Click, eBay. Nope. Click, owners’ forums. Nothing of interest. Click, PistonHeads. Zilch. Gumtree, nada. Autotrader, nowt. And lo, the cycle did repeat ad infinitum. My evenings had become endlessly repetitive trawls of the same websites, magazines and forums.
I was searching, in vain it seemed, for a new car. The net was cast far and wide, even encompassing classified sites for mainland Europe, but little was compelling me to part with my money. The frustration was palpable.
Part of the problem was that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted. Rarely had I set out to buy one particular car, instead usually just parachuting into whatever piqued my curiosity at the time. The past few years had seen me go from an E34-generation BMW M5 into a 1968 Pontiac Firebird, before settling for a while with a Lancia Delta Integrale. There had even been a quick dabble with a remarkably unmolested high-mileage Fiero, just out of pure curiosity, and a brief spell with a Jaguar XJ.
My only quantifiable thoughts about my next purchase were that, whatever the car was, it had to have a real sense of occasion to it. Something so capable that it was otherwise humdrum unless piloted like it was being pursued by a heat-seeking missile didn't appeal, either; I wanted to be able to be able to revel in the experience without having to fear for my licence.
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That said, and in a slightly contradictory fashion, the odd Nissan Skyline grabbed my attention; I had wanted to own a clean R32 GT-R for a long time, preferably before they became too expensive - or extinct. The sight of that twin-turbo straight six stretching from nose to bulkhead never failed to raise a smile, and all the reports suggested that they were quite mechanical-feeling and engaging cars.
I had the disconcerting feeling, on the flip side, that even if I bought an immaculate R32, it wouldn’t treat me well. The thought of hearing a knock from deep within the motor following a hefty dose of boost gave me The Fear, and ultimately I wanted something I could hammer on without having to wonder when it’d turn itself into a cloud of red-hot shrapnel.
Compounding that concern, the worry of a four-figure invoice being generated at the drop of a bolt was one of the reasons I'd sold my Lancia. I felt continuing to drive it in a proper fashion would lead to it depleting my finances comprehensively, which wasn't an appealing or enjoyable state of affairs. I didn't, at the end of the day, have an endless pot.
The oscillation between myriad classified pages seemed set to continue indefinitely, until, click, I looked more closely at the Mopar Muscle Association UK’s forum. It was one of several muscle car-related sites that I regularly revisited, but most cars featured commanded serious money. As much as I loved the idea of owning an immaculate 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Six Pack, I didn’t have £50k to spend on one. I'd capped myself at £10,000, at a push, but I wanted a little left over so I could make the car my own and ensure it was in fine fettle.
The idea of buying another muscle car, or at least an American classic, locked a little more securely into my mind, however. The looks, the noise, the charisma, all those gratifying sensations they deliver just rolling down the road, were just what I was looking for. Plus it would likely be a car I could easily work on and upgrade, lending the concept further appeal.
Buried among the listings on the site was a 1968 Dodge Charger - yes, the same year as the one featured in 'Bullit'. I’d glanced over it a few days prior and dismissed it because it had been parked for a decade and the seller was asking £15,000 for it. I didn’t have £15,000, for starters, and I wasn't keen on the idea of another project which would entail further expenditure. Pushing the budget for an unknown quantity seemed masochistic, too, so I parked the idea and moved on.
I made another cup of tea and set about wading through a few other options. A clean RX-7 came and went, a tidy E36 M3 saloon nudged onto my radar, another V8-engined Triumph 2000 prompted a smile, but something odd was happening. Unconsciously, I was going back to the Dodge’s advert intermittently, my brain seemingly attempting to assimilate any unseen details and build a stronger case for it.
The effort wasn’t in vain; I stumbled across a gallery of pictures showing the car through the ages, including a moderate restoration in the late Nineties. It looked a very straight, honest example. A rarity, in that respect, given that many American classics have been so hacked about that there’s rarely an untouched wire or factory panel on them. It wasn't a matching numbers car, having its original 383-cubic inch V8 replaced by a later 440, and it had been through a few colour changes, but it was otherwise unmodified.
The more I thought about it, the more it tugged on the former muscle-car owner strings in my heart. So, just out of interest, I got a pen and some paper and went searching for previously sold Chargers in the UK and Europe. I jotted down the asking price or sale figures for the 16 similar cars I found and tallied an average of £28,000.
A last-minute discovery of a satin black ’68 in the UK for £25,000 further suggested that the £15,000 asking price for this Dodge wasn’t unreasonable. Surely I could get it going for the difference, and perhaps even stand to profit, if I did have to sell it?
Furthermore, £15,000 didn’t actually seem to get much in the way of a sought-after mainstream muscle car in today's market. It might get you into a clean notchback Mustang, a mint Buick or countless Seventies' classics, but they didn't appeal to the same extent. I’d sold my ’68 Firebird for £13,000 and suspected, even though it wasn’t quite on the same page as the prime collector's choices, that it too was probably worth more now. After all, everyone was buying up the popular cars, forcing the price of the less well-known examples up.
I then made the dangerous decision to pay Summit Racing’s website a visit and totted up the prices for a complete suspension rebuild, new brakes and some other light restoration work. Putting further pen to paper suggested I could get the whole thing rolling, provided the powertrain was good, for about £3000. Click, my bank’s website. Click, yes, we will loan you some money. I could take all of my savings, totalling some £12,500, and borrow £7500. The finances, at a glance, appeared viable.
By this point I was in the dangerous position of a) having convinced myself I could do it and that b) it was a good idea. Phrases like “Mopar or no Car” began bounding around my Dodge-addled brain. Lots of interest in the car was now being expressed online, too, adding gallons of high-octane to my already brightly burning Charger-shaped fire. “It’s a steal,” said one forum member. “Assume the gentleman has had his arm bitten off for this,” added another.
I could feel my dreams of burbling around Teddington sinking at a vast rate of knots, so I picked up the phone. It was still for sale, and after half an hour’s chat with the owner, Steve, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what the car was like. Somewhat annoyingly, it sounded really rather good. For the sake of my own sanity, if nothing else, I arranged to have a look at it. I had to satisfy my curiosity.
Spool forward a few days and I’m standing in front of a closed single-car garage in Dunstable. I ring the doorbell and Steve, a very amiable gentleman, greets me. We chat about the car as he grabs hold of the bottom of the garage door. He swings it open in one swoop and, uh-oh, I'm in trouble. In the shadows, pressed hard up against one wall, is all 17-feet-plus of 1968 Dodge Charger. It looked, quite frankly, amazing – and it immediately exceeded my expectations.
I donned my sensible hat, swallowed my initial excitement, and inspected the car as best I could. Truth be told, I found little to ring any alarm bells. Structurally the car appeared sound, the paintwork was bright, the panels were straight and even the interior was in pretty good shape. After all, the Charger had survived for 47 years, so there had to be some integrity to it.
The 7.2-litre V8’s sump was admittedly wet with oil and, similarly, the transmission appeared to be losing a little ATF from the front and rear seals, but the mechanical side of things would be comparatively easy to deal with. Given that it had been parked so long I wasn’t surprised to find it a little wet underneath anyway, given that seals tended to shrink and wither following extended periods of disuse. The brakes were shot, too, but that was entirely predictable and the least of my concerns.
A quick check of the vital fluids revealed them to be passable. The oil was glitter-free, the transmission fluid was dirty but not burnt, and the coolant was clear. Much to my surprise, Steve then offered to fire the engine up. He hooked up the battery, pumped the pedal, cranked the key and – despite being stone cold – the 440 thundered into an erratic idle. I was already using my phone and its flash to snap clearer shots of the underside of the car and managed to grab the moment the Dodge fired up on video.
The oil pressure gauge sprang to life, indicating that the main bearings didn’t have clearances wide enough to drive a truck through. Outside of clearly needing a thorough service, fresh fuel and a new exhaust manifold gasket on one bank, it appeared mechanically sound. Proof, I thought, of life. I could work with this.
With the engine shut down, I flicked through the car’s history, checked that it hadn’t been written off, and chatted to Steve about its value. He had reputedly fielded a considerable amount of calls and emails about the Charger, and had even declined an offer of £14,000 for the car over the phone. That was the bar set, then; it was £15,000 or bust.
I told him I’d sleep on it, the price tag and restoration costs causing me some discontent, and thanked him for its time. This was not a decision to be made on the spot, regardless of how much I wanted it. However, in my heart, I had the feeling that this was a good car, and one I shouldn't pass up. I hadn't seen a '68 Charger for a long time, let alone ever been in the position to actually buy one.
My alarm went off at 6AM sharp the next day, but I was already wide awake and obsessing over potential Dodge plans. I could put it here, order these, do this, get it going; it was a non-stop train of thought that was barrelling along uncontrollably. It would be the single most expensive purchase I had ever made in my life, though, and I was very tentative about spending such significant sums.
So I did what any self-respecting petrolhead would do, and called my mother. She opined the very level-headed assessment that if I had looked at it, and judged it a sound car, then it was. Based on the figures presented, she also didn’t think I could do any wrong by getting into it. Yes, someone else approved of the idea. That triggered a mental green light, and I immediately picked up the phone.
All I could think was that Steve was going to say: “I’m sorry, someone’s already taken it.” But they hadn’t, and couldn’t, because I’d beaten them to the punch. I savoured my last few moments of being financially solvent, nervously stamped my feet, and tried to steady my voice. “I’ll take it.”