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The Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Charger Daytona

Charlie Glotzbach

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.

charger daytona

The 1969 Dodge Daytona had a drag coefficient (cd) of just 0.28, better than most cars made in the 1990s. It would have produced even less drag, if it weren't for the tall spoiler (added to keep the rear wheels on the ground at high speeds), but still achieved 200 mph (set by Buddy Baker on March 24, 1970, at 200.447 mph around Talladega). The price of the retail cars, fitted with either a 440 or Hemi engine, was around $4,000, and the top speed was practically unbeatable in a production car (contemporary estimates ranged around 180 mph).

1970 plymouth cars

The first-generation Viper, with its aerodynamic shape, had a cd of over .5; the 1994 Plymouth Duster had a cd of .42. ; the mid-1990s Eagle Talon had a cd of .36. Even the sleek Eagle Vision had a drag of .31, considerably higher than the 0.28 of the 1969 Charger Daytona. That car set a speed record that held for 13 years, to be broken by about 1 mph in 1983.

The Daytona's rear wheels tended to lose their traction, until that massive spoiler was put on, because it carried a standard 440 cubic inch, 375-hp engine, and air would flow under the car and lift it. The optional powerplant was the fabled 426 Hemi, a 425-hp (plus) monster designed for racing.

wing spoiler

Aerodynamic development leading to the Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird

Bob Stuemke wrote,

As a engineering student at the Chrysler Institute 1958-61, I was permitted to study reports in old files (while on a three-month student assignment to an Engineering Improvements Committee). In an experiment from about 1934, a slightly modified Airflow Crown Imperial sedan was equipped with the huge nine-main-bearing inline eight and high compression (about 6:1) Red Head, with 380 cubic inches of displacement. It had overdrive and slight modifications of the body to reduce air drag (smoothed out the headlamp eyebrows, etc.). This was clocked at well above 114 mph! It now sounds rather improbable, but I remember reading this report with absolute clarity after almost a half century.

superbird interior

Even Virgil Exner understood aerodynamic principles, though production cars did not show many of the existing knowledge. Still, some used the information that was out there. Thomas Osiecki noted that Bob Osiecki's Chrysler-powered “Mad Dog IV” set a world speed record of 181.561 MPH at Daytona International Speedway in 1961, largely through aerodynamic improvements.

road runnerRuss Shreve wrote:

In 1964, I was involved in the design of a very advanced race car concept for JC Penney, which wanted to get into International Sports Car racing. One of the key features of their car would be better aerodynamics.

In early 1965, I rented the University of Michigan wind tunnel for extensive tests. I hired University of Michigan-associated aerodynamicist Jim Amick to manage the tests and compile data into a report. Ron Martin built the wind tunnel models, and worked with Amick between runs making changes.

Amick's final report had a unique solution...The Wing.

Penney did not continue their interest in a race car, and following a breakup with my partner, he took a copy of Amick's Wind Tunnel Report to Texas car builder and driver Jim Hall, in exchange for a job.

wind tunnelIn 1972 Larry Shinoda stopped by my house; he was directly involved in the GM association with Jim Hall, and I showed Larry the original Amick report. Larry confirmed my partner had given the wind tunnel report to Hall, and that Hall was skeptical. Per Larry, he himself had been thinking of similar ideas, and when he read Amick's report realized they had been proven in a wind tunnel. It was Shinoda that convinced Hall it was worth a try.

There is little doubt Hall and Chaparral took race car aerodynamics well beyond Amick. However, I think it is time the world recognized the idea did not originate with Hall. The credit should go to Jim Amick.

dick brooks

Even before the Daytona, the Charger had been tuned for aerodynamics with the special Charger 500 model. As Burton Bouwkamp wrote,

The Ford Talladega showed up at the Atlanta race in the Spring of 1969. It was built specifically for NASCAR racing and motivated us (Chrysler) to design and build the “winged warriors” (Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird) for NASCAR racing.

Bob Rodger, our Racing Director (who worked for me at that time) came back from the Atlanta race and said, “NASCAR has gone ‘funny car’ racing.” He said that we should design and build the ultimate race car and forget how practical it was or how it looked because we only had to build 500 of them to be approved by NASCAR as “stock.” I got Corporate approval to do that and we developed and built 500 Charger Daytonas in 1969. Creative Industries built the cars for us.

Superbirds at Chryslers at Carlisle

Burton continued, in his history of the Dodge Charger:

During the 1969 model, we added two aerodynamic models to reduce aerodynamic drag and improve the performance of the Charger on the longer NASCAR race tracks. At the beginning of the year we added the Charger 500 model. We changed the tunnel roof backlite to a flush fast roof line and we pulled the grille forward so that it was not recessed. Actually, this input came from our race teams. ... From February 1 until September 14, Dodge won 15 races against Ford's 22 wins. Not a winner but we were at the ballgame. With the debut of the second aerodynamic model in September 1969 - the Charger Daytona - at Talladega, Alabama, it was a new ballgame. From September 14th through the next year we won 45 out of and the next 59 races.

[Burton later wrote:] In 1970, we built 1500 Plymouth Superbirds because NASCAR had upped the requirement and Plymouth dealers wanted a competitive race car (for Richard Petty). I think Mercury built a “Cyclone” aerodynamic model for NASCAR but I don't remember whether that was 1969 or 1970.

superbird logo

With these models Chrysler dominated NASCAR racing for the next 18 months. We won 75% of races overall - and all of the long track races. In 1971 NASCAR changed the rules and limited the Talladega/Cyclone and our “winged warriors” to a 300 cubic in engine. We parked them because even with the aerodynamic shape we couldn't compete against cars with 426 cubic inch engines. So we went back to regular production “stock” bodies and 426 cubic inches for NASCAR racing.

Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird car construction

The Daytona was built as though it was an option package, thanks to a low budget and last-minute modifications to win races - indeed, existing Chargers were converted to become Daytonas. Take a Dodge Charger (440 or Hemi), stick a wedge over its nose and a three foot metal spoiler on the rear, and you've pretty much got a Daytona (this is an exaggeration, as Petty Enterprises' Kurt Romberg pointed out to me. There was also an under-nose spoiler, vertical stabilizers, and a backlight modification, which he notes "are integral parts of the package").

winged warrior

The Daytona wouldn't have been complete without at least one quirk, and it picked a good one. Driven too slowly, it could overheat. Increasing speed (or switching to the next-year's Superbird) took care of the problem.

A year later, Plymouth took a Road Runner, and gave it the same treatment. The Superbird was a little slower at top speed, but it had huge cartoon graphics that made 160 mph just a little more fun.

The Daytona and Superbird were considered ugly at the time, but 20 years later, they seem graceful, and maybe even commonplace (except for that spoiler - and their 18 foot length).

Superbird interior

NASCAR wing car development (by Curtis Redgap)

Excerpted from Curtis' excellent article on Chrysler's NASCAR efforts

The answer to more speed was to cut the aerodynamic drag. The answer to that was already sketched out by two different designers independently of one another. The amazing thing is that their respective designs had the nose of the proposed car nearly the same! The rear wing on one design was a two stage affair, while the other resembled the final result of the proposed Dodge Charger Daytona. ...

window inserts

Plymouth made their commitment to build a winged car. Their own version. This was based on Richard Petty's commitment to return to Plymouth to drive that creation. ... Someone thought that doing the Plymouth version would be easy. Just send a Belvedere two door over to Creative Industries Inc., where the Dodge Daytona for the commercial street market had been built. There they could hang a sloped nose and rear wing on the Plymouth and go racing with it. Having to build 2,000 cars for commercial sale prior to January 1, 1970 didn't leave Plymouth much time.

Dodge Charger Daytona - at Daytona Speedway

The aerodynamic engineers warned Plymouth that it wasn't going to be anywhere near as easy to get a winged car with the Plymouth. Scoffing, Plymouth went ahead and had Creative Industries hang a nose on the front and put a wing on the rear of a stock Belvedere. It was awful!

When they saw what Creative Industries had done, the styling department they threw a fit. Faced with having to build 2,000 cars since NASCAR had upped the ante to get in, commercial acceptance was vital. Something had to be done and done quickly.

1970 superbird

A proposal to hang a Charger front clip on the Belvedere was quickly rejected. The two body styles were vastly different. Trying to tinker with the current Belvedere fenders just didn't work out. Wind tunnel testing showed that by doing that, it actually increased drag!

don white

They also had a problem with the rear window on the Belvedere, which was causing a large drag on the rear of the car. Engineers had the means to cure it, but the surgery to do it stuck out like a sore thumb on the roof. They had some money for development, but to cure the rear window drag would have meant changing the entire rear quarter panels, the rear deck lid, the roof sail panels where it sweep into the truck, and leading edge of the rear window where it went into the roof, the rear window itself, and the back valance where the trunk lid locked down. Essentially, a whole new car. No way, said the top management.

dodge daytonaInstead, they concentrated on the rear wing. In the end, the side stabilizer part of the wing were 40% larger than the Daytona. The wing was swept back further, and the stabilizers titled in towards the trunk more. The front "beak" of the Plymouth cut into the air at a slightly higher angle than the Daytona. The front air inlet was redesigned to stop any overheating problems. In the end, what had been achieved without redesigning the entire car was a 99.5% stability rate with a small increase in drag. It was not quite as clean as the Daytona. The numbers looked excellent.

... Coronet front fenders and a Coronet hood were grafted on the Belvedere body. The lines were the same, but the Dodge was more aerodynamic. Once that decision was achieved, it took only a week to clay in the entire car and get that model into the wind tunnel. With results coming in that looked decent, two weeks later a fully operational car was off and running at the Chrysler Proving Grounds at Chelsea. Having achieved that, then the prints and materials were sent over to Creative Industries where the street commercial Plymouths were built. Just prior to that, the model designation was changed from Belvedere to Road Runner SuperBird!

Development of the Dodge Charger Daytona, its 200 mph speed record, and its racing history

Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird car stories

Tom Murden wrote:

I worked for a Chrysler dealer for many years. I used to love to see a new musclecar come in on the truck for the reaction it caused. In those days, damned near every 20 year old with a job could own a new car, so we were never short of shoppers. My boss came to me and told me we had one Superbird coming in and I could have it. As I was already paying for a '69 Road Runner and a '70 AAR Cuda, there was no way I could afford it.

plymouth wheels

When the car came in, there was almost a fist fight in the showroom over who was going to get the car. The boss made the announcement that whoever came up with the money first, got the car. All but one man ran to the bank in town. The other one called the bank, got approval, and they told my boss they were cutting the check and depositing it in his account. The customer hid out for a couple days.

It was an expensive proposition for the customer, his wife couldn't judge where the nose ended and air began so she ran into a lot of different things! We put 2 snouts on the car, and he ended up putting a GTX nose on it. Unfortunately, he sold the 'bird nose. He ended up selling it for what he owed on it.

The last time I saw the vehicle it was on a flatbed headed for NC. The new owner had broken the rear window, couldn't find a replacement anywhere as they were not a normal B body piece, and sold it to a collector.

plymouth superbird

Two stories explain the rear spoiler. The common idea is that it's three feet tall so the trunk can open. An interview with the engineers at Chrysler, long ago, included a comment to the effect that as the numbers kept getting better as they raised the spoiler, until it was three feet off the car, that's where they left it. (Some people are vehement that it was indeed placed to let the trunk open.)

An anonymous reader wrote:

The very first Charger Daytona was originally on display and was eventually shipped to a dealer in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. It was done via a lottery that included all the names of the Dodge dealers in North America. ... it had all the all the luxury options of a Charger SE including leather interior. The car is red with the white stripe and is a 440 auto. This car still has only 33,000 original miles on it.

See:

Dodge Charger Daytona specifications

Track 59.7 f / 59.2 r   Rear suspension leaf springs
Max Width 76.6 Steering recirculating ball
Wheelbase 117 Brakes (drum) 11x3 F, 11x2.5 R
Length 226.5 Wheels 14 x 6.0JJ
Height 53.0 Base engine 440 V8
Headroom 37.4 / 36.4 Compression 9.7:1
Legroom 41.4 / 34.1 Horsepower 375 @ 4,600
Shoulder room 58.1 / 58.1 Torque 480 @ 3,200
Hip room 60.6 / 60.4 Carburetor Carter AFB 4V
Fuel tank 19 gal. (premium) Valves hydraulic lifters
Oil 5 quarts Cam timing 268 in/284 exh.
Front suspension Torsion bars Exhaust Dual
       

Standard equipment: 440 V8, automatic transmission, vinyl bucket seats, heavy duty brakes, special suspension, rear bumper guards, concealed headlights, carpet, heater/defroster, self adjusting brakes, quick fill gas cap.

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