If there's one vehicle platform in all of Chrysler's history that combines the best examples of engineering, styling, quality, performance, and bang-for-the buck, it's the A-Body. That's why you still see a lot of A-Body Dodges and Plymouths over three decades after the last one rolled off the St. Louis assembly plant.
Plymouth's sales success with...
Plymouth's sales success with the Duster body meant a Dodge version wasn't long in coming. Demon joined the Dodge lineup for 1971, with a 340-powered model available. As you can see from this Chrysler press photo, they were capitalizing on the name that would soon be banished.
Here, we're going to take a quick look at the history of one of the best vehicle platforms ever done by Mother Mopar.
Chrysler started development of its all-new compact in May 1957-code-named Project A-901-amid security so tight that a lot of Chrysler folks back then thought it was another top secret project for the military. During their initial research, Mopar engineers actually studied the rear-engine layout used by VW and the small-car-building techniques that France's SIMCA used. (Chrysler would later buy SIMCA.) Also during that time, word leaked of GM's rollover problems with the prototype Corvair, which led Chrysler to get far away from a rear-engine/rear-drive configuration and focus again on a front-engine/rear-drive one that would be anything but conventional.
Before A-901 got the green light for production, nearly two dozen prototypes and 57 experimental engines were built. Between them, 750 million test miles were logged. Chrysler engineers also used another tool-the highest-tech one around-the computer. Mathematically, the new small-car's structural components were designed and tested with an eye to reducing noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) from levels found not only in small cars of the time, but also found in standard-size and luxury cars.
The first Valiant was sold...
The first Valiant was sold as its own brand at Dodge De Soto and Chrysler dealers in 1960. Exner-styled sedans and wagons boasted Mopar's first Slant Sixes, alternators, dip-and-spray rust protection, and the Highland Park Hummingbird starter motor.
Virgil Exner's stylists were busy designing a four-door sedan and four-door wagon. He rejected the idea of making it a shrunken Plymouth, the way Ford was doing with its coming-for-'60 compact. His goal was a car that was small on the outside, with plenty of room inside for passengers and luggage, and with a look all its own. The result was a long-hooded, sloping-short-decked sedan that reflected the themes seen in Exner's Ghia-built "idea cars" of the '50s.
Styling had a hand in the new car's engine design; the all-new, overhead-valve, inline six was leaned 30 degrees to the car's right to lower the hood line. Thus, the "Slant Six" was born. It would also carry Chrysler's first-ever alternator, which allowed the electrical system to charge the battery any time the engine ran, especially at idle. And a new gear-reduction starter was developed; its characteristic high-pitched sound-nicknamed the Highland Park Hummingbird--would become a Mopar trademark when it was made standard in all Chrysler cars in 1962. Another innovation that debuted on the Valiant before it went company wide: multi-step dip-and-spray primer/rust preventive coatings that went on before paint.
The A-Body got its first major...
The A-Body got its first major restyling in 1963. Exner's peaked fenders were replaced with Elwood Engel's trademark slab sides and tall roof line. The year 1963 was the first year of Chrysler's 5-year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty-an industry first.
Originally, Chrysler planned to use the name Falcon, taken from an Exner-styled/Ghia-built two-seater that appeared in 1955. Unfortunately, Ford had registered that name after Mopar's Idea Car finished its show run, so Ma Mopar came up with another name-Valiant-that was decided on after a survey of over 2,000 car owners in 15 American cities was conducted.
The result was a small car that was very well received, not only by the motoring press, who praised its room, quietness, handling, and performance, but also by the buying public.
In 1963, the A-Body got its first major re-style that gave the A-Body a slab-sided look, thanks to Chrysler styling boss, Elwood Engel. This was his first major design project since he succeeded Virgil Exner in 1961. The Dodge version was renamed the Dart, and the Lancer name was retired until the '80s. A convertible body style was added that year, and the aluminum Slant Six block option was offered for the last time. The LA series V-8, in 273-inch form, joined the option list on January 1, 1964. The A-833 four-speed also joined the list, with a Hurst shifter. The Barracuda sport-fastback version of Valiant joined the Plymouth lineup on April 1, nearly three weeks before Ford's Mustang went on sale.
In 1965, a high-performance version of the 273, with 10.5 compression, solid-lifter cam, and a Carter AVS four-barrel, joined the Valiant and Dart option lists. Rated at 235 hp at 5,200 rpm, the HP version added just shy of $100 to the bottom line. Over at Plymouth, the Barracuda, with its fastback styling, also was available with the optional 273 four-barrel V-8.
Another Engel-led restyle...
Another Engel-led restyle for 1967 gave the Valiant and Dart lines similar to big-brother B- and C-Bodies. The Valiant was a sedan-only starting in 1967, with the Barracuda getting the hardtop and convertible configurations. The 383 became optional during the '67 model year.
The year 1965 also saw the introduction of a limited production Dart model that could be ordered as the D-Dart; so named for the class of racing it was intended to participate in: D/Stock. This ultimate racing Dart would have its steel body panels replaced with fiberglass ones made for Dodge by a company called Fibercraft. The switch shaved 400 pounds off the car. A four-speed manual transmission with a Weber clutch and a Sure-Grip 8 3/4-inch rear with a 4.86:1 axle ratio was also part of the D package. A heavy-duty suspension rounded out the upgrades on cars that came to be called the D/Dart. Owners of ordinary Darts could contact Chrysler's Parts Division to convert their cars to a D spec.
Dodge called the D/Dart a "regular production line" car, but cautioned that "Due to the expected use of these vehicles, no warranty coverage applies."
In 1966, with a major re-do upcoming for 1967, new grilles were the only major change in appearance. An "S" version of the Dart (similar to the "Formula S" Barracuda) featured the hi-po 273, four-speed transmission, and plenty of heavy-duty chassis and suspension pieces offered as a factory option to make the cars competitive and legal in production-based racing classes at the drags and in road racing (most notably SCCA's A/Sedan class and in SCCA's Trans-American Sedan Challenge Series, which first ran in 1966).
The new Duster coupe body...
The new Duster coupe body was unveiled for 1970, replacing the boxtop Valiant sedan. The Duster 340 included a High-Performance LA-series V-8 that first saw A-Body duty in 1968.
A major re-design marked the year 1967. The Dart and Valiant wagons were discontinued, and Plymouth moved hardtop and convertible A-Bodies into the Barracuda lineup, making the Valiant a sedan-only. This was the year that Chicago Dodge dealer "Mr. Norm" Kraus put a 383 into a '67 Dart hardtop, and then drove it to Detroit to show the Dodge Division brass that it could be done. Before the end of the model year, the 383 was a factory option in the Barracuda and Dart, without power steering.
In 1968, a new high-performance small-block-the 340-inch LA engine-joined the Dart and Barracuda option list. This was also the year the Dart GTS appeared. And to completely knock the wind out of Ford and Chevy at the dragstrip, 50 Dart hardtops and 59 Barracuda fastbacks were pulled off the Hamtramck assembly line as partial vehicles and shipped to Hurst for 426 Race Hemi conversions. That was also the year TV detective Mannix started driving a modified Dart GTS convertible.
In 1969, the Dart hardtop model was renamed Swinger. The budget-muscle Swinger 340 was added to the Dart lineup, alongside the Dart GTS. A 'Cuda option package was added to the Barracuda, while the Formula S package was dropped. The big 440 was offered as an option in the Dart GTS and 'Cuda models during the model run, alongside the 383. This was the last year for the boxtop two-door sedan body style and the 170-inch Slant Six.
For 1961, the Valiant moved...
For 1961, the Valiant moved into the Plymouth lineup, and Dodge got its own version-the Lancer. Both lines offered two-door sedan and hardtop models that year, and an optional aluminum block for the Slant Six.
In 1970, the Duster coupe was added to the Valiant lineup and replaced the boxtop two-door sedan, and Dodge did likewise for the Swinger Special hardtop. A Duster 340 model appeared in the Valiant lineup, and the 318-inch LA succeeded the 273 as the standard V-8. Standard Slant Six displacement was stroked to 198 ci, and with the arrival of the E-Body that year, the 383 and 440 engine options (and all A-Body convertibles) were discontinued. Mannix switched to an E-Body convertible.
The year 1971 didn't see many design changes, but Dodge did get its version of the newly styled A-Body: the Demon. Also in 1971, the Valiant got its own version of a hardtop: the Scamp. This marked the first Valiant hardtop since 1966. The Demon 340 replaced the Swinger 340 in the Dart lineup.
It was a tough year in 1972, as this was the last year for the high-compression 340. Fuel economy was getting more attention by all the Big Three. The only visible change in the A-Body was a new grille for the Dart, Swinger, and Demon.
For the 1973 model year, the Demon was renamed the Dart Sport because of pressure from certain religious groups. The matte-black hood was dropped, but the other trim details continued. This also marked the first year for federally mandated 5-mph front bumper and 2 1/2-mph rear bumper damage-resistance as standard fare. The electronic ignition system became standard, and the 340 got a compression cut. The new Torsion Quiet Ride added more chassis rubber, and non-Slant-Six-powered A-Bodies switched to the same (large) wheel bolt-pattern as the B-Body and E-Body cars. A manual sunroof and a fold-down rear seat joined the Duster/Dart Sport option lists. This was the last year for the 198-inch Slant Six. This would also be the last year for the Scamp/Swinger's front vent windows.
In 1974, the federally mandated bumper standards toughen to 5 mph for the front and rear, necessitating a rearend restyle to sedans, Swingers, and Scamps. The 225 was now the only Slant Six offered. The 340 was replaced by a four-barrel-equipped 360, and the oil shortage in October 1973 all but killed Chrysler's big car sales only a month after the newly styled C-Body was introduced. Luckily, A-Body car sales picked up the slack. The extra-plush Valiant Brougham and Dart Special Edition models were offered as hardtops and sedans that appeared at midyear and stayed in the A-Body lineup through 1976.
In 1975, even tougher federal emission-standards lead to catalytic converters on Slant Six and 318 V-8s (the 318 was available with an air pump/cat-delete option in all states except California). The Duster 360 and Dart Sport 360 had dual exhausts without cats, but were 49-state-only cars and not sold in California. The "Hang 10" dcor option was offered on the Dart Sport. Despite sales success, A-Body cars were overproduced, leading to an industry first use of rebates to buyers (Chrysler Car Clearance Carnival) in the spring of 1975.
In 1976, with the introduction of the F-Body (Volare/Aspen), marketing and promotion of the A-Body lineup was curtailed, leading to a big sales drop. The Feather Duster and Dart Lite models were added with lightweight body components, Slant Six engines, economy-geared OD four-speeds and rearends. The Duster 360 and Dart Sport 360 models were discontinued, but the powertrain and chassis hardware was offered as an E58 package that was optional on any A-Body. Police versions of the Dart and Valiant sedans were offered, and most were built with Slant Six or 318 V-8s. The 360-powered Dart Sport finished a strong second in Car & Driver magazine's National Civil Disobedience Test, well ahead of the 455-powered Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and 302-powered Ford Mustang II Based Cobra II. A-Body production ceased with the end of the '76 model year.
Chrysler Assembly Plants That Built The A-Body
(Courtesy of Allpar.com)
Former Dodge Main plant
Opened 1914; closed 1980
A-Body production 1960-1975
- Valiant 1960-'75
- Lancer 1961-'62
- Dart 1963-'75
- Barracuda 1964-'69
St. Louis (Fenton), Missouri
Opened 1959; still in operation
A-Body production 1960-1976
- Valiant 1960-'65, 1973-'76
- Lancer 1961-'62
- Dart 1963-'65, 1973-'76
Los Angeles (Bellflower), California
Opened 1932; closed 1971
A-Body production 1960-1971
- Valiant 1960-'71
- Lancer 1961-'62
- Dart 1963-'71
- Barracuda 1964-'66, 1969
Newark, DelawareFormer tank plant converted to car production in 1957; slated for closure in 2008
A-Body production 1960-1964
- Valiant 1960-'64, 1974-'75
- Dart 1974-'75
Windsor, Ontario Chrysler Centre plant
Opened 1928; still in operation
A-Body production 1960-1975
- Valiant 1960-'65, 1969-'75
- Dart 1965-'66, 1969-'75
Small-car buyers had this...
Small-car buyers had this top-of-the-line Dart GT hardtop among their Dodge picks for 1963. Beneath the bright work was The Leaning Tower of Power, offered for the last time with an optional aluminum block.
Early A-Bodies-especially hardtops like this '64 Valiant Signet-are naturals for restification. Don't those small-bolt-pattern Rallyes look good? The V8 fender badge means there's an LA-series small-block under the hood-a 360 or 340 fits just like the stock 273 does.
Barracuda beat the Mustang...
Barracuda beat the Mustang to the market by nearly three weeks in 1964. Seen here is a '65 Formula S Barracuda, which boasted an optional Hi-Po 273 with a solid lifter camshaft, Carter AVS 4-barrel, and 235 hp.
One of the most over-looked,...
One of the most over-looked, yet hottest, colors available were Panther Pink and Moulin Rouge (depending on whether you ordered a Dodge or Plymouth). The color was the same, just a different name. The Duster/Demon/Dart Sport body was a natural for drag racers back in the day, and Hemi-powered A-Bodies were early Pro Stock stalwarts.
Dodge's Dart Swinger hardtop...
Dodge's Dart Swinger hardtop was a low-priced steady seller through the '70s, whether it was dressed up with an Easy Order Package, which included a 904 TorqueFlite at no extra charge, or as a base Swinger Special, or even as a 340-powered budget musclecar in 1970.
In 1969, the 340-powered GTS...
In 1969, the 340-powered GTS offered a little flash and usually the power of the 340. If you wanted more power back then, you ordered a 383 or a 440 instead of the 340. If you wanted a Hemi-powered A-Body from Ma Mopar, you had to be named Landy or Sox, or someone who raced with 'em.