For a newcomer trying to stake out territory in an already crowded field, the Dodge Challenger sold well in 1970, ending up way behind the Mustang but beating the car that had inspired it in the first place, the Mercury Cougar. Dodge began backing away from ponycars the very next year, and the 1971 Challenger returned with only minor appearance and mechanical changes to battle Ford's much bigger new Mustang and GM's strikingly styled Camaro/Firebird. The R/T convertible was canned, leaving the R/T hardtop and the two base models.
Styling changes were modest for 1971. The R/T
convertible disappeared, and the hardtop acquired
bolder tape stripes.
A new arrival was the Deputy, a strippo coupe with fixed rear side glass, priced $121 less than the $2,727 standard hardtop. All models were marked by a reworked front with a one-piece plastic grille frame and a rather awkward two-piece plastic-and-aluminum insert, painted black on R/Ts, silver on other models.
The R/T also got color-keyed bumpers, simulated brake cooling slots on the rear quarters, and revised tape striping with large ID lettering on the bodysides near the C-pillars and on the nose.
The SE package was unchanged from 1970, but it was now limited to base models. Interiors also stayed the same, apart from wood-grain door panel inserts and revised upholstery pleat styles.
There were no major mechanical changes either, although the 383 was now restricted to the R/T only. Power ratings were now quoted in SAE net figures instead of the old gross horsepower, though actual outputs were hardly affected. Thus, the 383 Magnum came down from its previous 335 horsepower gross to 250 horsepower net, and there were similar paper losses across the board.
However, Chrysler did not drop compression ratios this year like GM, and Challengers with the big 440 and Hemi engines were still stunningly fast. A footnote to Dodge's Trans-Am adventure was the appearance of a 1971 T/A in some of this year's Scat Pack ads. Of course, it never made it to the street.
Four Dodge dealers attempted to spur interest in the Challenger by agreeing to supply units for the 1971 Indianapolis 500 pace car program. According to Judy Hamm, former owner of a Challenger pace car replica, 50 Hemi-orange convertibles, all with white interiors, were prepared for use during pre-race festivities. Two of these were equipped with heavy-duty tires and other components, one as the actual pace car, the other as a backup.
During the parade lap, the pace car -- loaded with dignitaries -- went into a skid as it was leaving the track and crashed into a press box, injuring several reporters. Ms. Hamm says it was later rebuilt for use in data-gathering tests as numerous lawsuits resulting from the accident made their way through the courts, and it survives today with less than 2,500 miles on its odometer.
Dodge dealers could apparently order decal sets this year to make their own pace car replicas, though the idea likely seemed faintly ludicrous in the aftermath of this promotional nightmare.
This 1971 Challenger Indy 500 Pace Car
is shown in a later picture, in like-new condition.
Challenger sales fell dramatically for 1971. The model year total of 29,883 was down by more than 60 percent compared to 1970, though other ponycars suffered, too.
The market was shrinking quickly now as federal safety and emissions standards proliferated and Madison Avenue's beloved baby boomers -- the prime ponycar prospects -- turned from "road appearance" value to more practical concerns, like where the kids would ride.
For details on the 1972-1973 Dodge Challenger, check out the next section.
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