The Dodge Dart was a compact sedan model that had a long life in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a car that began in one turbulent era of Chrysler’s history and ended in another.
The car began promisingly enough as a Ghia-designed concept in 1957. Typical of Ghia and Chrysler concepts of the times, there was a vaguely fish-mouthed front and an impressive pair of tailfins at the rear – not a bad thing for a car named ‘Dart’.
But when the car came to the market in the early 1960s, it became a sort of barometer of the turmoil at Chrysler as it struggled out of the tailfin era. The Dart appeared in four different forms in four years. The 1962 model of the Dodge Dart was one of the most hideous production cars ever sold.
Virgil Exner, Chrysler’s design chief, was forced out (or retired, depending on who you believe) and Elwood Engel, responsible for the classic 1961 Lincoln Continental, was brought on board to set things right. Engel set to work on a crash course to redesign Chrysler’s models.
Early efforts in the middle of the 1960s showed promise, and by the late ’60s Chrysler’s cars were leading the way in both design and raw muscle car performance.
The Dodge Dart was redesigned for the 1967 model year. Its design was classic Engel: a crisp, boxy but well-proportioned design. It was a nice resolution to years of design turmoil for the compact sedan. But it had no relation to a dart – it was too square.
To assuage a possible image problem with the car, Dodge offered large engines and racy paint schemes in an attempt to tie the car to its larger Coronet and Charger muscle car siblings.
To burnish the hot rod image, Chrysler commissioned the legendary George Barris to create a racy version of the sedate compact for the 1968 show season. Barris was well known for ‘Kustom’ cars and outlandish TV and movie vehicles that were popular favorites.
The Detroit automakers maintained close relations with Barris and other California customizers, who seemed to have their fingers on the pulse of popular tastes, especially among young hot rodders and custom car fans.
The King of Kustomizers was given a 1967 Dodge Dart GT convertible to redesign and he, along with Dodge design manager Bill Brownlie, set to work. The design that emerged was still recognizable as a Dart car, but the dart imagery was played up to make the car considerably more racy. The name ‘Daroo’ was from ‘daru’, a variation of the Anglo-Saxon word for dart or javelin.
“We wanted to convey the feeling of a real dart in motion, even while the car was standing still,” stated Brownlie in a press release. “The intent was also to give a tough performance image compatible with the style concept.”
Two of the car’s most dramatic features were immediately apparent. The staid convertible coupé had been transformed into a roadster. The rear seat area was covered by a steel tonneau cover to create a two-seat cockpit.
The windscreen was tinted and cut down to half-height, reducing the overall height of the car to just 42 inches (1067mm). This half-height glass extended around to the side windows (more like windscreens themselves) and then transitioned to a pair of metal strakes that flared across the extended rear deck of the car. These strakes were dramatic elements in themselves, leading the eye along the car and, whether intentional or not, provided a sly reference to the tailfins featured so prominently on Chrysler products a decade before.
At the front of the car, the bland production mask had been replaced by a dramatic pointed front that, at last, after a decade, said ‘dart’. Horizontal grille bars and an overhanging hood helped reinforce the pointy design, which had added some 17 inches (432mm) to the front of the car.
At the rear, the car was shortened overall by some 11 inches (280mm). The fascia was changed to a more dramatic design, with horizontal bars and round auxiliary lights, but the Dart’s vertical orientation was maintained. This was the terminus of the composition; there was no need for any more of a design statement.
At the interior, two seats made the compact four-seater car more of a roadster (even a true spyder, as there was no top at all) – a sports car for cruising sunny California. The stock steering wheel was switched to a small hot-rod style wheel.
The interior was extensively covered in Naugahyde, with the material found on the seats, door cards, IP, and centre console.
The engine was a Dodge 383 cubic-inch V8 with a four-barrel carburettor. The car actually ran, although it was mostly driven around show venues; the current owner reports just 144 miles (232km) on the odometer. Trumpet-shaped intakes (non-functional) poked through the hood and long exhausts ran below the doors
The Daroo was enormously popular when it debuted on the show circuit, and was widely publicised in the press. So popular was the car that at the end of 1968, it was given a mild refresh, painted candy apple green with darker green accents, and fitted with straight intake stacks, a more realistic option than the trumpet units.
As a result of this success, a second Daroo was commissioned. This one was built by Imperial Customs in Oklahoma, which was contracted to build ’Funny Car’ dragsters for Dodge. Unfortunately, a limited budget and the lack of the King of Kustom’s touch made this second Daroo, painted bright red, a sort of homely sibling to the original car. The Daroo II appeared at minor car shows, state fairs and so forth. Barris’ original Daroo, still popular, made the rounds again at the major venues.
Both Daroos would remain concept exercises. The first Daroo still exists today in a private collection, while the second faded quietly away. The production Dart would end in 1975, though the name was resurrected briefly in 2013 on a modified Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform.
That Dart has now gone away, too, as Dodge’s compact sedans have given way to luxury high performance trucks, an unthinkable notion back in the 1960s when the Dart was introduced.
If you would like to read more about Chrysler design, and its design chief, Elwood P. Engel, during the late 1960s, check out this Concept Car of the Week article from March of last year.