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What does a teenager do when he finds a project that’s way beyond his skill level, and budget, disguised as a cool car? He doesn’t ask any questions, he just jumps on it. That’s how I handled things when I found my 1969 Dodge Charger in a field not so far from home.
Now, after years of sidelining the project, hoping to generate the funds and skills allowing me to make it perfect, I’ve said screw it and decided to at least get it on the road so that I could enjoy the car while I piece it back together. I’ve already started, somewhat, and I’m not going to lie, so far, it’s every bit as frustrating as it is enjoyable.
Even though it’s a work-in-progress, it still gets a lot of attention. That doesn’t mean I don’t get my fair share of snide remarks from folks who could do it better, or from those wondering why I’m even resurrecting the Charger in the first place. To be honest, even I ask myself that very question when I’m busting my knuckles to bits from dusk till dawn.
My journey into the world of automobiles couldn’t start anywhere else, though. It couldn’t kick off with something that needed a little less effort to get rolling, or any other car for that matter. Not even if it were with another Charger that I didn’t pull out of some field. They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but they never say anything about the apple landing right smack dab into the same belly of the beast.
Let me spin you a tale and by the end, maybe you’ll understand why I love this big, dumb, very rusty, brute.
How I Found It
Like I said, I pulled this ‘69 Charger out of a field when I was 17 years old. The money to get it wasn’t from my mom or dad. The two cases of beer I basically traded for the thing, however, was. When I found the car, the Keystone Klassics had begun their descent into the earth, and the floor pans weren’t too far behind. Discouraging, sure, but there was a lot to be excited about.
Chief among them, it’s still a 1969 Dodge Charger and wasn’t anywhere near stock. The hit list? Underneath the hood was a 383 attached to a four-speed. It was Orange, just like it should’ve been, and what was left of the interior were custom panels that were reflective of the ‘80’s hot rodding culture—something I intend to return to the car.
After closer inspection, and decoding the VIN, I can say that the car started life with a green interior, a paint job to match, and a vinyl top. Powering this mean machine was the mighty 318. And while any Charger is excellent in my opinion, this one didn’t exactly roll off the line ready for Crazy Larry.
The fact that I didn’t find some time capsule of a car is actually a blessing too, because I don’t feel much pressure to return it to factory showroom spec. Besides that, the fender tag and window sticker were long gone anyway.
Not a Racecar, Just a Spirited Driver
At the moment, my Charger is now powered by a 440 backed by the very same 4-speed that came with it. The engine is a 1973 casting I was able to cop for just $500. I couldn’t pass up that deal, especially considering the casting date reveals it shares a birthday with my mother. I spent a quick weekend bolting on some ported closed chamber heads, a single-plane intake, a bigger cam, and headers after the 383 bit the dust. It’s not the hottest setup, but more than enough for the driver that it is.
The rear end is a Chrysler 8.25. I know, I know, it’s not as strong as the 8.75 or Dana’s that these cars came with, but it has yet to let me down. It doesn’t see any insane launches, nor is it subject to any wild power levels to live out the drift-spec
General Lee reboot dreams. If I do start going to the track, or building some doomsday engine representative for the timeline we’re living through, it’s sure to see an update.
I did ditch the absurdly low (numerically) ring gear and one-leg setup. Now it’s rolling with a limited-slip differential and utilizing a 3.55:1 gear ratio. (Ed. note—nice.)
Overall, I’m pretty happy with this setup right now. This isn’t a racecar, just a spirited driver. Though it might never see any other big changes, it might also see some big updates. I love the car for what it is, but I do often dream of overdrive and the idea of returning to the 383.
Keeping It Steady
Once extricated from the field, I quickly determined I had to focus on making the car stop and turn a little better. Some of the first mods I made were in those departments.
I opted to swap to Wilwood disc brakes in the front. I know the drum brakes in the rear might bother many, however, I feel that this combination does just fine for the time being.
As for handling, I went ahead and installed QA1 tubular control arms, a K-member to match, and a sway bar to tie it all together. I probably would’ve been alright with a stock setup, but I figured since most of the factory parts were ready for the scrapyard, I’d try some upgrades.
What is blasphemous about the combination is that the steering system is still stock. While the 16:1 ratio isn’t the worst in the world, I’d like to get a little more response out of it. What I’m planning on trying is getting my hands on some quick-ratio steering arms that replicate the 12:1 setups TA Challengers and AAR Cuda’s went to war with. While I’m at it, I’ll give the coveted “pump-down” test the power steering pump desperately needs.
As for the suspension, the only part that has seen an update are the leaf springs. The Charger still has the factory torsion bars and some shocks that are just a touch better than what Detroit sent these cars off with. I know for sure an update is necessary there.
Rust To Rad
And now for the elephant in the room. I think it’s safe to say that about 75% of the conversations I have about the car start with someone asking me what color I’m going to paint it. The remaining 25% start with “Put an ‘01’ on the door!” shouted at me from passers by.
While I have plenty of love for the General Lee, I have no intention of making another. I haven’t come across many second-generation Chargers in this neck of the woods. And of the five I’ve seen within a 25-mile radius, only two aren’t ready for the Duke Boys—I’m going to keep it that way.
Eventually, I do need to address the bodywork. While I did bring it a long way from the field, I’ll admit I’m nowhere near an ace with sheet metal. I’m not chasing some award-winning product, though I do want a period-correct color to polish regularly. That said, I intend to embrace road rash accumulation even after it’s received its new hue.
The same school of thought applies to the interior. Right now, what I have in there works. I wouldn’t exactly classify it as presentable in any sense of the word, as I do need to update the clapped-out door panels, get some better seats, and put a headliner in the thing.
Overall, I want the car to remain close to what it is. Something you’re not afraid to drive. If there’s a dirt road, clouds in the sky, or even a little snow, I don’t want to be scared to take the car. I’d rather have to fix things after years of use than neglect it to avoid getting chips in the paint or rocks in the rug.
And despite what purists may say, I intend to keep that 1968 grille on it. I know it’s wrong for the year, but it’s one thing that makes it my car and I really like that aspect of it.
A Family Legacy Begins
So, why a 1969 Dodge Charger? Why not something more relevant to my generation? Why not start with something that had better bones? Most importantly, why did I only have to spring for a couple of beers to call it mine?
I didn’t grow up in the muscle car era, nor was I even a thought in my father’s two-year-old head when the coke bottle Chargers joined Detroit’s legendary lineup. Not only that, I was only a few years shy of the legal driving age when the modern Challengers debuted.
Even so, I was dead set on owning a 1969 Dodge Charger long before even I knew it. Turns out, that’s what my dad drove back in the ’80s about when I started to come into existence on a cellular level. I believe his love for that car and the memories he made preprogrammed my DNA to share his obsession. That or the stories he told me, and the impression that car had on him, had a major influence on me. Maybe both?
Either way, I grew up thinking that Chargers were the greatest thing since sliced bread and when I came to the driving age, I didn’t want to get my hands on the modern Challengers. It needed to be an old-school Charger because that’s what my dad drove. Unfortunately, he sold his when he started having kids, and other things were more important.
I spent a long time hunting for anything similar. I was even on the verge of purchasing a 1973 Charger that was running and driving with a coffee can for a gas tank. Thankfully, my dad told me to just wait a little bit longer. A few days later, he’d told me where his Charger was and that we were going to look at it.
Back in the day, my dad sold it to his brother-in-law, who was something of a partner-in-crime back in their glory days. Since he’d also started having kids, it wasn’t long before the car got parked and made its way to the pasture. And that’s where I found it. The beer was currency for yanking it free of the soil.
I can go on for days talking about all the stories that were rushing through my head as we jumped in the truck to see the Charger. The most appropriate to share is a shortened version of how my dad had my uncle help him obtain it in the first place.
When my dad got the Charger, he bought it from a guy working on the 383 and 4-speed swap. Only, the engine wasn’t in it. They loaded it in the trunk and chained this Charger to my uncle’s own Charger to pull it through Florida, where they had been living at the time.
Things were coming full circle as it was my turn to go and get the Dodge with my father and my uncle when it was to become a project once again. And I wasn’t just going to get what was technically my first car. It was more like a ceremonial passing of the torch.
When I laid eyes on the coveted Charger, this feeling in my chest overcame me. The rust, the work ahead of me, the fact that I was in way over my head, but none of that mattered. It was time to bring the Charger home.
I’ll never forget one of my first rides in the Charger, either. I pulled into a local gas station, and a man stopped me to talk about the car. He’d pointed out the ’68 grille and said he knew a guy with a car just like that and that he’d brought it up from the south. The look on his face when he’d asked me my name was priceless.
For me, that’s what it’s about. It’s not just some car. It’s a legacy. That feeling from the field still washes over me every time I get behind the wheel. There might be a long road ahead of me, but that’s what keeps me going every time the sun comes creeping up over my shoulder after a night of wrenching.
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