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Dodge lets us drive 100-years' worth of history [w/videos]

Thu, 03 Jul 2014

A raft of important production models from the last hundred years were available for me to either drive or ride in.

Dodge is 100 years old this year. So, as happened on Ford's recent centennial, the 50-year birthday of the Porsche 911, and others, the company has an excuse to trot out the highlights of its history next to its upcoming model lineup, and declare that "these are the fruits of the Dodge Boys' tree whose roots have grown strong." Or something like that. Never so hampered by marketing skepticism that I'll pass up the opportunity to burn someone else's rubber, I was happy to drive out to Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester Hills, MI – former grand estate of the Dodge family – to hear the spiel.

Chrysler Group Historian Brandt Rosenbusch, the lucky so-and-so that manages the corporate museum, brought out an insanely great selection of motoring history for myself and my colleagues to take in, photograph, and drive. Greeting us in the swanky circle drive in front of the Dodge manse was a smattering of Dodge concept cars from the last twenty years or so, Viper, Sidewinder and Demon concepts included. Continuing out the gates, however, were a raft of important production models from the last hundred years, all available for me to either drive or (in some delicate instances) ride in. My mission, beyond keeping the stupid grin off my face long enough to look like a serious journalist, was to suss out any link between the past and the future of Dodge.

Spoiler: I found it. And I only broke one car in the process.

The patch-laying members of the family tree were heavily represented.

Sergio Marchione and team laid out for us, in no uncertain terms, last May, that Dodge will wear the performance car mantle for the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles mothership. Dodge President and CEO Tim Kuniskis backed that up for us, calling Dodge the company's "mainstream performance brand" with the newly welcomed back SRT serving as the "ultimate performance halo brand."

Rosenbusch clearly received that memo when helping to assemble our test cars for the day, as the patch-laying members of the family tree were heavily represented. While the list included blue-collar stuff at the bookends of the timeframe – Dodge brought along a 1915 touring car and a 1917 sedan, as well as a 1984 Caravan and a 1995 Neon ­– in the main this was a group of performance cars from the 1920s up through the 2008 Challenger SRT8.

Outside of the outstanding class of muscle cars on offer (I'll get to those in a moment), there could still be found some antecedents to what Dodge is trying to achieve with its newly announced five-year makeover.

Dart is clearly a modern-day iteration of what Dodge/Plymouth had hoped to realize with the Neon – a compact whose styling and sprightly demeanor differentiated it from the Honda Civic paradigm. That's work that'll need some strong followup when the next Dart arrives in 2016, at least if the model hopes to replicate the Neon's modest market penetration, to say nothing of building the company's reputation for building compact cars that are less than shoddy.

Dodge offerings in the compact performance space have typically been exceptional on the bang-for-buck scale.

Perhaps more interesting still is the line that can be followed from cars like the 1986 Shelby GLHS, 1985 Shelby Charger and 1984 Dodge Daytona, to the expected 2016 Dart SRT. For all of their (many) rough edges, the company's offerings in the compact performance space have typically been exceptional on the bang-for-buck scale; here's me crossing my fingers that the Dart SRT plays on that heritage. Well, except I'd still pay a slightly higher relative MSRP for slightly more build quality and finish.

I suppose I could attempt to draw a connection between Durango and the 1941 Command Car, but, nah... Both are four-wheel-drive (mostly), but one is unquestionably epic while the other is pretty cool for its model class. I'll let you sort it out.

Of course, where the company lineage can truly be seen from old to upcoming is in the Dodge-badged, V8-engined sedans and coupes. There's a pretty straightforward reason for this. Around the mid-2000s Chrysler and Dodge realized they could capture lightning in a bottle by building rear-wheel-drive cars that recapitulated some of their best moments of the sixties and seventies, and selling them to the nostalgia-driven Baby Boomers. The right-wheel-drive platform was available from then-parent Daimler, and the cupboard was full of Muscle Car icons – and the iconic Hemi engine name – with which to reimagine.

A Dodge Challenger is about the only current car I'd consider buying in purple, a testament to the staying power of that muscle car's image.

Fast forward a decade, and the strongest, most compelling Dodge products are those that draw from that fountain of youth: Charger, Challenger and Viper (a sports car born in the 1990s but with a 1960s spirit, for certain). All of the bold styling, huge power, and startling performance of cars like the Challenger SRT 392 or the Viper TA, owe a debt of gratitude to company traditions established in those golden years. Hell, a Dodge Challenger is about the only current car I'd consider buying in purple, which is a testament to the staying power of the muscle car's image if ever I've heard one.

What's amazing to me, is that cars like those Dodge is proposing in 2015 and beyond (looking squarely at you, Hellcat) could very well transition the neo-muscle cars from Baby Boomer retirement toys, to the playthings of Gen Xers (and Yers) like myself. It's interesting to think that under Fiat ownership Dodge stands a better chance of becoming the American performance car brand. What a world.

In any event, it sure was a fun history lesson Dodge prepared for the 100-year bash. Just for kicks, I've thrown together some driving/riding notes on all the cars I was in at Meadow Brook. Scroll down to have a look.

Driving Notes

1929 Dodge Roadster

I sat in the 1915 car, but the 1929 Roadster was the oldest car I got to drive. Double-clutching the syncro-less manual transmission takes some getting used to – our drive loop at Meadow Brook was only about a mile long and I touched reverse on all of the four gearshifts I made. My driving instructor told me the trans is basically unbreakable though, and he laughed off my worry.

I also got my very first ever rumble seat ride in the '29, which was a total hoot. At my above average height it'd be hard to share that backseat with anyone (I had to sit sideways) but it was still a great place to sit and cruise.

When I asked Rosenbusch which car of the lot I should absolutely not miss, he pointed to this beautiful roadster, and I can see why. I only wish I had a day with it rather than a few minutes.

1939 Dodge Deluxe Town Coupe

I got to ride in the backseat of the '39 Coupe, which is not only roomier than it appears, but has more space than the rear seating of most fullsize luxury cars today. The downside: the rear bench felt a lot like the couch that you move out onto the porch of your first house in college, because it's too beer stained to be the basement couch any more – I imagine there are springs there somewhere, but my ass sank about 10 inches when I sat down. Still, I felt like a low-level Chicago gangster back there.

I also happen to find the styling of this coupe really attractive, though I'll admit to being quite partial to dark green paint on vintage cars.

1956 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer

This dreamboat was overheating a bit by the time I queued up to drive it, so I was forced to accept another ride rather than a stint behind the wheel. Not a big loss, and the Dodge Custom was obviously made for cushy cruising, something that it excelled at in my small sample. I ran into Todd Lassa, Executive Editor of Automobile magazine, right after he'd driven it, and he said the Custom would be his pick for a car to take for the weekend. He'd get no argument from me.

Look at this interior. In a group of cars that showed more cheap, thin, brittle plastics, sticky vinyl and surrealistic fake 'wood' than one person might see in a lifetime, the Custom Royal Lancer was a palace of a thing. The triple tone seat fabric felt as good as it looked, while the chrome, Bakelite and painted metal dashboard was really a work of art. I'm talking to my wife about redecorating our living room with this interior as our guide, wish me luck.

1969 Dodge Daytona

The Daytona may not have been quite as enjoyable to drive as the Challenger T/A (below), but it sure does make you feel like a badass behind the wheel. The 426 Hemi V8 sounds like sex behind the roller rink when you tap the throttle just a hair past idle, and pulls with modern-engine seriousness if you're brave enough to dig in.

I still can't believe the proportions of this NASCAR for the street though. Honestly, the with overhangs on either end that go on for acres, and that patently ridiculous/unbelievably awesome rear wing, this has got to be one of the most wildly styled production cars ever. I like to imagine the Daytona designers, hanging out in a wind tunnel back in the late Sixties, with sore hands from high-fiving each other so much.

1970 Dodge Challenger T/A

As a child of the 1980s and a fan of Japanese hatchbacks when I was coming up, I never have had much experience driving vintage muscle cars. This Challenger T/A was one of the first of the big coupes I got into at Meadow Brook, and it might have been my favorite after all was said and done.

With the 340 Six Pack engine originally rated by Dodge at 290 hp (and rumored to be making closer to 320 hp), there was no lack of power when I dialed in a little bit of throttle. Just one hard-on-the-throtle start (don't forget that I was basically driving at a country club) showed how easy it was to break the rear tires free. Overall the T/A just felt tight and right, within the obvious parameters of this era of vague steering and tremendous pedal travel.

1984 Dodge Daytona

The red velour interior of the 1984 Daytona contained the exact spirit and smell of my Grandma's living room, circa 1981. I really only have sense memories dating back that far, but the lurid shade of red and nostalgic off-gassings are unmistakable.

Terrible car to drive though. Compared with the 1985 Shelby Charger (which I liked a lot despite its cheesy eighties looks) I got in next, the front-drive Daytona felt really slow and creaky. The 2.5-liter "Turbo Z" motor didn't even feel up to its reported output of 142 hp. Faster than Grandma's living room, but only just.

1984 Dodge Caravan

I don't know it was sad news that Dodge won't be making minivans any more, but it was certainly news. This gen-one Caravan invented a segment in the industry, and they were thick on the ground for decades where I grew up in Michigan (probably wherever you grew up, too).

Honestly, with a few exceptions, the Caravan at this event had one of the most well put together interiors, too. This was a no-frills van, even the 'cup holders' were still just minute indentations on a flat part of the dashboard at this point, but everything seemed of nicer quality than in those 1970s cars.

1986 Shelby GLHS

Okay, so this is the one I broke. Unfortunately for a lot of my fellow journalists, I broke it early in the morning, too.

The GLHS, so wacky in both its origins and its mix of Omni roots and Shelby street cred,is a car I've wanted to sample forever. An alleged 175 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque stuffed into one of the dodgiest-build-quality hatchbacks of the era – yes please. Knowing all that, and not wanting to be a complete heel, I did tell myself that I was going to take it easy on the Goes Like Hell S'more, despite really wanting the full effect of the turbo'd hatch.

So, I pulled out of the parking area, gave the Shelby a boot or two of throttle just to feel the turbo pull (and it does pull pretty hard, guys), but generally didn't let my inner hoon take over. And yet... shifting from first into second gear at approximately 25 miles per hour, I had the probably-not-uncommon-for-an-Omni-owner experience of the gearlever going totally to rubber under my hand. Second gear was nowhere to be found, nor first, third or any of the ratios at all. I assumed there was some sort of linkage mishap, but never did get a firm answer on what went wrong.

After coasting to a stop, I did get a chance to take a few extra pictures of the GLHS for posterity, so it almost felt like a net win. Seriously though, fragile shifter or no, I'd own one of these.

By Seyth Miersma

See also: 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat has 707 glorious horsepower [w/video], Chrysler recalling 700k minivans and Dodge Journey for ignition switch woes, NHTSA investigating Ram 1500 models for rear differential failure.