Friday, 29 February 2008

Classic - Dodge Challenger

The Japanese motor industry serves as a comprehensive reflection of Nippon commerce as a whole; constantly evolving, endlessly precise and bursting at the seams with potential. A strong illustration of this is the furious battle that has been raging between the Subaru Impreza and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo for, ooh, at least three hundred years now, each incarnation festooned with more advanced technology, impenetrable acronyms, blistering supercar-rivalling acceleration - cars that can embarrass most on the track or the rally stage yet behave impeccably around town if required, sipping their 97ron as frugally as oil-burners. There’s not a thing under the bonnet that doesn’t pull its weight, each individual component optimised to extract every last iota of grunt from the screaming, rev-happy plant.

The American motor industry, conversely, has approached development from a rather different angle. Nailed together in Detroit by big sweaty fuckers with a Bud in one hand and a 7lb lump hammer in the other, efficiency and frugality were dirty words: the industry lived and died by the phrase ‘there’s no substitute for cubes’… and why not? A tank of petrol in Motown will set you back less than a buffalo burger and chilli fries and there’s nothing – nothing – more macho than a big, lazy V8. Given that American towns are planned with set-squares and there isn’t a single discernable corner on the whole continent, they’ve also never needed to bother with anything more advanced than live axles and leaf springs. This keeps things nice and simple. The phenomenal muscle cars of the sixties and seventies are the epitome of simple everyman brute force, their influence still strongly visible in the Corvettes and Mustangs of the 21st century. These are machines from an age of staggering affluence, where every kid on every block had a brand new car designed specifically to get them down the Main Street quarter-mile quicker than anybody else.

A beautiful embodiment of this brutal genre is the 1970 Dodge Challenger. Menacing eyes, slinky hips, dirty great nostrils in the bonnet and a 426 Hemi ready to shake the loose change out of the pockets of passers-by as it ripped two ruffled streaks in the tarmac meant that it was the only logical choice for Kowalski’s epic journey in the classic Vanishing Point. This film, a sort of four-wheeled Easy Rider, was based around the premise of driving from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours; this was great news for parent company Chrysler, whose outgoing Challenger was shown to be horizon-warpingly fast, versatile enough to bounce across the desert without anything significant falling off (questionable, that) and reliable enough to pull off such a journey at an average of around eighty-five miles per hour. Come on, it was seventies Hollywood, people believed it. It’s interesting to note that the car destroyed at the end of the film isn’t actually a Challenger but a ’67 Chevrolet Camaro – a cheeky sideswipe at Chevy, perhaps…?

The Hemi Challenger is considered by many as the archetypal Mopar (a term used for Chrysler’s auto parts and service arm), the Hemi itself being the venomous icing on a very meaty cake. So-named for it’s hemispherical combustion chambers, the 426ci equates to a substantial 7-litre displacement in new-fangled Eurometrics which is frankly a little bit frightening but, again, petrol prices really weren’t an issue in ‘70s America, and if they wanted to build a goddamn fire-snortin’ goliath of an engine then no commie son’bitch was gonna get in the way of all that power.

A muscle car, of course, wouldn’t be anywhere without ostentatiousness. The sheer brute force, the mighty torque and the suspicious handling characteristics needed to be enveloped in total wackiness to ensure that the driver stood out from the other kids at the drive-thru, and in this arena the Challenger was king. Available in colours like Plum Crazy, SubLime Green, Go-Mango and Top Banana, the acres of chrome and the cheeky little touches – front indicators that looked like dimples, bullet mirrors that, trust me, are beyond useless but look so cool – add up to the ultimate muscle package. There are so many spectacular cars that came from Detroit in this period that they’re impossible to count (Plymouth Superbird, Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, Boss 302 Mustang, Pontiac GTO; the full list is a day’s work in itself), but the Challenger was arguably the meanest and most purposeful of them all. It’s illogical, wasteful, basic, uncooperative… and perfect. Expect to pay £40,000 for a good one – roughly what you’d pay for a Mitsubishi Evo MR FQ-400, but the extra kudos comes for free.

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