Text by Joe Babiasz and AutoTrader Classics Staff, Photography by John Gunnell.
In the late ’60s, the Big Three were pumping out mid-sized performance cars like donuts in a donut shop. Chrysler’s Dodge division, however, watched from the sidelines as Plymouth gobbled up sales with its popular Barracuda. All of that changed in 1970 when the Dodge Challenger was launched as an upscale alternative.
Using Chrysler’s new E-body platform, the Challenger was designed to be more refined than the Barracuda. Its wheelbase was two inches longer, providing just enough added length to give the Challenger a smoother ride and more interior space than its close cousin. Styling had an aggressive edge, and combined with a vast array of powertrain options, Challenger became a true competitor in the mid-price performance car field.
Designed by Carl Cameron, the man responsible for the 1966 Charger, the Challenger was offered in eight models: the base Challenger, Challenger SE, and Challenger R/T–all available as a hardtop or convertible. Mid-year, the race-ready Challenger T/A and low-price Challenger Deputy were added to the list. To minimize development and tooling costs, no fastback was offered. During the design phase, the key objective was that all Chrysler engines must be able to fit into the engine bay. This task was accomplished by using a modified B-body cowl. The rest of car was then designed around it.
On the outside, the Challenger’s looks followed the long front/short rear concept that was typical of the time. Up front, quad headlamps with a deeply recessed grille and thin front bumper gave the car a wide and aggressive look. Four different hoods were available based on model and engine choice. The R/T model could be ordered with an optional shaker hood, similar to Mustang’s Cobra Jet hood. Quarter panels were kicked up just behind the trailing edge of the door to give a more muscular look. Taillamps were recessed and stretched across the rear end panel. Chrysler was known for its extreme exterior colors, and 1970 didn’t disappoint with the likes of Go Mango Orange and Plum Crazy. From every angle, the Challenger said performance.
The interior of the Challenger was upscale. High-back vinyl buckets seats were standard equipment. The instrument panel contained four individual pods for the speedometer and various gauges. R/T models came standard with a rallye pack that included tach, fuel, ammeter, oil, and temperature gauges. Standard instrument panels used a black-faced insert, while the rallye gauge package used a woodgrain insert. Air conditioning and heater controls were positioned to the left of the steering column for use by the driver only. Challenger’s steering column was designed to collapse in a front-end collision, and the column also included a theft-deterrent locking system.
Challenger’s suspension was typical Chrysler, with torsion bars up front and longitudinal leaf springs in the rear. Three different rear axles were used, with the largest being a 9.75-inch Dana 60 axle, standard on Hemi four-speed vehicles and optional on 440- or Hemi-equipped automatic vehicles. Standard brakes on the Challenger were ten-inch, four-wheel drums. R/T models included eleven-inch brakes to assist in stopping. Front disc brakes were available as an option.
The key to the success of the Challenger was its staggering number of engine and transmission combinations. Dodge covered the economy-minded buyer with its trustworthy 145 horsepower, 225-cubic-inch, Slant Six engine. If more power was needed, buyers had a choice of V-8s ranging from 318 to 440 cubic inches, with horsepower ratings from 230 to 425. The T/A was offered with a Six Pack, 290 horsepower, 340 cubic-inch engine. Base powertrain for the R/T was Dodge’s 383. For more power, two combinations of the 440 were available: one with a four-barrel carb and one with a Six Pack. For those who had a really fat wallet and the need for the ultimate engine, a 426 Hemi was on the option list. When combining the engine combinations along with the optional four-speed manual or the trustworthy TorqueFlite, any performance wish was possible. Most performance engines from Chrysler were grossly underrated, and stuffing a 440 Six Pack or Hemi under the hood of a midsize automobile certainly created a wild ride.
By the end of the 1970 model year, Dodge sold almost 77,000 Challengers. While not as popular as the Barracuda, the Challenger added a new dimension to the mid-size muscle car flock. And while it provided Dodge with another winner, it also provided muscle car enthusiasts with one of the most iconic and sought-after models of all time.
Fuel For Thought First year for Chrysler’s E-body T/A Edition named after SCCA Trans Am series Less than 2,400 produced Featured Chrysler’s new bucket seat Challenger T/A was a one-year-only model
Engine– All of Chrysler’s powertrains were dependable. The 340, 440, and Hemi were designed for racing and proved to be in the top of their class. The T/A 340 Six Pack had reinforced main bearing webs, better intake ports, and modified heads. It was grossly underrated at 290 horsepower. The 440 Six Pack and Hemi options provided tire-melting performance.
Handling– The Challenger handled exceptionally well. Its wide stance and sport suspension helped around the corners. Hemi and 440 cars had a small disadvantage with added weight on the front end, but stiff rear springs made things somewhat better in corners.
1970 Chevy Camaro Z28 Number built– 8,733 0-60/quarter mile– 7.0 seconds, 14.9 seconds at 97 mph (Motor Trend, March 1970) Top speed– 119 mph (Motor Trend, March 1970) Price– MSRP - $3,411; Today – $14,600 - $30,200
1970 Plymouth Cuda 340 Number built– 6,032 0-60/quarter mile– 7.5 seconds, 15.0 seconds at 94 mph Top speed– 115 mph est. Price– MSRP - $3,164; Today – $17,700 - $46,800
Strong Points Aggressive styling Incredible performance Large variety of engine options Desired by collectors Limited Production for the T/A
Weak Points Difficult to find one that does not have rust issues Restoration parts are hard to find and expensive Not as popular as the Barracuda Shoebox-size trunk
Vehicle Category Most vintage Challengers are weekend drivers. Rare Hemi cars are typically trailer queens. Owners enjoy using them on a semi-regular basis.
What To Pay 1970 DODGE CHALLENGER T/A MSRP – $4,056 Low – $27,200 Average – $39,300 High – $75,100 *Prices courtesy of NADA www.nadaguides.com
Insurance cost Insurance cost is $326/year for a $39,300 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving. *Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Parts Prices Door Hinge Set $279 Reproduction Challenger fender emblem $45.95 Bolt-on fiberglass flat hood $425 A-pillar windshield post (pair) $315 Front and rear bumper set $535 *Based on information from Year One Inc., 800-932-7663 www.yearone.com
Books Dodge Challenger & Plymouth Barracuda (Enthusiast Color Series)by David Newhardt Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History)by Paul Zazarine Challenger and Barracuda Restoration Guideby Paul Herd Original Challenger and Barracudaby Jim Schild Dodge Challenger Plymouth Barracudaby Peter Grist
Review The Challenger T/A was a one-year wonder. Dodge pulled the plug on the Challenger T/A and the SCCA competition program. The Challenger T/A provided tire-melting performance. The interior was upscale and comfortable. And handling was better than most performance cars of 1970. Combine that with Chrysler’s outlandish exterior color combinations, and the Challenger was–and still is–at the top of the list of desirable muscle cars.