In the late 1950's and early 1960's many industry analysts were predicting that Dodge - as well as the rest of Chrysler Corporation - were likely to sputter down the same road that led Kaiser-Frazer, Hudson, Packard and Willys into oblivion. The cars they were building had comic-strip styling and reliability roughly equivalent to a three dollar watch; the twin marks of doom for any automaker.
The Chrysler Corporation's sales charts were beginning to conjure up memories of the Black Friday Panic of 1869 and everyone, from the stockholders to the dealers to the men on the line, knew precious little cushion was left before the Big Three suddenly became the Big Two.
In 1961 Chrysler went through a gigantic schism that saw the old administration replaced by sound leadership that immediately set out to check the Company's plummeting sales. The scale of their success turned out to be one of the brightest chapters in Chrysler's by then already long history and certainly one of the truly outstanding examples of shrewd, aggressive automotive management.
The plan to regain Chrysler's position in the marketplace, which had sagged from 25.7 per cent of sales in 1946 to 9.4 per cent in early 1962, was exquisitely simple. The first step involved a distillation of the models being produced, with the resultant culling of millstones like Dodge's compact Lancer and the entire De Soto line.
Though this was a reversal of the 'Corporation's stubborn insistence to meet Ford and General Motors on the dealer level model-for-model, it meant more development and quality control could be devoted to the cars that remained in the line-up.
In 1960, warranty work was draining funds out of Chrysler's coffers at a dreadful pace and the new administration set out with messianic zeal to make the products stronger and more durable. The famous 50,000 mile warranty was introduced and the competition snickered politely - for a few brief moments. Operating in conjunction with a revived spirit along the assembly lines and sharper planning at the engineering level, the new cars were tight and strong-and sure enough, the warranty work dipped to a point where the 50,000-mile guarantee not only became a working proposition but a fantastic marketing success.
Much of Dodge's ascendancy during the early 1960's can be attributed to the Dart - a model that was introduced in 1961 as a middle-sized-economy vehicle and became an immediate smash hit. In 1962 the Dart was cut in size to the rather modest wheelbase size of 111 inches and was clad with the same body panels as the smaller (106 in. wheelbase) Plymouth Valiant.
In 1963 the Lancer nameplate was relegated to the scrap heap, Chrysler applied the Dart name to Dodge's newly-designed "senior compact", a marketing term referring to the wheelbase having grown to 111 in (2819 mm) from the Lancer's 106.5 in (2,705 mm). This longer wheelbase would underpin all Darts from 1963 to 1976. The early exception was the 1963–1966 Dart station wagon, which used the Valiant's shorter 106 in (2692 mm) wheelbase. The Dart was available as a 2 or 4-door sedan, a 2-door hardtop coupe, a station wagon, and a convertible. Three trim levels were offered: the low-spec 170, the high-spec 270, and the premium GT, which was available only as a 2-door hardtop coupe or convertible.
Viewing the Dart in its flagship GT form, it's not hard to understand why the automobile had such a strong position in the market. The car was neatly styled, with a strong family identity to its big brother, the middle-priced Coronet. As has been the case with all Chrysler products, the Dart was visually under-stated; devoid of the gimmicky sort of automotive flying buttresses that made the Corporation's cars of the late-1950s such artistic disasters.
Equipped with the same drive train that transformed the Barracuda from a flabby boulevardier into a rugged middleweight, the GT was a nice compromise for the family man who wanted a little extra excitement for his automotive dollar. The combination of the optional 235-hp, "273- cubic inch V-8 and Chrysler's excellent three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission turned the Dart into an interesting, if not stunning, performer. The rest of the GT package was really nothing more than the standard decoys with which Detroit was managing to snare so many customers since sports cars became fashionable during the 1960's. The GT had bucket seats, a vinyl top, a quantity of chrome medallions speckling the bodywork and a console from which a hefty chrome selector lever protruded.
The compact Dodge Dart - better quality allowed a 50,000 warranty...
With the TorqueFlite unit, the floor-mounted shifting arm was a genuine asset, because it was one of the rare automatic transmissions that could actually be shifted. On upshifts, the changes could be made as they would with a manual gearbox. You needed to rev to the desired level in first, then move the selector lever to second, and so on. Downshifts from third to second were also possible, though first gear couldn't be engaged until the car was almost at a standstill.
The TorqueFlite unit was highly adaptable for performance driving - as was soon to be evidenced by its overwhelming superiority over manual units in Super Stock drag racing. The unit had such a positive bite throughout the upper rev range that some road-testers found it hard to believe that there was any slipping or frictional loss in the works at all. There was, however, some noticeable power dissipation at lower rpm's.
As was the case with the entire mind 60's Chrysler line, only personal taste would arbitrate whether or not a buyer would order the Corporation's excellent four-speed or Torque-Flite. At the time there was an inexorable trend in all phases of performance motoring toward automatic transmissions - they were no longer the enemy of the driving enthusiast - at least if they were as good as the TorqueFlite.
The 235 HP V-8
The 235 hp V-8, which owed its boost over the standard 180-hp unit to a hotter cam and a four- barrel carburetor, was worth every cent of its $99.40 extra cost. It was a robust, eager engine that sounded right and helped the Dart achieve 0 - 60 mph in a tidy 8.2 seconds. The exhaust was the same as that used on the Formula S Barracuda and most who heard it would decide the noise alone was worth the extra expense.
In a complete departure from those grim days when all Chrysler Corp. cars seemed to be molded, like cheap toy soldiers, out of white metal, the Dart GT - as well as the rest of the Dodge line - had a basic feeling of strength. The body panels fitted properly and very few road tests of the time had reviewers noting any rattles or wayward trim.
The Dart was Dodge's counterpart to the Barracuda, and several of the same components, including a synthetic wood-rimmed steering wheel, were used on both vehicles. Though it could hardly be described as a major flaw, some road testers found the steering wheel positioned ever-so-slightly too high and too close to the driver's chest. The interior of the car was well laid out and neatly appointed. The Dart GT's bucket seats were comfortable, though they provided negligible lateral support under severe cornering conditions.
Dodge made an optional heavy-duty suspension package available for the Dart. In stock form the car had a decidedly wobbly feel about it, though it was still able to navigate a fast corner with surprising style and grace. Without stiffer shocks and springs, it could almost outhandle the stock Barracuda, but, conversely, the latter had the edge if both cars were equipped with the available suspension options. Of all the available power steering setups, Chrysler's was the least appealing. It was vague, most owners bemoaning the fact that the system simply needed more turning resistance and feedback. This should have been an easy fix.
Thankfully the Dart, and others in the Dodge lineup, helped Chrysler recover. Shortly after the Darts release Dodge announced that 421,302 of the marque moved off the 'company's Hamtramck, Michigan assembly line, making Dodge the first major automaker to have its 1964 production surpass its 1963 output. It was this sort of news that returned Dodge - and more generally the entire Chrysler Corporation - to a strong position in the market. With contemporary vehicles like the Dart GT, it seemed that the nightmarish days of 1960-61 were long gone.
The Dart was an instant market success, with 1963 sales up sharply compared to those of the 1962 Lancer, and the Dart remained extremely popular through the end of the Dart's production run in 1976.