In today’s column I’m telling an interesting narrative about the highly regarded 1968 Dodge Charger. It’s a model that often pops up on a car guy’s top favorite cars list. The account about how this iconic muscle-era car came about was fascinating for me to discover recently and I thought I’d share. It’s a story about a perfect storm of luck, good timing and also hard work. In all likelihood most super popular cars were created under the same “perfect storm.”
When the 1968 Dodge Charger arrived at dealerships in the fall of 1967, I had just moved to Douglas, Mich. to begin a year of teaching elementary art in the village’s only grade school. My recollection of seeing the Charger for the first time is not recorded in my memory, but my admiration for the car’s stunning new looks has grown over the years. In fact, for my 34-car diecast collection I bought a beautifully detailed 1968 Charger R/T Hemi in pale yellow with a black top and black bumble-bee stripe on its rear haunches. Displaying this Charger in my wall display cases is not faint praise, as only highly favored models are anointed this honor.
The story of the 1968 Dodge Charger is an interesting one and I had not heard or it until recently when I read an account about both the 1968 Charger and the designer who is given a lot of credit, but little recognition, for its eventual development at Chrysler Corporation in the mid-1960s. The designer’s name is Richard Sias.
Richard Sias grew up in Midland, Mich. and like many little boys started drawing cars at an early age. It was an encounter with and encouragement from General Motor’s styling guru Harley Earl during a high school trip to Detroit that set Richard on a path to attend the Art Center School in California, where many car designers studied. He graduated from ACS in 1963 and his first post college job was at GM. Not happy with his studio assignments at GM, he soon accepted a post at Chrysler Corporation. At Chrysler he began work on Dodge Dart trim features while also being giving an assignment to do exploratory work on advanced auto design using 1/10-scale clay models. It was at this advanced design assignment that Richard showed his stuff and came up with a design based on a double-diamond theme. This coke-bottle-shaped concept was especially striking from plan view. While the double-diamond shape worked very well as a futuristic concept-type car, Sias had questions whether it could be adapted to the company’s B-segment’s mid-sized body (Dodge Coronet, Plymouth Belvedere and Dodge Charger.) Besides, Dodge division design head Bill Brownlie, Sias’s boss, wanted an evolutionary design for the Charger that continued the fastback profile of the first generation 1966-67 Charger. Sias worked under two design managers, and Brownlie was their boss as well, but the two men felt that the double-diamond shape intersecting at the base of the windshield had merit and gave Sias and two clay modelers license to create a productionized version of the car. Brownlie was furious when he discovered the double-diamond car still being worked on and ordered it destroyed as he departed for a two-week vacation in Europe.
Fortunately, Sias and his crew were told to continue with development. Here’s where the story gets fun. On the day Brownlie returned to work from vacation he was incensed to see Sias’s effort still in the studio. Sias and the two managers at that moment assumed heads would roll, but as Brownlie fumed, in walked top studio guy Elwood Engel, Chrysler Corporation vice president of design, who spotted the double-diamond car and supposedly said, “That’s what a real car should look like!” Sias’s design became the 1968 Charger. Happily, Bob McCurry, vice president of Dodge Division, also stepped up later and gave the go-ahead to add costly, but way cool, hidden headlights.
Product planners hoped to sell 20,000 or so 1968 Chargers, up slightly from the year before. However, the double-diamond Charger won over both buyers and the motoring press and over 96,000 were sold, up dramatically from the 1967 total of less than 20,000. Unfortunately, the Richard Sias Charger story has a sad ending. Once the 1968 Charger design was given the go ahead, Sias was assigned to design facelifts for the 1970 full-size C-body cars and the new Challenger. He remained at Chrysler until May 1968. He witnessed the success of his Charger efforts in the market, BUT then saw his efforts ignored when his boss Brownlie began to take public credit for the 1968 Charger design. To this day most stories about the Charger leaves out little or no mention of Richard Sias’s contribution. Discouraged by the politics in the auto industry, Sias quit Chrysler and moved to Pacific Northwest and ended working for a design firm with an affiliation with Boeing Aircraft. He left designing autos behind, his Detroit days ended.
Sias passed away at the age of 80 in May of this year in Montana, where he had retired to end his days doing what he loved best, hunting and hiking. So unlike designer Gordon Buehrig (1936 Cord 810), Bill Mitchell (1963 Buick Riviera and 1963 Corvette) or Virgil Exner Sr. (1957 Chrysler Corporation cars), Richard Sias’s legacy remains pretty much a secret. But readers of today’s column now know of another great designer rock star worthy of praise and remembrance.
n Trivia answer: Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Q. Name the first two nameplates that were used on the initial front-wheel drive K car? (The answer is at the end of today’s column.)