son recently turned 15 and, as it turns out, also has a strong interest in Mopars. Gee, I wonder where that came from? So after we took him to his favorite barbecue restaurant for dinner, he asked me if just he and I could stop by the neighborhood Dodge dealer to check out the new cars. Of course at the top of his list was the new Dodge Demon, but he also likes the standard-issue Challengers, Chargers, R/TS, Hellcats, and even some Chryslers.
When we arrived at the dealership, a very nice 20-something-year-old salesman greeted us and showed us all the details of each model. While we were looking at the new cars, I realized I’m also old enough to remember when the first round of Challengers hit the showrooms in the ’70s. Early on, the well-optioned Challengers had some fairly high horsepower offerings for the time period. In 1970, a 440 Magnum was rated at 375 hp, a 440 Six Pack was rated at 390 hp, and the 426 Hemi was rated at 425 hp. Today, these and many other Mopars continue to be highly cherished. Then, within a few short years, the performance and power levels dropped by about half to a lackluster level. Wow, what a shock that was. Back then, auto enthusiasts were convinced that we had seen the last of the high-performance car era.
Now fast-forward a few decades and high-performance cars are not only back, but they also have way more performance and even get very decent fuel economy. A 3.6L V-6 in today’s Challenger can produce 305 hp — more than twice what a new ’74 Challenger with a 318 V-8 could muster. And a current model Challenger with a 392 Hemi will cover the quartermile in the 12-second range
— with the air conditioning running.
At the dealership, my son immediately found a welloptioned red Hemi Challenger near the showroom with an automatic and lots of performance options. Although early on I advised the salesman that we were “just looking,” he asked if we’d like a testdrive. From the look on my son’s face, I surmised he was visualizing owning a new Challenger by his 16th birthday and parking next to his friend’s ’01 four-door Accord at his high school.
When the salesman came out with the keys to a Destroyer Grey Hemi Challenger, he said, “I have some bad news. This is the only Challenger we can use on a testdrive, and it has a manual transmission. You probably don’t know how to drive a stick shift, do you?” I didn’t know how to reply politely. I learned how to drive with a manual transmission when I was 12 or 13. I’ve owned more than a dozen cars with manual transmissions and have changed probably about 50 to 100 clutches in my lifetime. Plus, I’ve probably driven and/or raced over 200 cars in my lifetime with three-, four-, five-, and six-speed manual transmissions. However, I replied that I was sure I’d easily be able to drive the car with its manual transmission on a testdrive.
The young salesman then disclosed he didn’t know how to drive a manual transmission, and I’d need to first pull the car off the lot — as long as I was comfortable doing that. Again, I agreed. So in a dark corner of the lot, with lots of cars tightly parked together that evening, we piled into the car, and he handed me the keys.
As I settled into the seat, I noticed the front and back windows were covered with lots of writing and add-on stickers, minimizing the nighttime visibility. And each seat had clear plastic shipping covers protruding and partially blocking the rearview. So I took the keys, pushed the clutch pedal to the floor, started the Hemi engine, and put the shifter into reverse. Then, before releasing the clutch pedal I thought to myself, now watch me start to back up and stall the engine in front of everyone, and then have to restart the engine and try again. Gosh, I hope that doesn’t happen. So at that moment I just thought, concentrate, concentrate. I pulled the clutch pedal slowly up and applied some throttle. The Challenger effortlessly moved rearward out of the space without stalling. I pulled forward out to the street and drove off shifting through the gears. I felt like a teenager on his birthday!
… a current model Challenger with a 392 Hemi will cover the quarter-mile in the 12-second range — with the air conditioning running.