Chrysler started experimenting with aerodynamics in the 1920s, but not until 1969 did they release the most aerodynamic car of its time — one whose drag coefficient was not matched for many years, yet was built on an existing model with relatively few changes. This was the Dodge Charger Daytona, to be joined in 1970 by the Plymouth Superbird. One of my favorite cars of the 70's for it's unique look and function. So how did it all begin?
The year was 1969. Plymouth had just lost one of its best NASCAR drivers. Richard Petty, believing that Plymouths were no longer competitive on the track, joined forces with Ford for the 1969 racing season. During his 11-year involvement with Plymouth, Petty had won two national championships and 101 victories, 92 of them courtesy of Plymouth. Now, Plymouth really wanted to get him back. In an effort to win back Petty’s loyalty, they created one of the most radical cars to ever race on a NASCAR track. Created by the same team that produced the Dodge Daytona, an 18-inch aerodynamic nose cone was placed on the front and a sweptback wing was fashioned on the rear of the Road Runner. Dubbed the Superbird, this car was ready to take flight around the speedways and take on the best that Chevy and Ford had to offer. Did the effort pay off? You bet it did! The Superbird was just what Plymouth needed to lure Petty back.
So lets dive into what made this one year wonder so special to all who gaze upon it. The 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird or the Winged Bird with the cartoon on it has so much history and mystery attached to it. A car that is so radical and different, it immediately captures your attention and leaves ya wondering.
Now that the Superbird was ready for the track in luring Petty back , it had to be made available for the anyone to buy off a showroom floor. NASCAR crazy rules clearly state that for a vehicle to be raced, a pre -determined number of production cars have to be made available to the general public. In 1970, the rule was changed to a formula based on the number of a brand’s dealers. This meant 2,000 birds had to be made available for it to race on Sunday. One example had to be built for each dealership.
The Plymouth Superbird shared many similarities in design to the Dodge Daytona. The Superbird was based on the Plymouth Road Runner except for the airfoil and nose. The Road Runner was based on the Belvedere but given Warner Brother cartoon figures and a horn that made a 'Beep Beep' sound. To inspire sales and to compete with the other muscle cars of the day, these vehicles were given large and powerful engines.
The spoiler on the Superbird was higher and more angled than the Daytona's. Part of the reason for mounting the wing so high was to allow better access to the trunk. Under 90 mph, the wing was basically useless.
There were three engine choices available. The Super Commando 440 V8 with a single four barrel carburetor was the most popular of the engine options. With 375 horsepower and 480 foot-pounds of torque, the Superbird could accelerate from zero-to-sixty in just under six-seconds. From 0-60, the 426 Hemi Superbird clocked in at 4.8 seconds and sprinted the quarter mile at 13.5 seconds running 105 mph. Compared to the base 440 engine, the Hemi could shoot the quarter .76 seconds quicker.
During its production run lasting only one year, 1920 examples were produced. The vehicles outfitted with the Hemi engine are the rarest, with only 93 examples produced. 1,162 examples were outfitted with the 440 and single four-barrel carburetor. 665 examples were built with the 440 Six Pack.
Part of the reason for the low production figures was the controversial oversized wing and angular nose. Also, the cartoon characters and 'beep-beep' horn were 'love-or-hate'. The performance was undisputed and the top speed was unbeatable. Throughout the early part of the 1970's, Plymouth continued the production of the Road Runner. Though, due to increasing emission and government regulations, the horsepower era of the 1960's was coming to a close. Insurance premiums were costing more and many felt that these high powered machines were unsafe for the road. This would bring about a whole new trend of fuel-efficient luxury machines replacing the bare-bones, high performance, muscle cars.
Plymouth didn’t create a car as radical as the Superbird and not give it what it needed to take flight. The standard power plant was the GTX 440 pumping out 375 horsepower and 480-lbs.ft of torque. Next up was the optional 440 6-barrel cranking out 390 horsepower and 490-lbs.ft. of torque. And what Plymouth muscle car would be complete without a Hemi? For drivers wanting the real deal, Plymouth offered a 426 cubic-inch Hemi spewing 425 horsepower and a whopping 490-lbs.ft. of torque. As usual, production of the Hemi-equipped version is low due to the engine’s hefty price tag. Production numbers were 1,084 for the 440 4-barrel, and 716 for the 440 6-barrel, and only 135 for the 426 Hemi.
The standard transmission offered on the Superbird was the TorqueFlite 727 3-speed automatic. The Performance Axle Package, which included a 3.55 rear axle and Sure Grip differential, was also included with the TorqueFlite. Buyers wanting to manually shift could opt for the available Type A-833 4-speed. When the manual was checked off on the option sheet, the A33 Track Pak was also included. This comprised of a 3.54:1 rear end with a Dana Sure Grip axle.
One of the first things you notice is the aerodynamic nose cone, pop-up headlamps, and spoiler on the front of the car. The spoiler does more than just look good. It eliminates front end lift and lowers drag by limiting airflow under the car. Fender vents and racing-type hood pins are giveaways to the car’s NASCAR roots. The piece that really catches your eye is the giant 24-inch stabilizer wing with Road Runner graphics on the rear of the car. It’s another piece of the puzzle in the Superbird’s aerodynamic design. The nose extension, front spoiler, and rear convex window help reduce drag and the rear stabilizer wing helps increase high speed stability. Many ask why Plymouth would choose to place a vinyl roof on such a graceful car. Truth is, it was to hide the body work needed for creating the aerodynamic rear window.
On the street, the nose cone and wing were very distinctive, but the aerodynamic improvements hardly made a difference there or on the drag strip. In fact, the 1970 Road Runner was actually quicker in the quarter mile and standard acceleration tests due to the increased weight produced by the Superbird's nose and wing. Only at speeds in excess of 60 mph (97 km/h) did the modifications begin to show any benefit
Inside, the Superbird was all business. A black or white bench seat was standard but customers could dig a little deeper into their wallet and spring for bucket seats. Power steering was standard along with the “beep-beep” Road Runner horn. A 150 mph speedometer, along with temperature and fuel gauges, was also included. Cruising during the summer in the Superbird will be warm since air conditioning isn’t an available feature. Other items left off the option list include rear seat speaker, rear window defogger, and headlamp delay. Plymouth definitely built this car for speed so creature comforts were somewhat lacking.
Plymouth equipped the Superbird with plenty of performance features. The car came with F-70 x 14-inch wide-profile tires as standard equipment. Customers could also choose optional F-60 x 15-inch extra-wide tires. A complete heavy-duty suspension was standard. Braking power came courtesy of 11.75-inch disc brakes with 10-inch rear drums.
1970 would be the only year the Superbird would be produced. Since NASCAR imposed new engine and weight restrictions on aero cars, Plymouth deemed the car would not be competitive. This car also comes from a time when manufacturers were in competition with one another to create some serious muscle cars. The Superbird is definitely one of the most radical from that time.
(426 Hemi) Performance
0 – 60 mph: 4.8 seconds
Quarter mile: 13.5 seconds