1971 Dodge Super Bee
Some classic American car fans change their cars… well, like their underwear! Not Roger Thornton... he’s owned this Green Go Dodge Super Bee for almost half a century – now that’s dedication!
Most car owners use and abuse their cars, then pack them off to the scrapyard when they’re no longer fit for purpose. Then there’s a breed of enthusiasts who treat their cars with affection and respect, but distinct from them stands an extreme minority of owners for whom a car comes to be cherished almost as a member of the family. The fact that Roger Thornton has owned, run and carefully maintained his 1971 Dodge Charger Super Bee for no less than 47 years leaves no doubt as to which category he fits into.
The Super Bee name probably doesn’t need any introduction, but most people will recognise it as a version of the Coronet. Introduced in 1968, the Super Bee represented affordable performance. The instant muscle-car formula was simple: take a basic Coronet coupe, bolt a 383ci Magnum V8 into the engine bay, forget about any unnecessary luxuries and paint it in some eye-catching colours with bumblebee stripes for good measure.
The 1968-70 Super Bees have become fairly legendary, but what about the ’71s? The golden age of the muscle car was coming to an end, with legislation ushered in under the 1970 Clean Air Act that would start killing off high-compression engines. As the environmental lobby gained traction, Dodge responded with a cull of its Coronet line, restricting the name to four-door sedans and station wagons. Performance options were thus limited to the Charger, and that in itself was beginning to be rebranded as a personal luxury car. For 1971, the Super Bee became a Charger model; that and the 440-engined R/T were all that remained of the original Scat Pack, and it was to be their last year.
At least the Super Bee went out on a high, and wasn’t reduced to a cosmetic decal pack with the lifeblood sucked out of it. The 1971 Super Bees held on to the 383 Magnums as standard, even if total output had been reduced to 300bhp, down from the 335bhp which the 1968-70 Super Bees boasted. The more powerful 426 Hemi and 440 engines also remained available. For the first time, the 340ci small-block was also offered. Motor Trend magazine tested two Super Bees, a 440 Six Pack and a Hemi, down the quarter-mile, and returned times and speeds of 14.74s/97.3mph and 13.83s/104.4mph respectively.
Also included as standard fitment were the performance hood, Rallye instrument cluster, carpets, Rallye suspension, heavy-duty brakes and dual exhausts. Mag wheels, Ramcharger scoops, vinyl roofs, racing mirrors, hood pins and more could be found on the seemingly endless accessories list, while a range of Hustle Stuff options catered for serious performance enthusiasts.
The 1971 Charger’s fuselage styling isn’t so highly regarded as the Coke-bottle lines of the previous generation, but coupled with Dodge’s ‘High Impact’ colours, black graphics and Super Bee cartoon badges, it had a good look. Few 1971 models could boast the same sort of road presence. Shorter overall than the 1968-70s, but with its width and front overhang increased, the look was less sleek and sinister, but more overtly muscular.
Something about this Super Bee – probably the fact that it’s more than 17 feet long and vividly painted in the Green Go colour – caught Roger’s eye in 1974. He’d fancied an American car for some time, thanks to his friendship with engine wizard Colin Mullan. Going back to 1972, Roger was doing joinery work for a building contractor in Feltham. The joinery shop and contractor’s offices occupied the same land as a filling station and MoT centre.
“I was always in the joinery shop making doors and window frames. A mechanic rented the rear section of the MoT centre. He repaired predominantly American cars and his name was Colin Mullan. He was servicing Impalas and Corvette Stingrays. I said, ‘You don’t see cars like this in this country,’ and that’s when I got my taste for American cars. I saw the Charger advertised for sale in Ashtead, agreed to view it, put down a deposit and bought it a week later. I’d had it for a week when the seller knocked at my house in Worcester Park saying, ‘I need to buy it back. I shouldn’t have sold it, I made a mistake!’ I agreed to make him my first port of call if it didn’t work out for me after six months, but I wanted to keep it.”
The car was known to Colin, who informed Roger that it had previously been raced in Germany, but Roger confesses his memory of the story is now somewhat hazy. Apparently it was sold new to an American military serviceman who took it with him when he was posted to Germany. It wasn’t costeffective to return the car with him to the States, so it must have been sold in Germany to a private owner or dealer, who in turn sold it to its first English owner, the L-reg denoting 1973 registration (which was how they did it back in the Seventies, rather than the car’s year of manufacture).
“As life went on,” Roger continues, “we had four children who all came home from hospital in the back of the car.” His three sons were all born during winter snowfalls, so their first experience of the outside world was a lively ride home along slippery roads in one of the most extroverted cars in Surrey. “It’s been in the family ever since, and my children got attached to it from very early in life.” The Charger also has its fans in the canine world, with Roger using it as transport to Bernese mountain dog meetings.
In addition to family days out, it was also Roger’s everyday car for several years. “I could fit all my carpentry tools in the boot. I did a job at the Pepsi-Cola factory between Feltham and Hanworth and used the Super Bee every day. I always drove it to work if the site had off-street parking. I drove it across London to work in Blackfriars – the traffic wasn’t too bad in the late Seventies and early Eighties.”
The Super Bee was responsible for the creation of at least one more American car enthusiast. “My friend Andy Longman came down, driving something like a Ford Anglia, and said ‘What’s that car?’ He decided he had to get an American car, and he ended up with a 1968 Camaro Z28. In 1981 or ’82, my Charger broke down and I asked Colin if he could come over to fix it. He said he’d fix it if I could get it to him, and I remember Andy towing me across Epsom Downs with his Camaro to get me to Feltham.”
A busy work life prevented Roger from participating in car clubs and getting to a lot of events, but the Super Bee did make a few runs along Chelsea Bridge in the early days of the Chelsea Cruise. Now Roger has time to spend with his local club, the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society, it’s used regularly during the summer and makes appearances at Wheels Day and American Speedfest.
“I’ve always felt comfortable driving it,” Roger says. “It’s one of those cars – once you start driving, you want to continue. It’s not a chore. I like the left-hand drive and manual three-speed. It’s torqued up in such a way that once you’re in second, you can almost drive it like an automatic. It’s got the original drum brakes, so you have to really allow for stopping distance. I like to keep a good 50 yards behind the car in front, but you can stop sharply. It’s got no power steering, but it steers quite easily when you’ve got momentum.”
With regular maintenance and an engine rebuild by Colin Mullan in the mid-Eighties, the Charger has never been out of use for an extended period of time. Aside from a repaint in the Nineties, it’s also highly original. A soft haze has appeared at the top of the chrome bumper where water has run off the edge of the bonnet, and the interior has acquired a superb patina. The Appliance wheels are, of course, a modification Roger made in period, as is the multi-tone horn.
Only 5054 Charger Super Bees were ever built, so they’re rare at the best of times. Given their rarity, it seems probable that Roger’s was one of the first two ’71 Super Bees to be imported into Britain, the other being the property of none other than Dave Lee Travis. The combination of 383 Magnum V8 and three-speed manual was only specified for 203 of them. For it to then survive in unrestored condition, with only 67,400 miles on the clock, makes its historical value difficult to understate.
According to the Motor Trend summary of the 1971 Charger line, Roger bought the right car. “There’s no doubt that the most sensible package is the 383-four barrel with three-speed. It’s also fun to drive. This combination in a Super Bee would make a lot of sense for the average Charger buyer.” Given his Charger still brings forth a smile from him 47 years later, not to mention his family, this writer and admiring passers-by, we’d say Roger bought the right car, too.