Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that could

With today's news of the Dodge Dart's return in 2013, we think it's appropriate to take a look back at the history of this Mopar small car. Who better to take us there than David Zatz and the Allpar team. Here's their annotated history of the little Chrysler that could. — Ed.

The Dart is a car that never should have existed, given the Chrysler Corporation structure and hierarchy, but exist it did, and it was a sales success for nearly its entire run. The 1963-66 models were true compacts, with barely enough room under the hood for a 273 cubic inch V8; the 1967-81 models were wider and larger, with "big car" styling and enough room for a fire-breathing 340. (In the United States and Canada, these models ran from 1967 to 1976.)

In 1960, Chrysler had brought out the successful Valiant. Dodge managers demanded and received their own version; the resulting Dodge Lancer was essentially a Valiant with fancier trim. Its sales neared 75,000 units - disappointing in those days. Dodge product planners then moved the name of their "compact" Dodge Dart (700 pounds heavier and nearly two feet longer than their Lancer), whose sales had fallen from 300,000 in 1960 to 148,000 in 1962, to an extended-wheelbase version of the Valiant, a formula that proved more successful. (More on the origin of the Dodge Dart, at valiant.org)

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

1967 brought new bodies that would carry the Dodge Dart to its end, nearly ten years later (the platform continued past that in export markets). Many consider the earlier Darts to be superior; they weighed less, felt more solid, yet had better cornering and, some say, a better ride. The 1967 and newer Darts were designed to handle larger engines, though, enabling the eventual use of the 318 and 340 cubic inch engines. They could also support a more conventional and, later, a more formal look that would be maximized in the successive generations that, while they eschewed the Dart name, were essentially the same car - the F-bodies and M-bodies.

In 1967, the Dart had V8 power from a 273 cubic inch engine as well as the 170 or 225 cubic inch slant-six. Three models were available, the Dart (170), 270, and GT, each with different options. The grille had a clear Coronet influence, while the tail was unique among the Dodges. The 270 was the most popular series, followed by the base model, wagon, and, trailing, the GT; only about 10,000 GT V8 models were made (along with fewer than 9,000 GT sixes). Outside of the GT, the sixes easily outsold the V8s, but the V8 was unquestionably popular. Nearly 113,000 Darts were sold in 1966 (not far from the Valiant's sales).

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

The 1968s gave up different styling for the Dart and Valiant, for the most part; the front and rear clips remained unique, and the Dart kept its longer wheelbase... for a while. Hurst assembled a number of 1968 Darts for racing purposes, installing a full 426 Hemi into the small car, using parts supplied by Dodge; "Mr. Norm" started rebuilding existing 1968 Darts to make Hemi-powered 1968 Darts in 2007.

The Swinger model, an upscale version of the Dart (mostly sold in two-door form), was sold starting in 1969 as the cheapest two-door model (replacing the two-door sedan of 1968), and was also sold by Plymouth in two-door form as the Scamp.

The hot version was the Swinger 340, a Swinger with, not surprisingly, a 340 cubic inch V8, which made the Swinger into a fairly hefty muscle machine. The other two-door hartops were Custom, GT, and GTS; GT and GTS were gone when the 1970 models were introduced.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

For 1971, Dodge introduced the Demon, essentially a Plymouth Duster, and the Demon 340 replaced the Swinger 340; the Custom hardtop became the Swinger, and the old Swinger became the Swinger Special.

All were sold with much less success than the Duster; and when Plymouth returned the favor by bringing out the Scamp, a clone of the Swinger, it sold moderately well, but not nearly as well as the Duster itself.

Canadians got a Scamp Special in 1971; Americans had to wait until 1976.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

Road Test magazine tested the 340 Demon (similar to the 340 Duster) in April 1971. They got from 0 to 60 in a quick 7.8 seconds - remember, this is with an automatic and bias-ply tires — and ran through the quarter mile in 14.6 seconds at 96 MPH, with a top speed of 127 MPH.

Gas mileage was at 14 city, 17 highway, not far from the standard 318 and reasonably close to the slant six. Cornering, finish, luggage, performance, steering were rated excellent; details, instruments, quietness, ride, visibility, overall were rated very good. The base price was $3400 including tach, stereo cassette, and automatic.

The 1972 Dodge Dart brought many changes, especially considering the neglect the Dart would suffer from 1974 to 1976. The updates were both functional and cosmetic, and included new interior and seating options, with alterations to the grille, exterior lighting, door panels, seats, antenna (changed for FM reception and vandalism resistance), side marker lamps, backup lights (brighter), the gas cap, shift linkage, and bucket seat-back release.

An FM radio became optional, along with an inside hood release. The alternator was upgraded, transmissions made quieter and smoother, electronic ignition added to the 340, and hardened valve seats installed on the slant sixes. (For other changes and much more detail, see the 1972 Dart, Demon, and Swinger page at valiant.org).

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

For 1973, the Dart had a 111 inch wheelbase and torsion-bar suspension (Dart Sport was 108 inches); new features for 1973 included standard electronic ignition and an optional sliding metal sunroof on two-door models.

The Dart 340 Sport, formerly the Demon, kept its 340 four-barrel V8; it was still quite a hot car, with a whoping 240 net horsepower and fairly light weight. The Dart Sport had an optional utility package providing six and one half feet of carpeted cargo area with the security panel and rear seat folded down; or a capacious (especially compared with the standard Dart) trunk with everything in the normal position. Both front and rear seats folded down (except the driver's seat).

An electric heated defroster was available for the rear window. The 198 slant six was still available (except in California), along with the 225 slant six; the 318 was optional except on Dart 340 Sport, for obvious reasons.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

The Swinger was essentially a two-door Dart with styling similar to the four-door. Standard equipment included a vinyl front seat (except Sport, Swinger Special, and Dart Custom, which got cloth and vinyl), simulated woodgrain, two-speed wipers, front armrests, deep pile carpet (except Dart and Swinger Special), dual horns on Custom and Swinger, and a heater/defroster.

The base transmission was a three-speed manual, with an optional Torqueflite; the Dart 340 Sport could also have a four speed manual.

In 1974, the Valiant was finally put onto the Dart wheelbase, ending the main difference between them; Plymouth sales shot up, and Dart sales fell. For the first time, indeed, Valiant sales were nearly double those of the Dart. But in 1975, sales of both models, now considered to be too old, fell; neither had received a significant facelift since 1974. Changes for 1974 included a three-speed vent fan.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

1975 Darts were on their way out, but Dodge still made numerous changes, switching to an economy rear axle for 318 models, increasing the heat/defrost system capacity by 14%, adding a resonator to 318s and slant sixes with the sound insulation package, making two-speed electric wipers standard (three speeds on SE), adding optional cruise control, speeding engine warmup with a heat valve in the exhaust manifold, and using a new molded dash liner to cut noise. (For much more, see valiant.org's 1975 Dodge Dart and Swinger page).

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

For 1976, the primary change was switching from clear front parking light lenses with amber bulbs, to amber lenses with clear bulbs.

But by then, as Consumer Reports urged, customers were switching to the new generation compact car — very similar in construction, aside from the new (and less reliable) front suspension, — the Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen. 1976 customers who followed this advice would regret it - while those who stuck with the trustworthy Dart could gloat. Dodge and Plymouth A-body sales were nearly identical in this final year, but both sold at their lowest rate since introduction in 1960 and 1963; even then, the pair sold over 100,000 units. Today's Chrysler would consider them a sales success even at their lowest point.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

The Dodge Dart continued after 1976, in different forms; in Brazil, the Dart continued until 1981 with few differences, keeping the 1974-76 body style (see the last A-body Dart ever made, a Brazilian model.)

In Mexico, the Dodge Diplomat was sold as a Dart starting in 1980; it had both two and four door versions, with six and eight cylinders, using the Aspen front clip on the Diplomat body.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

Hubcaps shown below were typical of Mexican Dodge F and M bodies from 1978 to 1982; the hood ornament was present on every car, regardless of trim level. The Super Six was popular, with a three-on-the-tree manual shifter and no power accessories.

The Dart name continued through 1989, when the "E body Dart" (E body with 1987 LeBaron front clip) was dropped. The 1981 and 1982 Volare were exactly the same car as the 1980 Dart, except that they used a 1980 Volare (not Aspen) front clip.

Dodge Dart: The little Chrysler that couldS

Thanks to Bill Watson for his corrections.

1960-62 Dodge Dart | 1963-66 Dodge Dart |1972 Dart, Demon, and Swinger | 1975 Dodge Dart, Swinger
(External Link): Valiants, Dusters and Other A-Bodies

Also see the September 2008 Car of the Month

1960-62 Dodge Dart | 1963-66 Dodge Dart | The Very Last Dodge Dart Ever Made
(External Links): Valiants, Dusters and Other A-Bodies | 1972 Dart, Demon, Swinger | 1975 Dodge Dart, Swinger

Photo Credit: ilmungo / Flickr