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The Plymouth Superbird | History of the Plymouth Superbird

Posted on 2021-05-12

The short-lived Plymouth Road Runner Superbird is one of the most impressive cars you might have never heard of. Since the car was only available as a 1970 model, many people don't know much about it, if they know anything at all. Despite its short life, it was crucial to bringing Richard Petty, a famous NASCAR driver, back to Plymouth's racing team. The Superbird also played a significant role in NASCAR placing new regulations on aero-body vehicles.

Learn more about the Plymouth Superbird's history, its key features and its performance in NASCAR races.

What Was the Plymouth Superbird?

The Plymouth Superbird was a heavily modified version of the Plymouth Road Runner made to perform on the race track. While Plymouth only produced the Superbird for the 1970 model year, this tuned-up vehicle made its mark on automotive history, winning many NASCAR races before new rules forced it out of the sport. The vehicle is most recognizable for its tall rear wings and aerodynamic front nose cones.

Origins of the Plymouth Superbird

Plymouth created the Superbird for two main reasons: to give its own spin on the Dodge Charger Daytona and to lure Richard Petty back to Plymouth. Both of these factors played a crucial role in the vehicle's creation and inspired the car's iconic aerodynamic design.

Check out how the Dodge Charger Daytona influenced the Superbird and learn more about the Plymouth's creation below:

The Dodge Charger Daytona

In the late 1960s, Dodge was struggling to compete in NASCAR. Their standard Dodge Charger failed to perform well in races due to its large front grille opening that caused the car to have lots of drag and a rear design that created lift.

In 1969, Dodge decided to make some major changes to the Charger to compete with others on the track. Dodge redesigned the Charger, adding a tall wing on the car's rear and a new nose cone to improve the car's aerodynamics. This new design was packaged and sold as the Dodge Charger Daytona.

These new design changes paid off almost instantly. When the vehicle first debuted at the Talledega 500, it took home first place. Alongside winning the Talledega 500, the Dodge Daytona set a NASCAR record, as it was the first vehicle to hit a speed over 200 miles per hour.

The Plymouth Superbird's Creation

Due to the Charger Daytona's success during the 1969 season, Plymouth based much of the Superbird's design on the Daytona's aero-body. Since Dodge was Plymouth's sister company, Plymouth could use their design to create their own racing monster. Plymouth also wanted to improve their car's performance on the track and bring driver Richard Petty back to their team.

Though Petty had been driving for Plymouth in the 1960s, he wanted to use a winged car in a race. Before the Superbird's creation, Plymouth didn't want to create a winged car, causing Petty to jump ship and join Ford's team. After losing Petty and seeing the Charger Daytona's success on the track, Plymouth changed their tune, setting out to design a car that would bring Petty back. With this goal in mind, Plymouth redesigned their Road Runner, turning it into the now famed Superbird.

While Plymouth primarily designed the car for NASCAR, they also produced Superbirds for the public. At the time, NASCAR required companies to sell their racing vehicles to the public at dealerships, and the Superbird was no exception.

These rules required manufacturers to produce one car for every two dealerships they owned for the 1970 season. Due to these rules, Plymouth had to produce over 1,900 Superbirds, with performance-minded drivers loving the chance to get their hands on the high-performance car. With these rules in place and an impressive design, the Superbird hit the road and the track.

Plymouth Superbird Design and Features

The 1970 Plymouth Superbird joined dealers' lots outfitted with a unique design and style. Though Plymouth built the car for the race track, drivers across the country got the chance to take a Superbird out on the road. The car's aerodynamic design and unique cosmetic features set it apart from other cars of the era.

Aerodynamic Design

While the Superbird was a modified Plymouth Road Runner, it also took much of its inspiration from the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, specifically its redesigned aero package. Dodge had made history creating this aero package using data gathered from a wind tunnel, and they were the first American car company to do so. Based on data from these tests, Dodge developed an aero package that gave the car more maximum downforce and increased its overall efficiency.

Since Plymouth was Dodge's sister company, they used data from the Charger test to inform their Superbird design. Plymouth gave the Super Bird a 20-inch long front nosecone and added a tall wing on the rear. Both of these additions helped increase the vehicle's maximum downforce.

Plymouth also added 19 inches to the original Road Runner's body by including fiberglass retractable headlines. Additionally, the Superbird's rear wing came with tall vertical struts designed to increase the downdraft's efficiency when placed on the vehicle's rear axle. While the rear wing was at the ideal height for maximum downforce, it also was large enough so drivers could still easily open the trunk lid.

Superbird Drivetrain

Alongside the vehicle's aero package, the Superbird also came with three different engines and two transmissions. These were the engine options:

  • 426 Hemi V8 engine: The 426 Hemi V8 engine was the engine the Superbird used in NASCAR races. This big-block V8 engine produced 433 horsepower and came with 472 pound-feet of torque. Additionally, the engine had a pair of Carter AFB carburetors. Only 136 Superbirds came with the 426, making it the rarest engine option.
  • 440 Super Commander V8: The 440 Super Commander V8 was the least powerful engine, offering drivers 375 horsepower. The engine also came with a single four-barrel carburetor.
  • 440 Super Commander Six Barrel V8: The 440 Super Commander Six Barrel V8 gave drivers more horsepower than the other 440, providing them with a peak horsepower of 390. Like you'd expect from the name, the engine featured a six-barrel carburetor.

In addition to the engine options, buyers could also choose between a manual or automatic transmission. The manual came in a heavy-duty four-speed package, while the automatic was a 727 Torqueflite automatic transmission. With all of these drivetrain options, buyers could pick the perfect fit for their needs.

Cosmetic Features

The Superbird and the Charger Daytona shared a few cosmetic similarities due to their aerodynamic design. The most obvious similarities were the rear wing and nose cone. The cars also featured vents on the front fenders near the top and had flush rear windows to make the vehicles more aerodynamic.

While the Superbird and the Charger Daytona had some similarities, they still had a few key differences. For example, the Superbird's nose featured a lower air intake than the Charger Daytona and had a center crease. The Superbird's taillights were also very different from the Charger Daytona since it used the Road Runner styling. Additionally, Plymouth placed side vents in front of the rear tires, much like the original Road Runner.

Plymouth installed distinctive Superbird decals on the driver's side headlight cover and the spoiler struts, further separating the vehicle from the Charger Daytona. The decal on the vertical struts featured an image of the Road Runner, which the Plymouth Road Runner took its design inspiration from. The Road Runner picture had the cartoon character holding a racing helmet, with the decal underscoring the Superbird's speed. Along with its distinctive decals, the Superbird also arrived with a horn that mimicked the Raod Runner's iconic beep beep sound.

Another feature of the SuperBird was its rear-facing fender scoops. These scoops helped hide the vehicle's cutouts, which were necessary for lowering the Superbird's height to meet NASCAR rules and provided greater wheel clearance for the wider and taller wheels. The fender scoops were largely cosmetic, hiding the more functional cutouts.

Buyers had several paint options available to choose from. These options included:

  • Corporation Blue
  • Lemon Twist
  • Blue Fire Metallic
  • Tor-Red
  • Lime Light
  • Alpine White
  • Vitamin-C Orange

No matter what color buyers chose, all Superbirds featured a black vinyl roof. Since the Superbird had unique body panels that required a great deal of time to fit properly, these black vinyl roofs helped cut down how long it took to fit the roof to the body panels.

The Superbird's interior largely mirrored the Road Runner it was based on. Some optional features for the Superbird's interior included upgrading to bench seats or the more sport-centric front buckets, with these seats coming in white vinyl or black.

History of the Plymouth Superbird in NASCAR

The Superbird's aerodynamic design and exceptional power were enough to bring Petty back to Plymouth. During the 1970 NASCAR season, Petty would win eight races while behind the wheel of the Superbird and place in the top 10 in many other races. In addition to Petty's wins in the car, other drivers also added 10 more wins for the Superbird, with the vehicle accruing 18 total 1970 NASCAR wins.

While the NASCAR Superbird ran on the 426 Hemi, Plymouth made some changes to it for greater success on the track. This suped-up racing engine came with a unique camshaft, a different compression ratio and specialty exhaust and intake manifolds. Plymouth also modified the Superbird's interior to ensure the vehicle was ready for racing, with the biggest change being a full roll cage in the vehicle.

Unfortunately, the Superbird would only last for the 1970 season. In 1971, NASCAR put in new regulations for vehicles that made it much more difficult for aerodynamic cars like the Plymouth to succeed on the track. With these new regulations, cars now had to use an engine below or at 305 cubic inches or employ a larger engine with the vehicle weighing significantly more than the competitors.

Since these new regulations put the Superbird at a significant power-to-weight disadvantage, Plymouth dropped the Superbird for the 1971 season. The car wouldn't make a comeback as NASCAR continued to add new rules for racing vehicles. These rules aimed to slow down vehicles for greater safety.

At the time, the speed of vehicles was outpacing the tire technology, resulting in the need for NASCAR to find ways to slow them down. The sport wanted to cut down on cars where horsepower outpaced handling, leading to more dangerous races and accidents. Additionally, higher insurance rates and new emissions regulations in the auto industry would have made future Superbirds difficult to design for the consumer market.

Though the new rules were likely necessary for keeping NASCAR racing safe, they spelled an end to the Superbird's short run. Even though the car only lasted for a season, the car's many wins and having Richard Petty behind the wheel made the vehicle a key part of NASCAR history.

Vehicle Market Reception

While some drivers enjoyed the performance it gave them, the vehicle wasn't a splash on the market. It was a bit too extreme in appearance, with the tall rear wing and nosecone making it look a little bit too much like a race car instead of a vehicle a buyer could feel comfortable driving around town. Even after a couple of years on the market, many Superbirds went unsold, still sitting on dealerships' lots.

In response to this lack of sales, some dealerships removed the winged tails and nosecones on the vehicle to make the Superbirds look more like the standard Road Runners. While consumer sales weren't the biggest goal of Plymouth for the Superbird, the vehicle's reception was disappointing for the company.

It's commonly acknowledged that Plymouth produced at least 1,920 Superbirds to sell to the public to meet NASCAR's requirements of one car for every two dealerships. However, some believe Plymouth actually manufactured around 2,700 vehicles, while others believe the company only produced 40 extra units, offering these in Canada. 

Though it was difficult for dealers to sell these vehicles initially, their value has gone up significantly over the years. These days, you may have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get your hands on a Superbird. Some companies even offer kits designed to convert Road Runners into Superbirds. This increase in value and consumer interest showcases just how impressive this car was and backs up its importance in automotive history.

Superbird FAQs

New Superbird enthusiasts often have a few questions about the vehicle's history and value. For example, many people wonder how much these vehicles are currently worth and how many are left. If you have any questions about the Superbird, check out the answers to these frequently asked questions:

How Much Was a 1970 Superbird New?

In 1970, a Plymouth Superbird cost around $4,300, with some changes in prices occurring based on the engine package.

How Much Is a Superbird Worth Now?

If you were to go back to 1970 with knowledge of how much the Superbird is worth now, you'd think the $4,300 price tag was a steal. Since Plymouth produced so few of these cars to begin with and even fewer are left now, the prices of these vehicles are continuing to rise. In fact, the owner of the Superbird Richard Petty drove rejected a $3.5 million bid for the car at an auction, believing the vehicle was worth more.

While Richard Petty's old Superbird is valued in the millions, you can find Superbirds for a lower price. The base price for low retail Plymouth Superbirds comes in at $42,000. For an average retail model, buyers can expect to pay around a hundred grand, with the average retail cost estimated at $98,300. For a top-of-the-line model, the high retail base price is $178,600.

What Is the Top Speed of a Plymouth Superbird?

When buyers chose the most powerful engine option, the 426 Hemi V8, the car reached a top speed of around 143 miles per hour. The vehicle also had a zero to 60 time around 5.5 seconds. Since Richard Petty needed an edge out on the track, the racing version of the Plymouth Superbird had a mind-boggling 200 miles per hour top speed.

What Was the Fastest Car in the 1970s?

Many auto enthusiasts often wonder how fast the Superbird was compared to the competition, especially the fastest car of the era. The 1978 Porsche 911 Turbo was the fastest car of the 1970s, as it went from zero to 60 in just 4.9 seconds. While the Plymouth Superbird didn't quite top this time, it still gave drivers a whole lot of speed.

How Many 1970 Superbirds Are Left?

Currently, there are only around 1,000 Superbirds left today. This low supply has certainly raised the value of the cars and made them hard for buyers to get their hands on.

Why Was the Plymouth Superbird Banned from NASCAR?

It's a common misconception that the Superbird was banned from NASCAR. They didn't ban the vehicle outright, but there is some truth to the idea. Though NASCAR didn't ban the Superbird, it did place new rules that significantly impacted aero-body cars. Since these vehicles now had to use a smaller engine or increase their weight a great deal due to new rules, the Superbird's original design didn't meet the 1971 regulations.

While Plymouth could have created a new Superbird for NASCAR, the new rules made it much more difficult for the car to work out on the track. Adding weight to the car made it uncompetitive, while including a smaller engine would make the Superbird have much less horsepower. While Plymouth came up with a few prototypes for a 1971 Superbird, they never took the car past this stage.

Ultimately, these new rules made Plymouth move on from trying to use the Superbird in races. Instead of going forward with a 1971 Superbird, they shuttered the car's production after 1970. So, while the Superbird wasn't outright banned, NASCAR's new regulations did play a significant role in causing the car not to race following the 1970 season.

Choose Volo Museum Auto Sales for Your Classic Car Needs

When you want to find a classic car you can trust, Volo Museum Auto Sales can help. Alongside offering Superbirds, we also have a wide inventory of classic vehicles for you to choose from. We give our buyers all the time they need to inspect our cars thoroughly, and we also have our on-site mechanics inspect our vehicles before we offer them. We also have partnerships with financingshipping and insurance service providers to make the buying process as convenient as possible.

Take a moment to check out our 1970 Plymouth Superbird today. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.