Monday, May 08, 2017

Rental Bliss: 1973 Dodge Challenger

Driving this gorgeous beast was like trying to juggle running chainsaws: All at once it's loud, terrifying, attention-grabbing, smells like gasoline, and is cool as hell.

On a previous visit to South Florida I was interested in renting something more interesting than a Focus or a Versa and came across the now-closed Classic Dream Rides. The owner Cameron would toss you a set of keys from his collection of muscle cars for not much more than you’d pay for that Focus. The cars were in great shape but weren’t “restored,” so they were full of character and stories and experiences that weren’t muted by modern concessions or extensive rebuilding.

The Challenger is Barney-the-Dinosaur-purple with a wide matte-black stripe up the middle of the hood, a black vinyl roof, and gleaming chrome bumpers. Beautifully proportioned, the car is nonetheless BIG. The doors seem like they’re six feet long and feel like they weigh as much as I do. The windows were already rolled down when I got in the car, and the glorious racket the glass made clattering around when the doors were slammed closed instantly reminded me that I was about to spend the day with a machine that had seen 40 years of different roads and drivers. The seats front and rear are interrupted by the center console, although they aren't exactly buckets. Everything is black leather and plastic, with chrome accents and lots of wood both real and fake throughout. The trunk is the size of a studio apartment, and the ample space carries through to the interior as there is plenty of head, leg, and elbow room. The seats are low to the floor so your legs stick out ahead of you, and although there is very little to brace yourself against the driving position is comfortable.

After a quick walkaround, Cameron twisted the key and the 340 four-barrel fired up immediately with a gutsy roar and settled into a high idle. Stabbing the throttle a minute later settled the big V8 down into a smooth growl.

Driving the big Dodge is certainly different from driving a modern car. The steering wheel is thin but has a huge diameter, and the car requires armloads of cranking to make any sharp turns. The throttle is responsive and the engine torquey, although there isn’t enough grunt to require a delicate foot. Precise inputs would be tricky; the lack of seat bolstering or a dead pedal, along with vestigial lap belts, mean the steering wheel and pedals double as braces to keep you in place.

At speed the steering exhibits a split personality: During small corrections such as cruising on the highway the car feels tall and a bit wobbly, but harder cornering causes the Challenger to take a firm set as it seems to want to tighten the radius on your behalf. Of all of the distinguishing characteristics of the car, this took the longest to get used to. Where a modern car will go where you tell it to, you don’t so much steer the Challenger as much as guide it - a bit like walking someone else’s dog.The wide, modern tires generated impressive grip and although I didn't corner hard enough to find out which end would let go first, the old car felt remarkably well-balanced. The brakes were a bit squeaky at low speed and lacked ABS but otherwise worked great. Once the car's steering and size became familiar, it was quite easy to drive both on the highway and through the crowded streets of Miami. The Challenger may be vintage but roads are still roads, even forty years later.

Cruising through Miami and the Florida Keys in this old Challenger was a blast. The quirks in the handling give the car an unmistakable feel, and the sounds and smells remind you that something is happening. Far from isolating the driver from the act of driving, cars like this one fully immerse you in it. The engine is always rumbling and burbling, even when you’re off the throttle. Get into the gas pedal and the nose lurches up as the smell of gasoline wafts into the cabin. Lean on the brakes and the front pitches down, lean on them harder and the tires scream and lock up while you neither slow down nor turn. The steering wheel communicates everything the front tires are up to, quivering and shaking over bumps and expansion joints, and doubles as a hand hold to keep you in the slick leather seats while the car leans out around corners. The Challenger is perfectly capable of navigating the city and seaside highways, but will do you no favors. Driving this car requires *attention*, but rewards with a feeling of activity, of covering ground, of participating in the act of beginning in one place and ending up in another.

I would highly recommend taking any available chance to spend time behind the wheel of a car like this to remind you how much you can really get out of such an involved experience.