Two Cars, One Purpose
If there were ever two cars built for one purpose, these were the cars: the Dodge Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird. Their purpose was to win races for Chrysler corporation on tracks like Talladega, Daytona, and Charlotte. These factory race cars, with their stream lined noses and high spoilers could achieve frightening speeds. With the Chrysler Hemi engine under the hood, which had horse power to burn, there seemed to be no limit to how fast these cars could go. Don Nam says: “These winged cars were really the bullets of the race track. They dominated the races no question. Very few cars could outrun them.”
Dodge was first out of the box with the Daytona in mid year 1969. It was their answer to the new aerodynamically styled Ford Torino Talladega and the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II. Dodge Daytona wasn’t the product of a design studio. It had its birth in the race shops. “The Charger 500 and the Daytona were designed by racers,” explains John Arruzza, “the styling had nothing to do with the car. When the final product was shown to styling they called it an abomination. When the Superbird rolled around a year later, styling was involved with the overall package.” The Superbird and Daytona were two different cars. But at 200 mph, it was awfully hard to tell them apart. These cars were proof that Chrysler corporation loved to build and race fast cars.
The stock car racing rules said everything that raced on Sunday had to be available at the dealerships on Monday. So, thanks to Chrysler’s desire to win on Sunday, muscle car fans made out like bandits. You could actually own one of these! But you had to fast because Chrysler only intended to make about 2500 of them. Just enough to qualify at stock cars under Nascar’s rules. The Daytona and the Superbird are today among the rarest muscle cars ever made. Collector groups estimate that almost 1000 of these cars remain today: an astonishing survival rate at almost 50%. Obviously, car collectors recognized from the very start that these cars were special. Thanks to racing rule changes and the prevailing mood of the early 70s, the Daytona and the Superbird disappeared from the race tracks and the showrooms almost as fast as they appeared. But, during the short 18 month period we now call the aero wars, there was no better example of the extremes to which Chrysler’s gear headed engineers were willing to go to win races. “Chrysler certainly performed everybody else,” says Paul Zazarine, “Competitive but really in the 60s, Nascar belonged to Chrysler.” The Superbird and Daytona were aerodynamics taken to the extreme. But aero cars of one kind or another actually started showing up at the race tracks years earlier.
Stock Car Racing – Go Fast and Stay on the Track!
There wasn’t much science to stock car racing in its early days. Basically, the sport was about staying on the track for the length of the race. Fine points like aerodynamics took a back set to just keeping the engine running and keeping the wheels on. Nonetheless, some racers did discover that things like rolling up the windows and taking over the headlights made a small difference, particularly on longer tracks. As stock car racing graduated from the half mile bull ring sand the dirt tracks to the super speedways, drivers and mechanics were beginning to deal with space age concepts like slip streaming and down force. Gary Romberg is a Chrysler engineer who helped bring aero technology into stock car racing. “I’ve been with Chrysler corporation since 1961. When I came to Chrysler, I was assigned to Huntsville, Alabama doing the aerodynamics of space launch vehicles. In the late t60s this job opened up in Detroit in race aerodynamics. So, I took that job and I walked right in at the time where the Superbird and the Daytona were being developed.
One of the first attempts at creating a bumper to bumper aero package was the 1966 Dodge Charger. Its fast back roof line was supposed to make the air flow more smoothly over the car, giving it greater speed and stability Unfortunately, the Charger looked a lot better than it ran.
David Pearson won the first of his three grand national driving championships that year in a Dodge but not a Dodge Charger. “In ’66 I drove a Charger at Daytona and we thought that was going to be the tip to run on the super speedways but we went back to the regular two door and it seemed like it did better on the super speedways than even the Charger did.” Despite its lackluster performance on the race track, by 1969 the Dodge Charger had become a street favorite. The second generation’s Charger’s blend of luxury and power in one of Chrysler’s distinctive body styles wasn’t just popular with the muscle car crowd, the car also had a lot of aero potential. When the Dodge teams showed up at the race track at the beginning of the ’69 season, they brought a car that looked like the ’69 Charger but with a few aerodynamic improvements. Dodge called it the Charger 500. It had a flush grill and a re-designed rear deck with an almost horizontal rear window. Again, it wasn’t exactly what they were hoping for. “We weren’t doing very well on the track so we brought out the Charger 500. We still didn’t do very well on the track! We had taken our engine technology as far as we could at that time so we asked the aerodynamics people to be able to to develop a car body that would get through the air quicker and faster and better than our Charger 500. Out of that work came the Dodge Daytona.” Explains one Dodge aerodynamics engineer.
The car was a product of months of development by Chrysler’s engineers working with the racing teams. Harry Lee Hyde remembers how the race teams were introduced to the Daytona. “The original ones were built at Nickels Engineering. Chrysler had developed this thing, they built the originals there for a pattern for us to go by. We brought this one back and re-vamped all the rest of the cars to this car.” All the Charger 500′s good parts like the fast back rear window showed up on the Daytona plus a couple new features that were hard to miss. “This car is basically the same thing as the D 500 only the nose part was changed in the front and the front configuration over the top. The wing was added to the rear for a more stable down force plus that wing was up in a lot cleaner air than what a spoiler would be.”
It was that nose and that outrageous rear wing that aroused the most attention, particularly after the car rolled onto the new Talladega race track for the first time and shattered the speed record. “The average speed was hitting 205-210 in a draft. We ran 201 with it just in normal qualifying trim.” Dodge now had the car that could dominate at Talladega and all the other speedways. But before the Daytona could go racing, there was the little requirement of Nascar’s minimum production requirements. Building twenty racing Daytonas was easy. Building 500 Daytonas for the street was hard. Even though the car was mostly ’69 Charger! Restorer John Arruzza explains some of the things that had to be done to make a Charger into a Daytona: “The nose cone is sheet metal. The headlight doors are fiberglass. They used a ’70 model Charger fender and hood because the’ 70 model Charger was going to come out with the wrap around bumper, which gave perfect place to line up the nose cone.” The little bumps on the Daytona’s fenders served an important purpose, too. “Chrysler had holes in the tops of the fenders to release air trapped in the front fenders at high speed. They really didn’t want the Ford camp or the Chevy camp to realize that’s what they were for so they came up with the story that the tires were rubbing and they needed to cut a hole in the fender for the tire. That was not actually the case. They really did speed the car up by releasing trapped air from inside the fender.”
Race car design can interfere with street car functionality and in these situations, Dodge had to make a few compromises as wing car authority David Patik shows: “When these cars were originally engineered, the little wing was way down low. Problem with that was no way to open the deck plate so the engineers raised the wing and the deck plate opens and clears the wing.” There were no compromises under the hood, though. And there weren’t many choices either. The short list of engines included two 440 cubic inch torque monsters or the magnificent 426 Hemi. Two transmissions were available: Chrysler’s 727 torque flight automatic or their heavy duty four speed. Sure grip rear ends were standard completing what was one of the most unbreakable power trains ever assembled. Chrysler’s records show that 503 Charger Daytonas were made. But according to Dr. Don Tarr, a Chrysler factory race driver, only about half of these made it to the dealers: “The story I got was that there was supposed to be 500 built and counted and after they did that and found they only had 250 left they had torn a lot of them down and sent them to the race car teams to use for parts. And when Nascar found out about that they got a little upset.” Adds Paul Zazarine: “There’s a great story about how they were supposed to build about 500 units and they had the Nascar people inspecting at the plant and they were just rolling cars back in and back in and back in, so there’s no telling how many times they looked at the same car and didn’t know it.”
Nascar knew that racing was more fun and ticket sales were more brisk when everybody played. So the Daytona was pronounced legal and the world turned its eyes toward Talladega where these new cars promised to go faster than ever before. So fast, in fact, that some people were looking for ways to slow this thing down. But there were problems at the new Talladega race track and the aero cars were the cause. Up and down pit row, Ford and Chrysler teams alike were dealing with the effects of increased speed and down force as Pearson recalls. “Goodyear was having trouble with the tires because we never had run that fast with that much pressure on the car and they were coming apart and blowing a lot of tires. So, there were quite a few of us drivers that felt it was unsafe.” A proposal by the drivers to postpone the race one week until better tires were available was denied. So most of the top name drivers, Pearson among them, chose to sit the race out. “France wouldn’t do it. ‘No we’re going to run the race this week.’ So, he’s a little hard headed and we were, too, and so some of us drivers got together, ‘If he’s going to do that, let’s just not run.’” Without many of Nascar’s top name drivers, the first Talladega 500 was run on schedule with a field made up mostly of short track drivers and smaller cars. A few of the factory cars were entered with substitute drivers. A Dodge Daytona driver, Richard Brickhouse, won the race, which featured none oft he usual excitement and thankfully, no calamities from blowing tires. “They went ahead and ran the race and didn’t have any trouble. Everything came out alright.”
The Superbird Gets a Chance to Fly
By the end of the 1969 season, the race teams and the tire companies were learning to deal with the byproducts of aerodynamics and Dodge’s Daytona had made a name for itself in competition. Says Hyde: “We won 17 races in 1969 but did not win the championship.” Going into 1970, the wing was the thing on the high bank track and this year, Plymouth was going to get their own aero warrior: the Superbird. Stacked against the Daytona’s 17 wins in 1969, Plymouth’s two win season had been a disaster. As soon as they saw the Dodge Daytona on the track, Plymouth’s aero team knew what they had to do.
The Road Runner was one of America’s most beloved street muscle cars but on aero terms it was a shoe box. It was, however, the no brainer choice to be the platform for Plymouth’s wing car. The Road Runner and the Charger shared Mopar’s B body platform so most of the swoopy parts that had to be made for the Daytona would work on the Road Runner with a little massaging. To make the nose cone fit, the Superbird used the Dodge Coronet front fenders and hood. Its wing had larger uprights and was raked back at a more extreme angle. It differed from the Daytona in more other way, there were going to be more of them. This year, Nascar upped the production quota to one car for every two dealerships. This meant almost 2000 Superbirds would soon show up at Plymouth dealers all over America. Smith Stokes, a young Plymouth dealer in 1970, remembers his eagerness to get a Superbird as his demonstrator model: “Well, in 1970 I got a brochure that came through the mail from Chrysler announcing they were going to put a winged car in racing and we heard rumors Richard Petty would be back with the car. I anxiously ordered one, I actually phone the order in I was so excited!”
Plymouth was committed to making four times as many Superbirds as there were Dodge Daytonas. Faced with having 2000 expensive, outrageous-mobiles hanging around their lots they couldn’t sell, they planned from the beginning to make the cars very buyer friendly. Like the Daytonas, the Superbirds’ standard engine was the romping 440 cubic inch Super Commando with one Carter AVS four barrel carburetor. This engine had a 9.7 to 1 compression ratio and made 375 horse power at 4600 RPMS and 480 foot pounds of torque at 3200 RPMs. You could opt for the six barrel version of this engine, which made 390 horse power and upped the torque to 490 foot pounds. Or you could luck into one of the 93 Superbirds produced with a 426 street Hemi, which weighed in at 425 horse power and 510 foot pounds of torque. The Hemi was an $841 option. But with this engine, you didn’t run with the big dogs, you were the big dog.
Many of the Road Runner’s performance options were available on the Superbird like 15 x 7 rally wheels and white letter tires and the sure grip rear end. All Superbirds featured front disc brakes as standard equipment. In addition, the Superbird could be a pretty fancy ride with an optional eight track player, custom steering wheel, console, gauges, and other dress up equipment. With a base price of $4298, the Superbird was a big ticket item. Just a few options could price this car out of reach of most muscle car buyers. Sharon Malcolm was a Plymouth dealer in 1970 who had no luck selling the one Superbird in her dealership: “We had one and it seemed like no one wanted the cars with the wings on ‘em and we had the car six months and they came to us and wanting us to pay the car off and we didn’t’ have the money so I had to go to the bank and borrow the money to pay that Superbird off just to get it off my floor plan.”
Superbirds might not have been moving very quickly on the sales floor but they were moving like lightning on the race track. As the 1970 racing season took the green flag, it was apparent that it was going to be a good year for the cars with the wings. The blue Plymouths were in the winner circle immediately, winning the Daytona 500 to start the season. Not to be outdone, Dodge driver Buddy Baker set a new world’s record of 200.447 mph at Talladega. But once again, the combination of exotic race engines and wind tunnel aerodynamics were sending speeds through the roof with no end in sight. Clearly, something had to be done to make sure Nascar racing was a safe show. Says Hyde: “You have to worry about fan safety as much as driver safety. These cars could very well be hitting 240 to 250 pretty quick had Nascar not got a hold on it.” By August, Nascar was ready with a plan to slow things down. Says one restorer: “During 1970 they removed the side glass to slow things down and did some other things to try to put a cap on this.” Slowing the cars down was a start, but what Nascar really wanted was for all these trick body styles to go away. And to get back to racing more conventional cars. “Bill France wasn’t too happy to see these cars. I think he had an idea of wanting to keep his stock car racing series a little less exotic than some of the other series. He wanted the cars to look like what you and I would drive on the street at the time.”
Blips on the Racing Radar Screen
From 1971 on, the wing cars would carry a lot more weight around the race track or run a tiny little 305 cubic inch engine. These handicaps were too much, even for cars like the Superbird and the Daytona. They disappeared from the race tracks overnight. So few of these cars were ever built that it’s rare to see one today, except at gatherings like the Aero Warriors Reunion at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega. When wing car lovers get together, they share very special fellowship Says Malcolm: “If you’re a Mopar person, you know what B5 blue is, what A4 silver is and all the different colors of the cars and so, you know, you get this talk, you kinda get the Mopar talk.”
The Daytona and the Superbird were a short but unforgettable blip on the automotive radar screen. Thanks to the restorers, there are a few left today to remind us of the days when car companies were willing to be outrageous just to win races.