Have you been dreaming of owning a classic muscle car? Do you imagine working on your old car, learning everything there is to know about it, and impressing all your friends? Can you picture yourself going out for a cruise and being the envy of your entire neighborhood?
You may have been bit by the muscle car bug! We can't blame you: American cars of the 60s and 70s are, after all, undeniably cool. Some of them even make great first project cars.
Owning your first muscle car may not be the most logical dream, but there is a rational way to choose the right vehicle for you. There are three variables in choosing your perfect first muscle car: cost, ease to work on/reliability, and coolness factor. The Dodge Dart ranks at the top of its class in all three.
Read on to find out how the Dart—and all the Dodge and Plymouth A-Body pony cars—makes the best first muscle car.
The Dodge Dart Story
In 1960 Mopar (Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler) introduced two product lines, destined to merge. The first was the Dodge Dart: their smallest full-size sedan. Mopar cobbled together the first Dart to fill a market gap after discontinuing DeSoto. The vehicle would struggle to gain a foothold. It received three redesigns and trim-level renamings in three years! Some called the 1962 Dart the ugliest car of its time.
In 1960, Mopar had also been researching the small car market. The company had assigned an economical compact to its down-market Plymouth division. Instead of continuing body-on-frame construction, they spared no expense in engineering a brand new "unibody" chassis. Mopar even ran their first computerized tests to eliminate vibration and noise. They invented a brand new powerplant, the stalwart slant six engine. Finally, the company gave famed designer Virgil Exner free reign over the vehicle when he suggested a more "European" look.
The result of all the research and hard work? The Plymouth Valiant: one of Mopar's best-sellers for an incredible 15 years.
The little Plymouth proved roomie, stylish, fuel-efficient, and reliable. It sold as everything from a sedan, to a coupe, to a convertible, to a station wagon. By 1963 Dodge decided to take the same chassis, wrap their own sheet metal around it, and brand it as a new sport-compact: the 1963 Dodge Dart. The smallest family of Mopar cars were named the A-bodies (Larger cars were given monikers farther along the alphabet).
In 1964, Mopar offered both cars with small-block V8s. Plymouth offered a fastback option of the Valiant: The Barracuda. (Arguably inventing the pony car segment a few weeks before the Mustang's release). As the horsepower wars of the 60s raged, both Dodge and Plymouth built A-bodies with larger engines, four-speed transmissions with Hurst shifters, and flashier trim.
In 1970, the Barracuda would move to a larger chassis and begin the E-Body family. The same year, Plymouth created the Duster to be their fastest A-Body. Dodge's sportiest two-door would change names from the Swinger, to the Demon, and finally the Dart Sport.
In the mid-1970s, stricter emissions standards and high gas prices ushered in the end of the horsepower wars, the muscle car era, and the A-Body lineup. You can find an extensive history of the A-body family on HotRod.com.
Classic Cars At Bargain Prices
Muscle cars are becoming collectible, and many muscle cars are getting prohibitively expensive to own. If you want to buy your first muscle car, your first expense is the purchase price. A second hidden expense is the cost of locating and buying parts. A third, often overlooked expense is insurance.
A glance at the 15 most expensive Mustangs and Camaros to ever sell at auction, makes it clear that pony cars are gaining value. But many collectors are focused only on Fords or Chevies. While bowties and blue ovals have all the attention, some smaller Mopars are left alone. When HotRod.com magazine listed the best Mopar muscle deals, A-bodies were high on their cheap Mopar muscle list. Dusters and Darts were mentioned in our how to build a classic car for cheap guide. A-bodies also made our list of ten classic muscle cars you can buy dirt cheap.
The ubiquitous six-cylinder and automatic transmission Darts and Valiants often sell for under five thousand. The high-end V8 cars can understandably command a higher price.
A glance at the North American Dealer Association's car price guides gives us an idea of how much more:
The 1970 Dart Swinger is listed with an average resale value of $7,00 and a high-end resale of $11,000. A groovy 1964 Dart convertible is showing an average resale of $10,700. Finally, a 1967 Plymouth Barracuda is commanding an average resale of $14,000.
You want to avoid any of the classic muscle cars that will cost you a fortune in repairs. But because Mopar sold hundreds of thousands of A-Bodies over fifteen years, parts are relatively easy to find. They are also much cheaper than parts for other cars of the era. Whether you want new seats, a fender, or a beefier axle: major components are often only a junkyard away. You can even find mechanics who remember how to work on old A-bodies.
Finally, insuring an old car can be expensive. Sometimes there is no budget insurance option. But some insurance companies classify certain A-bodies not as muscle cars but as older budget cars, and insurance costs can be relatively low.
A Legendary Drivetrain
In the late 1950s, Mopar was working on an efficient, reliable, inline six-cylinder engine. To make room for the low hood of the stylish Valiant, engineers slanted the cylinder bank thirty degrees, and the slant six was born.
Mopar designed the engine to be cast from aluminum. But when high-quality metal was difficult to source, they went with cast iron. The result was an overbuilt powerplant with a reputation for lasting forever. The slant six repeatedly makes "best engines of all time" lists. Hemmings' even covered the legendary slant six.
In A-bodies, Mopar mated this slant six to a three-speed Torqueflite automatic, which would prove itself on the race track and become sought after for drag builds. Motorheads can tell you that both automatic and manual transmissions have their pros and cons. This low end "budget" drivetrain is easy to work on and incredibly reliable. Just look at how many of these cars are still driving today!
The unibody construction created a lightweight, nimble vehicle for its age. Eventually, Plymouth would introduce the incredible Formula S suspension package for sports car performance. An old Mopar won't corner like a modern sports car, but an A-Body will feel less "boatlike" than the even larger muscle cars.
Finally, the sixties and seventies saw numerous engine upgrades and race-ready "four-on-the-floor" transmissions. Lightweight A-bodies are available with several drag-race dominating Hemi engines. Read more about the secret origins of the Hemi engine.
One fantastic by-product of such a mechanically superior vehicle is its die-hard fan base. If you choose a first muscle car with a built-in community of enthusiasts, it will be easier to find cars, find parts, get advice, and meet people for a cruise.
If you want to make your muscle car dreams come true, don't hesitate to sign up for this A Bodies Only forum. Share your hopes for owning a classic car, ask advice about which one to buy, and check the classifieds often.
The Coolest Darts Of All
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: Do you want a fastback, a convertible, or even a station wagon? Your perfect A-body is up to you. Here are a few notable models and years.
1963-65 Dart Convertible
When I first moved to California, I bought a 1963 convertible Dart. As a bonus, the convertibles have stiffer bodies and are lighter weight than the hardtops. Even a 225 slant six makes enough power to squeak the back wheels. Through the 1964 model year, the automatic transmissions are operated by pushing a series of buttons in the dash, which is a quirky, unique feature. These cars are available in many eye-catching colors. I challenge you to find a cheaper, more reliable first muscle car that boasts as many smiles per mile.
1967-69 Plymouth Barracuda
The styling of the Plymouth Barracuda really hit its stride with the second generation. These are beautiful, eye-catching, and often underrated muscle cars. You get the name-brand of the Barracuda wrapped around a lightweight, powerful A-body. Check out this gorgeous example filmed by Petrolicious.
1970-75 Dusters and Darts
If you want classic muscle car styling, look no further than a two-door fastback Dodge Dart or Plymouth Duster from the 1970s. These cars look mean. And they came with the muscle to back it up: There wasn't much on the 1970s streets that could keep up with a Hemi-powered A-body, with a four-speed Hurst shifter. If John Wick ever chooses to drive an A-body, he'll opt for one of these.
Drive What You Love
Whatever type of car you dream of owning, keep the triangle in mind: cost, ease to work on/reliability, and coolness factor. Within most categories of vehicles, you can find a more cost-effective make and model. Make sure parts are available in your budget so that you can care for your car properly. Check if there is a supportive community to help you on your journey.
Finally, choose something you love. When you park it and walk away, do you have to look back and smile? If your vehicle brings you joy, driving it and working on it will never be a chore. With the right old car, every challenge and quirk is just a new adventure.