Dodge Downfall - 1983 Dodge Charger

From smoking tires to being smoked and tired.

2y ago


In modern times, the Charger nameplate has been treated as a sacred part of MOPAR history. Its first three generations created a massive following, and helped define the characteristics of a true muscle car. Whether powered by Magnums or Hemi’s, the Charge always managed to capture the public’s imagination,

The famous chase in Bullitt, the car-wrecking funny business in The Dukes of Hazzard, and the fear-inducing wheelies of the The Fast and the Furious, all iconic moments in TV and cinema made possible by the sinister presence of the second-generation B-body Charger.

In highly modified form, the car even set records as the fastest car on a closed course by breaking the 200 mph (320 kph) barrier in NASCAR competition during 1969. But what we see as heritage now, Dodge had no problem abusing to make lesser cars look good.

"Is this all there is?" asks Mr. Selleck. The Charger name promised a bit more than just a two-tone paint job and some logos.

"Is this all there is?" asks Mr. Selleck. The Charger name promised a bit more than just a two-tone paint job and some logos.

Thanks to the devastating 1973 Arab Oil Embargo caused by America’s endorsement of Israel in the Six Days War, the original muscle-style Charger model ceased to be in 1974. Increased pressure from the EPA and wary insurance companies added fuel to the fire, slowly sucking all the performance out of the once proud Charger. In the process, the concept of a big, powerful muscle car had been made totally obsolete.

So for 1975, the Charger name was repurposed and demoted to become an appearance package on the luxury-oriented Cordoba. After giving up most of its performance, the Charger now also lost its good looks thanks to the boxy, bug-eyed Cordoba shell.

But at least it was still a rear wheel drive, V8 powered, all-American coupe. This arrangement lasted until 1978, when the Cordoba based Charger was dropped due to being a big, heavy, large capacity dinosaur incapable of competing with European imports.

For 1981, Dodge tried their luck by naming a sporty version of their 024 coupe after the Charger.

For 1981, Dodge tried their luck by naming a sporty version of their 024 coupe after the Charger.

By 1979 Dodge had moved on to produce the much smaller Omni 024. In essence, this model was their version of the popular Volkswagen Scirocco. In fact, the 024 was the coupe version of Dodge’s French-designed Horizon hatchbacks.

The 024 was available with just two highly embarrassing engine options: the mighty 70 horsepower Volkswagen-sourced 1.7L I4, or an even heftier 84 horsepower Chrysler 2.2L I4. The anemic engines probably would have had a hard time to even keep the original models’ air conditioning running without conking out.

As a further insult to the Charger name, both these gargantuan engines powered the front wheels. Eventually, the all-powerful 2.2 that was inexplicably graced with the zombified Charger nameplate for 1981.

The ad-men furiously tried to project a badass sporting image onto the crummy little hatchback.

The ad-men furiously tried to project a badass sporting image onto the crummy little hatchback.

By 1983, the Omni 024 had been renamed as the Charger across the range. Gone was the Volkswagen sourced base engine however, being replaced by an even smaller 1.6L Peugeot unit rated at 80 horsepower. However, the in-house developed 2.2 stayed put.

Performance was predictably dreadful. The base four-speed manual, 1.6L Peugeot version weighed just 1002 kg (2209 lbs), but still took a shocking 17.1 seconds to reach 100 kph. The car’s top speed was equally appalling, as it was only able to reach 152 kph (94 mph).

For a base version, the horrible performance could probably be excused, but the top-level 2.2 was little better. With a 25 kg weight penalty over the 1.6, it managed 0-100 kph in 11.9 seconds, and reached 173 kph (108 mph). By comparison, the 1968 Charger 440 R/T offered 0-100 in 5.9 seconds, and steamed ahead to 211 kph (131 mph). By any standards then, the new Charger was a disgrace to its legendary nameplate.

The 1983 Charger range. Notice how the trim level is determined by the size of the side windows.

The 1983 Charger range. Notice how the trim level is determined by the size of the side windows.

In an effort to disparage the traditionalist haters of the new FWD Charger, Dodge forged a bond with Shelby American, the famed producer of go-fast Ford. Dodge gave Shelby a Charger 2.2, and asked for it to be made into something a damn side faster.

The resulting Shelby Charger featured reworked suspension, different gear ratios for the manual transmission, a high compression 2.2 offering a positively blinding 107 horsepower and a sweet two-tone paint job. Weighing 1105 kg (2436 lbs), the car powered to 100 kph in 10.1 seconds, with the top speed at a dizzying 185 kph (115 mph).

This only barely made it keep up with the domestic “performance” cars of the day. Moreover, it was less powerful, heavier and 1.2 seconds slower than the Golf Mk2 GTi to 100 kph.

However, the 1984 Charger received some much needed revisions to further distance itself from its 024 Omni origins. Quad headlights were introduced for the base models, but the Shelby retained the single headlight setup.

Much bigger news came in the form of a turbocharger in October of 1985. Thanks to the turbine, power was up from a meager 107 to a hefty 146 horsepower, vastly more than most contemporary V8’s.

Thanks to extensive EPA-mandated emissions restrictions, the larger engines struggled to make it beyond the 100 horsepower mark. Straight line performance had improve drastically, with a world-beating 7.9 second 0-100 kph time and a 211 kph (131 mph) top speed.

The 1986 Shelby Charger was a serious performance car in its day

The 1986 Shelby Charger was a serious performance car in its day

In 1987, Caroll Shelby bought the last 1000 Shelby Chargers to convert them to the even more extreme GLHS spec. The acronym stood for Goes Like Hell S‘more, a play on the moniker of the Chrysler Horzion GLH hatchback.

The cars were painted all black for a lovely sinister look, and Chrysler’s 2.2L Turbo II engine pushed out a monstrous 174 horsepower. At 1170 kg (2579 lbs), the Shelby was light enough to challenge cars like the Camaro Z28.

A truly impressive 0-100 time of 7.3 seconds was just two tenths off the big 5.0L V8 Chevy. The acceleration didn’t stop until 224 kph (139 mph) either, just 10 kph short of the Camaro’s top speed. Shelby had truly worked wonders by turning a cheap plasticky compact into a competent giant-slayer.

GLHS: The weaponised econobox

GLHS: The weaponised econobox

After the GLHS´s final hurrah in 1987, the Charger name was finally allowed to die after being revived and shamed for over a decade. Although the car eventually found its feet to challenge Ford and GM, the crummy little French hatchback it started out as had no business using the Charger name.

The turbocharged Shelby versions were great machines for their time, but nothing they could do would honor the legendary moniker they were forced to carry. Quite simply, these cars were great vehicles with a terrible, terrible name.

If anything, Dodge should have known better than to butcher their heritage. Ninenteen years later though, the company showed to have learned very little, as it slapped Charger badges to a dull and ugly Mercedes-Benz derived four-door sedan. Again, the Charger nameplate was connected to something completely unrelated to its long an successful history as one of the all-time muscle car greats.

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Comments (7)

  • Mr. Dylan Smit tears this car down based on some car and driver stats and an by looking at old ads.

    I bet the Dylan wasn't even born in 1981 when this car came on the scene. Also his profile says he is a Dutchman, so pretty obvious he was in the USA at that time either.

    For those of us who WERE alive and WERE teenagers in the USA in 1981, this car was everything we wanted.

    As children born in the late sixties, we were born with leaded gas in our blood.

    We lived as youngsters when the muscle cars roamed the neighborhoods.

    We knew older brothers and people next door who had Chargers, Challengers, and Trans Ams.

    We had played with Hotwheels versions of the RS/SS Cameros, Corvettes, and Mustangs.

    We watched through the 70's as cars got bigger bumpers and less power to be safer.

    And as mid eighties began, we were preparing for our driving tests.

    I remember the first time I saw LouAnn.

    She was there in a row of late seventies 4 doors in various states of dishevelment.

    Her bright blue metallic paint and bold black stripes told me this was going to be the one.

    As I got closer, I saw the massive hood scoop with the letters CHARGER 2.2 in black.

    I was in love. Tested hp ratings and o-60 times had nothing to do with what I felt when I slid my hand along that hood. The subtle curve of the front fender sweeping up the sharply angled hood, the sunroof nearly half the entire roof's size., the rear window louvers and tail spoiler were like I had never seen before.

    White letter tires and mag wheels, a manual transmission, black interior, and factory window tint.

    It was 1986 and this 4 year old Dodge Charger 2.2 was about to change everything for me.

    I couldn't wait to get home and tell my mother I had found the car I wanted to buy. We had talked about buying some transportation for me as a high school senior who had a job to get to after school and on the weekends.

    Driving the Charger was an instant boost in self esteem. I remember going down town just to drive past the shops with large glass windows, so I could see myself behind the wheel.

    I don't think I have to go into all the amazing adventures I had in that Charger but, you can imagine.

    The car was on target for it's auience. We loved the car. My best buddy found one and traded his Subaru for it. Our two other friends bought the 024 version. These "every man's sports cars" meant more to us than any big block could have. It was different time, and this car was the car for that time. Dodge created loyal Dodge owners from us by giving us what we wanted as youth. Just between the four of us friends who romped and raced these cars into the nineties, we have probably since owned a collective 30 plus Dodge vehicles.

    Smit calls this DownFall of Dodge, it was rebirth of Dodge with a new generation.

    If I could find LouAnn out there somewhere, I would buy her back in a minute.

      3 months ago
  • Doubt it. When the "small Charger" came out the American muscle car scene was all but dead. It wasn't just the change in how HP was rated, but the "fuel crisis", and emission control laws. Detroit couldn't get away with stuffing a big, old engine, in a restyled old chassis anymore. Add the challenge of foreign performance cars. Detroit had to start fresh, from the ground up.

    Calling it a "Charger" was a bit of stretch, but so was calling the rolling "parlor" the last one was. Once Shelby did his magic, that little FWD Charger was a Charger. What it didn't have was the magical "cache" of racing. It would have been a lunatic rally car.

    But this is America and we have strange racing, like drag racing. That's a polite term for "how fast can you go for 1/4 or 1/8 mile, in a straight line, without blowing up."

      1 year ago
  • People like to look down on this Shelby version, but.....have never driven one. This car was fast and light years more technologically current than the previous plush Charger. If there's one thing Shelby knew how to do was hotrod a car.

    We can get into a debate over what's a true Charger. It's a rebodied Coronet coupe, a family car. I had one. My cousin had the Charger.

    So this Charger is a rebodied Omni. It's a good chassis, modern for that time period. They made a turbo Omni, too, called the GLH. From there it became the Neon and the demented SRT4' s

    The current Charger is based on old Mercedes, and probably Mitsubishi, with a sprinkling of Fiat tech thrown in, and based on the 300. Hardly pedigree.

    I'm not knocking the current Charger. FCA has done a great job keeping it alive, but its age is showing, along with the 300.

    If you ever come across a Shelby, test drive it. It's pure madness when the boost kicks in.

      1 year ago
  • P-E-R-F-O-R-M-A-N-C-E

    Poor marketing people who had to sell this peice of crap

      2 years ago
    • I bet they still lie awake at night shivering at the thought of having to promote this abomination.

        2 years ago