1968 Dodge Charger: 1st report from the DRIVETRIBE garage
"It's got a shot motor, a 440-CUBIC-INCH pLANT. It's got shot tyres, shot suspension, shot shocks. Whaddya say? Is it your new project car or what?"
“Well, I’ve been welding it up for three days straight,” said Tony. I said nothing, momentarily reduced to a catatonic state. Mathematics was never my strong point but, knowing my mechanic’s daily rate, I only needed a second to approximate a vexing four-figure sum.
It was going to be worth it, though. Or, at least, that’s what I sorely hoped. After all, my 1968 Dodge Charger hadn’t turned a wheel in anger in a decade. I was five months and several thousand pounds deep into its restoration, by this point, and no closer to knowing whether it would actually make sensible progress under its own power.
Summoning my remaining willpower, I pushed the running total to the corner of my mind. I could just about register it, if I glimpsed at it in a fashion akin to accidentally making eye contact with a passing driver, but I was trying my best to not let it overshadow proceedings.
Fortunately, I was yet to burn through my budget – and the Dodge was nearly ready for an MOT. Its rotten boot floor was the last remaining piece of the puzzle and, having shipped freshly stamped steel over from the States and forked out for three days of labour, it was now in fine condition. You could put something in it, and it wouldn’t immediately materialise at your feet. Flawless, rather than floorless.
Given that the car had been in the UK since 1979, however, the fact that it was still around at all was somewhat remarkable. That it still had chassis rails, outriggers and exterior panels, doubly so. This inherent solidity was admittedly its saving grace, and the sole reason I’d bought the exact car I didn’t want.
You see, the last car I’d lived with for any significant period of time was a Lancia. It was a completely stock 1988 Delta HF Integrale, and it had an unnerving and somewhat stereotypical tendency to generate bank-breaking invoices every time you turned the key.
Preceding the Delta was a heavily modified 1968 Pontiac Firebird, which I had similarly poured a small fortune into. Consequently, the last thing I wanted was another potential source of financial strife.
So, with the Integrale exported to sunnier shores – putting as much distance between me and it as possible, for its own good – I’d set about scouring the classifieds for something clean and legal. I wanted a car that was fun at sensible speeds, and one that wanted for nothing. As long as someone else had put all the money into it, and shed all the tears over it, it was a valid contender.
The shortlist, for the most part, consisted of Skylines, Supras and RX-7s. They all buoyed my barge but I was slightly wary about buying a high-performance Japanese car. Primarily, I valued my license – and what was left of my bank balance – too much.
My attention eventually began wandering back to classics. Simple, more raucous cars that would be more involving and grin-inducing within our increasingly strictly enforced limits – and something with a good scene that I could engage with.
It was at this point, checking another forum for the tenth time that day, I spotted a ’68 Charger advertised for £15,000. I didn’t have that much, but it was about half of what other road-going cars were going for – causing my interest to peak like a VU meter at a Metallica concert.
The price gave away the fact that it was a project, but I had a read of the listing just to satisfy my own curiosity. It sounded, truth be told, like a good buy. The Charger was originally a 383-engined car but, at some point prior to its importation in ’79, it’d acquired a full-fat 440. Some work had been done over the years, and it’d been repainted a few times, but it had eventually fallen into disuse and ended up parked for a decade.
A handful of pictures showed what appeared to be a straight and sharp-looking Dodge, free from any obvious corrosion, and everything appeared present and correct. The seller claimed it ran but, predictably, the brakes were long gone. It was a great opportunity for someone seeking a project, which was precisely what I didn’t need.
I consoled myself with the fact that it was probably already long gone, breathed a sigh of relief at not once again having to deal with rust, and closed my browser. The Dodge, I thought, could go and be someone else’s problem.
Four days later, following a catastrophically poor series of decisions, I had somehow made it my problem instead. I had looked at the market and found it quite cheap. I had worked out how much it could be worth restored. I had mentally totted up the parts costs required to recommission it. I’d even engineered in some excess into my non-existent budget – which then materialised into existence with several scarily easy clicks on my bank’s website.
Then, following a few phone calls, a truck had unceremoniously dumped some two tonnes of groaning, filth-covered American iron outside my parent’s house. The new orange garden ornament represented all of my savings, and a significant chunk of the bank’s money, and was the single most expensive item I’d ever bought. Which, as it quietly dripped transmission fluid and looked thoroughly sorry for itself, was a somewhat terrifying concept.
Fortune favours the bold, though, I kept telling myself between stiff drinks. I had paid £15,000 for the car and had budgeted £10,000 for its restoration – with my rough estimates suggesting I could perhaps get it going in around three months for £5000, leaving some money in reserve. At that point, in theory, it would at least be worth what I'd put into it.
In time-honoured ‘Grand Designs’ fashion, I promptly outstripped both estimates. Not by a fraction, either. Seven months later, totting up the expenses – including every litre of fuel, every part, every hour of labour and every beer consumed in desperation – the final tally for its restoration sat at £10,292.67. The entire project had come in just over budget, but I now had a running, road-legal car that was potentially worth more than what I’d invested in it.
There was a catch. Up until this point, I had never done more than casually stroll the Charger up and down our drive at a walking pace. For all I knew, its Torqueflight transmission might have only one forward gear, or several of its cylinders less compression than your average Gumtree-sourced RX-7. All its new MOT told me was it was that it complied with some degree of basic safety requirements. It could, heart-wrenchingly, still drive like an absolute nail. A slow, lurching orange nail that I had poured all the money I could lay my hands on into.
For once, however, luck was on my side – as within my first five yards behind the wheel it became apparent that there was plenty of life left in the old Dodge yet. Its 440 rumbled contentedly, its transmission engaged and held each gear, and it steered, stopped and rode sweetly. Oil pressure good. Temperature good. Battery charging. This, I thought, was a car that wanted – and deserved – to live.
Sure, perhaps I could have bought a going concern for the money. Perhaps I should have bought something that I could have enjoyed immensely, immediately. But I’m glad I didn’t; this Charger, my Charger, has lived to fight another day – and that alone, as the 440 starts to bellow and the nose lifts, was worth every penny.