Bar­racuda E-body plat­form, but with an ex­tended (by 60mm) wheel­base to al­low for ad­di­tional in­te­rior space, it had a gen­uine trick up its sleeve. Dodge cun­ningly of­fered the great­est range of pow­er­train choices in the busi­ness with the new Chal­lenger — a range that spread from the small but durable 3.68-litre (225ci) slant-six en­gine to the undis­puted king of mus­cle-car pow­er­trains, the mighty 426 Hemi, the justly fa­mous 7.0-litre V8 ‘ele­phant mo­tor’ — and thus cre­ated one of the most sto­ried name­plates in au­to­mo­tive his­tory.

Along with no less than nine avail­able en­gine op­tions, driv­e­line choices in­cluded Chrysler’s Torqueflite au­to­matic trans­mis­sion and ei­ther a three- or four-speed man­ual equipped with a Hurst ‘pis­tol grip’ shifter. Big-block V8 Chal­lengers could also be or­dered with a heavy-duty Dana 60 limited slip dif­fer­en­tial.

With all that po­ten­tial mus­cle avail­able from the mas­sive op­tions list, when it came to out­ward looks it was clearly ap­par­ent that Dodge’s stylists weren’t about to let their lat­est cre­ation go un­no­ticed, and they of­fered ex­te­rior colour schemes that screamed ‘per­for­mance’ by pro­vid­ing prospec­tive cus­tomers with a se­ries of colour op­tions like Plum Crazy and Hemi Or­ange, all ac­cented with dis­tinc­tive bum­ble-bee stripes. If they thought those in-your-face os­ten­ta­tious hues weren’t enough to daz­zle Dodge’s op­po­nents be­tween sets of traf­fic lights, own­ers could add fur­ther ex­te­rior em­bel­lish­ments via twin-scoop or ‘shaker’ bon­nets and rear spoil­ers.

Race, Dragstrip and Sil­ver Screen

In 1970 the Dodge Chal­lenger went rac­ing for the first time, as be­fit­ted the brand’s per­for­mance her­itage. In or­der to meet strict ho­molo­ga­tion re­quire­ments for the Sports Car Club of Amer­ica (SCCA) Trans-am rac­ing se­ries, a limited-edi­tion T/A street ver­sion of the Chal­lenger was of­fered to the public.

In 1970, Sam Posey drove the sin­gle Trans-am rac­ing Chal­lenger. Whilst Posey didn’t win a race in the No. 77 car, he scored enough points to fin­ish fourth in that year’s cham­pi­onship. As well, the Chal­lenger be­came a popular choice for drag rac­ers, and driv­ers like Dick Landy and Ted Spe­har cam­paigned their Dodges in the Na­tional Hot Rod As­so­ci­a­tion’s (NHRA) new Pro Stock class. In­deed, in 1970 and 1971 Hemi-pow­ered Chal­lengers (and its close re­la­tion, the Ply­mouth Cuda) vir­tu­ally ruled the class.

At the movies, the big screen played host to a 1970 Chal­lenger R/T that starred in the film Van­ish­ing­point, a high-speed pur­suit film (the lead role of rene­gade driver Kowal­ski por­trayed by Barry New­man) that has since be­come a cult favourite with mus­cle-car fans.

Chang­ing Times

De­sign­ers made sub­tle styling changes to the Chal­lenger for 1971 — in­clud­ing re­mod­elled tail lights and front grille.

The sin­gle tail-light de­sign from 1970 was re­placed with two dis­tinct units for 1971, and a new-for-1971 twin-in­let Chal­lenger grille was painted sil­ver on stan­dard mod­els and black on R/TS. Chal­lenger R/T mod­els also re­ceived a set of fi­bre­glass quar­ter­panel lou­vres.

As in 1970, a wide range of trim lev­els, ex­te­rior colours and an end­less list of strip­ing op­tions to pick and choose from made it pos­si­ble for Dodge Chal­lenger cus­tomers to cre­ate their own spe­cial car.

The T/A was dropped, how­ever, as the model no longer raced in the Trans-am se­ries. Un­for­tu­nately for the Dodge Chal­lenger there was no light at the end of the tun­nel, and its even­tual demise was now clearly vis­i­ble on the hori­zon. Strin­gent new EPA emis­sion stan­dards led to some pow­er­train changes although, thank­fully for those search­ing for per­for­mance, a six-pack 7.3-litre (440ci) V8 was still an op­tion, whilst the tar­mac-shred­ding 317kw, 7.0-litre (425bhp, 426ci) Hemi re­mained on the op­tions list.

As 1972 rolled in, so did es­ca­lat­ing in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums and fur­ther re­vi­sions to EPA emis­sions man­dates — all adding an­other nail to the cof­fin of the Chal­lenger and the en­tire US mus­cle-car cadre. In ad­di­tion, the SAE (So­ci­ety of Au­to­mo­tive En­gi­neers) re­vised the torque and power rat­ing test from a gross to a net cal­cu­la­tion — thus, at a stroke, re­duc­ing all those much-touted power rat­ings by as much as 20 to 30 per cent.

As for the Dodge Chal­lenger, the en­gine op­tions list was now look­ing rather anaemic with choices limited to just three mo­tors — the wimpy 82kw, 3.7-litre (225ci) slant-six, the barely ac­cept­able 112kw, 5.2-litre (318ci) V8 and the 5.57-litre (340ci) V8 that pumped out a max­i­mum of just 179kw, a far cry from the gas-guz­zling glory years. As a fur­ther sign of the times, all the en­gines were de­signed to run on the then-new un­leaded fuel.

As 1972 rolled in, so did es­ca­lat­ing in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums and fur­ther re­vi­sions to EPA

emis­sions man­dates

More changes to the US auto in­dus­try hit home in 1973 as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment man­dated new bumper im­pact stan­dards that re­sulted in the only changes to the Dodge Chal­lenger ex­te­rior — 8kph bumpers equipped with large rub­ber guards that ex­tended out from the body­work. Un­der the bon­net, the six-cylin­der en­gine op­tion was dropped, leav­ing just two V8s — the 5.2-litre and 5.6-litre — both pro­duc­ing the same power as the pre­vi­ous year.

Ad­di­tional safety equip­ment led the short list of changes for the 1974-model-year Dodge Chal­lengers, which in­cluded lap and shoul­der belts equipped with an in­er­tia reel. In ad­di­tion, there was a fed­er­al­ly­man­dated seat-belt ig­ni­tion in­ter­lock, which pre­vented the car from be­ing started if the driver or pas­sen­ger didn’t buckle up. The en­gine op­tions suf­fered once again as the Dodge Chal­lenger of­fered the 5.2-litre V8 as stan­dard, while a 183kw, 5.9-litre (360ci) V8 re­placed the 5.6-litre V8.

In­evitably, five years of Chal­lenger pro­duc­tion came to an end in April 1974 — at that time 188,600 ex­am­ples had been pro­duced.

Top Ba­nana

Our fea­tured 1972 Dodge Chal­lenger was first reg­is­tered in New Zealand back in Septem­ber, 1987, and this hand­some mus­cle car soon be­came a regular sight cruis­ing the streets of West Auck­land.

Over the years, the Chal­lenger sur­vived a mul­ti­tude of own­ers in­clud­ing sev­eral mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Mus­cle Car Club — some of whom spent long hours and poured many hard-earned dol­lars into up­grad­ing and restor­ing the car. Th­ese up­grades in­cluded a re­built

Nigel reck­ons that Simon must have known he would fall in love with the Chal­lenger, as he’d been told to feel free to use it at week­ends

en­gine and driv­e­train, and in 1997 it was fully stripped down to the bare shell, soda blasted and treated to a com­plete re­paint in Top Ba­nana — a fac­tory colour.

The cur­rent owner, Nigel Teape, took pos­ses­sion of the Chal­lenger in Fe­bru­ary, 2010. At that time he’d just sold his 1968 Dodge Charger to friends, Simon and Patty Domett, who also owned a beau­ti­ful Plum Crazy big-block 1970 Chal­lenger as well as very nice 1972 Dodge Chal­lenger. Not hav­ing room in their garage for three cars, and hav­ing com­pleted their dream of own­ing an E-body and a B-body Mopar, it was de­cided the yel­low ’72 Chal­lenger had to go. As Nigel now had space in his garage, he of­fered to help Simon sell the car whilst un­der­tak­ing a full bare-metal restora­tion on a ’74 Chal­lenger at the same time.

Nigel reck­ons that Simon must have known he would fall in love with the Chal­lenger, as he’d been told to feel free to use it at week­ends. No one in their right mind would turn down such an of­fer, so Nigel oblig­ingly made up a for-sale sign and drove it to sev­eral club runs and break­fast gath­er­ings. And, you guessed it , the more time Nigel spent be­hind the wheel of the Chal­lenger the more po­ten­tial he saw in it. Even­tu­ally an of­fer was made by a club mem­ber for the car, but it was well be­low the ask­ing price. When Nigel passed the of­fer on, Simon sounded as if he’d go with that of­fer de­spite it be­ing low, say­ing — “Well, what do you reckon? I want it gone!”

In an in­stant Nigel jok­ingly replied — “Mate, I would buy it my­self for that!” The rest, you can fig­ure out your­self.

De­ci­sion Time

Nigel fig­ured that he would drive the Chal­lenger un­til he had com­pleted the restora­tion on his other 1974 Chal­lenger and then maybe sell it on again. Dur­ing the sub­se­quent five years Nigel fin­ished off the ’72 Chal­lenger to a point where he was re­ally happy with it.

Early on he’d taken the car to Rod­ney Hol­land of Rod­ney’s Restora­tions for a rou­tine cut and pol­ish, the ap­pli­ca­tion of R/T stripes along the car’s flanks and for the doors to be prop­erly aligned. Rod­ney called Nigel af­ter a few days and asked what his plans were for the car — a call that seemed so por­ten­tous Nigel pan­icked, think­ing that Rod­ney had dis­cov­ered hid­den rust or, worse still, Dodge Coro­net parts welded in places they shouldn’t be. Luck­ily for Nigel, the news was all good. From what Rod­ney could see, the Chal­lenger still re­tained its orig­i­nal floor pan and pan­els, there was no rust and no sign of any ac­ci­dent dam­age — in fact, Nigel’s car boasted one of the bet­ter Chal­lenger bod­ies Rod­ney had seen.

With that ex­pert as­sess­ment ring­ing in his ears, Nigel made a quick de­ci­sion to keep the ba­nana-yel­low Chal­lenger and sell off his 1974 project — and, in do­ing so, save him­self a whole lot of work and money fin­ish­ing off the later-model car. Nigel had no prob­lems sell­ing the project to a friend and fel­low club mem­ber, Brent Marsh, who has since com­pleted the build and now the fully re­stored, ’74 Chal­lenger keeps Brent’s 1969 Mus­tang com­pany in the garage.


When Nigel first pur­chased the yel­low Chal­lenger from Simon, it only needed a few fin­ish­ing touches — in­clud­ing the fit­ment of new badges plus bon­net black-out and side stripes. The car’s V8 ran very well and, fol­low­ing a car­bu­ret­tor and in­take man­i­fold change, a dyno-tune ses­sion recorded a healthy 243kw at the rear wheels. Want­ing a bit more of a throaty sound, Nigel changed the ex­haust to in­clude a TTI ex­haust sys­tem with X-pipe and Flow­mas­ter muf­flers. He also de­cided to up­grade the fac­tory han­dling, and fit­ted a larger front tor­sion bar, an anti-sway bar and a set of Koni ad­justable gas shocks, which make a huge dif­fer­ence on cor­ners.

The Chal­lenger’s in­te­rior was in great orig­i­nal con­di­tion with the ex­cep­tion of a cracked dash top, which Nigel has now had re­stored. He also man­aged to track down a cen­tre con­sole, an item that was miss­ing when he bought the car.

To date, Nigel has been on many fam­ily out­ings with his wife Maria and kids, Max and Michaela, who love trav­el­ling in the Chal­lenger. They have at­tended three Beach Hops, the Easter Ohakune run with the AMCC (Amer­i­can Mus­cle Car Club) at Taupo sev­eral times, and the Dodge has been around Hamp­ton Downs a few times. As you would ex­pect of a clas­sic mus­cle car, the Chal­lenger has been drawn to the dragstrip many times — Nigel’s best time down the Mere­mere drag­way be­ing 13.5 sec­onds at 106mph (170.59kph).

Nigel ad­mits that he ini­tially thought the car’s bright ba­nanayel­low colour was very loud, but af­ter ap­ply­ing the con­trast­ing black side stripes, black on the bon­net and black­ing out the grille, he reck­ons it looks fan­tas­tic, and he wouldn’t have it any other colour. To this day he has not seen an­other Chal­lenger the same shade of yel­low and says, “It’s quite funny at car shows, the bugs must think it is a gi­ant sun­flower as it will at­tract all sorts of in­sects when all the sur­round­ing cars have none on them!”

Plans for the fu­ture? The Dodge is fi­nally just how Nigel wants it, and he plans to do a whole lot more cruis­ing in it, es­pe­cially with the price of fuel be­ing so low at the mo­ment, although he jok­ingly notes that the price of rear tyres hasn’t come down as well — the rears don’t tend to last that long, as the Chal­lenger burns plenty of rub­ber as well as petrol. Look­ing back to the 1970s, it’s those fac­tors which lead to the demise of such great cars — how things have changed.


Nigel would like to take this op­por­tu­nity to thank Mark Pir­rit from Pir­rit Au­to­mo­tive (Mopars West) for all his

help in get­ting the Chal­lenger to where it is to­day.

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