I'll never stop wanting a Dodge Shelby Charger
Not only is it a cool car, it launched my first deep dive into motorsports history
The year was 1983. Return of the Jedi and War Games were in the theater, M*A*S*H and Taxi were wrapping up their runs on TV, Pitfall! was the must-have Atari game, and my parents were buying a new car. And I was waiting in the showroom, falling in love.
Not with a girl; that wouldn't happen for a couple more summers yet. But I was car-crazy from day one, and it was always exciting when it came time to get a new family car. We were trading in a much-loved VW Dasher on something roomier and better-suited as a family car: a Dodge 600 sedan, the "sporty" ES model.
Ours looked just like this. This is a shockingly hard car to find a photo of online; this image came from IMCDB, from the TV show The Fall Guy.
The big gray Dodge sedan would serve us well for the next four years, including several family vacations, even acquiring a few scratches from a black bear in Bear Country USA in South Dakota. It was the first automatic transmission they had owned in several years, and I recall my mom having to take off her left shoe while driving to remind herself there was no clutch.
But before any of that, while they were signing the papers, my brother and I were hanging out in the showroom, and I sat in the driver's seat of the then-brand-new Shelby Charger, absolutely in awe. The bright blue and silver two-tone paint, which carried over to the interior, with the Shelby logo stitched into the headrests; the chunky four-spoke steering wheel, the spoiler on the back, the "Swiss cheese" wheels... it all just worked for me.
I was only dimly aware who Carroll Shelby was at the time. I knew about the Cobra, and that he had also had his name on some Mustangs, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. I also knew that a lot of writers in magazines and the old guys who hung out at the auto parts store absolutely hated this car, called it "blasphemous," a "disgrace," and used some other language that ten-year-old-me probably should not have been hearing. I had to understand why such vitriol was being unleashed at a car I so dearly loved at first sight, so I tumbled down my first rabbit hole of automotive research.
It wasn't as easy back then. I had to dig through old magazines and a coffee-table book I found at the library, and ask our neighbor (who was a die-hard Ford guy) why it was that this car was so hated. He told me that Shelby had started out working with Ford on the Cobra and Mustang, and later a race car called the GT40, and those were all big V8s, and seeing his name on a little four-cylinder Dodge made him sick.
But I had already done my homework, and I knew better. Shelby's first race car was a four-cylinder: an MG, a marque I knew a lot about because of my dad's love of them. And his big racing wins were in other British cars, Aston Martins and Healeys. I also knew the Cobra wasn't a Ford at all; it was a British car from a company called AC, with a Ford engine in it. But even ten-year-old-me was wise enough not to say any of this to my neighbor.
Carroll Shelby, in an Aston Martin, which was not a Ford product in 1958. Not yet, anyway. (image: Wikipedia)
As I grew, so did the Shelby Charger. In 1985, it gained a big horsepower bump from Chrysler's 2.2 liter turbo engine, along with a bulge and air intake in the hood, making it look even meaner. This was the version I immortalized in plastic, with a Monogram "Snap Tite" model that had a picture of Carroll Shelby on the box.
Had to get my fix, even at age 14. (image: Pinterest)
And then, for its final year in 1987, came the sinister all-black Shelby GLH-S, with an intercooler and the credentials needed to run with V8 Mustangs and Camaros. And I was still in love.
Keep your IROCs and GT 5.0s; this is what I wanted. (image: Wikipedia)
And yes, I knew then and know now: it was just your basic economy car, with a too-big-for-it engine stuffed in, and no real pedigree behind it. But the same could have been said of the beloved Mustang GT350 when it debuted in 1965. The Shelby Charger is the exact same idea, the exact same formula, twenty years after, for a new generation. My generation, as it turns out.
In high school, a friend of mine had the four-door version, a 1986 Dodge Omni GLH ("Goes Like Hell"), and I loved it too, though it didn't have any Shelby badging. I nearly cried when he sold it to a classmate of ours, known for abusing cars, who proceeded to wrap it around a tree and walk away unscathed.
Still the greatest American hot hatch of all time. (image: Hemmings)
I still want one. They weren't too common to begin with, and they're getting really thin on the ground now (as small cheap performance cars tend to get used up before becoming valuable), so I may never get my chance. But I intend to keep an eye out.
And in the meantime, maybe I'll keep an eye on eBay for another one of those Monogram model kits... I think MPC made one, too.