Charger for the Ages
Richard Sias should, by many of his contemporaries’ accounts, be as widely hailed an automotive designer today as any of those contemporaries themselves. Instead, he exited the auto design world not long after getting bypassed for recognition for his work on the 1968 Dodge Charger, a design that has since become one of the most iconic of the muscle car era.
The design of the Coke-bottle Charger, Sias always maintained, wasn’t his alone, rather that of a team that he led. However, he didn’t come to lead that team by chance. As he told the Daily Inter Lake for a profile on him a few years ago, he grew up in Michigan the son of an engineer, “but my schoolwork was always full of drawings of cars and other junk” and an encounter with Harley Earl during a high-school trip to Detroit led him to eventually study at the Art Center School in PasadenaLos Angeles, California.
In 1963, straight out of school, he landed a job at General Motors, his head full of futuristic and advanced designs. His assignments at GM, however, failed to live up to his expectations, according to Raffi Minasian, a designer who worked with Sias in later years.
“Richard did a bunch of different small bits while at GM, none of which I recall as having been that significant, which was part of why he left,” Minasian said.
From GM, Sias headed over to Chrysler where, assigned to the Dodge Exterior Studio, he began working on Dodge Dart trim. He also, thanks to encouragement from Charles Mitchell, the manager of that studio, began to explore some of his advanced auto design ideas via a 1/10-scale clay model in between trim assignments.
“The 1/10 scale model was purely a fun thing on the side,” Sias later told Minasian. “But people were beginning to take notice of the unique plan view shape. No matter how I worked it, I kept coming back to the double-diamond shape intersecting at the base of the windshield.”
That aerodynamic double-diamond shape looked more futuristic than production-worthy, but Mitchell and Frank Ruff, who oversaw B-body development at Chrysler, saw potential for its profile shape on a production B-body car. Mitchell and Ruff weren’t necessarily thinking Charger, largely because Bill Brownlie, chief designer for Dodge at the time, wanted an evolutionary design for the Charger that kept the fastback profile, but they still wanted to see how the double-diamond played out in larger scales.
So in late 1964, Mitchell and Ruff had Sias transferred to the B-body design group and set him loose to refine the design along with clay modelers Jim Romeo and Don Kloka. Over the next few months, Sias’s group continued working on what was then considered just a design study; nobody at the time thought it would replace the first-generation Charger. In Brownlie’s eyes, the Charger had to remain a fastback in its second incarnation, and the Sias double-diamond clay study didn’t constitute an evolution of the Charger’s design.
However, as deadlines for the 1968 B-bodies approached, Brownlie told the Dodge design staff to concentrate on the Coronet above all else and ordered Sias’s double-diamond clay study to be destroyed. He then left for a two-week vacation in Europe.
That vacation proved key to the 1968 Dodge Charger’s existence. Mitchell and Ruff told Sias and his team to keep working regardless, much to Brownlie’s displeasure upon his return.
“He exploded,” Sias told Minasian. “I assumed we were about to be fired or at least get a real reprimand. But only moments after Brownlie started fuming, (Elwood) Engel walked into the studio, slapped Bill on the back and said, ‘That’s what a real car should look like.'”
By mid-1965, thanks largely to Mitchell’s campaigning, Sias’s design became the new Charger. Other designers, including Diran Yazejian and Harvey Winn, helped Sias with many of the elements seen on the production 1968 Charger design, while Bob McCurry, then the vice president of the Dodge division, ultimately stepped in to defend the hidden headlamps from product managers who had deemed the feature too expensive. As a nod to Brownlie’s demand for a fastback roofline, Sias and his team designed a flying buttress roofline.
While those same product planners expected Dodge would sell just 20,000 or so Chargers in 1968 (a modest increase over the 1967 Charger’s sales numbers), the new design won over the automotive press and the buying public and helped move more than 96,000 1968 Chargers (then another 75,000 in 1969 and nearly 50,000 in 1970).
After Dodge approved his design for the 1968 Charger, Sias spent some time designing facelifts for the C-body and Challenger and even sketching out initial ideas on the 1971 Charger redesign. He remained with Chrysler until May 1968, long enough to see his first major design reach the market, but also long enough to see Brownlie begin to take credit for the 1968 Charger’s design.
According to Yazejian’s account on Allpar, Brownlie never praised or even recognized Sias for his role in the 1968 Charger’s design. “Bill expected more from Sias, saying a one-design designer is not enough,” Yazejian said. To this day, many references discussing the 1968 Dodge Charger either leave Sias out of the story or only make reference in passing to his original double-diamond design.
The politics of auto design ended up pushing Sias from the field entirely. “I think the whole experience with his bosses left him a bit worn from a creative perspective,” Minasian said. Instead, Sias left Detroit for the Pacific Northwest and eventually took a job with Walter Dorwin Teague’s design firm, focused on Teague’s Boeing account. To Minasian’s knowledge, Sias never designed another automobile afterward.
Which is not to say Sias moved on entirely from the 1968 Dodge Charger. According to the Daily Inter Lake, Sias bought, restored, and sold several Chargers until the market priced him out. And he’d always envisioned the 1968 Charger as a convertible, even from the beginning, so in the early 1980s he sliced the roof from a 383 Charger and began the process of fitting a late 1970s Cadillac’s convertible top, appropriately narrowed, chosen because its mechanisms allowed him to mimic the flying buttress roofline better than the Coronet convertible’s. While he got the convertible top to work as he envisioned it, Sias never finished the car and later sold the project.
In his retirement from Teague, Sias moved to Montana to pursue his childhood interests in hunting and hiking. He died March 13 at the age of 80.