The 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona and the 1970 Plymouth SuperBird were created for the single purpose of putting Chrysler across the finish line first on America's stock car tracks. Due to the factories' recognition of racing as a valuable marketing tool, racing was becoming big business in the late 1960s. It was generally understood that a win on the track often lead to a 'win' in the dealer showrooms when the public came to buy the 'same' car that won at the track. And because NASCAR rules required that bodies and motors be homologated through a minimum street car production quota, the amazing Aero Warriors also graced the streets that led to the tracks where their racing brethren performed.
These were monster cars - the Superbird weighed over 1700kg and was 5.6 metres long - but they also had the grunt to match their dimensions. The street Superbird was available with 440 and 426ci V8 engines developing over 300kW (SAE gross) - and these boasted compression ratios of up to 10.5:1 with what can only be described as wild cams! Performance was as quick as a 14.3 second quarter and the estimated 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time was just 5.5 seconds. Top end? Well, on the racetrack these were genuine 320 km/h machines, while the road-going versions were variably credited with a max speed of 210 - 260 km/h.
Chrysler's 426 Hemi motor joined the NASCAR fraternity in February, 1964 at Daytona, permitting Chrysler cars to dominate the race. The 426 Hemi was state-of-the-art (at least within the confines of the NASCAR rules) in 1964, and had the potential engineered-in for significant performance gains in the future. The 426 Hemi would serve Chrysler's NASCAR efforts well for a decade, living up to its potential and in the process establish its legendary reputation.
As the 1960s progressed, and even equipped with Hemi-powered cars, it became clear to Chrysler that they couldn't rest on their laurels if they wanted to visit victory lane regularly. Because the 426 Hemi was already the 'ultimate' racing motor, it made sense to look at other methods to get more speed - and thus more victories - from the cars. Improving the aerodynamics of the cars proved to be a logical and cost-effective choice, especially since wind tunnels large enough to effectively test cars were becoming more common.
Chrysler's success in 1967 was stunning, primarily due to the efforts of one man, Richard Petty. In his Hemi-powered Satellite, Richard won 27 of 49 races, including ten in a row. Ford was determined not to allow a repeat performance in 1968, and had prepared two new offerings for the '68 season, the Ford Torino and the Mercury Cyclone. Powered by 427 "tunnel port" wedge motors, these bodies helped tip the balance of power to the Ford camp. 1968 saw 27 victories for Ford and 21 victories for Chrysler.
It was no secret that Ford was developing even more aerodynamic platforms for the '69 season (the Talladega for Ford and the Cyclone Spoiler II for Mercury). The '68 Dodge Charger was one of the most appealing designs of all time - except to the air that it passed through! The recessed grill trapped air and created turbulence, and the rear window created a low-pressure area which effectively lightened the rear end of the car. Translation - the car was slow and hard to handle at higher speeds. This body style would be no match for the even sleeker '69 Talladegas and Cyclone Spoiler IIs, especially when powered by the new Ford Hemi, the Boss 429.
The '69 season saw an improved Charger, the Charger 500, take to the tracks. Its grill was flush, and the rear window was reworked. The car was faster, but still not fast enough to contend with Ford's offerings. It was clear very early in 1969 that something even more radical would need to be done to keep Chrysler in the hunt. The car pictured here is the 3/8 scale Dodge Charger 500 model used by Chrysler in wind tunnel testing of various Charger configurations, a process which was methodically and rigorously carried out.
The 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona shown here debuted mid-season at Talladega. The result of a huge amount of wind tunnel testing - in a time when such a development approach was largely unknown to NASCAR racing - it was essentially a Charger 500 with an extended nose to lower the stagnation point and a huge wing mounted aft to apply downforce to the rear tyres. The aim of the package was to both reduce drag and improve downforce - the banked ovals on which the cars raced allowed the attaining of very high average speeds and so drag reductions were unusually important for a racecar. The Daytona was the first example of an over-the-top aero homologation special, and remains one of the most impressive ever produced. The car was also successful, winning almost a quarter of the races in which it participated during less than two full seasons on the NASCAR super speedways.
Plymouth's attempt at NASCAR domination culminated in the production of the 1970 Plymouth SuperBird. Plymouth's '68 Road Runner was aerodynamically poor, and things became even worse when Richard Petty opted to race a Ford rather than pilot a boxy Plymouth in '69. Richard scored ten victories in his new Ford ride, including a victory in the fist race he drove it in at Riverside, California. This made it abundantly clear to Plymouth that if they wanted Petty back in a Plymouth (and they wanted the all-time winningest NASCAR driver back very badly), they would need a car which Petty felt was competitive, and thus the SuperBird was born.
The Plymouth SuperBird won more races in fewer appearances that its winged brother the Daytona, bringing home eight of Plymouth's 21 victories in 1970. The Plymouth was considered a great success, although ironically, Bobby Isaac won the 1970 Grand National Championship driving a Dodge. Richard Petty finished fourth, due to a serious crash at Darlington which side-lined him for several events.
It is estimated that about 40 racing Daytonas and 20 racing SuperBirds were built during the winged car era. All Daytonas were based on already existing chassis that had Daytona sheet metal "hung" on them. SuperBirds were built from a "body in white", bare chassis shipped from the factory to the car builders. Only a few racing winged cars survive today, and they are found primarily in museums. It appears that about 550 street Daytonas were produced, with over 300 surviving to this day. The street Plymouth SuperBird was produced in larger quantities, with about 2,000 having been manufactured and about half that surviving today. And if you'd like one in your garage, be prepared to pay up to US$65,000 for the most desired of them all - the 426ci 8-bbl SuperBird.
NASCAR rule changes for the 1971 season effectively eliminated the winged cars (and Ford's Talladega and Spoiler IIs) from serious contention by requiring that they be powered by nothing larger than a 305 cubic inch motor. Although Richard Brooks had some success with a 305 cubic inch Daytona in the 1971 Daytona 500, there were simply too many problems associated with making that motor consistently competitive. Considered with the fact that series boss Bill France did not want 'exotic' cars running in his 'stock' car series, it was clear that whatever teams did with the winged cars, 'Big Bill' would simply change the rules again to penalize them further. These arbitrary and capricious rule changes were not only the death knell for the winged cars, but played a significant role in the manufacturers' decision to universally withdrawal from NASCAR in the early 1970s.
Off the NASCAR tracks, things were getting tough on the street winged cars too. Emission requirements were becoming more stringent, strangling the high performance motors that rested between the frame rails of the winged wonders. In addition, insurance rates on high performance cars were moving faster than the cars, and this was especially hard to swallow for the young performance enthusiasts who had enough trouble scraping together money to buy a performance car, let alone afford the exorbitant insurance rates. The Dodge Charger Daytona and the Plymouth SuperBird went permanently out of production less than eighteen months after the first rolled off the assembly line.