Soul, mate: Mopar brothers from America and Australia reunite
It was supposed to be Richard Petty’s car and Richard Petty’s day. But in February 1970, when the 200-mph winged Plymouth Superbirds made their Daytona 500 debut, the laurels instead went to a toothy blond Massachusetts Yankee named Pete Hamilton. He was driving a Superbird, too, blue and red with a white number 40 splashed on the roof, and America gawped at the wild Mopars that seemed ready to conquer all.
During that same February, some 10,000 miles away in an industrial suburb of Adelaide, Australia, Chrysler designer Robert Hubbach and a scrappy band of engineers were piecing together another, entirely different chapter of Mopar muscle history. Unlike the Daytona spectacle, which had stemmed from the 1968 launch of the very successful production Dodge Charger, this was a quiet guerrilla effort relying on a penny-ante budget and a roll of drawings Hubbach had lugged with him from Detroit. In just three months, he and the Aussies would produce a second Charger, a somewhat different hero for an entirely different continent.
Almost 50 years later, on the docks near the clanging, convulsing Port of Los Angeles, where America’s imports flood in from across the Pacific, sit a couple of old Chargers in orange and red. They are both hardtop coupes, and both are products of the former Chrysler Corporation, but from far away, they don’t look like siblings. The dimensions are so much different, for starters. The red Charger, built for America’s wide-open highways and banked superspeedways, is more than 17 feet long and lavishly wide. By comparison, the orange Charger, sold exclusively in Australia where the roads are also wide and open but the tastes run more to European, is more than two feet shorter and two-and-a-half inches narrower, casting a shadow that is relatively compact.
Move closer in, though, and the Mopar family resemblance becomes more apparent. There’s that little duck tail in the sheetmetal above the taillights where the body takes one last punch at the passing air before dumping it back into the wind. And the rear glass is inset on both cars, framed by two delicate buttresses that flow off the roof like streamer lines. The chrome bumpers wrap neatly around the corners on both cars, while up front, the Chargers look equally sawed off, leaving rectangular black voids for faces.
Turn the long, slender key of David Shaby’s restored 1969 Dodge Charger R/T. After some heavy whirring, the Magnum 440 leviathan lights off with the characteristic ka-boom-boom of a V-8 with a 4.32-inch bore. The tall gear selector slides easily into drive; work the wide pedals, and the car hrrumphs off with a king-of-the-road imperiousness. Flip a switch on the panel, and doors in the grille snap open like dragon’s eyelids, revealing the quad headlamps.
Meanwhile, Jack Pollock’s 1972 Chrysler Valiant Charger has twin black buckets with center tufts that make each one look like the belly of a centipede. As if to accentuate the car’s smaller dimensions, the dinky gauges are snugged into a narrow opening on the panel; a tall gearchanger with a wooden pistol grip—not original and uniquely shaped for the left hand—beckons for the next upshift of the four-speed. The steering column is off the American E-body Challenger, so the key goes into the right side. Indeed, you can start the car by leaning in through the driver’s window. Once lit, the engine sounds more like an old burring Maserati as the 265-cubic-inch straight-six sucks from three Weber side-draft carburetors. At one point, a guy rolls up next to the Aussie Charger as we’re idling at a light and calls over, “Hey, what is in that thing??” The light turns green before we can explain.
It’s a long explanation. These two cars were built in different factories in different countries, but their DNA traces back to Chrysler’s old headquarters in Highland Park, Michigan. As Mopar nuts know, the Charger story starts there, in 1964, with a ruby red show car that was basically a ’64 Polara with its roof sheared off. The Pontiac GTO and the Ford Mustang were just going into production then, and the muscle car era was moving into its prime. The sequel, the Charger II concept for the 1965 auto show season, gave better insight into what Chrysler was planning as its first response to the muscle car movement: a big, sumptuously sloped fastback destined to be put into production for the 1966 model year.
Actually, the industry term around Detroit then wasn’t “muscle car.” Executives called products like the Charger and Mustang “specialty cars,” and the new niche of mid-size cars with big engines was saving the carmakers from what otherwise would have been some dreary years in the mid-1960s. As the business was beset with a sales slump, union strikes, and layoffs, those relatively cheap specialty cars “brought light in a very slow period,” Ford Division’s then sales chief, Gordon B. MacKenzie, told a reporter for the Detroit Free Press in 1967.
However, sales of that first-generation Charger were never great. Although buyers since the 1940s had loved the shape of fastbacks, they had reliably plunked their cash down in much higher numbers on square rooflines and proper trunks. As one industry exec told a reporter, “The hardtop buyer is the flightiest customer you can have. If he buys our hardtop this year, he wants something different next year.”
For 1968, Chrysler completely retooled the Charger as part of a $300 million overhaul of its entire product line, pruning off the fastback and replacing it with a pillarless “semi-fastback” roof. “We wanted a car that looked like ‘go,’ ” Dodge’s then chief stylist, William M. Brownlie, told the press at the Charger’s introduction in September 1967. “To convey the feeling of forward motion and a look of power to the rear, we placed the high points of the rear quarter over the wheels with the design tapering forward.” The front and rear ends were chopped off, the headlights again, as with the previous car, disappearing behind doors. The rear sprouted a spoiler to emulate racing cars of the period.
The national dealers, those “Dodge Boys in the white hats,” poured it on, with huge ads for the “Clean Machine” and the “Scat Pack Charger.” They played up its supposedly lower center of gravity, the five available engines, and the optional “3+3 seating” (a complaint about the ’67 had been its full-length center console that divided the seating into four buckets). America might have been tearing itself apart over Vietnam and civil rights, but the new Charger was a successful diversion. The 1968 Charger outsold the ’67 by six to one. When it came time to design David Shaby’s ’69 Charger, the changes were minimal and largely amounted to a split grille and slit taillights.
Shaby’s car came out of the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, as an R/T Special Edition complete with the wood-grain dash inserts and driver-facing turn indicators embedded in the hood. It was bound for the unlikely location of Lethbridge in southern Alberta, where, the story goes, a local farmer bought it for his son. The son did what sons often do when handed the keys to a hot ride, disappointing his father by blowing the engine and rolling the car. The farmer parked the unlucky Mopar in front of the house as a lawn decoration until, in 1973, Shaby’s brother-in-law spotted it. It went through a shade-tree restoration and remained in the family for decades. “I always wanted to drive it,” says Shaby, “but Grandpa wouldn’t let me. So I bought it, and now I get to drive it whenever I want.”
Restored to stock right down to the factory 14-inch wheels, Shaby’s R/T does that 1960s American thing of looking a bit like a dolphin on roller skates. Especially from behind, where the car seems to extend past the tires by half a foot on each side. The original tire spec, F70-14, equates to 200/70-14 in today’s metric sizes, meaning this 4000-pound car with a rated 375 horsepower gripped the road with tires narrower than those on a 2019 Honda Civic. No wonder so many Chargers subsequently ended up on mag wheels wearing fatter meats. Indeed, Shaby has fitted 215-size BFGoodrich tires to the stock rims, which look pretty much perfect.
Even though Chrysler’s 117-inch-wheelbase B-body was the mid-size platform designated for its sportier cars, everything about the American Charger feels humongous, from those great wide-swing doors to the long, flat dash adorned with expansive sheets of simulated wood trim. Chrome rocker switches and thumb wheels add the bling and are complemented by what one reviewer called at the time “a mass of instrumentation.” The clock inset into the tach is a fancy feature, as are the recessed console lights, and Shaby’s car also has the optional “performance indicator,” which is basically a manifold vacuum gauge.
One-finger power steering makes a car that seems about a block long feel easy and free to wheel around, although there’s some guesswork as to where the distant, unseen corners are when parking or maneuvering in tight spaces. Crack open the four barrels above the 440, and it squats and lunges, leaving in its wake a feral bellow from the twin pipes. The Clean Machine was sultry stuff back then, as much about how it made you feel as what it could do. And it did a lot, especially after engineers tacked on a metal nose cone and soaring wing, and went more than 200 mph at Talladega with the NASCAR versions. Even (and, some might say, particularly) without the speedway mods, the Charger still has gorgeously flamboyant lines. It remains a seminal icon of the go-go 1960s and the rebellious 1970s.
Meanwhile, a half century ago and thousands of miles away in Australia, the name “Charger” was barely known. True, the little firm of British & Continental Cars on William Street in Sydney advertised newly imported 1968 Charger 440 Magnums for $10,500 Australian. But that was a rich price, about four times higher than the raciest locally made Chrysler at the time, the 175-hp Valiant-based Pacer. It’s not known how many American Chargers came into Australia in the late 1960s, but it can’t be many. Chrysler itself had been operating Down Under since the early 1950s, chasing GM and Ford with its own dreams of becoming an international carmaking superpower. In 1964, Chrysler opened its own factory in the middle of the country, in the Tonsley section of the Adelaide suburb of Clovelly Park, about 850 miles west of Sydney. For several years, Tonsley Park, as it was called, churned out local versions of the American Plymouth Valiant, although they were badged as Chrysler Valiants since Plymouth didn’t exist in Australia.
Ford dropped a V-8 into the locally assembled Falcon in 1966, thereby exporting the horsepower war raging in Detroit. Chrysler soon joined with the Pacer, a striped and sexed-up Valiant. Chrysler even enlisted racing star Stirling Moss for the advertising, although Chrysler’s slant-six was watery salsa compared with Ford’s 289-powered Falcons. Even so, by the end of the 1960s, sales of the locally made cars were brisk enough that Chrysler and Ford, as well as GM’s own subsidiary, Holden, had enough confidence in the market (as well as impetus from a law requiring Australian cars to be 95-percent local content) to engineer new vehicles with bodywork and features unique to Australia.
After working at General Motors helping design the fourth-gen Corvette, Robert Hubbach left what was then the automotive industry’s A-team for much smaller Chrysler and the chance for international experience. “My friends at GM thought I was nuts,” he recalled to me 50 years later. Hubbach, who would later work on the first Chrysler minivan as well as the Viper, got what he wanted in the Australian Charger project.
In 1970, Chrysler’s soon-to-be-launched Australian blitz featured roomy six-cylinder cars in the Australian fashion, based on the A-body platform of the Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant but with distinct styling for the local market. The lineup—a midmarket sedan, a family wagon, a Ranchero-like ute, and a larger prestige sedan and coupe—looked vaguely similar to their American cousins but with tighter dimensions, more upright windshields, and larger side glass. However, the company’s Aussie dealers were clamoring for a sixth car, a cheap hardtop that would be a price leader in the showroom. That was one of Hubbach’s first assignments.
“They wanted to do something different, but they didn’t know which way they wanted to go,” he said. Hubbach pitched a concept that married the front half of the forthcoming sedan to the truncated rear of a coupe body with some notable Mopar design features, including the buttresses flowing around the inset rear glass and the spoiler. The execs bought it and put Hubbach on a plane to Australia.
He arrived at Tonsley Park in the last week of January 1970 bearing full-size tape drawings of, more or less, the car you see on these pages. The only problems were the schedule and the budget. Hubbach recalls that the entire Australian project, all six cars including the Charger, was done on the slimmest of shoestrings, or about $23 million. And the Aussies were given three months to get the Charger developed. Quick thinking and improvisation were necessities.
One money-saving measure was to steal the sedan’s trunklid stamping but trim it down on the line for the shorter lid of the Charger, saving the cost of new tooling. Another ad-lib cured the puddling of rainwater in the gutter around the horizontal trunklid. An Australian engineer, Tony Campbell, came up to Hubbach one day with a steel water pipe that he had found in a plumbing supply store and a plan to install it quickly on the line to drain water through the trunk to the ground. “I felt like grabbing him and kissing him because it didn’t require any new stampings,” Hubbach said. “The Aussies were like that, always thinking outside the box.”
As for engines, the slant-six was past its prime. Chrysler instead provided Australia with a slightly longer iron-block inline-six originally meant for trucks but ultimately never used anywhere except in Oz. The three cubic-inch displacements were a 215, a 245, and a 265. Chrysler’s marketing hotshots pasted on a Hemi label because the valves sit at an 18-degree angle from each other, making for a semi-hemispherical chamber. But it was just hype, as you can see by opening the hood. The Aussie six’s intake and exhaust are plumbed to the same side of the head, meaning the antiquated reverse-flow design couldn’t leverage the Hemi’s straight-through flow advantages. Still, there was enough knowledge of the Hemi and Charger names in Australia that Chrysler thought the tie-in was worth it.
Ditto for the “HEMI 6 PACK” label on the Aussie R/T, which featured the 265 engine homologated for racing with triple Weber carburetor induction. It had been developed in part by an Australian engineer named John Ellis, who spent four months at the Weber factory in Bologna, Italy, in 1971 with a Pacer mule. Ellis worked with Weber’s engineers on jets, air-bleed hole sizes, and other minutiae of carb tuning. Back then, homologation rules required Chrysler to sell consumer versions of the cars racing in the national touring car championship and particularly the annual Hardie-Ferodo 500-miler (later, the 1000-kilometer) at Bathurst, an event once tuned into by every TV set in the nation.
Mopar fans since they were kids, Jack Pollock and his friend and business partner, Jeff Draper, had jointly owned Chargers and Challengers but had never heard of the Australian version until they met an Aussie collector at a car show about 20 years ago. Because of the preponderance of Chevys and Fords, “Mopar nuts are the red-headed stepchildren at car shows as it is,” said Pollock. He and Draper figured they might as well get into something even weirder, and they soon found their first Australian Charger in Georgia. The second one, shown here, was an eBay score, listed by an Australian journalist who had shipped it over for a travel story. It wasn’t an R/T originally but had been built into one using scrounged parts.
Besides the weirdness, Pollock is attracted to the odd engine. “Being only a straight-six, it has a different sound. And they were getting just past 300 horsepower from a 265-cubic-inch motor. For 1972, that was a lot.” Well, that was in the racing engines. The R/T E48 spec that his car emulates was rated at 248 horses. Since most of the bits are out of the larger Chrysler parts bin, including the flip-top gas cap that is right off the U.S. Charger, it’s neither hard nor expensive to maintain.
Slipping into the right side of the Aussie Charger feels awkward, since Americans are unaccustomed to sticking our left legs under a steering wheel first. The vinyl seats are a little overstuffed and squitch and scrunch as you get comfortable. Driving on the right, though, takes more getting used to as you feel like the car is always being sucked toward the curb.
The Aussie Charger lacks the 440’s urgency under acceleration, but it still pulls with brawny torque from the inline-six. The engine doesn’t mind being wound up with the narrowly gated shifter, either, the snarling and subsequent burbling on the overrun (it’s such a bizarrely foreign noise in a car like this) only intensifying from the swilling Webers as the revs build. Power steering wasn’t an option, so the recirculating-ball rudder takes more forearm to move. The car is less of a floater than the American Charger, but it is 1000 pounds lighter and its wheelbase is shorter by a foot.
Our big Charger looks like the best candidate for going more than 200 mph on the superspeedways. The tightly packaged Oz Charger seems better for slashing and thrusting around Bathurst’s Mt. Panorama circuit for six to seven hours, making both right and left turns. Americans and Australians wanted different things from their hero cars, and for a brief moment, Chrysler was able to oblige. But it was lightning in a bottle. Emissions and safety regs plus an oil crisis soon ended the fun in the States. A media-driven uproar over the risks of marketing high-horsepower homologation specials to the public ended it in Australia in 1973. Six years later, a foundering Chrysler sold its entire Australian operation to Mitsubishi to raise needed cash.
As our two Chargers motored off into the twilight, the nearby port hummed as thousands of multicolored containers were unloaded from docked ships. Internationalism made our story possible as Detroit gazed across the Pacific looking for new markets. But the modern system of global trade that ensued has also eroded the localism that, once upon a time, and only for a moment, made two completely different Chargers seem like a good idea.