Written by independent automotive journalist Steve Magnante
The old saying that “history repeats itself” applies to the automotive world, over and over. When the first of the modern-era Dodge Challenger SRT 8s rolled off the assembly line on May 8, 2008, a second Detroit pony car battle erupted. This one pitted the Challenger SRT 8 against Ford’s successful neo-retro 2005 Mustang and GM’s Gen-5 Camaro in 2010.
The reborn Challenger has spawned a new generation of Mopar fanatics who are just as passionate as any baby boomer. But we have to remember, none of this would be possible without … The Original.
Ironically, however, while vintage Challengers have become some of the most sought-after Mopar muscle cars among modern collectors and enthusiasts, when they launched in 1970, it was a very different story, with only just under 77,000 Dodge Challengers built and sold.
Challenger’s failure to recapture the youth market can’t be blamed solely on the car. Instead, the triple reality of market saturation, government intervention and shifting consumer demands conspired to deflate Challenger’s appeal. Things got worse in 1971 as the soured marketplace squashed Challenger sales down to 26,299.
It was into that turmoil that our featured black-on-black HEMI Challenger (Lot #1421) left Dodge’s Hamtramck, Michigan, assembly line. A mere 70 of those 26,299 Challengers built in 1971 were equipped with the legendary 426 Street HEMI. Of those, 59 were coupled to the macho Hurst pistol-grip-shifted 4-speed manual transmission.
At the time, insurance companies made HEMI ownership very expensive. Most settled for less, and took their Challenger R/Ts with the 440, 383 or 340 engine offerings, paying less for insurance coverage with each step down the performance ladder. But for the few, the proud, nothing but a HEMI would do.
The featured HEMI Challenger is unrestored and stands apart from most remaining examples thanks to its classy black paint. In a color spectrum filled with psychedelic “Hi-Impact” hues with names like In-Violet, Sassy Grass Green, Curious Yellow, Panther Pink, Lemon Twist and Tor-Red, basic black was a radical departure. Going further, for 1971, Dodge conjured exciting new longitudinal R/T body side tape stripes, but again, the original owner of this classy standout wasn’t having any of it. The only external plumage consists of the purposeful red and chrome die-cast metal R/T emblems affixed to the front fenders and trunk.
Another example of less-is-more is found between the high-back bucket seats within the perfectly preserved interior. The expected – and optional – center console is nowhere to be seen. The result highlights the menacing banzai-sword-like pistol-grip shifter, purposeful rubber boot and chrome trim plate.
Behind the so-called “HEMI transmission,” an upsized Dana 60 rear axle easily accepts the shock loads with help from special leaf springs that act like bolt-on traction bars. Better still, inside the beefy Dana rear axle, 4.10:1 gears – part of this car’s A34 Super Trak Pak – boost acceleration and team with power front disc brakes to slow it all down better than the manual 4-wheel drum brakes fitted to base R/Ts. All of this precious metal is the original stuff installed by Dodge employees at the factory, and there’s a Galen Govier certificate to prove it.
The wheels also support the low-profile vibe, with basic stamped steel rims wear utilitarian hubcaps and correct Goodyear F60-15 Polyglas “boots.” And like most items found on HEMI Mopars, the rims have a special story. They’re not simple “steelies” snatched from the Dodge Coronet station wagon parts bin. Rather, they’re unique 15×7-inch Kelsey Hayes items with specially stepped-diameter hoops welded to the same center “spider” used on Mopar 14-inch rims.
At the time, 7-inch wide rims were pretty exotic stuff, released to suit the new breed of Polyglas tires. These “small spider” 15x7s were only offered in 1970-72 and are very rare. Their presence here speaks to this Challenger’s originality and unaltered status.
With as much as 840 horsepower on tap from the new 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, some wonder if the originals have finally been outdone. We say no way. That’s because the new breed has been civilized to pass today’s emissions and safety regulations. They’re fun and definitely have a place in the collector car world, but they can never match the sheer brutal nature of an original Street HEMI, especially a 4-speed. What’s more, as younger Mopar fans attend Mopar shows, many are exposed to old-school muscle cars for the first time. They get the bug and end up filling their garages with something old and something new.
So go ahead and bid on this pristine unrestored example of the way things used to be. From the sweetly rich aroma of pre-catalyst exhaust to the spring-loaded gas pedal, they’ll never build ’em like this again.
For up-to-date information on this vehicle, click HERE.