20 October 2014

The True Confessions of a Lifelong Challenger Fan

1970 Dodge Challenger Convertible vs. 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

Incredible as it seems, after gold was discovered in California in 1849, it was free for the taking. While I’m not quite old enough to remember those days, I can report that the streets were similarly awash with collector cars in the mid-1970s, and many were also practically free for the taking. That’s because at the time, the 1950s through 1970s models so coveted today were just old cars – often left in disrepair in side yards and alleys, carports, streets and driveways. They were in essence gold nuggets, begging to be harvested by enterprising youths. And my buddies and I were just that.

In lieu of traditional summer employment during our college years, my amigos Bill and JG and I patrolled Los Angeles neighborhoods, looking for signs of abandonment in desirable cars: low tires, spider webs on the undercarriage, dirty and disheveled, expired tags – sure signs of a car in disuse. From there, knocking on doors usually located the owner, who often jumped at an easy sale of a problem car.

You may think this is only a fantasy rearview, but I swear this next part is true. Bill once snagged a 1967 Pontiac GTO “post” coupe for $100, and he and JG bought a ’65 Mustang fastback for $500. Bill and I got a ’58 Cadillac Series 62 convertible for $350. And I landed an air-conditioned ’64 Thunderbird convertible for $150, a ’71 El Camino SS 396 for $600, a ’67 GTO 4-speed convertible for $800 and a ’61 Chrysler Newport convertible for $365.

But others got away, including a sweet 1970 Dodge Challenger convertible. It was metallic blue with a weathered white top and white interior, which we decided made it a “lady’s car” rather than a more muscular ride befitting SoCal surfers. It did have a console-mounted gun-handle shifter for its Torqueflite automatic and a V-8, albeit an entry-level 318-cid version with a two-barrel carb. Even then, we knew this positioned the convertible several rungs below the high-output 383 Magnum, 440 SixPack and Hemi options. And with its white top and interior, it just didn’t hit enough marks for us. As well, the interior seemed rather cheaply made, with faux-wood trim and plastic door panels chalky from sun exposure after only a few years. It was also expensive by our standards, with an asking price of $1600. We passed.

Human emotion is predictable, however, and over the decades I’ve often thought about that Challenger convertible and how cool it would have been to squirrel it away for a few decades and then rebirth it with a black interior and top, Rallye wheels, F70 white-letter tires, a Shaker hood and R/T graphics. It could have been the love of my life, for the rest of my life.

Recently this Shakespearean regret, dormant all these years, reemerged when Dodge launched the latest modern-generation Challenger, the 2015 SRT Hellcat. Seeing that car brought it all back in a rush, so much so that I had to drive one. The newest version has been around since 2008, and Dodge has done a great job expanding the platform to eight different models – although none are convertibles. The new supercharged Hellcat crouches at the top, the modern-day equivalent of the 1970-71 Challenger Hemi. With a claimed 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque, it promises a heroically good time, and offered the perfect excuse for a road trip with the old amigos. They said yes immediately.

We charted a course from L.A. to Carson City, Nev., near Reno’s annual Hot August Nights, and then up to emerald Lake Tahoe in the Sierras, a thousand-mile round trip with plenty of desert two-lanes, mountain passes over 8,000 feet, and a host of tumbleweed towns along the way. Plenty enough to challenge the Challenger Hellcat’s performance and livability too.

Given its fairly low-spec 318-cid V-8 and automatic trans, I never expected the ’70 Challenger to be much of a rocket ride. But I had high expectations for the new Hellcat. While I’ve tested cars with more than 600 horsepower before, I’d never flat-footed one with 700-plus. So you could say the anticipations were great when we headed north in the Hellcat.

As a 1920s Brough Superior motorcycle brochure said, “It is very satisfying to know that you are astride a machine which, if you wish, can leave behind anything on wheels.” This pretty much sums up the Hellcat. Except its strength seems more like that of a big Allegheny locomotive than an explosive Superbike. Although plenty fast, at 4,488 pounds the Hellcat is also chunky, and while it handles great on smooth roads, you can feel this heft when the pavement undulates or wallows. Fortunately the touch-screen adjustable suspension and stability-control functions are highly adaptable, providing a huge safety net to help you manage all that power.

The most overwhelming impression of the Hellcat is its tremendous bandwidth – a true GT car. While the engine and exhausts are ominously loud at idle, at 70 mph on the freeway, the interior sound level measures a quiet 71 dBA, and there is surprisingly little noise from the fat 275/40ZR20 Pirelli summer tires. The supercharged engine makes power everywhere, so much that the six-speed manual gearbox seemed like overkill. A way around constant shifting is to intentionally skip gears, such as shifting from first to third to fifth, treating the gear gates like an a la carte menu.

Just like the old muscle cars, the Challenger has a huge trunk, meaning that we were able to take everything we wanted for a long weekend, including an inflatable kayak and paddles, duffel bags, some sports equipment and electronics. No limitations there. And the creature comforts were excellent, including heated and ventilated bucket seats. A booming HD audio system, built-in Wi-Fi and Pandora radio made the ride even better. Fuel economy was decent too; we observed 17 to 21 mpg depending on conditions, equivalent to most modern pickups – with way more pickup.

After nearly four decades since my first Challenger drive experience, I was happy to experience Dodge’s ongoing commitment to the nameplate. Its performance is just as audacious as the old Hemis of the 1970s, but it possesses way more sophistication. Admittedly, like the old muscle cars, the latest Challenger remains too big and heavy to be considered a sports car, but that’s just fine with me. It is what it is without apology. What remains is whether it’s a better buy than the ’70 model we considered so many decades ago. The MSRP for our 2015 SRT Hellcat test car was $62,080, compared to Hagerty’s estimated $53,700 high value for 318-cid ’70 convertible today. Very close!

Unquestionably, the new Hellcat is a better car in every way, from performance and comfort to reliability and safety, than the older model. And yet, with the right R/T additions, that old ’70 Challenger convertible would be an awesome weekend driver. And I still haven't forgotten it. So I’ve already decided when I win the $115,780 Plum Crazy Lottery, I’m getting one of each.

21 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Tom Metcalf Ohio October 22, 2014 at 14:09
    Another good article, Jonathan! Not necessarily my kind of car, but my kind of story. Thanks for the memories...... tm
  • 2
    Jeff Boise, ID October 22, 2014 at 14:29
    I also have a 71 Challenger convertible. It is my all-time favorite car. But what muscle car enthusiast wouldn't want a new Hellcat Challenger to park in the garage next to it. Now where do I buy a ticket for the Plum Crazy Lottery? :-)
  • 3
    Miguel Casique Salem OR October 22, 2014 at 16:06
    I got a 1970 challenger my self and is for sale.
  • 4
    Phillip Franklin United States October 22, 2014 at 16:31
    I agree back in the mid to late 1970's and even into the mid 1980's one could score a ratty old muscle car for the price of a dinner at fine dining establishment today. I once found a 1969 Barracuda convertible with a wasted top, faded original paint, an non-running 340 engine in an old alley way with a for sale sign asking $850. I got it for $650 cash. Put on a new top, rubbed out the faded paint, cleaned up the inside, and got it running by not much more than a tune-up. Drove it around as a cruiser for a couple of years until some one offered me a cool $5,000. I thought I won the lottery. All in all I had less than $1200 in that Cuda. I found it in 1980 and sold it in 1982 and used that cash to buy a new IBM PC. One of my many old car stories. Still into the hobby today but do more looking than buying. Things have gotten a little crazy price wise.
  • 5
    bob day henshaw,ky October 22, 2014 at 17:03
    in the old days mopar put out some warm iron // i still have a 68 300 440 // i thought it was pretty jumpy for a 383 that i thought it was when i bought it // it is now sitting in my brothers barn // maybe some day his grandkids will find it and go play with it
  • 6
    Dick Tatina Countryside, IL October 22, 2014 at 17:12
    I treasure the 70 Challenger as genuine collectable. It was my first new car. GoManGo outside, burnt orange inside, 340, Hurst pistol grip, Sure grip rear end, Super Bee. All this fun for $3500.
  • 7
    Mister2 Tim South Florida October 22, 2014 at 18:15
    The Car and Driver comparison on a road track against a 580 HP Camaro confirms this is best a straight line only modern muscle car. The additional 127HP means nothing on the track if the suspension/chassis is not engineered to accept the extra power. Too often we see the old Detroit mind set that "bigger is better".
  • 8
    Donald Mesick Latham, NY October 22, 2014 at 22:56
    I'll take the 70 Challenger any day..
  • 9
    gregg shelton Baltimore Md 21207 October 22, 2014 at 22:57
    I know how you feel about the 70 challenger I have the 70 cuda plum crazy color and I love it. I have it own since 73 with a 440cid and four speed
  • 10
    RebelJack NYC October 23, 2014 at 15:03
    If I only knew then ...what I know now about what those old muscle cars are worth today....I would have purchased all the cars I could and store them in a barn or garage. I remember back in 1967 when I was 13 years old ..seeing the wide variety of muscle cars driving down the streets of Queens NY. So So glad to have been around to see it and grow up with it ... and most importantly...grow up to love those cars. I presently own a 2010 white dodge 5.7 Hemi challenger.
  • 11
    charles lamb Texas October 23, 2014 at 18:07
    The 70 Challenger is a classy looking classic! The new hellcat has no class. What an ugly car!
  • 12
    wendall mc dow New Ross October 23, 2014 at 23:17
    I miss the boat somehow on this car and cuda and I guess the boat will never dock on the hellcat for Me LOL
  • 13
    Rick Vancouver October 23, 2014 at 00:48
    Oh, the regret of missed opportunities. As a young muscle car enthusiast my first car was a 67 GTO followed by two more GTO's (69 then a 67 four speed) followed by a 71 Z28 and a 70 Mach One. None of them cost more than $2000 in the mid eighties. The ones that still still haunt are the bone stock Carousel Red 69 GTO Judge for $1800 that I passed on because it had white interior. Yeah, you read that right...I passed on a affordable 69 Judge because I didn't like the color of the interior. The other one that stays with me is a Hemi Orange 70 Challenger R/T 440 that I decided was lame because it didn't have the right transmission. I was holding out for a four speed (which never came). As far as the Hellcat....It's got a great name and I'm sure it's a blast but will it be remembered and revered like the legends before it? I guess time will tell.
  • 14
    Kurt W United States October 24, 2014 at 13:44
    Those were the days! I bought a 66 Mustang for 40 bucks, drove it for 20,000 miles and all it ever asked from me was a new fuel pump gas ... and a lot of oil. Sold it for $50 ... after putting the bucket seats in my 54' pickup .... "old blue was yet another wonderful memory. This is like remembering old friends, and wondering how they are doing these days.
  • 15
    Paul Willington, CT October 24, 2014 at 17:44
    I have Mopar friends that own 70 Challengers and Barracudas. They love them. I prefer my 70 Charger. Ultimate muscle car styling, lots of passenger and luggage room. A great cruiser with its 318 engine that uses regular gasoline. And, it increases in value while the new cars decrease.
  • 16
    Walter Pensacola October 26, 2014 at 18:00
    In 1973 at the age of 19 I bought a 1970 440 'Cuda 4spd for $1400. The wife is gone and "Cheryl" is ever loyal and still with me. :)
  • 17
    wade flack forest city north carolina November 4, 2014 at 16:18
    well I have a 1971 hemi cuda that just when on the 2014 power tour avg 13 to 15 mpg even with the 4.10 super track pack set up. the car rode and handle great. the fuel bill was less than the rooms, so I'm happy. thought about the hell cat for 2015. I guess I need to rethink that, maybe put a 3.54 in the car and try it again. I gave 425.00 for the car in 9/1/1979. yes its a driver, enjoy your ride what ever it is.
  • 18
    George B Richmond Va. November 6, 2014 at 16:00
    In 1970 I was 25 years old and ordered a Hemi Cuda. It was black on black. I paid $5,500. for the car. It had the torqueflite tranny with 410 gears. I had the fastest car in St. Cloud Minn. I sold it in 1973. I have the build sheet and am trying to locate the new owner but no luck so far. It was my favorite car.
  • 19
    ------ ---- Marion, Iowa 52302 November 18, 2014 at 21:46
    I am only 11 years old and I think it is a tie because you have the power and style of the hellcat but the ride and it being easy to work on for the 71' so I am not really a Mopar guy but these are two great cars over all. Thank you for creating this posting!
  • 20
    PrairiePilgrim ndakota April 9, 2015 at 16:58
    Ahhh yes.. I have to share ;/ I traded in a '65 Belvedere II stage II 426 wedge 4spd, in 1972, for a '70 Challenger R/T convert. Dark metallic green, black 'wet' top,ralley pkg incl. wheels, striping, dual bumper exh., console, dash, etc. 383 Magnum, Torqueflite, dk. green interior. It was pristine, and I don't know how fast it could go.. I once was in the mountains n. of Phx where I lived, on the 4 lane to Prescott, a Boss Mustang (black, un stock)cruised up behind me and pulled out to pass..... (I used to drag race...) so well, we had some fun.. we ran up to just under 130 mph, I would pass, he would pass, the pine trees were a blur and the car was rock steady.. I finally said let's stop before we wish we had, this is good enough.. but I had more. We'll never know what 'coulda' been there, but the adrenaline rush was reward enough. Those were the days. I sold the car when I went to Europe for a year's travel, (to pay my expenses) and when I got back, I had sellers remorse of course. At the time, 1974, the gas prices had just taken a wild hike and muscle cars were sitting all over the place, for a fraction of their value. I'd like to try to find my Challenger again, so far haven't had success, as Ariz. has deleted it's registrations from those years, I'm told. I still have a 1966 Coronet 500 2dr HT, 383 4bbl, 4spd, buckets, all factory, have had since 1968. It's a rare model, nearly all are automatics. But that Challenger still haunts me. Thanks for letting me rant to some other fellow Mopar admirers.
  • 21
    Richard M. Cheyenne, Wyoming April 9, 2015 at 09:06
    As a young enlisted sailor, I gave up my '73 Cuda when my second wife and I were married. BIG mistake that I regret to this day. The wife and I are still together, and I replaced it with a '73 Challenger "340" Rally. No, I don't have one of the ultimate collectors, but I LOVE my '73. It will be in the family when I'm no longer around. The new Challengers ride great, are comfy and fun. I'm older and enjoy the refinements, the extra weight make the roads more comfy, so TO EACH HIS OWN. I want a new one right next to "my classic" green machine!!!!!

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