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1965 Dodge Dart – An Ahead Of Its Time Fuel Sipper
Although we are FutureCars, once in a while, it pays to look back and see what history can show us. Surprisingly, well before any call for "green cars" or any mandates for fuel efficiency were set, American automakers were building a few forward-looking fuel sippers.
Back in the 1960s, before fuel economy was a common concern, before the Environmental Protection Agency had set efficiency standards, and before the fuel lines and shortages of the 1970s had occurred, there were American-made cars on the road that were well ahead of their time in economy and reliability. One of the best of those was the Dodge Dart, predecessor to the all-new Dart hitting showrooms now. For the Dart, 1965 is an especially stellar year. I was lucky enough to have the chance to not only see an all-original 1965 Dart up close, but to actually drive it too.
- Manufacturer: Chrysler
- Year, Model: 1965 Dodge Dart
- Class, Type: Compact convertible
- Propulsion system: Carburated gasoline
First, Some History
The Dart began production in 1960 and ran through to 1976 before being picked up again for the current 2013 model entering showrooms soon. The impetus for the Dart in 1960 was the outgoing Plymouth cars that were the "small cars" of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The first generation in 1960-61 were highly popular and got fuel economy that nearly doubled other, full-sized Dodge car models. The car saw further downsizing in 1962 and then the third generation, in 1963, began showing what efficiency and a popular driving experience could do.
By this generation, the slant-six engines had really found their groove and gained a bulletproof reputation. The wheelbase of the car was cut to 111 inches, allowing for plenty of space in a smaller platform, and the model range opened up to include a 2-door and 4-door sedan, 2-door hardtop coupe, a station wagon, and a convertible. All in three trims: 170, 270, and premium GT. By now, the Dart had become one of the most popular cars on the road and remained so until its production end in 1976.
Our 1965 example here is a 2-door convertible GT model with a 225 cubic-inch, 145 horsepower 6-cylinder slant six engine coupled to a 4-speed manual transmission. Other engine options included a smaller 170ci, 101hp (the upgrade to the 225 was only about $50 more) and a 273ci LA V8 180hp option. The 273 could be had in both two-barrel and four-barrel carburetor options with the latter having more aggressive, fuel-sucking additions meant for performance fanatics. The infamous Dodge Charger actually began as a Dart Charger, a special edition Dart painted in yellow, only available as a hardtop, and using the new Commando 273 engine. In 1966, the B-Body Dodge Charger, now famous from the Dukes of Hazzard and other shows, was first introduced.
For fuel economy, though, the setup being presented here, a 1965 Dart with a 225/145 and a 4-speed manual couldn't be beat. The car, even after all these years on the road, is capable of 30mpg on the highway at 65mph and does it with a grace and driving joy you won't find in many of the current crop of modern vehicles on the road.
I was attending an auto show as part of our town parade here in Wyoming and saw two examples of this generation of the Dart in the parade. Taking photos and talking with those there I already knew, I met the son of this car's owner. He in turn introduced me to his dad, Rob Stevens, who operates Bluffs Insurance here in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. It's about this point that small town amazement emerges, since I, a certified car buff, had never seen, let alone talked to this car and its owner. We talked for a while and eventually set up a date where I could take some photos with better atmosphere and lighting.
Driving the '65
To my surprise, when Rob appeared in the Dart, he immediately got out and offered me the keys. Classic car owners are (rightfully) very jealous with their vehicles because even a scratch can be hours of labor and parts hunting. Rob had no such compunctions and let me get in and drive.
The transmission is slightly different than I'm used to and having spent so much time double-clutching, transitioning to a standard automotive trans is always a problem for me. I got the idea quick enough, though, and we took it out on the highway and onto the beautiful open roads Wyoming is infamous for. I soon realized that this old car has a lot of grace on the pavement as it floats along (on its original shocks!). It doesn't beg you to mash the accelerator down and actually, somehow, encourages eco-driving. In a car built years before I was born and well before any fuel saving eco-craze had hit, this is a dream.
The seating and comfort are high, as is usual with older cars with spring-set buckets or benches and soft body roll inherent in the suspension. In fact, the only two things on Rob's Dart that aren't original to its 1965 factory release are the paint (a new coat of red) and the vinyl cover for the convertible top which was neatly tucked away behind the back seats. Everything, down to the shocks, trim, and more were all as they were in 1965 when this car exited the factory in Detroit and headed for the dealership.
Later, once we began shooting photographs, Rob told me more about this car. He found it for sale after its having sat in a garage. The seller's husband had died and she had decided to find it a new home. Despite having been garaged for a long amount of time, it fired right up. Rob brought it home and soon after had it painted. He's owned it since the 1980s and has loved every minute of it.
Those who attend a classic car show are used to seeing the 1960-1970 lineups of cars that are usually one of two things: huge road cruisers like Cadillac and Galaxie or muscle cars like the GTO and Impala SS. Rarely are the everyday cars, the ones that regular people actually drove, the showpieces. Yet examples of both innovation and forward-thinking are common in these "normal" cars of the era. The Dart is a good representation of this, with its excellent economy and built-to-last workmanship.
Sitting in this car, compared to the others mentioned, is a very different and more compelling experience. These were the cars that people like my parents, your parents, or even yourself drove. This was your everyday commuter, your daily driver, your affordable four wheels with dependability as an expectation. These weren't the cars that the gear heads tinkered with, the high school jocks raced in, or the celebrities wrecked on wild weekends. Instead, these were the cars adorning the average American driveway, being purchased as a first car for a young person headed off to college, or being bought as a second car for mom or dad to drive because the family had the means to afford another auto.
In that seat, you realize that while this car may not have starred in any major motion pictures or had famous Hollywood faces seen through its windshield with a blue screen of fake roadway behind them, it has a feel that is much more authentic. It's history, in your hands and under your tush. Your feet touch pedals that respond not with screaming power, but with thoughts of gliding, cruising, taking your best girl to the bluff or carrying baby and groceries home from the market. It cries for open highway not so you can stomp the pedal and see how much rubber will burn, but so you can sit back, relax, hold the wheel with one hand and put your other on your girl's knee and just drive. Drive forever, thanks to the high mileage it offers, and drive in style thanks to the beautiful suspension of yesteryear.
That's the Dart that I drove. Cars today could learn from that. Fuel efficiency is one thing, but a beautiful experience to go with it? That's the a la mode.
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