PETTY’S SUPERBIRD SUPERCAR James Attwood
ichard Petty only drove the Plymouth Superbird for a single NASCAR Grand National season. And while he won 18 races in 1970, he didn’t even win the championship.
And yet, the Superbird might just be the car The King is most associated with. How entwined are the two? Well, the character Petty plays in the Disney Pixar film Cars was modeled on the Superbird.
Why? Simple. The distinctive, dynamic, bewinged Superbird was the ultimate expression example of the ‘Aero Warriors’ that dominated the sport in 1969 and ’70, before being banned by NASCAR. Consider them a Deep South equivalent to Group B rally cars. And the Superbird was essentially built purely for Petty.
The North Carolina ace had been a long-time Plymouth driver, having won Grand National races for the marque every year from 1960 onwards. In 1967, he won 27 times in 48 starts to claim his second Grand National title. But growing knowledge of aerodynamics was changing the shape of stock cars.
Technically, NASCAR was still a series for stock cars, machines you could actually buy in showrooms across America. But in a push to win, firms started designing cars specifically for the race track. And with engine development beginning to stall, manufacturers began to experiment with aerodynamic design, especially with Daytona International Speedway inspiring a growth in bigger and faster ovals.
While the art of aero development was still fairly rudimentary – wind tunnels were only used sparingly at this point – Petty was concerned Plymouth was being left behind in the aero race, not least by fellow Chrysler marque Dodge.
In mid-1967, Petty was shown both the ’68 version of the Plymouth Road Runner and the Dodge Charger.
It was clear to Petty that the Charger had far more advanced aerodynamics, which he was keen to exploit. So he asked Chrysler bosses about driving a Dodge for the ’68 season. They refused.
Thanks to the genius of Petty’s car builder and brother Maurice, The King won 16 times in his Road Runner that year, while the Charger initially struggled with stability on the high-speed tracks. But in June 1968 a revised Dodge, the Charger 500, was launched, solving most of those stability issues. With no aero development forthcoming from Plymouth, Petty again asked to switch brands. Chrysler again said no.
Meanwhile, rival firm Ford was preparing to take the stock aero wars to another level, with the first true Aero Monster. With the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway added to the calendar for the 1969 season, Ford invested heavily in aero development. The firm took its existing Torino, lengthening the nose and fitting a flush grille. The resulting car was named the Ford Torino Talladega (meanwhile, sister firm Mercury applied similar aerodynamic wizardry to create the Cyclone Spoiler II).
To ensure the machines still met the ‘stock’ part of the ‘stock car’ description, NASCAR chiefs required them to build 500 road-going examples, but that was a small price when compared to the benefits it offered on high-banked ovals.
The Torino Talladega certainly impressed Petty. When he saw what Ford was planning for ’69 compared to what Plymouth was offering, he signed a deal to stick his number 43 and trademark blue paint on a car powered by the Blue Oval.
The Torino Talladega was a huge success: Leeroy Yarbrough won the 1969 Daytona 500 driving one, while David Pearson claimed 11 wins and the championship. Petty won 10 races and took second in the points.
Having lost its star driver and the initiative in terms of car development, Chrysler was determined to respond. The firm focused on aero development, and specifically reducing drag. Chrysler’s technical boffins took the Charger 500 and gave it a sleek long nose and a massive spoiler.
The resulting Dodge Charger Daytona won its first race at Talladega in 1969 – and it also caught the eye of Petty. And, perhaps if he were allowed to drive one, Petty would be prepared to leave Ford and return to Chrysler for 1970. Chrysler chiefs offered something better: instead of giving him a Charger, they’d build him a Plymouth version. Petty accepted.
The development of the Superbird wasn’t a simple task: efforts to simply graft the slippery front end of the Charger onto a Plymouth Belvedere simply didn’t work. Parts from elsewhere in the Plymouth range were used, resulting in the Superbird’s slightly higher pointy nose. The rear wing also used larger side stabilisers, resulting in the distinctive, dramatic rear wing (as a side benefit, they were also tall enough and wide enough to allow the roadgoing Superbird’s boot to open fully).
NASCAR bosses didn’t make life easy for Plymouth, either. In a (futile) attempt to cut down on the ‘homologation’ specials, NASCAR upped the production car requirements from 500 to one for every two dealerships a manufacturer had. That meant Plymouth had to build around 2000 street-legal Superbirds by January 1, 1970.
That effort and expense was rewarded when Petty took to the track for that year’s Daytona 500 in a Superbird, and although he struck problems during the race, Pete Hamilton took victory in a Petty-run Superbird.
The rest of the season went better. Petty claimed 18 victories during the year, although reliability and other issues blunted his championship challenge. Bobby Isaac claimed the title, largely driving a Dodge Charger Daytona.
Given the rate of development, the Petty/superbird combination would likely have been even more potent in 1971. Instead, the Superbird was put into mothballs.
NASCAR bosses were increasingly concerned with rapidly rising speeds and how little ‘stock’ was actually found in the latest stock cars.
So the rules were revamped for the ’71 season, effectively forcing the bewinged aero warriors to run bigger engines – and then throttling those engines with restrictors. It curbed speeds, but led to many manufacturers, Plymouth included, cutting back their efforts.
It didn’t slow Petty though. He won the 1971 Daytona 500 in his Plymouth Road Runner, and then won 21 of 46 races to saunter to his third of seven Grand National championships. ■
good to watch, but knowing what the damping is like on modern cars they were quite basic back then. It just shows things have moved on so much.”
Unlike earlier racers with no turbos, the RS500 isn’t a particularly easy car to put into a classic drift.
“You could hold it in a nice slide, but through Village and the Loop you’d get into a slide and then when you braked for the next one, it had a big old lurch,” reckons Jordan. “The steering feels quite heavy, there’s no power steering, and because you’re hanging on to it it’s quite a physical car to drive. You’re quite busy. With historic cars on historic tyres, when it slides it’s all progressive. This has grip but then when the boost comes in it’ll suddenly all come, so it’s not that easy to hold in a drift.
“It stops alright and the gearbox feels nice, but the car is very soft. There’s a lot of roll in it so the change of direction is pretty poor. You have to drive it in a straight line; get the wheel straight as soon as possible and drive it off.”
What’s even more remarkable is that, entirely by accident, Jordan didn’t have the boost knob turned up to its maximum during his running. He could have had even more power on tap.
Harvey, who was one of the quickest BTCC RS500 drivers along with Rouse, Steve Soper and Gravett ( right), agrees that the two-litre engine dominated the nature of the car, particularly given its relatively narrow rear tyres and high centre of gravity.
“They developed a lot, but it was all about power really,” says Harvey after Jordan’s outing. “Head gasket technology and fuel additives became much better so you could get more power without them blowing up. I’d say they went from around 470bhp to 560bhp over the three years.
“The chassis was never perfect. They got better, but you were looking for tyre management rather than more pace.”
One of the keys to success in period was getting the rubber to last during a BTCC race. A tyre war between Dunlop,