BMW April 2022

Looking at this 1970 Dodge Charger 500 skulking outside the garage roller shutter door,  it seemed to be brooding, hatching some fiendish plot that would probably involve harassing some innocent road users out for a Sunday drive in their immaculately-preserved 1980 Toyota Cressida 1.8L…

You can just see that blacked-out, headlight-less grille inching up on the tail of the Cressida, the Dodge’s V8 rumble drowning out the wheezy four-cylinder mill up ahead. To the point where Sunday Driver starts frantically dropping down to fourth, third then second gear in a hopeless quest to out-run The Menace.

Pulling the Cressida’s venetian blinds in the rear window closed tight just makes the threat worse. The driver winds down his side window frantically, sticks his wrinkly  arm out and makes a whirring motion signalling this… this… HOOLIGAN, to go past! Just leave us in peace for pity’s sake! There are innocent lives at stake here!

So what makes the Dodge Charger so threatening? Yes, those hidden headlights play their part, but I reckon it’s also the way the Charger has a distinctly nose-down attitude. Like some sort of motorised  sand-shark. The front seems much lower than the rear on every other one I’ve seen, not that there are that many Chargers charging around in sunny South Africa. All the ones that arrived here were special imports, the Dodge nameplate in the 1970s here having been restricted pretty much to one-ton bakkies like the old D100 series, favoured by municipalities and the like.

The Dodge Charger first broke cover in America in early 1966, as a response of sorts to the excitement generated in early 1964 by Ford’s Mustang. But the Charger was not a direct competitor. It was a lot bigger than a Mustang, at least on the outside.

The 1970 Charger 500 is the completely re-styled “B-series” model introduced in 1968, and the one most people associate with the Charger name. It actually has huge exterior bodywork but a much slimmer cabin, with the “living area” being much narrower than those wide, flared fenders. The nose of this car seems to go on forever, especially when you are behind the wheel.

Looking at the car today, it’s actually a beautiful example of a styling theme being carried through the entire car, the details of the rear light panel being surrounded by a sort of dog-bone shape that is also echoed in the interior, on the door panels.

The interior is also unusual for an American car of this era in that there is almost no chrome. Instead the dash is all subdued crackle-black with full instrumentation including a rev counter and separate dials for water temperature, fuel, oil pressure and the like. It has a distinct NASCAR-racer theme, which is not surprising, as Charger-mounted David Pearson won the NASCAR Grand National Championship in 1966, and the “500” name is a homage to the Dodge’s success in the famous Daytona 500.

With all these NASCAR images floating around in my brain, I briefly wondered whether the doors on this car would be welded shut, just like the good-ol’-boys of NASCAR did back in the days. That image was due to my having seen YouTube clips  of the old Dukes of Hazzard television series, which ran in America  between 1979 and 1985. Depending on your orientation, the star of the show was either Daisy Dukes, the hillbilly girl in her cut-off denim shorter-than-short shorts,  or an orange Dodge Charger, for all intents and purposes just like the one we were looking at in Pretoria in late 2020.

That Charger was named General Lee by its on-screen owners, Bo and Luke Duke. Whether it actually had its doors welded closed or not, moonshiners Bo and Luke always entered the car via the side windows, just like their stock-car-racing heroes would have done.

The Dukes of Hazzard Dodge Charger was most famous for being able to conduct a giant leap in each and every episode. The old Dodge would fly over cop cars, old barns, even old steam locomotives, all in the quest of escaping the wrath of Hazzard County’s Police Chief, one Rosco Coltrane (he drove a boring Plymouth cop car).

Leaping a Dodge Charger each and every week played havoc with the show’s budget, as well as the supply of 1968-1970 Dodge Chargers available to the film makers. It is said that in total the Dukes of Hazzard consumed nearly 300 Dodge Chargers during the show’s 147 Episodes. Then they made a movie based on the TV show  that appeared in 2005. That one starred the impossibly sexy-but-cute Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke, and yes, Daisy still wore impossibly brief denim cut-offs. Inevitably, a lot more Dodge Chargers, now revered as all-time classics, were trashed in all the jump sequences.

Apparently the TV show’s stunt crew re-cycled a lot of the damaged cars after each mega-jump each week, and crews were working flat out to repair suspension damage, cracked windscreens and the like. The jumps were taken at around 130 km/h, and the Chargers carried a hefty weight in the boot so that they would fly with a slight tail-down attitude. A nose-drive landing would have been disastrous!

The 1970 Charger 500 I got to drive was on consignment at the Wat Swaai Jy classic car emporium in Centurion, near Pretoria, and was in very fine fettle. It was fitted with a mid-line 383 cubic-inch V8 (about 6,25 litres) and the excellent 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic gearbox.

Although I would have loved to terrorise a few passing Cressidas, I ended up trundling the huge car very moderately around the surrounding quiet streets of the Wat Swaai Jy showroom near Menlyn. It amused me that the big V8 would shift from first to third gear in the matter of about 30 metres at traffic-crawling speeds.

This Charger was fitted with the original hot-rodder classic wheels, known as Cragar SS rims, which are 5-spoke items perfectly in keeping with the Charger ethos and period-correct items. The engine bay also had a full Mopar dress-up kit consisting of special valve covers, air cleaner and ignition unit, and a bigger radiator needed to keep the big V8 from getting grumpy in slow-moving traffic.

Yeah, that’s the last thing you want, a Dodge Charger developing an even grumpier attitude. Just ask all those innocent Toyota Cressida owners out there.

By Stuart Johnston

Pics by Jay Groat