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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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Finding time to enjoy the new Dodge Challenger...

Having owned a 1970 Dodge Challenger the first year they made it, I thought it would be fun to drive the old one down to pick up my new 2008 Challenger.

The old Challenger is hysterical. It’s got a four-speed stick shift (with a pistol-grip handle… I’m not sure what that has to do with driving a car but it seems very American). Changing gear is a bit like working one of those exercise machines: from first you pull way back to second, way up to third, then way back to fourth. It’s got no power steering, no power brakes and polyglass tires. If the exit ramp sign says 35 and you’re going 36, those tyres will be screeching and yelling.

Driving to the dealership in the hemi, I looked behind me at the stop lights and I saw people coughing and wheezing, just from the emissions of this thing. The carbon footprint is like a dinosaur’s – and mine is a nice-running, well-tuned car. Yet it puts out hydrocarbons like a Hummer on steroids. I had a full tank when I left my garage; it was maybe 8.2 miles to the dealership and I had three-quarters of a tank when I got there. On the plus side, it’s a hemi and it makes an amazing noise with the glasspacks on it.  The dealership is a classic American place called Big Valley Dodge. There are balloons and toys for the kids and sandwiches: everything you would have expected from an American dealership during the ’60s, ’70s and even into the ’80s.

Nowadays, when you go to a car dealership like Lexus or Mercedes, they have ‘sales representatives’. These were salesmen at Big Valley Dodge – ‘Howaya?! Good ta see ya!’ – and they had names like Ace and Chuck. They wore those holiday camp rep jackets that have been nowhere near a natural fibre. They were all very nice and all very excited. I’m very lucky because my new Challenger is car number four and is the first one delivered in the state of California. Rather than get the Magic Orange like my ’70, I got black on black, with black interior.

So we park the new one next to the old one, and it’s remarkably similar: both are big, wide American cars. The difference being that on the new one you’ve got Brembo brakes, independent suspension, power steering and a fantastic sound system. I’m an AM radio kind of guy yet with this thing you can put every CD you own into the hard drive. It’s a far cry from the old Challenger, which had a knob to turn the sound from the front speaker to the back speaker. That made people go oooh! and wow!

The new car is also incredibly tight. My original Challenger has the optional sport console, which is held in with just two screws. If you give it a good shake you can pull the whole thing right out. That’s the way they were.

The new car is well screwed together and I have to admit I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but in terms of handling and braking it’s not really a sports car. It’s easily as fast as an M5 and you can do burnouts, but it is a little on the heavy side. For the equivalent of £20,000 it’s a lot of horsepower. It’s the kind of car Europeans say they hate, until they come to America and drive one and then they have a big grin from ear to ear.

This may be the last gasp of supercars for a while, but I must say they are building them right. The last generation, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, were truly dangerous automobiles. I’ve got a ’66 hemi Coronet with drum brakes and a 426 hemi engine in it, no power steering, no anything. I was going up a hill one time and I increased the throttle a little bit and the next thing I knew I was facing the other way with a guy going BEEEEEEEP! And I just thought, how did that happen?! There was no suspension, no braking. They were just incredibly fast straight-line cars.

This is a well-balanced version of the early Challenger. It’s perfectly in tune except you’ve got air bags and door bars. It’s a much safer car. When you go back and read the road tests from the period, Car and Driver, Road & Track, they all hated the hemi. But it was that flaw that made everyone want them – oooh, you can kill yourself in this thing. Thankfully the new one has the character without the death wish.


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