The '60s would see Dodge strengthen its position in the high-performance field, push upward into price territory left vacant by DeSoto's cancellation after '61, and diversify with compacts and intermediates.
Volume rose rapidly after 1964 to an annual average of more than half a million units, and the division set a new record with 633,000 cars built for '66. But competitors were up too, so Dodge's standing in the industry production stakes varied between fifth or sixth in its best years and seventh to ninth in the troubled years 1961-63.
Taking note of the growing buyer interest in smaller cars prompted by the '58 recession, Dodge entered the '60s with a much broader lineup divided into "junior" and "senior" groups. The former was the new Dart: sixes and V-8s on a 118-inch wheelbase save wagons, which rode a 122. Series were tagged Seneca, Pioneer, and Phoenix in ascending order of price and plush.
Phoenix offered a convertible, hardtop coupe and sedan, and pillared four-door; lesser lines were limited to wagons, two- and four-door sedans, and a Pioneer two-door hardtop. The senior line comprised V-8 Matadors and Polaras on the 122-inch wheelbase.
All 1960 Dodges employed unit body/chassis construction, new at Chrysler Corporation that year, and wore more-sculptured lines announced by bright, blunt, and busy front ends. Fins were still in evidence, ending well ahead of podlike taillights on Matador/Polara, near the rear of more conventional fenders on Darts.
Despite appearances, most 1960 Dodges were relatively light and thus offered good performance with reasonable economy. That was even true of base-engine models, which carried the larger, 225-cid version of Chrysler Corporation's new "Slant Six." Initially rated at 145 bhp, this durable workhorse would carry on into the early '80s. Dart's V-8 was the solid, reliable 318 with 230/255 horsepower. Matadors used a 295-bhp Chrysler 361, optional on Dart Pioneer and Phoenix. Polaras had a standard 383 (available for Phoenix and Matador) with 325/330 horsepower. Helped greatly by the Dart, attractively priced in the $2,300-$3,000 range, Dodge scored impressively higher sales: up over 200,000 for the model year to nearly 368,000, good for sixth on the industry roster.
Per well-established Chrysler practice, the '61 line included a Dodge version of a Plymouth product: the 106.5-inch-wheelbase Valiant compact, new for 1960. Called Lancer, it shared the Valiant's "unibody" structure and basic styling but stood apart with a horizontal-bar grille and slightly better trim. Also like Valiant, there were two Lancer series, 170 and 770, each with two-door sedan, four-door sedan, and four-door wagon body styles. The 770 added a hardtop coupe that was also new to Valiant for '61, as was the pillared two-door. Power came from the smaller, 170-cid Slant Six with 101 bhp. The 225 Dart engine was optional.
The Dart itself was substantially face-lifted for '61, gaining a deeply concave full-width grille cradling quad headlamps, plus curious reverse-slant tailfins. The senior Matador was dropped and remaining Polaras were restyled to be virtual Dart dead ringers. Engines mostly reprised the 1960 choices. Among these was Dodge's customary D-500 option, now a 383 with twin four-barrel carburetors and ram-induction manifolding (new for '60), good for an outstanding 330 horsepower.
In a Dart, that translated to about 10 pounds for each horsepower, a super power-to-weight ratio that meant 120-mph flat out and acceleration to match. Torsion bar suspension and oversized Chrysler brakes made it as roadable as it was quick. It was even quicker when equipped with the Chrysler 413, a ram-induction wedge delivering 350 or 375 bhp as a new Dart option, though price was high and availability quite limited.
However, Dodge sales dropped by over 25 percent for '61, reflecting increased competition and an overall industry downtrend. Lancer didn't sell well, but it was a stopgap anyway. A successor was in the works, so the only notable changes for '62 were a busier grille and a smart bucket-seat GT hardtop (replacing the 770 model).
Meantime, a brand-new 116-inch-wheelbase Dart in base, 330, and 440 series arrived, measuring six inches shorter and 400 pounds lighter than corresponding '61s. Topping the line was a sporty bucket-seat Polara 500 group, offering hardtops with two and four doors, plus convertible. Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner thought that if Americans liked compacts, they'd go for downsized "standard" cars, too. But he was about 15 years ahead of his time, and these cars sold as poorly as the Lancer -- aggravated by frankly odd Lancer-like looks.
But performance fans roundly applauded the smaller, lighter Darts, mainly because the big-block 413 returned with more muscle: 365, 380, 410, and a rollicking 420-bhp. Shoehorned into the lightest base-trim two-doors, these cars began terrorizing the nation's drag strips, thus renewing Dodge's "hot car" reputation and setting the stage for even wilder doings. In fact, big-inch Dodge intermediates won the National Hot Rod Association Championship in 1962 and would reign supreme for the next few years on literally every quarter-mile. They were also strong contenders at Daytona.
But performance alone doesn't necessarily sell cars, and Dodge's total volume for '62 was down to about 240,500, off some 30,000 in a year when most rivals scored higher sales. Things would have been worse had it not been for the true full-size cars that were reinstated at midyear as the Custom 880. Effectively taking over for the now-departed DeSoto, they looked like the finless '61 Polaras they were, with '62 Chrysler-style "plucked chicken" tails and standard 265-bhp 361 V-8.