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In the world of the cars of the Musclecar Era of the 1960s and 1970s, two vehicles visually stand out above all others: The Dodge Charger Daytona and the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird. You couldn’t possibly miss them if you tried. With their distinctive nose cones, hide-away headlights, bright colors and three-foot-tall rear wings, the Daytona and Superbird are without a doubt the most outlandish cars to come from that time period. When new, they were avoided like the plague on dealer lots because of their looks. Now, they are big-money rides that are aspirational for any enthusiast.
The Daytona and Superbird are homologation specials, built with one purpose in mind: to put Ford in their place on the high-banked ovals of NASCAR. Chrysler had been studying aerodynamics since the 1920s, but outside of random testing and the 1934 Chrysler Airflow, not much had come about from the studies until Ford’s Galaxie and Torino started to put 426 Hemi-powered machines in their place. Suddenly, sheer power wasn’t enough. Ford’s weapon of choice was the Torino Talladega, a Torino Sportsroof that had front bodywork that had been designed by Holman-Moody. The flush-mounted grille and headlights, along with the reshaped rocker panels allowed the 427 side-oiler Torino to cut through the air beautifully.
Dodge first tried to combat the Talladega with the Charger 500. Take the standard 1968 Dodge Charger, mount a flush grille from a Dodge Coronet, and re-shape the rear window so that the rear glass is flush, and you get the idea. On short tracks, the Charger 500 could handle it but on the high-speed superspeedways, the Ford had the advantage. Enter the Charger Daytona. There are stories that Buddy Baker lapped the Chrysler Corporation Proving Grounds in Michigan at over 235 miles an hour, but that was secretive testing. The truth came out at Talladega in March of 1970, when Buddy Baker blasted through the 200 MPH barrier in a car that originally had been a Dodge Charger Hemi that had been stolen and left stripped out in Watts, California.
The Superbird, by comparison, was Plymouth trying to win back Richard Petty. In the late 1960s, Dodge and Plymouth weren’t racing together…each did their own thing. After learning about what Dodge was doing, Petty had asked Plymouth liaisons for a wing car and Plymouth dragged their feet. Annoyed, Petty went to Ford for a year and Plymouth representatives panicked and gave in quickly. After trying to make a Belvedere body aerodynamic, the Road Runner body got the nod instead. There were small tweaks compared to the Charger, like an enlarged air intake and wider rear wing stands, but overall the Superbird was just as potent a race car.
With 503 Daytonas and 1,935 Superbirds produced for NASCAR homologation, both the Superbird and Daytona were destined to be a one-year-only deal. NASCAR quickly saw the high-speed cars as a safety issue, running speeds that outclassed the tire technology of the day, and stuck the aero-modified Ford, Mercury, Dodge and Plymouth models with a 305ci engine size limit.
Today, the Charger Daytona and Road Runner Superbird are viewed as the ultimate means to an end, in a similar vein as the Ford GT40 Mk.II was to Ford. They were the result of a “win at any cost” mentality and as a result, racers and performance fans have broadly accepted them as they are. It doesn’t hurt that Richard Petty and his 1970 Superbird race car were immortalized in the Disney/Pixar film “Cars” as Strip Weathers, more often referred to as “The King”. But to Chrysler fans, nothing is more iconic than seeing those cars in action, racing around an oval in a pack, the sun glinting off of the rear wings.