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Farewell, Dodge Challenger: paying tribute to a V8 street-racing legend

America’s maddest muscle car deserves a eulogy. But the inspiration behind the final Dodge Challenger is murkier than you’d think

Published: 15 Apr 2024

I've never done a burnout. It's time to drop a tactical nuke on that cherry. Handily for the 32-year-old burnout virgin, the Dodge Challenger has a mode solely dedicated to tyre vandalism. Tap ‘line lock’ in the touchscreen. Stamp on the brake pedal until an approved pressure is acquired. Now hold ‘OK’ on the steering wheel and gingerly release the left pedal. The rear brakes relax, while my thumb keeps the fronts pinned. Our photographer and videographer signal they're ready. Quick glance over my shoulder for cops. The Californian coast is clear. Briefly. 

Three seconds later it's opaque with smoke. There was a sickening lurch as the throttle was mashed, then the car stood dead still and mercilessly marmalised its Pirellis. This is it! I'm a burnout king! ’Murica, f*** yeah!

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Having never done a burnout, no one told me when you’re supposed to stop. Have we got the shot yet? Does line lock mode have a time limit? Will the supercharged V8 overheat, or does the charger belt whip through the bonnet before the tyres burst? Ahh, give it a couple more seconds... There, that oughta do it. Especially as the car is now ingesting smoke as fast as it creates it.

Photography: Mark Fagelson & Qualls family

Since 2008, I wonder how many people have seared two divots into the road sat in a Challenger? Almost 857,000 were sold in its 15-year life, which came to an end on 22 December 2023 when the final example rumbled off the line in Brampton, Ontario. Yep. The quintessential 21st century American muscle car is actually as Canadian as Ryan Reynolds smearing maple syrup over Justin Bieber. On mooseback.

Such popularity is remarkable, given it's an enormous yet cramped, unsophisticated, heavy, thirsty, wayward throwback, riding on the bones of a late Nineties Merc wondering what in God’s name happened to it. But it’s absolutely crackers when you remember this isn’t a worldwide crowd pleaser like a RAV4 or Model 3. It’s only sold in the US, Canada and a handful in Mexico. Last year the USA bought 55,000 – 6,000 more sales than Britain’s bestselling car, the practical, frugal, sensible Ford Puma.

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Rewind to 2005: Dodge has been acquired by DaimlerChrysler, and the Germans are dead set on churning out SUVs. Dodge’s designers decided to ignore the board’s demands and dragged a purple 1970 Challenger into their California studio, where it promptly leaked transmission fluid all over the floor.

 

Four interpretations for a modern homage were dreamt up, ranging from a proposal with only diluted hints of the original in the details to Michael Castiglione’s faithful (if inflated) shape.

His was the eventual winner of the internal ruckus, and a full-scale concept stunned the Detroit motor show in 2006. Moustachioed CEO Dr Zetsche reckoned allowing the designers the slack of doing a one-off would keep them on side, but the public’s reaction upon debut was full-blown Dodgemania.

Luckily, Chrysler Corp had a platform oven ready: the ‘LX’ architecture busy underpinning the new 300C. It was a proper hodgepodge, splicing bits of Merc S-Class front suspension, the diff, rear suspension and sleepy stability control off the bugeyed E-Class and a Hemi V8 from the hot 300C pumping out 425bhp. But once brewed into a new two-door costing five bucks under $38k, no one was complaining.

And here’s the nub of what fascinates me about the Challenger. The car was an afterthought. Dated when it arrived slapbang into a global recession. Despite that, it’s outlived two generations of Mustang and Camaro. It’s swerved being ‘reimagined’ into an SUV. In a decade and a half of increasing eco-mindedness, social and safety consciousness and political correctness, this dinosaur hasn’t just survived. It’s absolutely thrived. And supersized the horsepower.

Top Gear's had previous adventures with Challengers. We loved the SRT8. We thought we’d met the final boss in 2015, with the 707bhp Hellcat. No way, buddy. In 2019 Dodge became the first carmaker in history to sell a factory production model powerful enough to pop a wheelie. The 840bhp Demon was so quick America’s drag racing governing body banned it. It was replaced by a more sensible 797bhp Hellcat Redeye. They’re good at tasty names, aren’t they? Last off the line was a Demon 170, which tickled power beyond 1,000 horses, via a 3.0-litre supercharger. Some swansong.

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And now it’s dead. Dodge tentatively showcased an electric replacement featuring a billion gigawatt speaker prolapsing from the back bumper to predictable fury. Perhaps sensing the febrile mood, the veteran Challenger bowed out with a set of ‘Last Call’ final editions. Among them was a batch of 300 only available in black. And its story is so irresistible that burnout or no burnout, I was desperate to drive it.

By a monumental margin it’s the most overpowered car I’ve ever experienced. The Windows XP traction control is hopelessly overwhelmed by even modest lashings of throttle, so the big bad Dodge spools up its tyres through fourth and fifth. The upshifts arrive when the yawning gearbox is good ’n’ ready, not when you flap at the weeny paddleshifters. Eight gears is overkill anyway – two would be fine. Brits have rubbished American cars for only being good at going in a straight line. In the psycho Dodge, you’re doing well to manage that.

Somehow, what’s lurking under the bonnet (an 807bhp tune of the 6.2-litre V8) isn’t the best bit. It’s the details. Note the pins restraining that bonnet. The loopy ‘Challenger’ script in the grille. DODGE badging front and centre. Spot the wraparound white tail stripe, the scaley roof skin. Among Challengers, this is God. Father, son and holy ghost rolled into one.

Let’s rewind again, to 1969. Setting: Detroit, Michigan. Motown’s glory days as a powerhouse of car and music making are in the rearview mirror, and the riot-scarred city is on the precipice of a societal abyss. But it’s a few years until the oil crisis will lay waste to local automakers and the locals entertain themselves racing down Woodward Avenue. Pull up at the lights, roll down the window, agree a wager and go hell for leather on green. After a few passes were made and rubber laid, owners cruised to a diner to swap tuning tips and tales of the night.

18 minutes 56 seconds

 

One was of a mysterious black Dodge. A Challenger R/T, they reckoned. Without warning, it’d roll up alongside an unsuspecting opponent and rev its engine menacingly. The thing was a snorting, rampant beast. No one had ever seen it outpaced. But its unseen owner would skip the post-match burger and roar off into the night, disappearing for weeks, sometimes months at a time before once again emerging from the gloom to destroy another contender.

Who was this guy? What did he have under the hood? Ignorance bred fear. And because the performance of this stealth bomber was supernatural, it became infamous in Detroit’s illegal motorsport underworld as ‘the Black Ghost’. Here’s what they didn’t know. A 28-year-old Purple Heart winning paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne had recently returned from duty in the Dominican Republic and got himself a new job. How would you go about treating yourself?

Godfrey Qualls ordered himself a car. A brand new Dodge Challenger R/T with the SE trim package, meaning loopy Challenger badges and wood interior trim. He upgraded to the 426 Hemi – a 7.0-litre colossus officially rated for 415bhp but secretly good for over 470. It was garnished with the Super Track Pack, adding a Dana 60 rear diff with shorter final drive, and pistol grip shifter for the four-on-the-floor transmission.

He selected stiffer suspension, drag spec tyres, bucket seats, hood pins. It’s estimated only 22 Challengers were built in this GOAT box-ticking spec. But you can be damn sure Godfrey’s car was unique. While most muscle customers wanted lairy colours like ‘plum crazy’ or ‘subLime’, Godfrey was way ahead of his time with murdered-out black-on-black paint throughout. Well, it was supposed to be. Dodge screwed up his order and applied an alligator skin top. And the wrong bonnet – Qualls chose the ‘shaker’ hood instead of twin-intakes. But he knew his car was special and Dodge would never build him another. So he kept it. Treasured it. Raced it. And became a local legend.

 

So why the secrecy? Why didn’t he roast his rivals then toast the spoils over a milkshake? Simple. Godfrey’s new job was in the Detroit police department. By day, he was a motorcycle-riding traffic cop. By night, he was the unassailable outlaw behind the wheel of the Black Ghost. If he’d been identified, he’d have been fired. No wonder they couldn’t catch him.

Sorry, Fast & Furious fans. The original badass family man living his life a quarter-mile at a time in a black Dodge wasn’t your greased, growling Dominic Toretto. It was Godfrey Qualls. In 1977, the Black Ghost disappeared. Rumours swirled. Meanwhile Godfrey had joined the National Guard and between special forces training, police work and bringing up three kids, he hadn’t much time for his car. It was parked on axle stands in the garage and didn’t see the light of day until after Godfrey died on Christmas Eve 2015.

His old car, buried in detritus, was left to his son Gregory. He’d been for a ride when he was little, his dad sticking a $100 bill to the dash and daring him to grab it before flooring the gas, pinning him to the seat. He remembered the surging acceleration, chirruping tyres and the terrifying V8 snarl drowning out his father’s laughter. He guiltily recalled some bodywork dents were from leaning his childhood bicycle against it. In tribute to his dad, Greg decided to get his old car running again. Naturally, he enquired at local auto shops about parts for a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, with a 426 Hemi and manual box. “Uh-huh, in black. Yeah... a ’gatorskin top. Sure, it’s got a towbar – my dad used to tow his motorcycle trailer with it. Why, you know it?”

Imagine discovering your late father was a street racing hero. Imagine being a muscle car fanatic and hearing this unicorn-spec spectre still existed, and ran (after a couple of years rebuilding the brakes and replacing the radiator, fuel tank, exhaust, ignition coils and tyres). Just 45,544 original miles, complete with ‘Africa’ stickers on the wings, denoting its original owner’s pride in black heritage.

If he'd been caught, he'd have been fired

Sportingly, Greg didn’t lock the car away. He took it to car shows and shared its story. It was at one such meet that someone from Dodge approached him, requesting his blessing to build a tribute festooned in nods to the original. I came across its romantic infamy in 2021, a year after it was immortalised in America’s National Historic Vehicle Registry, alongside the Back to the Future DeLorean, Ferris Bueller’s Ferrari 250, and the 15 millionth Model T. A month after borrowing the 21st century Ghost in California, I was in Detroit. Greg’s still local. He insisted we hang out. Hear the stories. Stand in the garage where he toiled over his father’s beloved car. A space now occupied by his new one, wearing the licence plate ‘BK GHST’.

Greg explains why he reluctantly auctioned the original last May, where it sold for $1.1m. “The car needed $1m insurance coverage. It takes a lot of time and money to preserve it as original as possible, and we had neither – $150,000 to start a restoration, beyond $300,000 to preserve its originality. So I thought ‘what would dad do?’ He would want the family to do better. He did everything to help this family. So I thought this could better the Qualls. But it was a really rough decision I felt deep in my heart.” The new owner has promised it’ll remain entirely original.

The other 299 new Ghosts are sold too. A machine that’s united generations in appreciation for a overendowed piece of pig iron is no more. As you’re about to read, it’s flawed and silly. But boy did it go out on a high. “My dad would’ve loved this,” Greg grins, checking his neighbours aren’t home before laying black lines up his street. It’s true y’know: it’s better to burnout than fade away.

With thanks to Gregory Qualls. Additional photos courtesy of Mecum Auctions Inc.

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