The Plymouth Road Runner Superbird was a sister design to the Dodge Charger Daytona, an automobile that existed for two reasons - to beat the Ford Torino and win at NASCAR, an American stock car racing series. It was also created to get Richard Petty back to Plymouth in NASCAR. Both cars featured NASA inspired shark noses to sharpen up designs which were basically boxes, and never-topped goal-post wings, and still draw stares wherever they appear as such cars disappeared almost as soon as they were developed. The wings were a subject of debate as to whether they were that size for aerodynamic reasons or simply to allow the trunk to open; the initial intention may have been to ensure the trunk was useable due to it being a consumer product however, the wing and supports keep the rear tires firmly on the ground at high speeds.
Richard Petty left for Ford in the very late fall of '68, as he was provided with off the shelf Holman-Moody cars to race at Riverside.
Richard "may" have indeed voiced that he wanted a Charger, however, Richard as the driver in the family business had little to do with the decision. The reason had more to do with Lee Petty and dollars to Petty Enterprises, than with on-track performance.
For years, Lee Petty wanted the car building and parts distribution business handled by Nichels Engineering. The Nichels contract with Chrysler was up at the end of 1970. Ronny Householder, the boss of Chrysler racing was a longtime friend of Ray Nichels. In fact, Ray and his dad prepared Householder's midget race cars when he was in the midwest in the 1940's. Nichels built the factory Pontiacs from '57 to '63. When Pontiac pulled out in '63, Chrysler was getting serious about racing, and Householder was there to scoop up Ray Nichels as the factory car builder. So as you might imagine, that was a tough relationship for Lee Petty to crack.
Ford had considered hiring the Petty's in late 1967. At that time, Charlie Gray, director of the Ford stock car program felt that hiring the Pettys would send the message that "money rules all", and was not personally in favor of it.
That being said, Lee Petty knew that if he left Chrysler, that they would do just about anything to get them back. You can talk about the Superbird being built for Petty, and that is not untrue. But the real bargaining chip Lee had to come back to Chrysler was that he forced the issue on the car building business, which forced Nichels out. This was something that Ray was very bitter about for a long time, and rightfully so.
Chrysler engineers designed a Plymouth version of the Charger Daytona with a 1970 Dodge Coronet hood and fender. At that time though, NASCAR took the 'stock' in stock car racing seriously - vehicles to be raced had to be available to the general public and sold in sufficient numbers, a requirement known as homologation. In fact, in 1970, NASCAR raised the production requirement from 500 examples to one for every 2 Manufacturer's dealers in the United States; for Plymouth, that meant having to build 1,920 Superbirds. 1970 would be its only production year.
The Superbird was basically a modified Plymouth Road Runner, but it was realized that while it was acceptable on the street to have the 'aerodynamics of a brick' (typical of most American cars of the period), something far better would help at high racing speeds. So, following the lead of the previous year's Dodge Charger Daytona, the Superbird sported an aerodynamic nosecone adding nineteen inches to the length and containing retractable headlights, a slightly smoothed-out body, and to counter a tendency to lightness at high speed, a rear wing was mounted high on very tall tailfins. The reason for the fins was mostly to give clearance beneath them to lift the trunklid, but it also put the wing into less disturbed air. Contrary to popular belief,the rear-facing scoops on the fenders were not for tire clearance, but were in fact for releasing trapped air from the wheel wells. The Superbird and Charger Daytona were among the first American cars to be designed using a windtunnel and to use computer analysis for aerodynamics. The Charger Daytona itself was a result of the more aerodynamic Dodge Charger 500.
The name "Superbird" appeared on a decal placed on the outsides of the vertical fins of the rear spoiler, with a picture of the Road Runner cartoon character holding a racing helmet. A smaller version of the decal is also on the driver side headlight door. This had nothing to do with the Ford Thunderbird; the Superbird was an enhanced version of the Plymouth Road Runner cars.
All Superbirds used for racing were fitted with the 426 Hemi engine, but for the street, two lesser engines were available, the 440 Super Commando with a single 4-barrel carburetor and the 440 Six Barrel with three two-barrel carburetors. Only 135 street cars were fitted with the 426 Hemi; 665 took the option of the 440 Six Barrel (the Dodge version of this engine was called the Six Pack), and the rest were equipped with the 440 Super Commando (the Dodge version of this engine was called the 440 Magnum). The 440 was less expensive to produce, and the 426 Hemi engine was homologated by producing a minimal number that was optioned in several different Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth vehicles.
On the street, the nosecone and wing made quite an impression, but the aerodynamic improvements hardly made a difference there or on the drag strip. In fact, the 1970 Road Runner was a slight touch quicker down the quarter mile. At 90 mph or greater, though, things were quite different.
Petty adopted the car. The Superbird did reasonably well against strong Ford opposition on the NASCAR tracks that year, winning eight races and placing well in many more. It didn't hurt, of course, that Richard Petty, known as one of the greatest NASCAR drivers, was behind the wheel of a Superbird that year.
Contrary to popular belief, the Superbird, and the other "aero-body" cars in NASCAR, were not banned outright. The rules implemented for the 1971 season limited the aero cars to an engine displacement of no greater than 305 in³ (5.0 L) or they had to carry much more weight compared to their competitors. While they were still legal to race, the extreme loss of horsepower which would come with the smaller engine or the increased weight rendered the cars uncompetitive. This was the start of a trend of rules slowing down NASCAR, because the races were exceeding the technology of tires and safety over 200 mph. Ford in response also designed a 1970 Torino with a 240Z-like nose, but it was abandoned. A 1971 Superbird was designed around the new Sebring body, complete with wedge nose and goalpost wing. Only a few prototypes exist, with photos published on the internet, and muscle car magazines in 2005. It is unknown if a corresponding Charger Daytona was built.
The Superbird's styling proved to be a little extreme for 1970 tastes (many customers preferred the regular Road Runner), and as a consequence, many examples sat unsold on the back lots of dealerships as late as 1972. In fact, some were converted back into 1970 Road Runners in order to sell them. In recent years, however, the Superbird has become quite valuable. A car in good condition can reach $80,000 to US$150,000 or more, even with the more common 440 Super Commando, and examples with the 426 Hemi fitted at the factory (retrofitted doesn't count) and in near-perfect condition have changed hands for about $300,000. On eBay, bids for original Superbirds crossed $800,000. In such a market, some manufacturers are currently making kits to convert standard 1970 Road Runners and Satellites into Superbirds.
The Superbird and the Dodge Charger Daytona were each built for 1 model year only (1970 and 1969 respectively). The name has never since been used on any Chrysler car, while the Daytona name has been used on a front-wheel drive sports car and is now a trim package for both the Dodge Charger and the Dodge Ram pickup truck. The Superbird appeared at the peak of the muscle car era. It is certainly one of the top 5 most desirable and most rare of muscle cars, exceeded in value only by very rare cars such as the Hemi Cuda convertible.
In pop cultureEdit
- The Superbird may be Richard Petty's most famous car. Petty's Superbird was cast as "The King" in the Disney/Pixar film, Cars, with Petty himself providing the voice.
- The Superbird and the Plymouth Road Runner were featured in the game Gran Turismo 2. The Superbird was also featured in Gran Turismo 4 as one of two Plymouths available in game, the other being a Barracuda.
- In the Simpsons Hit and Run, on level 7, Homer drives what resembles a Superbird.
- In Twisted Metal: Head-On, the vehicle Spectre seems to be a Superbird.