Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Back in 1972, Mickey Tate was probably the only 15-year-old 1969 Dodge Dart GTS ‘M’ Code owner in the country. There weren’t many parents around at that time — or any time for that matter — who would allow their kid behind the wheel of such a hairy machine. But Tate’s dad was different.
“Two months before I turned 16, my dad bought me an “M” Code Dart. It was yellow with a black interior and it did have an AM radio in it,” says Tate, a resident of Mt Morris, Ill., “He was a big hot-rodder himself. In 1967 he bought a brand new, first-year Mercury Cougar GT. It had a 390 four-speed, and my mom’s car was a ’66 Olds four-speed, 4-4-2. Those were the two cars that we had when I was 11 years old!
“My dad used to be a pretty good local racer, so he was into those cars in those days.”
The elder Tate spotted a yellow and black Dart GTS for sale outside a local body shop, “and my mom went and got $1,500 from a bank in a neighboring town and she went and got the title for the car… That was in August of 1972, I think. I didn’t have a license, but I did drive it right after I got it! [laughs].
“There weren’t many people that went around me, unless I wanted them to, or allowed them to [laughs]. You couldn’t keep the back tires from spinning. You just couldn’t. You could be going, 25, 30 mph, and you’d romp on the thing, and it would just break the back tires loose.”
Eventually, Tate unloaded the hot Dart in favor of a 1973 4-4-2, which he soon regretted. “There was not a lot of power in ‘em in ‘73, It had a 455, but only 235 hp,” he recalls. “It was terrible. Just terrible.”
Marriage and two sons came in the next few years, and crazy muscle machines were in Tate’s rearview mirror. He eventually splurged on a 1968 GTS 340 that he hopped up and turned into a fun weekend driver, but the itch to have a bare-bones, stock original like his first car never went away. The trouble was, with only 640 built in the first place and a lot fewer than that remaining today, tracking down a 1969 ‘M’ Code GTS in suitable condition was no easy task. Tate says one of the voyages involved a 1,900-mile round trip drive to Canada. He came home empty.
“Any GTS is hard to come by, because they only made them for three years, and the [M Code] is especially hard to find,” he notes. “I finally found this one online. It was part of a collection of 35 cars in Minnesota. I went over and looked at it one day. The guy who had it in his collection took it to a MoPar place to sell, Classic Enterprises in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was online one day, I went over the next day and looked it over and the following day I went over with my car hauling trailer and picked it up.”
There was no haggling, and Tate says he didn’t have to mull over his decision. “Nope,” he says. “These just don’t come up for sale, so I bought it.”
1968: A new kid on the block
GTS meant GT Sport. It was the name of a sexy new-for-’68 “sawed-off shotgun” that was a whole bunch more than a sporty compact car. “Not to take the edge off the Road Runner, the GTS might be a more sensible package,” said Hot Rod magazines’s Steve Kelly in the publication’s April 1968 issue. “The base price is higher, but you get things like carpet on the floor, fat tires, bucket seats and a few other niceties that can make Saturday night roaming more comfortable. The engine’s smaller, but that could prove an advantage for drag racing classes.”
Two hefty V-8s were available. A 340-cid small-block engine was standard. It was derived from the 273-318-cid Chrysler family of engines and had a 4.04 x 3.31-inch bore and stroke, a 10.5:1 compression ratio and a single four-barrel carburetor. The 340 engine cranked out 275 hp at 5000 rpm and 340 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3200 rpm. A 383-cid big-block engine with a four-barrel carburetor and 300 hp was optional. The 383 added 89 lbs. to the car if you got a four-speed gearbox and 136 lbs. if you got an automatic transmission. A standard 3.23:1 rear axle was supplied, but 3.55:1 and 3.91:1 ratio axles were also available as optional equipment.
Other technical enhancements included a low-restriction dual exhaust system with chrome tips, a heavy-duty Rallye suspension, 14 x 5.5-inch wheels and E70-14 Red Streak tires. Although a column-shifted three-speed manual transmission was standard, most Dart GTS models had either a four-speed manual gearbox with a Hurst floor shifter or a competition-type TorqueFlite automatic transmission.
Also identifying the GTS were hood power bulges with air vents, body side racing stripes, special GTS emblems and simulated mag wheel covers. A bumblebee stripe to decorate the car’s rear end was a no-cost option. Vinyl front bucket seats were standard in the $2,611 hardtop and optional in the $3,383 convertible.
In 1968, the production of the GTS models was lumped into the total of 24,100 Dart GT series V-8s produced. The 1968 Dart GTS hardtop with the 340-cid/270-hp power train tested out with a 0-to-60 time of 6 seconds. It did the quarter-mile in a “Scat Pack” time of 15.2 seconds. Hot Rod magazine published even better numbers for its 340-cid TorqueFlite-equipped Dart GTS, which ran down the quarter-mile in 14.38 seconds at 97 mph.
The GTS returned with few changes in 1969, with one big exception: the addition of the “M” Code with a 440 V-8 under the hood. At that point, the GTS could be had with a 340, 383 or the big 440 Magnum. Among the other changes for ’69 were a slightly different grille and trim; simulated intake ports in the hood; and parking lights. A new bumblebee stripe was found on the rear of the GTS and the longitudinal stripe was discontinued.
For ’69, production included 3,645 340 models, 1,912 with the 383 and just 640 with 440 Magnum power.
“You couldn’t get power steering, couldn’t’ get power brakes. That wasn’t an option,” Tate said. “No four-speeds — all 640 were buckets with console… There wasn’t room for the clutch linkage under the hood, and they didn’t make a Dana rear end for a Dart. That’s the two reasons why they didn’t have four-speeds in ‘em. They probably would tear the rear end right out from underneath ‘em.
“There were a few other differences. These have different exhaust manifolds. The motor mounts are different in the 440s. The K-member underneath it is a little different and the oil pan is different than the 383s… These come down the line as a 383, but the 5th digit in the serial numbers number would be an H if it was a 383 car. This is M, for the 440. And all 640 of these had to be ordered by somebody, either the dealership or an individual person. They made them in about five different batches in late ’68, and a few more batches in ’69.”
White is the new Yellow
Other than being white with a green interior and having the optional AM radio, Tate’s current car isn’t much different than his radio-delete yellow-and-black Dart that he bought at age 15. They both had the big 440, and both are not cars for the timid.
Ironically, their serial numbers were only two digits apart, meaning they were built on the same day — Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, 1969.
Tate’s ’69 was restored by Julius Steuer, a well-known MoPar expert and restorer in Chatsworth, Calif. Other than that, Tate doesn’t have a lot of history to go on when it comes to his white car. “The guy left his insurance card in the glove box. I called him — actually my wife did. The guy didn’t have much information. It was restored by Julius about 20 to 22 year ago. As far as history, that’s about it.
“The odometer has 38,000 miles. I’ve had a lot of body guys look at it, and the welds underneath are all factory welds, and they are very hard to reproduce. They told me everything looks pretty factory under there, so I think [Julius] had a pretty good car to start with. That’s why it’s held up so well.”
Tate discovered that at some point in its life — probably early on — his car had the engine block replaced. “I have the tag. It was on the block about ready to fall off,” he says. “Other than that, I don’t know a lot. I know there is one more just like this. I’ve seen it, but they wanted way too much money for it.”
It’s not likely that the ’69 GTS was babied during its early life, but Tate treats it gently these days. Its days of pavement-scarring burnouts are long gone. Tate waited a long time to find such a car and isn’t in a hurry to replace any drive train parts.
“I’m pretty careful,” he says. “I have the other one at home. That’s the driver, so I can go screw off with that one. This one gets trailered. I get it out and drive it around a little bit around town. But with these bias-ply tires, you hit a crack in the road, you get sucked into that crack, and then when the other side of the tire gets to the crack, it sucks you right back. With these tires, you can’t keep it straight. No. You just can’t. It’s an arm full.”
“It would be really cool if it was yellow with a black interior, but I’m not going to paint it.”
At least when Tate hits the gas in his Darts these days, he can do so legally. He has a driver’s license in his wallet, unlike his early days behind the wheel. Still, the seat-of-the-pants excitement is the same whenever he backs his white GTS out of the garage.
“Absolutely, it never leaves,” he says. “It’s just cool, that’s all! [laughs]. You’re back to being a kid again.”