Chrysler has a winner on its hands with its 2008-2010 Dodge Challengers. The cars are everywhere. You can’t miss their bold colors and graphic schemes. You can’t miss the exquisite low rumble of the performance-tuned exhaust. That is my opinion as a frequent commuter between New York and Florida along Interstate 95.
In 2010, I went to the All-Chrysler Nationals at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Woodward Dream Cruise in suburban Detroit. The 2-door Challengers were out in force at those events.
Chrysler marketed the first Dodge Challengers in 1970 to compete with compact performance-oriented vehicles including the Mercury Cougar, Chevy Camaro, and Ford Mustang. After 1971, the winds of change were blowing and the American Big Three car companies faced market pressures that waved the yellow flag on further development of factory performance street cars.
Challenger production figures in 1970, according to The Standard Catalog of Chrysler, topped off at 83,032 cars; 26.6 percent were sold with V-8 performance options; 60 percent, with the standard V-8 engine; and 13.6 percent, with the Slant Six. About 5 percent, 4,243 were convertibles.
In 1971, sales of cars and performance options declined. Production totaled 29,883 Challengers, about 16% with engine options. 2,165 were convertibles. The Challenger held on until 1974, when, with the small 318 and 360 V8s, only 16,000 of the cars were made.
Zoom ahead to 2008, 2009, and 2010 and beyond. The current generation Dodge Challenger seems destined for more years of production. While performance is still emphasized in its marketing, the Dodge Division is not making and selling Challenger convertibles. According to Chrysler data, 17,423 Challengers were sold in the U.S. in 2008; 25,862 in 2009; and 17,666 in the period Jan. 1-Aug. 31, 2010. The total, as of August 31, 2010, was 60,941 sales in the United States — but with no convertibles.
Match first-generation Challengers, 112,865 vehicles, against the subtotal of convertibles, 6,508, and the market for Challenger convertibles back then shakes out to 5.7%. Assuming buyer interest today would parallel buyer interest in the earlier period, the Dodge Division might have sold 3,500 modern Challenger convertibles through Aug. 31, 2010.
All is not lost for Challenger fans who have to have a convertible! One established business in High Springs, Florida, owned and operated by Jeff Moran of the same locale, is well along in a campaign to accommodate Challenger buyers who want 4-wheeled transportation under the open sky. That outfit, Convertible Builders, LLC, is also known by its registered trademark, Droptop Customs. It reports it has converted “approximately 100” modern Challengers to retractable cloth tops in a bit over one year, through September 2010. They say the total won’t stop there and they are looking ahead to considerable ongoing production.
Attendees at the 2008 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Marketing Assoc.) trade show in Las Vegas could have seen the first Challenger conversion, a “Snakeskin Green” convertible prototype commissioned by Chrysler. The company cited it for Design Excellence. It was exhibited in the Mopar display area with credit to the Florida shop.
Another conversion appeared on the West Coast Customs TV show featuring a Challenger convertible built for Las Vegas Dodge Dealer and hip reality TV show personality Josh “Chop” Towbin.
A conversion initiated by an upstate New York Mopar dealer, Bill O’Gorman, appeared at the 2009 SEMA show. The car is a “Deep Water Blue” Challenger R/T modified by Petty’s Garage in Level Cross, North Carolina. Owned by Mr. O’Gorman’s brother, R.W. “Bob” O’Gorman (president of the Automotive Lift Institute), the car was christened “Project N96: Drop Top Revenge” to evoke the memory of the Snakeskin Green car, which, as a prototype not having a VIN number, had to be crushed after its period of legal use. Certain parts of the prototype, like a set of Foose wheels, were not covered by the crush requirement. They were salvaged and used on the Project N96 car to imply a resurrection of the prototype.
The Revenge can still be seen in a brief video clip at www.modernhotrodz.com, a site that promotes a proposed TV series for the Speed Channel called Modern Hotrodz. [While this article originally reported the TV series would air on the Speed Channel, as of Oct. 5, a broadcast venue has not been confirmed.] The series will feature Convertible Builders top conversions. Richard Petty, “The King” himself, appears in the video, along with California customizer George Barris and stand-up comic Charley Murphy. The first episode of the show, if it airs, is to document the build of another Petty’s Garage car (at least partly painted Petty Blue); George Barris will appear in a subsequent episode as he and the guys collaborate on another build.
In addition to Challengers, the company is doing Chevy Camaro conversions. It will work only on these two car models presently, but it has done converstions on Chrysler 300 and Cadillac CTS and DTS models, turning them into 4-door convertibles – modern phaetons. “The 4-doors were a much smaller niche,” sales manager Moran says. “The criteria for a car to be successful as a convertible: it has to be sporty, expensive and available. While the 4-doors were exciting, they weren’t really sporty in the sense of a ‘sports car.’ We see our customers wanting the sporty type, with the muscle car image as well. Probably about half of the SRT-8s that our customers bring us are black.”
Typical cost of the Challenger and Camaro conversions is $18,000. Normal production time is three to four weeks depending on work flow at the shop in High Springs.
Jeff Moran says that his customers often request not to be publicized or revealed by the shop but he would say they include many sports and entertainment figures like NFL players or actors. So, no names.
One Droptop Customs Chrysler 300 4-door build was commissioned by the government of Cameroon in connection with a visit by Pope Benedict to that country in March 2009. The Chrysler is seen in a Reuters photo link at the Boston Globe’s Blog site. Other regular Convertible Builders customers have included Woodhouse Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in Blair, Nebraska, and customizers like Mr. Norm’s, Midwest Customs, Hennessey Performance, and Hurst Performance.
The current Droptop enterprise hails back to a shop established in Fort Lauderdale in 1976. It operated as Coach Builders, Inc., converting Lincoln Continentals. Among its production peaks, it completed about 3,000 conversions of eighth generation Cadillac Eldorados in the period 1992 to 2002, according to Larry Moran.
The senior Moran joined Coach Builders as sales manager in 1982. He worked before then in sales of machine tools to the electronics industry. Further, he made his first sale of a used car at age 13 off a lot operated by his father in Muskegon, Michigan.
Larry explains that the founder of Coach Builders, Don McCullen, wanted to shut down the business and retire after 2002. McCullen eventually agreed to sell the company to Jeff, who took it over in 2007. The corporate name became Convertible Builders, LLC, at that time.
While I had spoken with Larry previously by telephone, I first met him in person at the 2010 Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise while he was inching along among the parading cars of Woodward in a black Challenger convertible, top down, his wife in the passenger seat, the Droptop Customs logo prominent on left and right rear quarter panels. By an amazing coincidence I happened to roll up in my car exactly beside Larry’s demo car in the stop-and-go evening Woodward traffic. The next day we met for an interview and photo shoot.
For the 10-year Eldorado campaign ending in 2002, Larry said, Cadillac dealers were major vendors of the convertibles: “The biggest business in convertibles always was and probably still will be in the Midwest — Chicago, Detroit, Ohio. We had about 30 major Cadillac dealerships with multiple locations. In Florida, we had dealerships in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa. Dealers had the opportunity to sell our high grossing cars with no competition in their home area. Some dealers took the cars back in trades. Our builds really held their value and dealers often found they could resell the same car three or four times.”
“Currently we have sold a lot of Challenger conversions,” Larry continues, “but we haven’t really had the Dodge awareness at the factory level.” Except that he did make a productive connection with Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles prior to the 2008 SEMA show.
“I said to him, ‘Let me leave you with this thought. We built nearly 3000 Eldorado convertibles. They were not instead of 3000 Eldorado coupes. They were instead of 3000 BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar convertibles. Those were almost all foreign car conquests. In other words, it wasn’t the Cadillac Eldorado coupe customer who decided to buy a convertible; it was the luxury convertible buyer who wanted an Eldorado instead of one of the other brands. We want to do the same for the Challenger.’ I know Ralph has personally referred us to his dealerships. That’s been a really strong boost for us.”
Company owner Jeff Moran is a retired lieutenant from the Coconut Creek, Florida, Police Department. His primary role, after years of formal training, was car crash investigator, with emphasis on cases of apparent vehicular homicide. He was also responsible for training recruits in apprehending criminal suspects. He is still called on to provide expert testimony in litigation involving car crashes. All that suggests an appropriate background for someone in the business of modifying motor vehicles. Jeff’s father also praises him for the interest he always took in building and fixing cars even as a boy. At Convertible Builders, he designs parts, manages work flow and supervises production.
When I interviewed Larry Moran at the Woodward Cruise he went over some of the structural concepts and modifications involved in the basic top conversion, more or less his standard pitch when he talks to prospective customers.
“First step in designing the top structure: what does the car allow you to do as far as allocating space efficiently. The top is made of acrylic polyester cloth with added fabric for sound and temperature insulation and a heated rear window. The fabric has to fold flat in a compact area. Second, the top has to look good when it’s up. It’s easy to make a convertible that looks good when the top is down. For Ralph Gilles, looking good meant among other things it had to have a quarter window. So Jeff had to come up with a way to get a quarter window up and down with the motion of the top. He created a steel cable and pulley system that attaches to the top structure so that, as the top rises and moves forward, the window comes up and slips snuggly into the weather strip. Third most important criteria: the top has to work without a lot of force. If you understand the geometry, the pivot points, and the motions and directions of motions, you get it to power up and down without a lot of force.
“In our Challenger Jeff has been able to retain the full rear seat. We don’t lose anything, not width, not leg room. We have bars behind the back seat that tie together the shock towers in the rear; also heavy metal that braces the shock towers in the front. We’ve got reinforcement under the rear deck lid. And we have reinforcement that combines to mount the hydraulic cylinders on both sides in the quarter areas alongside the rear seat. We have steel beams mounted in the rocker area running from wheel well to wheel well, front to rear, and we have other structural items that are bolted in place to allow for service. Headpiece latches are a standard General Motors item. We reinforce the torque box area in the front quarter of the car with sheet steel, This adds weight but with the metal roof removed there is some compensation. A side benefit of the conversion is that our structural reinforcements actually lower the car’s center of gravity. The cars are very rigid and they stay that way. We can tell the customer that the conversion will hold its value in relation to the car and these are not your old man’s Cadillac. They are muscle cars. The engines in them can produce 700 horsepower. Our standards are higher, tolerances tighter, fit and finish better than in the old days.”
Why might Chrysler be taking a pass on convertible production for its current premier muscle car? For any number of possible reasons. However, Convertible Builders, LLC, is ready to capitalize on the situation while it furthers the legacy of the Dodge Challenger in a world class convertible configuration.