The recent arrival of Dodge’s new 2013 Dart resurrects one of the most successful model names from the brand’s past, but this high-tech car with North American-coloured Fiat roots may also be the first milepost on the road to its future.
It’s a car that reflects how much has changed in the North American automotive world view during the roller-coast and sometimes merry-go-round ride parent Chrysler, the industry and car buying consumers have been on over the past half-century.
When the first Dodge Dart arrived in 1960, it was a low-priced, almost-full-sized model that carried over the finned styling flamboyance of the late 1950s and had its skinny bias-ply tires firmly planted on the pavement middle-America drove on.
But if Mr. Middle Class wanted to spin those tires, he could step up from the standard six to a V-8 of up to 383 cubic inches (6.2 litres). And later in the decade, 1960s-youth-movement-driven performance seekers could lay their dollars down for a by-then compact-sized Hurst Dart Demon with a 426-cubic-inch (7.0-litre) V-8 that could light them up for most of a quarter-mile drag strip.
Over its 16-year production run, the Dart offered compact-sized portions of something for just about everyone and, by the time its run ended in 1976, 3.6 million had been sold.
Today’s compact-in-the-modern-context Alfa-Romeo-based Darts are marketed to buyers more interested in mileage than quarter-mile times and are propelled by miniscule four-cylinder engines in comparison to those big V-8s – a turbo 1.4-litre and normally aspirated 2.0- and 2.4-litre motors.
The hotter versions might actually surprise dad in his 1960 V-8 in a between-the-lights run, although the Demon would easily do them in at the drag strip. And, at least one really can fly, as racer Travis Pastrana has proven this year, having no trouble getting big-time air in his 600-hp Dart Global RallyCross Championship version.
The first car to be given the Dart name was actually built in 1956, an ultra-aerodynamic concept car created through the joint efforts of Chrysler’s stylists and Italy’s Carrozzeria.
The Dart that appeared for 1960 was a restyled – under the direction of Virgil Exner, who’d overseen the original Dart concept – and somewhat-pared-down full-size Plymouth.
It was created to replace that brand in Dodge dealers’ showrooms after a corporate shuffle deprived them of products from this then-stronger rival division, which they’d been selling since 1930 as an entry-level line.
The full-size top-dog Dodge Polara rode on a 122-inch (3,099-mm) wheelbase and was 217 inches (5,512 mm) long while the new Dart’s wheelbase was a trimmer 118 inches (2,997 mm) and it was 205.5 inches (5,347 mm) long. A current Chrysler 300 is 5,044 mm long.
The Dart was built on a “unibody” platform, the first year Chrysler moved to this type of construction, which provided more interior room and was lighter and stronger.
Independent front suspension featured torsion bars instead of springs, a live axle was tucked under the tail and drum brakes employed all round.
Engine choices started with Chrysler’s new 225-cubic-inch (3.7-litre) “slant” six, a development of the canted-at-an-angle 170-cubic-inch motor powering the also-new Valiant compact.
It delivered “More Go on Less Gas,” according to the brochure and could be ordered with Chrysler’s first automatic designed for a six.
A step up was the 318-cubic-inch (5.2-litre) Red Ram V-8 with either 230 or 255 hp or the more potent 295-hp, 361-cubic-inch (5.9-litre) or 325-hp, 383-cubic-inch V-8s. Three-speed manual gearboxes were standard with two- or three-speed automatics optional.
According to the copywriters, the new Dart was “Fun Packed and Budget Priced” and built for people who “expect style, luxury, comfort and performance, yet demand economy in price and operating costs.” It was offered in three series, Seneca, Pioneer and Phoenix and model variations that included two- and four-doors, convertibles and station wagons.
Neat features were push-button operation of the automatic transmissions, optional vacuum-operated power locks and a Music Master radio that featured “two transistors” that could be upgraded to the Astrophonic system with both a front and rear speaker.
You could have all this for a price ranging from $2,300 to $4,000 American dollars, and buyers snapped them up. The Dart had hit the bull’s-eye and 260,000 were built in the first year.
Back in 1960
John Kennedy beats Richard Nixon in the U.S. presidential race.
The Fantasticks begins a 42-year epoch in New York that makes it the world’s longest-running musical. Elvis Presley returns from his “tour” in Germany and the Beatles start theirs in Hamburg.
The United States okays the first birth control pill, launches the first weather satellite and one of its nuclear subs circumnavigates the globe under water.
B.C. Ferries launches Tsawwassen/Swartz Bay service and goes on to become the biggest ferry operator in North America and second in the world.
Britain drops the farthing coin created in the 13th century and television arrives in New Zealand.
Little changed for 1961, but 1962 brought a restyling and a wheelbase trimmed to 116 inches and, a year later, the Dart became a true compact.
In 1963, the Dart name was switched to the Dodge Lancer, which was based on the compact Valiant launched by Chrysler in 1960 as a standalone brand but soon became a Plymouth. The new “senior compact” Dart had a 111-inch wheelbase, a few inches longer than the Valiant to reflect Dodge’s more upmarket status and was available with six-cylinder engines only.
But it took just a year for a V-8 to reappear; a 273-cubic-inch/180-hp unit became available in 1964 that proved an instant hit while setting the performance tone for the rest of the decade. A GTS arrived in 1968, the Swinger in 1969 with heavy-duty suspension and a hood bulge and the Demon in 1971 with hood pins, a rear spoiler and the world’s first eight-track-tape audio system.
Sales remained healthy in the first half of the 1970s, but time caught up with the Dart in 1976 when it was replaced by the Dodge Aspen, which along with its Plymouth Volare running mate lasted until 1980, when they were replaced by front-wheel-drive K-Car twins, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant.