Dodge announced sad news this week: it’s pulling the plug on its four-door compact Dodge Dart.
For about 90 percent of its history, the Dart was the kind of a car you drove because you were 16 and your parents were getting a new car. But there were some legendary Darts over its 56-year history, and some shouldn’t be forgotten:
1960 – Almost a Zipp
In 1960, Dodge had a problem. Suddenly, the low-line Plymouth products dealers had been selling since the 1930s were going to migrate to a new Plymouth division, with a whole new dealer network. Dodge needed an inexpensive car, and the Dart would be it.
In a perfect example of why nobody should pay attention to consumer focus groups, another name tested extremely high among consumers surveyed: Dodge Zipp.
The Dart was based on the same chassis as the Polara, but rode on a 118-inch wheelbase in the two-door and four-door models. From the get-go, the lowest trim Dodge Dart featured the 225-cu.in. slant six that would be synonymous with the Dart until the brand first went on hiatus in 1976. Higher trims featured a 318-cu.in. V-8, and a 361-cu.in. V-8.
1962 – The Virgil Exner Era
There’s no way around it: Dodge Darts from 1962 are weird. When every other manufacturer was moving away from the wild jet-age styling of the late 1950s, design chief Virgil Exner at Chrysler went out of his mind with the bizzaro 1962 Dart.
As odd as they are to look at, the 1962 Dodge Dart was noteworthy. First, it was the only Dodge B-Body to ever carry the Dart brand, and for 1962 only. Second, it was about as close to a unibody as you can get. Thanks to low unsprung weight, it stopped and handled very well for a car from this era.
Finally, if you were interested in driving a quarter mile at a time, a 1962 Dodge Dart optioned with the 413-cu.in. Ramcharger Max Wedge V-8 was the way to get there. It churned out 415 horsepower and set records at the drag strip.
1963 – The Compact Dart
The third-generation 1963-66 Darts were the cars that brought customers to Dodge showrooms. Compact cars like the Chevrolet Corvair, the Chevy II and the Ford Falcon were immensely popular alternatives to compacts from Europe, and the Dodge fell right in line, with a handsome, reliable, and — ordered correctly — a fun to drive little car.
Available in five bodystyles (2-door sedan, 2-door hardtop, 4-door sedan, convertible and station wagon), there was a Dart for everyone. Known primarily as an economy car with 170-cu.in. and 225-cu.in. slant sixes, the Dart in GT trim was a sporty compact car, and offered the option of the hot 273-cu.in. V-8 that powered the Plymouth Barracuda.
Continuing the drag racing theme from 1962, Dodge produce a short run of 50 NHRA D-Stock drag racing specials in 1966. Each D/Dart came from the factory with a 273-cu.in. V-8 with 275 horsepower, a stiff Weber clutch, a Hurst-shifted A833 heavy duty 4-speed, an 8 3/4-inch Sure-Grip differential with a wheelstanding 4.86:1 axle ratio and a red interior with bucket seats. Want a radio? Want a heater? Want a warranty? Buy another car, son.
Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi made the Dodge Dart a cult hero by heaping incessant praise on his 1963 Dodge Dart Convertible. Tom may have loved it, but nobody else did. The Test Drive Notes on Tommy’s Dart are gold: “Despite anything Tommy might tell you to the contrary, the car is pure, unmitigated junk.”
“In fact, this car gives junk a bad name. That Tommy is still driving the Dart is more a testament to Tom’s impressive lack of taste than it is a statement about the Dart’s staying power.”
When Tom and Ray Magliozzi appeared in the Disney movie Cars, Tom’s character would be a 1963 Dodge Dart:
1967 – The Longest Dart
The Dart underwent a significant redesign in 1967 that included new styling, updated steering systems, and wider front track and frame rail spacing that allowed for larger engines. Aside from styling updates, though, the Dart would remain essentially the same car until it bowed out in 1976, and it would roll on for another five years in South America.
Say what you will about the Dart’s lack of styling: the 1967 to 1976 Dodge Dart was virtually bomb-proof, mechanically speaking. With a 225-cu.in. slant six, the engines were virtually indestructible. The transmission — the Torqueflite A904 — would live on until 2002, when it was still in use behind Jeep TJ Wranglers with a four-cylinder engine.
About the only thing that could kill a Dart was rust. They’d run a long longer than you wanted them to.
The Dart received a styling update in 1970 that made it look more modern. It also introduced a new trim line, and it was the 1970s-est name ever: Dodge Dart Swinger.
For 1971, the Dart line got a twin of Plymouth’s popular Duster, a two-door fastback version of the Valiant. Like the Dodge Zipp of 1960, a focus group suggested its name should be the Dodge Beaver. Cooler heads prevailed and suggested the much better name, Dodge Dart Demon.
For 1973, the Demon was renamed Dart Sport, and 1974 brought the Dodge Dart Hang 10, a surf-themed Dodge Dart, clad in bright white with reflective surfing decals, and a wild interior with bathing suit material on the seating surfaces.
The current Dodge Dart came form the Fiat-Chrysler merger and was a means of providing Dodge with a car that could compete against cars like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. It never worked out. AutoWeek called the Dart the “firstborn child of a shotgun marriage between Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler,” and in its best month, it never sold more than 9,600 units.
It’s too bad, because with the 2.4-liter MultiAir engine and a six-speed transmission, it was a blast to drive, but it was drowned out in a sea of decent compact cars.