Unique ’66 Dodge Charger celebrates 50 years in style

This article originally appeared on the Detroit Free Press’ freep.com, written by Mark Phelan, on August 12, 2016. All photos by Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press

$3,893 cash for the car. The 426 cubic-inch Hemi, an engine that was dominating NASCAR race tracks when the Charger went on sale, was an $870 option. Ney saved the Monroney window sticker and got the build sheet that detailed every step of the car’s assembly in Chrysler’s Lynch Road assembly plant on Detroit’s East Side a couple of miles from Chrysler’s old headquarters in Highland Park.

The car starred at the Chrysler employee car show earlier this year, 50 years after the revolutionary Charger fastback debuted.

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Hephner is the fourth owner, having acquired it from his friend and former boss, Dick Mossey, car collector and owner of Quaker city the Quaker City Dragway in Salem, Ohio, where Hephner worked when he was in high school. Mossey let Hephner, now 40, drive the Charger on as a kid on his first day of work and later gave him right of first refusal in his will. Similarly, Jack Ney passed the car on to his former neighbor kid Don Cobb, who admired the car as a youngster, bought it when he was around 20 and drove it every day for years until Mossey added it to his collection

“The ’66 Hemi Charger was the start of something extraordinary,” Historic Vehicle Association president mark Gessler said. “It was the most muscle you could buy in a street car. It was engineered to compete with the Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac GTO and Oldsmobile 442. Top dog status was important in Detroit and around the country.”

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The ’65 Charger was essentially a trim level of the humble Dodge Dart. For the 1966 model year, Chrysler designed a slick new fastback body style and shoehorned in the Hemi V8. Dodge built just 250 Hemi Chargers with four-speed manual transmissions and 218 with automatics.

Hephner’s Charger is one of the automatics. It’s remarkably easy and enjoyable to drive, as I learned in a few laps around the track at M1 Concourse in Pontiac.

Unlike some early muscle cars, the throttle is easy to modulate, making the Charger’s 425 hp and 490 pound-feet of torque unusually manageable for its time. The non-power brakes feel beyond squishy to a modern driver, but do their job well. Hephner jokes about “Steering by Armstrong,” and the unassisted steering and thin, hard steering wheel do give the driver a solid work out.

Vents at the front and rear of the passenger compartment provide a cooling breeze even at low speeds, making the Charger surprisingly comfortable on a 90-degree August morning.

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The fastback was in production for just two years. In 1968, Dodge introduced a new coupe with more mainstream styling. The ‘68’s looks overshadowed the 1966 fastback so completely that Hephner’s unique car is sometimes overlooked in a crowd of classics.

“It was the dawn of a new age at Dodge,” Gessler said. “The brand had been known for cost-conscious, reliable vehicles. This put them in a different league and had a huge impact. An engine that was mopping up NASCAR was now available to the public. Before that, NASCAR cars looked more like sedans executives drove to lunch. The Charger fastback looked like a race car. It’s where it all started.”

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