Maximum Muscle

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by Huw Evans  More from Author

Comparing Two Hemi-Powered Warriors, Four Decades Apart

In the context of muscle cars, Mopars have an alluring character all their own. During the golden age of power, when it came to delivering big performance on the street, Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler gave us the goods. That probably explains why today, 40 years after the original muscle era reached its peak, Mopars from that period are among the most desirable and sought after classic cars in the world. Right at the top of the heap is the legendary 1968-70 Dodge Charger. The coke-bottle contours and big cube engines made this car into a legend (some TV show about a pair of Georgia cousins did the rest).

Although many of us lust after classic Chargers, the combination of 40 year-old technology, quality control and huge engines can make owning one less than practical, but Dodge has addressed that too. For 2006, the division revived the Charger name for its new large, rear-drive sedan. Although some enthusiasts balked at putting the hallowed moniker on a four-door, the new Charger packed quite a few elements of the original, including butch styling, a powerful V-8 engine and an affordable price tag. Best yet, it delivered handling, braking, reliability and fuel economy that could only have been dreamed of in the late 1960s. We wanted to find out if the new car really does match up to its legendary predecessor. To that end, we decided to round up the hottest Charger from 1969 and pitch it against the hottest version from 2009. Here’s what we discovered.

1969 Charger 500
No doubt about it, styling in the 1960s sold cars. The second-generation Charger’s debut season was proof of that, with deliveries almost tripling over 1967. The semi-fastback roofline and hidden headlight grille were classic touches, and, along with the pinch-waisted styling, gave the Richard Sias-designed body a look all is own. However, while it might have been a huge hit on the street, it was a different story in stock car racing. The new design, particularly the grille opening and sunken rear window, proved to be major areas of air turbulence on high-speed oval tracks, making the restyled Chargers actually slower than their 1966-67 counterparts. With Ford coming on strong with its new fastback Torinos and Mercury Cyclones, this wasn’t good if Chrysler was to stand any chance of remaining competitive.

Engineers figured that making the rear window flush with the car’s C-pillars and plugging the grille cavity would result in reduced air resistance and lift, enabling greater speeds. A 1968 Charger was used as the basis for this experiment, fitted with the grille from a 1968 Coronet, mounted flush with the leading edge of the fenders. Extra steel and filler were used to modify the C-pillars, and a smaller rear window was installed flush with the roofline. In order to qualify the changes under NASCAR rules, street versions of the car had to be released, thus the Charger 500 was born. It was the only second-generation model to feature exposed headlights. Although the cars featured 1969 trim, including the fenders, rear quarter panels, side marker lights and full-width taillight panel, they were released very early in the model year and actually started out life as 1968 R/T models.

Dodge literature stated that 500 were to be built, and all would be powered by the 426 Hemi V-8. In the end, only 392 made it out onto the streets, making them exceedingly rare by anybody’s standards. In competition, the changes didn’t make a huge amount of difference, which led engineers to develop the far more radical Daytona, with its droop snoot and tall rear wing (but that’s another story).

From the factory, the 1969 Charger 500 had specs much like its R/T brother. It features unibody construction and rides on a 117-inch wheelbase. Standard Chrysler patented Torsion Air suspension is found up front, with upper and lower control arms, shocks and longitudinal torsion bar springs. Out back, there’s a solid rear axle mounted on multi-leaf springs. Like the R/T, Charger 500s came standard with the heavy-duty suspension, which includes a thicker front sway bar, beefier front torsion bars and rear leaf springs, plus stronger shocks with stouter damping. Charger 500s also got front disc brakes as standard equipment (they were optional on the R/T). Unlike the R/T, all 500s also came with the formidable 426 Hemi V-8 featuring dual quad Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors and rated at 425 (gross) hp at 5000 rpm and 490 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Transmission choices were the A883 heavy-duty four-speed or the TorqueFlite 727 three-speed automatic (the latter of which is fitted to our sample). The rear end was an 8 ¾-inch unit with 3.23 gears and a Sure-Grip limited slip differential, though 3.54 final drive and a beefier Dana 60 rear end with up to a 4.10:1 ratio were available. The Charger 500s all came with high performance exhaust manifolds and dual pipes and mufflers, with a crossover tube to balance exhaust pulses and improve torque delivery.

Standard wheels were 14 x7 pressed steel with center hubcaps, though 14-inch Magnum 500s (as fitted to our example) were optional. Original tires were F70-14 bias-plies, but in the interests of improved on-road handling and grip, ours features modern P235/70R14 radials.

Exterior and Interior
When you walk up to the 1969 Charger 500, you can almost feel the car’s presence. It’s long, the extensive sheetmetal seemingly stretching for miles, particularly the hood and rear deck. Even with those small (by modern standards) 14-inch wheels, it looks ready to pounce. The 500’s exposed headlights transform the front end of the car, but it still manages to look menacing. The smaller rear window blends surprisingly well with the C-pillars and the concave taillight panel with full width lenses has a strong look. The absence of a vinyl roof makes the 500 appear even slicker than its brothers. The A11 wraparound tail stripe with “500” above the marker lights lets the world know this isn’t any run of the mill R/T.

Push the button on the chrome handle, and the big, heavy door swings open. Sitting down on the wide but fairly flat front bucket seat, you can feel the weight as the door shuts with a heavy, metal clang. In front of you is an instrument panel that seems a mile in width, with no pods or shelves breaking up the arrow-straight lines from left side to right. As befitting an all-out performance car, there seems to be a full complement of gauges, but although there’s a 150 mph speedometer, a tachometer is notably absent. In its place, the other large cluster houses a clock. The switchgear is very period, a single skinny stalk for the turn signals and dash-mounted buttons for the wipers and lights, with all functions written in English (no symbols here, thank you). The acres of black vinyl and chrome trim take you back to the era of Woodstock and Apollo 11. Behind you is a rather roomy back seat, but, like the front, the cushioning isn’t very cozy or enveloping compared with more modern cars.

Turning the dash-mounted ignition key results in that distinctive sound from late 1960s Chrysler starters. After a couple of cranks and pumping the gas pedal, the monster Hemi explodes into life. The sound bellows through the dual exhaust beneath you, and the solid lifters clatter away like chattering teeth in a Mid-western cold snap. With your foot on the brake, carefully ease the TorqueFlite gear selector into drive, and off you go. The Hemi doesn’t like being cold, nor does it enjoy low speed driving very much (although back in the day, testers remarked how civilized it was for such a high performing engine). The ultra-light steering and touch-sensitive brakes take a bit of getting used to, but actually make the car surprisingly easy to maneuver in town, despite its considerable size. Once the engine is warmed up a bit, it responds eagerly; the torque is right there. Even with radial tires, the steering feels loose. Punch the throttle, and the brute power pins you back in the seat, as the engine howls and the secondaries open. Words cannot describe the sensation of gunning this car down a stretch of open, two-lane black top. It takes quite a bit of effort to keep the car pointing straight, but the power is endless, and the TorqueFlite shifts gear with mechanical-like precision – enough that you can feel it change speeds, but not so violent that the whole drivetrain clunks like a Super Stocker at the 60-foot mark.

Handling and Ride
The great thing about cars like this is that they are about as honest and straightforward as you can get. The Charger 500 makes no pretenses about being a handling champ. The car’s considerable girth and front-end heft mean fast corners are not its forte. Try to hustle it through a bend at speed, and it wants to first go straight, and then kick the rear end far out once you’ve begun exiting the corner. Although it’s tempting to try a few Bo Duke tricks, the rarity and value of the 500 means that it’s best not push. The radial tires do, however, work surprisingly well to manage grip, considering the car’s fairly primitive suspension. A skilled driver can really learn how to control this beast well at average to high speeds. Although the torsion bar front and leaf-sprung rear suspension might have you thinking that this car rides like an ox-cart, it really doesn’t. It’s fairly smooth, and the front end in particular does a good job of absorbing road shock from bumps and expansion joints. Even the rear isn’t that bad, and after more than an hour of driving, sitting behind the wheel of the 500 doesn’t feel particularly tiring.

Brakes, much like tire technology, took a back seat when it came to engineering Detroit cars in the 1960s. Even though the 500 features front disc brakes, it takes what seems like an eternity to come to a rest from cruising speed. Braking requires you to plan ahead and progressively apply the pedal for best results. It’s times like these that you wish you had a four-speed to help brake the engine as well. As the big Charger begins to slow, you can feel all the weight shift to the front as the nose takes a bow. Try too hard to stop, and you’re rewarded with the front wheels locking up and the car swaying from side to side. It’s best to take things gently.

2009 Charger SRT-8 Super Bee
If we’re being honest, there aren’t very many similarities between the 2009 Charger and its 1969 namesake. For starters, the new car is a four-door sedan (which drew quite a bit of flack from the cognoscenti at its original launch in 2005). However, Dodge felt that the name would resonate better with the public than something like Coronet or Polara. The LX full-size, rear-drive cars were developed using a lot of technology from Mercedes-Benz, including the chassis, suspension and V-8 transmission. However, the engines were entirely Chrysler units, including a 2.7 and 3.5-liter V-6, each equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission and a new generation Hemi V-8. This still used a pushrod design that initially came in 5.7-L (345-ci) form, though a bigger bore 6.1-L (370-ci) version was added later. It was this engine that formed the basis for the ultra high performance SRT-8. The modern day Super Bee is based on that car and features special striping, paint colors and graphics. It’s also very exclusive. Our loud and proud Hemi Orange sample car is number three out of a total of 425 built for 2009. There’s no question that, like the original 426 Hemi powered 500, it’s destined to become collectible down the road.

Like the 1969 model, the Charger SRT-8 features unibody construction. Otherwise, in engineering terms, the two cars have little in common. The new one rides on a longer, 120-inch wheelbase, yet it’s shorter overall. The suspension is fully independent in the best European tradition, with double control arms, both front and rear, coil springs and premium gas shocks, plus standard front and rear sway bars. Brakes on the SRT-8 are massive Brembo units, sized at 14.2-inches up front (with four-piston calipers) and 13.8 at the rear, also with quad-pot clampers. Partly to clear these huge brakes, but also to optimize handling, the SRT-8 Super Bee features massive 20 x 9. inch alloy wheels on which are mounted ultra high performance P245/45ZR20 rubber.

The standard SRT-8 engine is the bigger 6.1-L (370-ci) version of the new Hemi, which features stronger internals, new pistons, a sequential electronic fuel system with larger injectors for improved delivery and performance, and a special high performance exhaust system. It’s rated at a fitting 425 horsepower (though this time net, instead of gross) at 6200 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4800 revs. The sole transmission choice is an electronically-controlled five-speed automatic, though it does feature a manual shift mode for enthusiastic driving. Final drive ratio is a 3.06:1, quite a bit taller than that in the 1969 model, but like the older car, a limited slip differential is employed.

Exterior and Interior
Compared to the 1969, the 2009 SRT-8 Super Bee has an entirely different look. Chargers of this ilk have a lower roofline than their Chrysler 300 counterparts. Combined with the fastback roofline, it lends even more of a street custom persona. The slab-sided flanks and broad hips with a pronounced kick-up on the rear doors make this thing look almost like a WWE wrestler, ready to take on his next opponent. The massive wheels and tires are pushed out to the edges of the car, lending it a very wide, hunkered-down stance. Combined with the matte black center hood graphic and black headlight pockets, the short, blocky front-end looks almost angry. It screams “Get outta my way,” as any self-respecting muscle car should. Riding on an even longer wheelbase than the 1969 model, the Super Bee is a big car, but it doesn’t feel quite as physically large (which, in fact it isn’t).

Unlike the older model, the door feels much lighter and shuts with a vault-like precision. The dark grey cabin feels very intimate, and the special SRT-8 sport bucket seats are both very comfortable and supportive, wrapping tightly around you – a stark contrast to the 1969’s front chairs. The controls also feel much closer. The switchgear is straight from Mercedes, perhaps looking somewhat out of place in a car like this, but it functions very well. The steering wheel is also worlds removed from that in the 1969; it’s physically bigger with a chunky rim that begs for a solid grip through fast-moving corners. The instruments, in typical modern fashion, are housed in a single pod, and there’s everything you need – speedometer, tach, oil pressure, temperature, voltage and, of course, fuel. Unlike the 1969 model, there are few dash-mounted controls, save for the headlights, HVAC and stereo. Speaking of the latter, cranking up the volume causes the bass to shake through the whole car, rattling dishes in the houses across the street. 

All modern conveniences are also at your disposal, like MP3 capability, Satellite Navigation and that modern automobile companion, Sirius/XM satellite radio. A very cool feature is an in-dash computer that can calculate acceleration and quarter mile times – the perfect compliment for a modern muscle car. Behind you, despite the low roofline, the back seat is warm and inviting, with plenty of room for friends and kids and easy access via the convenient rear doors.

On the Road
When you fire up the Super Bee, you can sense the power at your command, but, unlike the 426 Hemi, the 6.1 has an idle that’s as smooth as late-night jazz. Blip the throttle and it barks, but the sound is one of refined muscle, not all-out throat-tearing horsepower. In town, the Super Bee feels incredibly solid and the seats comfortable; it’s not fazed in the slightest by stop-and-go traffic and, unlike the 426, can idle for ages without stumbling or overheating. The steering is nicely weighted and confidence-inspiring at low speeds, a far cry from the 1969’s disconnected feel. Punch the throttle and the Bee takes off like a scalded cat. Although it’s extremely quick and the torque puts you back in the seat, it’s not the same raw, brutal sensation that characterizes the Charger 500 in a straight-line dash. The solidity and comfort of this car is such that you can be doing 100 mph without even noticing, whereas in the 1969 model, you definitely know when you’ve reached optimum cruising speed.

Handling and Ride
One aspect that clearly shows how far automotive technology has come is in the handling capabilities of the Super Bee. Quite simply, they’re world class. The fully independent suspension, huge footprint and sporty steering are almost perfectly dialed in. Although the car still feels its weight a bit through the turns, body roll is very minimal, and it holds the line tightly. Turn the traction control to the off setting and the back end can come around on you, but this is one car that’s solid as rock taking corners as it is in a straight line.

However, the trade-off for this incredible handling is a rather firm ride. On bumps, you can definitely feel road shock being transmitted up into the cabin, although the seats do a reasonable job of cushioning the effect somewhat. We’d have to say that, in terms of cruising, the Super Bee is somehow not quite as satisfying as the 500, though it has the older car licked in just about every other performance parameter.

It’s very interesting comparing these two cars, which come from entirely different eras, but are each designed to achieve the same mission objective. There’s no question that modern muscle machines like the SRT-8 Super Bee can do things that were unfathomable in the late 1960s, but as cool as this car is, we think that the Charger 500 still beats it in terms of overall appeal. If you have the ability, the best option of course is to have both, the Bee for daily driving and the 500 as a weekend toy or collectible. The fact that the older Charger still has few rivals for all-out coolness helps explain why these cars are so sought-after today, even if they didn’t make a huge impact in NASCAR. At the end of the day, no matter how much you are involved in motorsport, true performance reputations are won and lost on the street. And that’s why, when it comes to rip-roaring, road-bashing muscle, there’s nothing quite like a vintage Mopar, no matter how rare.

Special thanks to Legendary Motor Car Company Ltd. and Jesse Flynn.

1969 Dodge Charger 500

Length: 207.9 in
Width: 76.6 in
Wheelbase: 117.0 in
Track (front): 63.7 in
Track (rear): 63.6 in
Weight: 3477 lbs

Type: V-8
Construction: Cast-iron block and heads
Valvetrain: OHV, single camshaft, two valves per cylinder
Fuel system: Dual Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors
Bore & Stroke: 4.25 x 3.75-in
Compression ratio: 10.25:1
Displacement: 426 ci (6980-cc)
Ignition system: Dual-point distributor
Max Power: 425 hp at 5000 rpm
Max Torque: 490 lb-ft at 4000 rpm

TorqueFlite three-speed automatic

Steel unitary with two-door fastback coupe body

Front: Independent with upper and lower control arms, heavy-duty tube shocks, heavy-duty torsion bars and sway bar
Rear: Live rear axle, heavy-duty tube shocks, heavy-duty multi-leaf springs

Front: Disc
Rear: Drum

14 x 7 in pressed steel

F70 x 14

0-60 MPH: 5.9 sec
Quarter-mile ET:  13.9 at 104.5 mph

Original Price
$3482 (1969)

2008 Dodge Charger SRT-8 Super Bee

Length: 200.1 in
Width: 74.5 in
Wheelbase: 120.0 in
Track (front): 63.0 in
Track (rear): 63.1 in
Weight: 4355 lbs

Type: V-8
Construction: Cast-iron block with aluminum heads
Valvetrain: OHV, single camshaft, two valves per cylinder
Fuel system: Sequential Electronic fuel injection
Bore & Stroke: 4.05 in x 3.58-in
Compression ratio: 10.3:1
Displacement: 370 ci (6063-cc)
Ignition system: Coil on plug
Max Power: 425 hp at 6200 rpm
Max Torque: 420 lb-ft at 4800 rpm

Five-speed automatic

Unitary chassis with four-door sedan body

Front: Independent short/long arm with coil springs, tube shocks and anti-roll bar
Rear: Independent short/long arm with coil springs, tube shocks and anti-roll bar

Front: Disc
Rear: Disc

20 x 9 in aluminum alloy


0-60 MPH: 4.8 sec
Quarter-mile ET: 13.2 sec at 108.8 mph

Original Price
$38,670 (2009)


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