Story & photos by Steve Magnante. Please hover over each picture for more information.
A car’s name is just as important as its outward appearance. The sleekest lines, the best handling, the hottest engine—none of it means a thing if the name is all wrong. Automotive history is littered with plenty of hits—and misses—in the eternal quest to conjure just the right vehicular appellation. Some names just seem to fall from the sky, land on the car and set sales records. Others—despite the input of focus groups, marketing experts, mystics and wizards in the name game—miss the mark and stagnate on dealer lots until cancelled—or re-named.
In the Dodge camp, nobody can argue the wisdom and success of names like Charger, Challenger and Dart. Ignoring each model’s historical legacy and application to some pretty iconic American iron, the 2014 editions wear their names well. Simply stated, a visitor from another planet (who happens to understand the English language and the human mindset) won’t need anybody to describe why the names were applied to the cars. Each model looks like its name, if that makes sense.
But in the case of the Dodge Coronet, a model name last used in 1976, our hypothetical extraterrestrial friend might need some coaching to understand the linkage between the actual car and the small crown worn by royalty and nobles below the rank of sovereign—as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Oh, and let’s not make the classic mistake of confusing the Coronet with a cornet. The lung-powered musical instrument lacks the “o” needed for inclusion in this discussion. Oh? Oh!
The Coronet name was first used in 1949, a very big year for Dodge in two very significant ways. First, the ’49s were the first all-new post-WWII Dodges. Like the rest of the domestic auto industry, Chrysler Corporation needed a few years after the end of the war to regroup after making tanks, bomber engines, gun sights and so on for four long years. The 1946–48 offerings were warmed-over pre-war models. Again, the rest of Detroit’s major automakers were in the same situation. But the 1949s solved the problem and were all new except for the engines.
The second major breakthrough for 1949 was a revamp in the way Dodge vehicles were identified. They were assigned names, and a formal hierarchical structure was assigned to the Dodge lineup. With each model attractively adorned with chrome-plated external emblems and badges, Dodge salesmen could more easily show customers the many choices available. The breakthrough lineup for ’49 was comprised of the Wayfarer, Meadowbrook and Coronet.
In previous years, Dodge used a rather bland and confusing alpha-numeric naming system, which had evolved out of the very first Dodge Brothers offering of 1914, the so-called Model 30-35, a name used through 1916. Then came the Model 30 (1917–1921), First Series Four/Second Series Four (1922 only), Series 116 (1923–1925) and Series 126/124 (1926–1927). A burst of imagination arrived briefly with the excitingly named Fast Four (1927–1928) and Victory Six (1928–1929), but by 1930 things had reverted back to an array of literal series designations like Series DD, DO, DP, D11, D17, etc. Undoubtedly, the 1949 switch to actual names was much appreciated by all involved.
Getting back to the Coronet nameplate, we have to remember that when it was conjured in the immediate post-war years, Dodge vehicles had a reputation for being durable, well-engineered, economical and affordable. Excitement, style and thrills weren’t part of the equation—yet. In that setting, it is understandable that a name that conjured the authority, wisdom and stability of a kingdom wouldn’t be out of place. And so Coronet it was.
By 1968, however, the babies born to returning WWII servicemen and women were grown and buying cars. Younger and more worldly than their parents, these folks wanted excitement, and Dodge delivered it with cars like the Charger and Dart. 1968 was a great year for the Dodge Boys. Retail sales of passenger cars jumped an impressive 47 percent over the prior year’s sales, and elevated Dodge’s domestic market share from seventh to sixth place among Detroit automakers. It is easy—but incorrect—to assume the compact Dart was responsible for this happy turn of events. After all, Darts were everywhere back then and continue to be a very common sight at just about any car show. But the fact is the mid-sized Coronet contributed more dollars to Dodge Division’s bottom line in 1968 than any other model that year.
Coronets of various types accounted for 36.73 percent of the nearly 606,000 Dodge passenger cars sold in 1968. By comparison, the Dart was a distant second place, comprising 28.35 percent of total Dodge output. Not surprisingly, the expensive Monaco full-size was in last place, accounting for 6.83 percent of the grand total.
Two key details convinced nearly a quarter-million folks to choose Coronet for ’68: its freshly restyled body, and models to suit every need and budget. On the outside, the stylists replaced the sharp creases and right angles of the 1967 Coronet with what was dubbed the “Coke Bottle Theme.” Most fully expressed by the also-newly-styled-for-’68 Charger, Coke-bottle design language emulated the classic glass beverage container’s gentle curves and gave the body graceful “hips” above the wheel arches. For Coronet, body stylists couldn’t totally steal the Charger’s thunder, so they watered it down a little bit with less pronounced curves. But the result was still very attractive, and Coronet sales jumped nearly 21 percent over 1967 sales.
Though most 1968 Coronets were built as basic people movers with 318 2-barrel engines, Dodge didn’t ignore the muscle car market with its prime mover. And while the name “Coronet R/T” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “Charger R/T,” rest assured the Coronet was just as capable. What’s more, Dodge chose the Coronet to showcase its entry into the budget muscle car marketplace with the Super Bee, a mid-year response to Plymouth’s Road Runner.
The 1968 Super Bee was available in one body style only, the 2-door pillar sedan with non-retractable pop-out rear side glass. While the same-year Road Runner could be had in both sedan and hardtop body styles, for ’68 the Bee was strictly a fixed B-pillar proposition. A hardtop body style—with roll-down rear side windows—arrived in 1969, but unlike the Road Runner (which even added a convertible body in 1969), the Super Bee was strictly a fixed-roof proposition during its four-year life cycle (1968–71). A total of 7,842 Super Bees were built in ’68 (125 with the optional 426 Street HEMI®). By contrast, Plymouth’s head start and more intensive marketing campaign managed to push 44,598 Road Runners out the door, beating the Bee by more than five-to-one.
At the top of the Coronet model hierarchy was the legendary R/T, in only its second year on the market for 1968. An abbreviation for “Road and Track” (and the assumed prowess of the car in both realms), the Coronet R/T debuted in 1967 with a standard 440 Magnum—the biggest muscle car mill of them all at the time (the 455 powered Hurst/Olds didn’t arrive until 1968). There was no “step-down” 383 offering. If you got an R/T, you were in charge of nothing less than 375 horsepower and 480 lb/ft of torque, or the Street HEMI if you were so inclined. This standard 440 power in any B-body wearing the R/T badge was unchanged right through 1971, when the R/T made its final appearance on Chargers.
Total 1968 Coronet R/T sales were 10,558, only 377 units more than sales of the 1967 Coronet R/T—despite the completely restyled body. What happened? The Charger happened. While low-budget Dodge muscle car shoppers were instantly drawn to the Super Bee and its $3,027 base sticker, moving up a rung into the $3,500 price category, a mere $127 separated the base Coronet R/T from the base Charger R/T. Who wouldn’t want the Charger’s distinctive hideaway headlights, tunneled backlight and bucket seat interior? As a result, the ’68 Charger R/T outsold the ’68 Coronet R/T by 7,107 units (17,665 versus 10,558), despite both cars being 98-percent mechanically identical.
One advantage the Coronet R/T had over the Charger R/T was the availability of a convertible body type. But that seemed to matter to only 569 customers (the number of ’68 Coronet R/T ragtops built). This pair of ’68 Coronets was discovered in a New England salvage yard. Safe from the crusher, the owner appreciates their rarity.