Half a Century Separates Them…
Dodge Dart GTs Then and Now
I was excited to hear that the Dart GT moniker is about to be revived for use on a sporty version of the 2013 Dart. Set to debut at the North American International Auto Show with production slated to begin in the second quarter of 2013, the GT is another addition to the Dart line-up, and adds a host of standard equipment designed to further enhance its already solid performance image. You get a sport-tuned suspension, 184 horsepower 2.4L Tigershark MultiAir engine, Nappa Leather heated seats, heated steering wheel, 5-spoke wheels wrapped in 18-inch high-traction rubber that look like they belong on a Challenger SRT8, and sinister-yet-inviting styling tweaks.
Going back half a century to 1963, the first Dart GT followed a similar path – but was more about style and looks than performance. In that first year, the Dart lineup consisted of three models: the 170, 270 and GT. Only the GT was offered as a 2-door hardtop or convertible. The 170 and 270 variants were strictly 2- or 4-door sedans (with full door frames and fixed B-pillars) or utilitarian station wagons. By contrast, the hardtop body style gave the Dart GT an open, airy feeling with all windows rolled down – even if they did tend to let more air in with the windows rolled up. I presently drive a ’63 Dart GT every day and have simply learned to live with the various whistles and swooshing sounds as wind slips past the shrunken rubber window seals at highway speeds. It doesn’t bother me…much.
Inside the original 1963 Dart GT, stylists included the hottest trend to hit Detroit since quad headlamps, bucket seats. Cribbed from 2-seat European sports cars, bucket seats were the ultimate statement of sporting intent. They implied freedom; just me and my honey hitting the road in carefree style. By contrast, lesser Dart 170 and 270 models proclaimed, “this is work, not play” with bulky bench seats – folding on 2-doors for back seat access, rigid on 4-doors. True, the ability to seat three across up front was useful, but again, buckets were – and continue to be – much cooler. So much so that by 1968 virtually every domestic car in every size and price range had a bucket seat package on the option sheet – even on certain 4-doors and station wagons.
While the empty space created between the bucket seats creates an ideal place to mount a floor shifter and console, thus adding even more sporty overtones, let’s remember that in 1963 Dodge was still enamored with push-button transmission controls on automatic-equipped models. Thus, my ’63 GT (like subsequent ‘64s) lacks a sexy floor shift console. Rather, I shift my Torqueflite automatic via a vertical stack of five circular buttons protruding from the left side of the instrument panel. That said, by 1965 all of Chrysler Corp. had abandoned push-button transmission controls and the 1965 Dart GT finally got the centrally mounted floor shifter and console it lacked before.
Under the hood, my ’63 Dart GT is powered by the standard 225 cubic inch (3.7 L) Slant Six. The optional 273 2-barrel small-block V8 didn’t arrive until 1964. Though my Dart GT’s Slant Six is rated at 145 hp, we must remember that Detroit used a gross measuring system until about 1972. Later net power ratings include the parasitic losses incurred by normal accessories (power steering pump, alternator, etc.) and a full exhaust system. Under the net rating system, my Slant Six might be good for 90 hp or so. This is to say that the 184 hp rating of the new Dart GT’s standard Tigershark four is very real. In fact, even though it displaces 146 cubic inches (79 less than the six in my older Dart), the new Dart makes nearly twice as much real-world horsepower! If the Tigershark’s block architecture wasn’t so devoted to the complexities of front-wheel drive, I’d seriously consider an engine swap.
Fifty years of technological advances can be humbling, yet my intent is not to belittle the early Dart in any way. Rather, this is a fascinating opportunity to gauge just how far we’ve come in the last five decades. Going under my Dart, we see that it has rear-wheel drive with a live rear axle under the backseat area. The modern version has (as mentioned) front-wheel drive and a nearly flat floor. The benefits of each layout are solid and each is a product of its time. In a nutshell, when a light, small vehicle is the primary objective, it’s difficult to improve upon the front-wheel drive layout. The engine and transaxle are combined into a single unit, and the weight and complexity of routing power to the rear of the car is eliminated. That said, as rear-wheel drive platforms go, the Chrysler A-body (which underpins every Dart built between 1963 and 1975) has earned a well-deserved reputation for superior handling versus other rear-wheel drive cars in its price range and market segment. The compact torsion bar front suspension and Chrysler’s practice of positioning the rear axle one-third of the way back between the leaf spring eyes combined to deliver the best handling in its class.
While the modern Dart GT benefits from stiffer springs, bushing hardness adjustments and other refinements for sharper handling than the Dart Limited, the 1963 GT package didn’t address the suspension. There are no antiroll bars or heavy-duty shock absorbers triggered by the GT badges. That said, when the 225 cubic inch Slant Six was ordered, the rear leaf springs employed five plates. By contrast, the base 170 cube engine warranted four plates. The same 9-inch diameter drum brakes were employed on all Darts – GT or otherwise. Superior front disc brakes would arrive in the 1965 model year – while optional 10-inch diameter drum brakes debuted in 1964 (standard with V8). But again, the components were well suited to sane street driving. My daily driving experience is pleasant though I am frequently reminded a front disc brake swap would be a good idea when passengers are aboard.
Moving beyond mechanical and interior specifications, we get to that intangible thing called image. To set it apart from the nearly 154,000 Darts built in 1963, Dodge applied a specific set of emblems and badges to each of the approximately 34,300 GTs built in ‘63 (including hardtops and convertibles). On each front fender, the traditional tri-pointed Dodge “fratzog” (really…that was the term used by copywriters when they registered the tri-pointed Dodge emblem) is bisected by serious-looking GT letters. On the trunk panel, the rectangular decoration breaks ranks to a degree and reads Dodge GT (rather than Dart GT). Why? I do not know. Inside, each door is adorned with two-tone chrome and matte black Dart GT emblems, and up front the plastic insert within the centrally mounted metal fratzog reads GT (lesser models bear 170 or 270 inscriptions). Finally, full wheel covers were standard equipment versus the smaller hubcaps used on lesser base models (though these wheel covers were also offered on Dart 270 models).
The new 2013 Dart GT also employs a series of visual identification cues. Though this writer does not have close access to an actual production model as of this moment, long lead photographs indicate that black-out treatments and subtly shifted bumper caps will be part of the formula. I do wonder if the exterior design boys will revisit the well and revive the original low-and-wide fonts on the new GT badges. It’d be extra cool if they do. Stay tuned, in my next blog post we’ll take a look at how the original Dart GT evolved from its humble beginnings of 1963. Later, we’ll explore alternate uses of those two magical letters, G and T, and review how they were applied to numerous Dodge and Plymouth models for extra sizzle!