Driving about in a Chevrolet Corvette Z06 it's easy to forget that while the formula for American muscle cars is still very much alive, refinements in technology have changed the experience drastically. Case in point is this 1972 Dodge Challenger. I drove this beast last year from Carlisle, Pensylvania to Detroit after having roadtripped from Motor City mostly in the passenger seat. This was not by any means a completely original machine, but the core of what rolled off the line in the '70s was still very much with it.
For a good number of years I drove a '67 Plymouth Barracuda I'd bought for 500 bucks. Over time, some junkyard engineering brought measurable improvements. Drum brakes gave way to discs from a '70s Dart. Points ignition was swapped out for transistorized technology. The peg-leg rear differential was dumped for a swap meet sure-grip. A 360 took the place of a 318. With each upgrade the car not only got faster, but also more reliable. Eventually the fish was well mannered enough to both drive daily and run 13's at the track. The '72 Challenger had undergone similar improvements, but like the 'Cuda, had lost none of its character in the process.
The real difference between my old fish and this Dodge version of the later E-body, road-swimming Plymouth was the pistol grip shifter poking up Roth-monster style from the center console. The shifter was connected to some sort of updated five-speed rock crusher under the tunnel. Getting the 360 small block to comply was easy enough. Getting the clutch and transmission to cooperate was a little more difficult thanks to a near-blown driver's side engine mount. Herculean clutch pedal effort combined with horsepower rewarded attention and punished ham-footedness.
Even with the aftermarket brake upgrade, stopping the Challenger was a white-knuckled enterprise. Having moments to think ahead was key. There would be no time for cell phones, coffee sipping or menu-driven gadgetry whatsoever. On the way out to Carlisle we made some time to stop at the Meijer and get a 50-in-1 electronics kit so we could splice a power supply to the iPod for Craig cassette player input. This mod was done by the passenger, while the driver smoked the tires on occasion, and cigars frequently.
The drive from Pennsylvania to Detroit International in Romulus was where I actually got to drive the car for a several hours straight. Rowing through the gears was the sweet reward for anything involving acceleration. On-ramp corkscrews and similar interchanges got me thinking of Dan Gurney throwing his AAR Plymouth Barracuda around a road course. Yes this and most every other muscle car of the era had a live axle. Yes, the ass end will kick out on you. No, it won't heel like a Honda Accord. And yes, that's why this and every other muscle car of the era is now legendary.
This is where the paradox lies. Despite the volumes written, published, and spoken about the legendary prowess of American muscle, the fact of the deal is that most of these cars were built for affordable and brutal performance. To harp on how they didn't stop, handle, or even idle on anything but a quasi-regular basis is like faulting Popeye for a lousy kinescope. What these cars did do is go like stink, and let you know they could through a visceral experience unrivaled by any modern car. Slipping the clutch into throttle in a '72 Dodge Challenger and having the entire car pulse through every bone is about as good as the experience gets.