A 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T With A Criminal Past

NEW MILFORD, CT – It’s a muscle car with a criminal past that did hard time in an impound lot. It was then surreptitiously sprung and sold to an unsuspecting buyer who didn’t know that it had been stolen – a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. 

For the past 22 years or so, Todd Schoeller of New Milford has owned the first generation Challenger, but his affection for the model germinated back in the early 1980s when his brother bought one.

Todd Schoeller and his 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T

“My brother had bought a ’74 Challenger. The car originally had a 318 (cubic-inch engine) and what we did, we bought a big block for it, a 383, and kinda made a street racer out of it. That’s what we did back then, but then eventually he wound up selling it,” Schoeller recalled.

Within a couple of years, though, Schoeller bought a 1970 Plymouth ’Cuda convertible. The ‘Cuda was a performance version of the brand’s Barracuda model and built on the same platform as the Challenger. He restored it and sold it, then did the same with what was his first Challenger, a 1970 T/A version.

Dodge debuted the Challenger in the fall of 1969 as a 1970 model. The first generation lasted until April 1974 and 188,600 units were sold over its five years of existence.

Schoeller spotted his current Challenger at a cruise night in Danbury and told the owner that should it ever be offered for sale, he’d be interested. That wasn’t to be as it went to someone else, who ultimately sold it to Schoeller. 

“Eventually, it wound up in my garage,” he said before explaining how he learned of the Challenger’s colorful past. “I found some paperwork in the car. Actually it was tucked away in between a quarter panel in the trunk, and it had this guy’s name on it,” Schoeller said. 

A bit of detective work netted him a phone number in Charlotte, N.C. and he learned that the man was the Challenger’s original owner. It was used it as a daily driver for a couple of years before it got passed on to the owner’s son. It was then that the story took an unexpected turn.

“He didn’t realize his son was involved with drugs – selling drugs,” Schoeller said, reporting that the son “eventually got snitched on and he had some cocaine in the back of the car. The police caught up with him as he was driving the car on Interstate 77, and I guess he was involved in a small car chase.”

The outcome wasn’t surprising. The police nabbed their suspect. “They arrested him, they impounded the car, and the car was left in the impound yard somewhere in North Carolina for several months. He was put away for some time. I don’t know how many years. I guess several years because they found a lot of coke and they found a lot of cash.”

There was a big surprise later when the father went to retrieve the Challenger from impoundment. “The car was no longer in the impound yard. It was stolen,” said Schoeller. It took six months for the Challenger to be spotted, which resulted in big surprise for the person who possessed it.

“This guy had bought the car not knowing the car was stolen. The guy bought it from somebody else and was going to use it as a parts car and I guess it was beat up. Lot of parts were stolen off the car,” he said.

The Challenger eventually made its way north and into Schoeller’s hands. In 2002, he started returning it to its original state.

“The car was a 10-footer. It looked good from 10 feet (away),” he said. “I had to disassemble the whole complete car right down to the skeleton. I had it sand blasted, media blasted. The whole car. Every body panel. The car was actually, believe it or not, not in bad shape. The only rot I had in the car was just the lower quarter panels and trunk floor.”

It took 10 years for the restoration job to be completed. Appearance-wise, the Challenger looks much the same as it did new. “It did not have this hood decal, which I put on, but everything else on the car is just the way it came from factory,” he said. “I painted it back in 2005 and it still looks brand new.”

The engine installed in the car after the original one seized has had some modifications. It has been stroked, increasing engine size from 383 cubic inches to 489 cubic inches. A five-speed Tremec TKX manual transmission was added.

The Challenger gets driven frequently on nice days. Schoeller estimated that he puts about 3,500 miles on it every year and he has benefit of experience, and the sense of loss, from having sold other cars that he’s restored. Despite having some “pretty good offers,” he said, “this is why this car is not for sale.”

See the 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T in action in this YouTube video…

About Bud Wilkinson

Bud Wilkinson writes the "RIDE-CT" motorcycle column and the "My Ride" classic car feature in the "Republican-American" newspaper in Waterbury, CT. A graduate of Vermont Academy prep school, he holds a B.A. degree journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the recipient of a Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award in 1992 and a 1991-92 regional Emmy Award for commentary. He currently rides a 1987 BMW R 80 RT and a 2014 Triumph Bonneville and drives a 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata.

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