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For so many of you out there this car is Dominic Toretto’s signature car from The Fast &The Furious, the one he uses at the very end. For me, the love affair began with Bullitt

Words Aninda Sardar

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It was arguably, the movie world’s first car chase sequence for back in 1968 car chase sequences with thrilling displays of stunt driving were something of a rarity. Director Peter Yates blew that to smithereens in his film Bulllitt, a crime action thriller movie with the lead role being essayed by the über cool Steve McQueen (our style icon from last month), who did a lot of the stunt driving in mid town San Francisco himself. At other times, he swapped with stunt drivers Bud Edkins, Carey Loftin, and Loren Janes. Steve as Detective Bullitt piloted a 1969 Ford Mustang Fastback GT. His adversary, a henchman named Phil and depicted on screen by veteran stunt driver Bill Hickman, was in a car that had the 14-year-old me all wide eyed. It was the 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. Incredibly rare but if you find a Dodge Charger today you’ll be looking at shelling out anywhere between US$ 55,000 and US$ 100,000 or even more depending on model year and condition and number of miles it has on the clocks.

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The Charger, which made a return to the film world in the now iconic The Fast &The Furious, was the epitome of what we know as the classic American muscle car or pony car. But what made a car a muscle car or a pony car? First, it had to have visual muscle. Flared design, robust haunches and a long lithe graceful and dynamic silhouette and of course they were two-door coupés. Essentially, they were highly stylised and sporty. 

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Above all however, their principal distinguishing characteristic was the fact that they were powered mostly by a big block V8 engine with lots of performance that had more to do with torque and outright acceleration in a straight line than outright power that had more to do with sheer speed and handling. As a matter of fact many of the classic American muscle cars were essentially mass production version of cars used for drag racing. The influence of drag racing on the American muscle car culture becomes all the more apparent when you consider the nature of their engines that were focused on delivering acceleration in a straight line rather than outright speed and handling that was the hallmark of European performance cars.

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Like all, or at least most cars, the Dodge Charger too began life as a show car or a concept. That was back in 1964. By 1965, Dodge had showcased a Charger II concept that seemed closer to what a production car could be and by 1966 the Charger was in full scale mass production. The original Charger featured a svelte fastback design – essentially a single slope from the roof to the rear bumper that resulted in a highly stylised and sporty silhouette. Based on the Chrysler B platform that also spawned the Dodge Coronet, the first Charger was powered by a modest 5.2-litre V8 mated to a…wait for it…three-speed manual ‘box. For the 1968, the year it would drive into cinematic history, Dodge diluted the fastback design somewhat and made some more cosmetic changes that resulted in the Charger become sexier than ever. 

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At the time it was one of the best looking cars in America. Its wedge form ensured that there was an emphasis on the rear wheels and that gave the impression that the car was all but raring to lunge ahead. In today’s day and age of carefully curated words we would probably describe this as dynamic even at standstill. Inside, the dashboard was curved at either end and if you see it now you will realise there is a distant resemblance to the Riva Hoop of a Jag saloon’s cabin. This was also probably the first car where the company peddled aircraft references to underscore the Charger’s desirability when they claimed that the instrumentation had been canted towards the driver, like what you’d find in the cockpit of an aircraft. 

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The Charger also boasted a whole bunch of features that would have made it pretty good value for money. It had a very subtle integrated rear spoiler, what we call a lip spoiler these days, concealed headlights and an integrated front bumper that gave it a wicked looking visage. It had a quick fill fuel cap for rapid refueling, and bumper mounted parking lights that resembled rally lights of the time. Inside too it had some pretty innovative features for its time, laughable though they may sound by today’s standards. Vinyl covered front bucket seats, a glove box that was hinged at the top so that there was no possibility of the lid falling on your lap, soft plastic window winders and a cushioned dash to protect the knees. The Dodge’s power windows could not be used without the ignition being turned on and had a switch off option so that children wouldn’t be able to fiddle with it. It had a rear defogger and a padded steering wheel too. Finally, it had seat belts, which were as revolutionary in 1968 as airbags were in 1998. 

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But would you ever hand out those hard earned greenbacks for all of these? The looks? Sure, but you would really want your money’s worth under that long lithe flat hood. Here, the Charger packed an ace with its three engine options. You could choose between the regular 5.2-litre V8 with a twin barrel carb that was the 318 cu in engine or the 383 cu in or 6.3-litre V8 that put out a crazy for its time 335hp and 624Nm. You could go for even bigger guns and pay for the 426 Hemi, which was essentially a 7-litre V8 that pumped out a massive 425hp and 664Nm. But the one that had caught my 14-year-old imagination when I had seen the film Bullitt for the first time in 1994, was the R/T spec Dodge Charger that hid the fearsome 440 Magnum (sounds less like an engine and more like a revolver) under the hood. This 7.2-litre V8 was right at the top of the Charger food chain – 375hp and a tarmac ripping 651Nm of torque. 

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THIS WAS WHAT BILL HICKMAN DROVE AT SPEEDS UP TO 110 MILES PER HOUR DURING THAT ICONIC CHASE SEQUENCE EVEN THOUGH THE ORIGINAL PLAN WAS TO STICK BETWEEN 80-85 MILES PER HOUR

This was what Bill Hickman drove at speeds up to 110 miles per hour (177km/h approx) during that iconic chase sequence even though the original plan was to stick between 80-85 miles per hour (128-137km/h approx). This was the car that drove straight into my heart, and on to the wall in my room as one of the ultimate American muscle car pin ups.

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