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.

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