Superbird is a very eye-catching name, yet it’s not one you would know unless you are a serious NASCAR enthusiast or classic car nut. That’s because the Superbird was a short-lived Plymouth creation that left its marks on NASCAR history. Its vehicular life was so short that it only lasted a single production year (1970) with 1,935 units built.
The Superbird was based on the Plymouth Roadrunner. But, it was inspired by the Dodge Charger Daytona, another short-lived muscle car that died at the hands of NASCAR’s ever-changing rules.
That’s because both the Daytona and the Superbird were created to do one thing, win the NASCAR trophy. And winning, they did. These new “aero” cars raced to victory in 33 out of 48 races in the 1970 NASCAR season. Unfortunately, it was also that speed and supremacy that led to their demise, with NASCAR limiting engine size in 1971 as a response to safety concerns. It was an ironic ending that can happen when there’s too much success. Overnight, Chrysler axed the Superbird, and it would never again grace a showroom or a race track.
Heading back into the 1960s, Dodge never envisioned producing a Daytona, and the same can be said of Plymouth and the Superbird. These cars came about as knee-jerk reactions to Ford crushing Chrysler on the track. This was back in the era of the “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday” mindset. So, the folks at Dodge and Plymouth were concerned about sales.
The Superbird came about primarily because the early Dodge Charger couldn’t get the job done (at least at the races). Its bold appearance and fastback design were well-received at dealers, but the car’s abilities at fast NASCAR speeds left a lot to be desired. Its large, upright grille gave the car a mean look but created a lot of drag. The swoopy rear end was very distinguishing, but it resulted in an overabundance of lift. As a result, the car would often spin out at triple-digit speeds on the track.
It was one thing to lose a race and another if you couldn’t even compete. It was an embarrassment. So the folks at Dodge went to work to change things. The first attempt was a modified variant of the 1968 Charger (dubbed the Charger 500). While it was a smooth sailing beauty that could handle high speed, it wasn’t enough. Ford had its A-game on in the form of the Gran Torino. Chrysler was desperate for something new.
And this was when the Dodge Charger Daytona hit the scene. While Dodge General Manager Bob McCurry called it “the ugliest car I have ever seen,” the Daytona started to win races. This new Charger design was very focused on aerodynamics. And in the search for optimal performance, Dodge brought in an actual rocket scientist (John Pointer from Chrysler’s missile division). The result was a highly streamlined car with a broad pointy nose cone, a long hood, a wide body, and an overachieving massive rear wing. Nothing was for show—every bend, curve, and arch served a purpose.
The Daytona was completed in 1969 with Dodge performing tests at the company’s Chelsea Proving Grounds. Wisely, Dodge kept the results secret as they didn’t want to ruin the surprise for Ford. On September 14, 1969, it all came to bear when the car made its public debut at Alabama Motor Speedway and destroyed Ford and Chevrolet on the track.
The following year, the Dodge Daytona with Buddy Baker as its driver became the first car ever to cross 200 mph on a closed circuit. This extraordinary event helped burnish the Daytona name among racing enthusiasts and created a new milestone in NASCAR history.
But that’s the Dodge Daytona story that had to be told before we look at the beginnings of the Plymouth Superbird.
While Dodge was still suffering on the race track in 1968, something else was going on with Plymouth. Or it’s more accurate to say “someone” else was happening. This person was Richard Petty, who was Plymouth’s star NASCAR driver. And while he won 27 out of 48 NASCAR races in the 1967 season, he was still handicapped by the limits of the Plymouth Roadrunner.
Seeking to grab even more victories, Petty besieged Plymouth for a winged race car. But, that was something Plymouth didn’t have to offer. So, Petty said goodbye to Plymouth and hello to Ford. Suddenly Chrysler had two big reasons for making winged cars.
That led to Dodge making the Daytona. And as it rallied on to success, Plymouth felt a need for its own version as it hoped to win Petty back. But, Plymouth wanted an aerodynamic race car that didn’t have the ungainly looks of the Daytona. With this goal in mind, they used Dodge’s research as a benchmark but took a slightly different route.
Despite the Superbird looking similar to the Daytona, there was a difference. For starters, it was 3 mph slower than Dodge. And looks were enhanced thanks to shifting the wing upwards on the rear deck and redesigning the nose to 20 inches in length. The changes made the body substantially sleeker and provided greater downforce than the Daytona. Underneath, Plymouth chose a big-block Hemi V-8 with 433 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque. But, this was no stock engine as a re-engineered camshaft and intake manifold helped performance. Plymouth also added a custom exhaust system and a roll cage. The resulting masterpiece could hit 60 mph from a standstill in 5.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds. The top speed was 185 mph.
With an aero-centric car now added to Plymouth’s stable, Richard Petty saw an opportunity to triumph, and he came back to fold. His eight victories for Plymouth in the 1970 NASCAR season validated all of the efforts in creating the Superbird. But, as we know, happiness was short-lived.
When 1970 and the Superbird rolled around, a year after the Daytona’s success, it was clear that Chrysler’s aero cars were insanely fast. The ability to approach or exceed 200 mph was a game-changer for racing. But, this proved to be a big concern for NASCAR as safety technology had not yet caught up to these speeds. Plus, neither the tires nor brakes were engineered for 200 mph.
With this in mind, NASCAR introduced new rules to limit the performance of aero cars. These steps included reducing engine displacement to 350 cubic inches. Larger displacement was permitted, but this had to be offset with additional weight. It was a new formula that just wouldn’t work for the Superbird, and Plymouth axed the car shortly afterward.
The dropping of the Superbird from racing is also tied into the discontinuation of production of the street-legal version.
Then-current NASCAR regulations in 1968 required manufacturers to build at least 500 units of the same car for the public. So, for a car to race in NASCAR, it must be available for general purchase. For 1971, NASCAR required manufacturers to build one car for every two dealerships under its brand.
Unfortunately, the Plymouth Superbird was not very well received in the market (another reason the brand was reluctant to carry on with the Superbird beyond its first year). Just like the Daytona, the Superbird looked weird to the average buyer. It wasn’t very practical from a daily driving perspective, and it was expensive to insure. In other words, it didn’t make much sense to own a Superbird.
Most of them sat in dealerships collecting dust. And some dealers even went so far as to remove the nose and wing and sell the car as a Roadrunner. Unlike today, when the Superbird is arguably the holy grail of classic American cars, it was thought of as an ugly duckling in its day.
Inside, the Superbird was similar to its Roadrunner stablemate with a clean and straightforward cabin, the hallmark of 1970s styling. Buyers could choose from bench seats in both rows or swap out the front bench for bucket seats. Cleverly, to cut down on painting time, Plymouth made vinyl top standard equipment. Starting prices for the Superbird began at $4,300 (about $30,400 today), and the car was available in seven colors.
Among the engine choices was the NASCAR 426 Hemi that was usually paired with a four-speed manual transmission, but the Chrysler three-speed Torqueflite automatic was an option. Two versions of the 440 Super Commando V-8 were also available with either 375 or 390 horsepower. Most buyers went for the 440 V-8. As a result, only 126 Superbirds were built, making this configuration the rarest.
Today, a Plymouth Superbird will sell for $100,000-$200,000, with some rare examples fetching more. A 2019 auction saw bidding reach $3.5 million for Richard Petty’s Superbird, but the transaction never happened as the seven-figure offer failed to meet the undisclosed reserve price.
If a Plymouth Superbird is out of reach, then check out the extensive selection of premium used sports cars at Trust Auto in Sykesville. With choices like a Chevrolet Corvette or Camaro, Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger, and Porsche 911 or Cayman, thrilling performance is just a call or click away at Trust Auto.