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Car of the Month, May 2009: Ralph Barbagallo's Plymouth Superbird

by Gene Yetter

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On May 3, 2009, motorists along U.S. Route 6 in Bristol, Connecticut, were in for some rubbernecking as they approached the town's landmark Yankee Harley-Davidson dealership. There on the Yankee front lawn stood one of the most eye-catching production car models in the history of the American auto industry, a bright yellow 1970 Plymouth Superbird. It just dared you to ignore its torpedo-like nose cone and its rear-mounted wing, higher even than the car's roof!

That 'Bird (factory color: Lemon Twist) was owned by Ralph Barbagallo of Bristol. The occasion of its appearance at Yankee H-D was the annual Spring car show of the local Mopar club, Mopars in Motion, and hosted by dealership owner Bob LaRoche. More about the car show will be coming up on allpar.

Mr. Barbagallo is the president of the Mopars In Motion club. He is also principal in a legal entity known as Ralphs Rapid Transit Productions LLC (dba SuperCar ShootOut™, SuperCarRaces™,, and American Musclecar Drag Racing™). The concern will sponsor eleven drag race events in 2009, including three races at Quarter Aces Drag-O-Way, Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, in conjunction with Mopar, Ford, and GM weekend events including the Carlisle All-Chrysler Nationals on July 10-12th. Besides the Superbird, Ralph owns a slew of show-quality classic Mopars.

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Ralph Barbaballo's historic Plymouth was purchased in July of 2000 from a seller in Texas. It had been restored when he took it over, Ralph says, and it was "perfect, but with a motor that had tuning issues. Those issues have been straightened out." The car is powered by a 440 Super Command V8 with Mopar Six-Pack carburetion (three 2-barrel carburetors). The transmission is a Hemi 4-Speed unit coupled to 4.10 Dana rear end.

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Ralph understands his vehicle was the 83rd 1970 Superbird produced. The fender tag designates it as a "Special Handling Car"; its build sheet indicates it is NASCAR certified; and it was featured in an Illinois car market press release by the Plymouth Division. The accompanying image of the original retail sticker shows it was first sold at North Oak Chrysler Plymouth in Chicago, a dealership still in business [and not sent a "franchise dropped" letter].

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Ralph's Superbird has had something of a public life other than its many carshow appearances. It was featured on the cover Muscle Car Review (Oct/Nov 1995), and in an article entitled "Driving the NASCAR Legends." It was on exhibit at the America On Wheels Museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a year beginning in April 2008. Finally Ralph brought the 'Bird to fly with its fledglings at the 35th Superbird Anniversary celebrations at Talladega Speedway in Alabama in 2004. He raced it once, on Mopar Day at Lebanon Valley Dragway in New York, 2006, where its best ET was 13.80 @ 103 mph, 2.10 in the launch. He expects he will race it again in 2009.

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With its horn mimicking the Warner Bros. Road Runner cartoon character, the Road Runner Superbird is a B-body car in the same category with the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona. B-body cars were produced between 1962 and 1979. Other B-body lines include the Plymouth Savoy, Fury, Belvedere, Satellite and GTX; the 1962 Dodge Dart, the Dodge 330 and 440, the Coronet and Superbee, the Monaco and Magnum; the Chrysler Cordoba and the 1979 Chrysler 300. The Dodge Coronet and Charger were in production longest as B-body cars: 11 and 12 years, respectively.

The story of how the Plymouth Superbird got its wing is an often-told tale in car magazines and on the Internet. Plymouth followed a losing NASCAR season with a winning one by making the Road Runner's aerodynamics better through the addition of nose cone and rear wing, designed in a wind tunnel. It put star NASCAR driver Richard Petty and his teammate, Pete Hamilton, in the driver's seat of two Superbirds, Nos. 43 and 40, respectively, and the results are history.

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Dodge campaigned a winged car, the Charger Daytona 500, in 1969, dominating the Grand National circuit that year. Going into 1970, the Plymouth Division built their own "winged warrior," as the two models came to be called. Petty had left due to the lack of aero-treated Plymouths, but returned to Plymouth for his usual successes in 1970.

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Chief elements of the design of the nose cone include the fairing that directs air into the precisely calculated intake opening. The nose on the Superbird is upturned slightly more than the nose of the Charger Daytona. Retractable headlights contributed to streamlining; the drag coefficient for these big cars was 0.28, far superior to the Dodge Viper. Even the aerodynamically sophisticated Eagle Vision or Dodge Neon, benefitting from computer design and Chrysler-owned wind tunnels, couldn't match it.

In designing the winged Mopar vehicles, engineers studied their aerodynamics in modern wind tunnels. But in the 1930s, Chrysler engineer Carl Breer built a wind tunnel to study aerodynamics in modeling the 1935 Airflow. The car was radically innovative and ahead of its time. Ironically, like the Superbird, it was a commercial failure. Neither car today is likely to fail at classic car auctions!

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The wing didn't have to be so high to force traction on the rear wheels, but it did have to be high enough to enable opening of the rear trunk lid on street models. The upright stablizers are larger, and they are swept back more, and lean in more to the longitudinal center of the car, than the stabilizers of the Charger Daytona. For all its innovation, the Superbird performance on the street and dragstrip were not much improved over conventional Road Runners; but the payoff came on Grand National tracks in turns above 90 mph, and in top speed performance of over 170 mph (and a NASCAR speed record of over 200 mph, set by Buddy Baker). The darker side was that the downforce could, on some tracks, sharply increase tire wear.

The Superbird had a wheelbase of 117 inches. The nose cone accounts for about two feet of its overall length of 232 inches (19 feet and change). The width was 76.6 inches; height, 53.2 inches. Depending on options and modifications, the car weighed around 3600-3800 pounds.

The reverse scoops on the front fenders are controversial. Depending who you talk to, their purpose was either to release drag of air pressure building up in the wheel wells, or keeping the tires from hitting metal with the front end pressing downward under stress. The scoops on street Superbirds are not functional.

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NASCAR required car companies to produce threshold numbers of car models to qualify them as "stock" cars. For 1970, the formula set production to half the number of the company's certified dealerships; for Plymouth, that was just under 2000 cars. The cars were expensive to build, as Road Runners would be built and then fitted with low-production, costly aero pieces by an outside contractor. That might not have been a problem, but the winged cars were a tough sell with street buyers.

Although the success on the track was presumably great for sales of other Plymouth cars, the retail payback was not. Chrysler dropped the Charger Daytona after 1969, and did the same with the Superbird after 1970. NASCAR rule changes cut their racing utility, and without retail demand, they fell by the wayside.

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