Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
Off the heels of last week’s exploration into the 2004 Ford Shelby Cobra with Chris Theodore, today we’re discussing a different attempt at resurrecting an American icon. Much like Ford in the early 2000s, Chrysler’s concept game was strong throughout the ’90s. It also had a knack for bringing many of its experiments to market, though some of the cooler ideas — the Copperhead, Jeepster and Pronto Spyder, to name a few — sadly never left the show floor despite a fair degree of public interest.
Count today’s subject, the 1999 Dodge Charger R/T concept, among them. Long before Hellcats and the return of the Hemi came this vision of what a Dodge muscle car of the new millennium could be. And much like Dodge’s awkwardly-made promise to bring American muscle to the encroaching age of electric motoring, this Charger was intended to be friendlier to the environment than its predecessors.
The 1999 North American International Auto Show proved to be a very prescient one in hindsight. Mind you, that prescience didn’t produce uniformly desirable production cars.This was the Detroit event that introduced the world to the Pontiac Aztek, after all. It also gave us the Cadillac Evoq (that previewed the XLR), the Dodge Power Wagon (sort of a more extreme take on what would eventually morph into the 2002 Ram 1500), and the Charger R/T concept.
Born out of a time when the R/T badge represented the pinnacle of Chrysler’s performance offerings, this Charger had all the makings of the Viper’s cheaper, more practical sibling. It was shaped like a wedge but more down-to-earth than the Prowler, which Chrysler somehow managed to commercialize. It disguised its four doors with a coupe roofline, long before German brands popularized the practice. And it sounded like a trip to drive.
The Charger R/T was powered by a naturally-aspirated 4.7-liter V8 developing 325 horsepower, sending all that grunt to the rear wheels. The whole package was said to weigh about 3,000 pounds in total, albeit obviously without the kind of safety compliance necessary for a production car.
Still, there was a lot to like — even if the five-speed manual’s shifter design necessitated a questionable gripping technique (and maybe a mosaic filter, too).
We still haven’t even broached this Charger’s quirkiest trait — its fuel system. That V8 was fed with compressed natural gas. And Chrysler was all too proud to point it out in a pamphlet I swear my brother brought back home for me from the New York Auto Show when I was six years old. Here’s what it said, courtesy of Allpar:
New materials used to make this compressed natural gas (CNG) storage tank might enable passenger cars to get double the range (300 miles) and all the trunk space (nearly 13 cubic feet). Other CNG vehicles using current storage tanks have to stuff tanks in the trunk of the car and only achieve about 150 miles range. Natural gas produces 25 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline and lessens the dependence on foreign oil. Emissions would be so low from this Charger that they meet the strictest of standards currently enforced by the sate of California.
The Charger’s CNG fiberglass pressure cells were fortified with gas-impermeable high-density polyurethane thermoplastic, wrapped in carbon and glass filaments wound together with an epoxy resin. They sat inside a foam crate to ensure durability, but were laid flat under the trunk floor so as to consume as little space as possible. They kept the gas pressurized at a nice and tight 3,600 psi.
It sounds nice in theory, but the time never seemed to be right for CNG passenger cars to become a thing. The storage tanks were expensive to build, distribution was a problem nobody seemed interested in solving, and then there was the whole dilemma of fracking. All that for a 25 percent reduction on CO2 emissions, and it’s little surprise why hybrids and electric cars emerged as more attractive.
You can’t really talk about this Charger without mentioning that Charger, the eventual production car built on the LX platform that succeeded this LH-based ’99 concept.
The show car was clearly more reflective of Dodge’s design philosophy immediately before the millennium: cab-forward everything, with grimacing crossbar fascias and stylistic cues pulled from the Viper wherever applicable. A group of designers contributed to it, including Tom Gale and Joe Dehner. Dehner later called the ’99 Charger the car he’s proudest to have worked on in his career. I know I’m biased, but in this instance, I think his back-patting is entirely justified.
I’ll never understand how Chrysler could abandon this design in favor of greenlighting the banal, three-box LX Charger half a decade later. This concept was a tremendous feat of visual packaging — a sport sedan you’d easily mistake for a coupe in a passing glance — with functional side and hood vents cutting in just enough to accentuate the car’s classic Coke-bottle proportions, without making the whole affair look cartoonishly mean.
This might sound strange to say, but this car had a great face, brimming with personality. It looked like a superhero’s mask, exuding strength and confidence but not in a macho way. At the rear, a flat, smoked-out lightbar lent a very futuristic graphic for the time. The production Charger may have looked brawnier than this rendition, but it was sure as hell clumsier, too.
What makes the ’99 Charger’s fate all the more crushing is that, studying the interior, there doesn’t appear to be much inside this car that would have been too ambitious for production. Even the door cards had safety reflectors — the kind of mundane detail hinting that, at some point, this Charger was pegged as more than a design exercise. Instead, it wound up just another casualty of the merger of equals era.
The ’99 Charger concept almost seems like a car made for a video game, and yet it didn’t wind up in many. In fact, you can only find it in one: Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition. Yes, that Dub. It was 2005, after all.
MC3 remains the high point of that series for many fans, with an extremely varied car roster, three open-world cities (or four, if you count Tokyo in the later released Remix edition) and a star-studded licensed soundtrack that included Pitbull and Lil Wayne at a time before they became too expensive to buy for a racing game. It was overflowing with content, and it even included the Charger SRT-8 for those who wanted to compare the production car against the concept.
Still, it shouldn’t have marked the Charger’s only game appearance. A preview of Gran Turismo 4 from 2004, courtesy of The Next Level, showed Polyphony Digital staff photographing the car in a Chrysler facility. There’s a cameo appearance from the 1993 Chrysler Thunderbolt concept in the same shot. In another image, the team is seen capturing a 1970 Challenger. That Challenger was drivable in Gran Turismo 5, but the Charger was never immortalized in the same way. This car deserved better.