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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.

Russ 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.

... I approved the program and sell it to Top Management. Bob Rodger (our racing Director) proposed that we build these aerodynamic models so they would be approved for NASCAR oval “stock” car racing. Corporate approval was needed because it cost money to engineer and build them.

The program costs — engineering, tooling, vendors — were more than the profit from the 2,000 winged warriors that we eventually built and sold. Our variable, or piece, costs alone were higher than the price we charged dealers.

Superbirds at Chryslers at Carlisle

Burton continued, in his history of the Dodge Charger:

During the 1969 model year, we added two 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 inch 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.

road runnerNot all testing took place in wind tunnels. Greg Kwiatkowski wrote, “My car, DC-93, (also known as #88 later in life), was used at the Huntsville Airport for coast down studies on the new ‘wing.’ They’d run one way, turn around and run back, averaging the numbers out to get rid of any spurious input [e.g. wind.]” In essence, if you take it up to speed, then put it in neutral, and measure the time it takes to slow down — or the speed after a certain distance — you can get a rough measure of drag under real life conditions, including the road going by underneath.

Mr. Kwiatkowski added, “The front of the #88 cone/lower valance is sealed all the way back to the engine cross member; what I have seen of the #43, #71, #7 and ‘show car’ #6, that is not always the case. Larry Rathgeb told me that was very important to the aero of the wing car design for the race track. Engineering told the teams the chassis setup, gearing, and other ‘tricks,’ but you can't make them all implement the suggestions. ...

buddy baker

“The ‘69 race Daytona package got the front lift of a standard Charger to zero, from 1,200 pounds at race speeds. A bigger front spoiler, further forward, would make some downforce – relative to a no lift condition. The rear wing would be used for down force and to balance the car, aero wise. To get the same effect with a rear spoiler would cause a lot of drag! The spoiler would have had to be well beyond the NASCAR limitations of 3 inches. Overall, the car would have lost top velocity in the straights. So, it would have entered the corner at a slower speed. A lose-lose situation. This is why the still-born King Cobra could not be driven fast. It was loose in the corners with the maximum allowed spoiler of that time period. Now, that car had front downforce and rear lift!”

Bill Wright, Larry Rathgeb, John Pointer, George Wallace, John Vaughn

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. Take a Dodge Charger (440 or Hemi), stick a wedge over its nose and a three foot metal spoiler on the rear, and, as Petty Enterprises' Kurt Romberg pointed out to me, add an under-nose spoiler, vertical stabilizers, and a backlight modification.

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.

The Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth 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’ article on Chrysler's NASCAR efforts

The answer to more speed cutting the aerodynamic drag. The answer to that was already sketched out by two different designers independently of one another. 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, based on Richard Petty's commitment to return to Plymouth. Someone thought that doing the Plymouth version would be easy. Just send a Belvedere two door over to Creative Industries, where the Dodge Daytona for the commercial street market had been built. 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. 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!

The rear window on the Belvedere was also causing a large drag on the car. 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. Instead, they concentrated on the rear wing.

dodge daytona

In the end, the side stabilizer part of the wing was 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 air inlet was redesigned. 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.

Front fenders and a hood from the Coronet were grafted on the Belvedere body (the Dodge was more aerodynamic). After that decision, it took only a week to clay in the entire car and get a model into the wind tunnel. Two weeks later, a fully operational car was off and running at the Chrysler Proving Grounds at Chelsea. Then, just after the model was changed from Belvedere to Road Runner Superbird, the prints and materials were sent over to Creative Industries where the street commercial Plymouths were built.

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

Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird car stories

CBody67 wrote:

When we were doing the restoration of the Superbird, I saw the build instruction paper, and was surprised by it, compared with the Charger Daytona. The Daytona work was done in acrylic lacquer paint, against the OEM factory acrylic enamel paint. Back then, acrylic lacquer was usually the paint type of choice for most body shops; color and gloss would match, but not the harness of the shine. There were about three layers of paint primer and paint overspray on the underbody.

don white

The Superbird looked much cleaner to build. The paper states that the nosecone was suspended inside the passenger area when the car went through the paint booth at the factory. The wind external pieces would have been separate, but painted with the car, too, so the car was all painted in the normal acrylic enamel paint.

All Superbirds had to have vinyl roofs to cover the additional work to make the back glass fit the rear sail panels for the aero modifications.

One key thing was the additional supports between the underside of the upper quarter panel and the trunk floor/frame rails. Without those tubular supports (as cheesy as they might have looked), the rear quarter panels would collapse under the downforce of the rear wing.

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. 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 of days.

It was expensive 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 had sold it to a collector.

plymouth superbird

Two stories explain the rear spoiler. Some wrote 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. Either or both could be true.

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.


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 (Hemi)
Carter AVS 4V (440)
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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