Origins of the Fastback Body Style

Culturally, the two fastbacks from Highland Park -- the Dodge Charger and the Barracuda -- were part of a revival that was gathering momentum in the mid-1960s. But the fastback body style traced its design roots back 30 years earlier to Cadillac's fabulously sleek V-16 Fleetwood Aero-Dynamic coupe, which was specially built for the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair.

The coupe's severely sloped roofline was soon mimicked by equally avant garde Chrysler/DeSoto Airflows and Lincoln Zephyrs. By the late 1930s, most marques offered fastback designs in two- and four-door versions; some, like Buick, even offered fastback convertible sedans.

But the practicality of the companion "notchback" sedans, with their increased trunk capacity so obvious to the customer, might have caused the early demise of the fastback had General Motors not introduced a spate of fastback coupes in 1941 and 1942. These were lovely cars, whose finely honed, sloped, and tapered roof and rear body surfaces exhibited the feline grace of a fine-featured woman, face to the wind, with her long hair streaming behind her.

During World War II, pulp magazines and Sunday supplements ran stories for a car-starved public with glowing predictions of postwar models -- most were fastbacks. And when the dreamed-about postwar cars finally did arrive, most were, as predicted, fastbacks. Again, the loveliest examples came (in 1948-1949) from General Motors.

Others were notably less successful: Nashes being depicted as "bathtubs" and Packards being described as "pregnant." Those who bought -- and millions did -- soon learned it was difficult to see out the rear window of their streamliners, whose near-horizontal glass often became obscured with snow or road dust.

And even when clear, the sloped backlites made backing up a risky maneuver. Once their impracticalities became apparent, fastbacks disappeared after 1952; only the cash-starved like Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer (with its compact Henry J), firms that couldn't afford new tooling, continued the style.

As in a Greek tragedy, it was the parent of the fastback who killed it. When GM introduced its two-door "hardtop convertible" in 1949, the flashy newcomer quickly replaced the fastback coupe as the glamour car. The fastback was dead, and more than that, as discredited as fins were to become in the 1960s.

But suddenly, in the early 1960s, fastbacks were, well, back -- and with renewed respectability thanks to cars like the new Studebaker Avanti and the 1963 Corvette's oh-so-sexy split-window coupe. And, in a fortuitous concurrence, stock-car racing was also back -- a precursor of the muscle-car era just over the horizon.

But the upright, squared-off, aerodynamics-be-damned Thunderbird-style roofs and backlights of most existing Big Three two-door hardtop vehicles were anathema to racers, who pleaded for more wind-cheating rooflines to increase speeds and handling.

Ford, quick to appreciate the "race-it-on-Sunday, sell-it-on-Monday" possibilities, responded first in mid-1963 with its semi-fastback Galaxie 500/XL Sports Hardtops and companion Mercury Marauders. Although their functional disadvantages remained, fastbacks once again meant speed and style.

A specialized Dodge Polara featured in 1964 auto shows eventually gave its name to the Dodge Charger.
The Dodge Charger took its name from this
customized Polara, which made the rounds
of the auto show circuit in 1964.

Aside from its newfound credibility and glamour, the fastback style also had a built-in advantage from design, tooling, manufacturing, and marketing standpoints. Because the creation of a fastback involved changing basically only the roof and rear end, the fastback was the easiest, most obvious way to make a marketable difference on "make-from" cars like the initial Barracuda and Charger.

Continue to the next page for details of the Dodge Charger's design and development.

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