Once upon a time I had a Dodge Challenger. A 1973 Rallye model with the 340 small-block V8 and a pistol-grip, four-speed manual transmission. It was blue, but the paint was so oxidized that discerning the color was like looking for the sky on a typical Seattle morning — you sort of had to take it on faith. It was also supposed to have a vinyl top, but long before I purchased the Challenger someone had stripped the top and repainted it black, probably with a couple cans of Krylon. Every major body panel had some sort of damage. A crease in the passenger-side rear quarter, a large dent just ahead of the driver door latch. The interior? It made the exterior look show quality.
But the V8 was powerful, and after my older brothers helped me rebuild the transmission, it even shifted confidently. I had visions of restoring the car to its former glory and reenacting the famous Denver-to-San Francisco police chase made famous in the movie Vanishing Point (preferably without the fiery crash at the end). But I was operating on a college-student budget at the time, and still had a 1970 Plymouth GTX, plus an old British motorcycle, to keep running. My priorities put the Challenger at the bottom of a too-long financial obligation list, and eventually I sold it.
As a model, the Dodge Challenger nameplate, along with almost every other pony car from the late 1960s, suffered a similar fate. Between 1974 and the end of the 20th century, most domestic automakers were faced with a tightening budget and a growing list of priorities. Practical vehicles like minivans and SUVs became hot, while frivolous two-door cars (often called "personal luxury coupes") didn't pull their weight on the sales charts. GM's twin F-Bodies, two of the most iconic nameplates of the last five decades, were the last to die in 2002, leaving the pony car market to the car that started it all in 1964 — Ford's Mustang.
But rumors abound regarding a Challenger resurrection. I've always liked that name, and with the success of Ford's new Mustang it's obvious that a well done, fully modernized coupe, with extensive retro styling cues, can work in today's market. Personally, I would love to see a 2008 Dodge Challenger — complete with Hemi power, of course — but I could be biased from my previous experience with the nameplate, an experience I still regret ending.
I just hope that if Chrysler brings back the Dodge Challenger it does it right. An example of how not to bring back a classic nameplate was provided by Ford's 2002 Thunderbird. First, it was waaaaay late due to repeated delays in development. This led to impatience and disappointment from the market. Second, it suffered recalls after it was launched, further exasperating the first problem. And finally, even after it hit the market it clearly didn't know what it was supposed to be. Was it a performance car? Not particularly, though it handled well and offered plenty of power. Was it a luxury car? Not really, despite the comfortable ride and upscale treatments. Was it a two-door Lincoln LS, a car that also remains a bit confused about its market role? Why, yes, I think it was — and that's ultimately what hurt it. Heck, even the retro styling seemed spliced together rather than clearly and cleanly executed.
But just as Ford missed with the Thunderbird, it scored a direct hit (in every sense of the word) with the 2005 Mustang. Here's a car with clear references to the Mustang's past. Yes, the signature styling cues are spread across several years between 1965 and 1969, but the integration is flawless and the car simply looks great. The same can be said of its performance, where everything from the exhaust note to the handling dynamics have a modernized-retro feel (did I just create a new term?). It's not an easy line to walk, but the new Mustang essentially manages to maintain all the things we love about original muscle cars (torquey V8, throaty exhaust, purposeful styling) while eschewing all the things we'd like to leave in the past (interior rattles, uncomfortable seats, questionable handling).
If Chrysler can pull off the same combination of modern and retro in the new Challenger, all wrapped in Hemi badges while offering fabulous performance for the price, the carmaker will have another hit on its hands.
I might even have a new reason to make that Denver-to-San Francisco run.