Car Culture & Entertainment

Wings & Things: A Quick History of the Dodge Charger Daytona & Plymouth Superbird

A few years back, Summit Racing welcomed a small reunion for Mopar’s famous “Wing” cars. Here, a red Charger Daytona leads the pack. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

On September 14, 1969 an odd-looking Mopar rumbled onto the track for NASCAR’s first-ever Talladega 500—its sky-high rear wing making it stand out like a biplane amongst the other cars in the field.

While Dodge’s new “Charger Daytona” had an unorthodox profile and probably received some confused looks from the spectators, everything made sense once the race began. In addition to winning that inaugural Talladega 500, a Charger Daytona would go on to win the Texas 500 to close the 1969 season. And a few months later, a Charger Daytona became the first car to break NASCAR’s 200 mph barrier.

The age of the “Aero” cars had arrived.

Preparing for Takeoff

The Dodge Charger Daytona was an evolution of the Dodge Charger 500. That earlier Charger 500 had some key aerodynamic enhancements like a modified front grille and flush rear backglass to help it slip through the air.

With a revised front grill and other key modifications, the Charger 500 would foreshadow the Charger Daytona. (Image/Greg Gjerdingen, Creative Commons)

While the initial Charger 500 didn’t see much track time, Dodge engineers took what they learned in the wind tunnel and cranked it to 11 when developing the Charger Daytona. In addition to the signature nose and wing, the Daytona features other aerodynamic upgrades, including reverse air extractor scoops above a pair of cutouts on each fender to mitigate lift.

Note the flush backglass in place of a typical stock Charger’s flying buttress C-pillars—another aerodynamic lesson learned from the Charger 500. (Image/Doug Fawley, Creative Commons)

Plymouth brought its own Wing car to the party a little later. Using the Charger’s B-Body cousin, the Road Runner, Plymouth unveiled the newly-christened Superbird at the 1970 Daytona 500. Spoiler alert (pun!), it won that race. And in the hands of drivers like Richard Petty and Pete Hamilton, the Superbird and its winged counterpart the Daytona went on to dominate the 1970 season.

All told, it was Bobby Isaac, driving a Dodge Charger Daytona, who took the 1970 NASCAR points championship.

Charger Daytona & Superbird Engine Choices

We found this 426 Hemi stuffed under the hood of a Superbird parked at the Summit Racing Retail Super Store near Atlanta, Georgia. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Brian Kreuser)

Both the Charger Daytona and Superbird came standard with Mopar’s venerable Magnum/Super Commando (Dodge/Plymouth) 440 RB Big Block. That motor was rated at 375 horsepower in base spec. It’s also worth mentioning that, while it wasn’t available on the Daytona, Superbird owners could get the 440 with a Six Pack (three 2-Barrel carburetors) that bumped output to 390 horsepower.

Of course, you could also opt for the (dramatic squirrel) legendary 426 Hemi if that wasn’t enough. Elephant-equipped Daytonas and Superbirds cranked out an eye-watering 425 horsepower.

For either car, you could opt for a Torqueflite 727 3-speed automatic or a pistol grip four-speed like in this particular Superbird we spotted on the Hot Rod Power Tour. Note the non-functional fender vent visible through the windshield. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Some Key Differences Between Daytonas and Superbirds

While they may look similar, there are some key differences between these two Mopars that make them pretty easy to spot in a lineup.

First off are the sheetmetal nose cones. The Daytona’s is more pointed and features a horizontal mesh grille.

Here you can see the Charger Daytona’s mesh grille in the center of its nose cone. (Image/Summit Racing)

Both the Superbird and Daytona wings are about 23 inches high, and though rumors say the wing’s height was set to allow the trunk to fully open, the real story is that it was simply due to get the wing into the “clean” air above the car’s roofline. Curiously though, the Superbird’s wing is angled back a little bit more, compared to the steeper pitch of the Charger Daytona’s.

Though it’s tough to tell without a side by side comparison, the Superbird rear wing rests at a slightly different angle. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

And when you’re out back, it’s much easier to discern the two cars, simply because they wear the different taillight treatment of the vehicles they’re based on, the Charger and the Road Runner, respectively.

Scroll back up to the white Superbird above and you’ll immediately notice the different taillight array on the Daytona here. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

The flanks of each car each retain the styling cues of their base vehicles too: door indents for the Charger, a rear side scoop on the Superbird.

Oh, and the cars will probably either have DAYTONA or PLYMOUTH written on the rear quarter. File that under “duh.”

The fact that the wing was high enough for the trunk to open was just a happy coincidence. (Image/Championship Auto Shows)

But perhaps the most noticeable difference between a Superbird and a Charger Daytona is the roof. Legend has it that Plymouth was in such a rush to get Superbirds onto dealer lots, instead of smoothing the welds and modifications done to the roofline and backglass for paint, it simply slapped a vinyl roof on top and sent ’em. That meant that public roadgoing Superbirds got vinyl roofs.

If the giant P-L-Y-M-O-U-T-H written on the rear quarters didn’t tell you what cars you’re looking at here, the vinyl roofs should. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

There’s one other noteworthy external difference. Remember those fender scoops covering cutouts above the wheels? On Superbirds that were sold to the public, the scoops were installed, but no cutouts we made in the fenders; they were only aesthetic accents.

Atlanta-Motorama-Plymouth-Road-Runner-Superbird
For the Superbird, Plymouth made sure to carry over the graphics from its namesake. Meep! Meep! (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Say it With Us: Ho·Mol·o·Gate

We’ve alluded to this earlier, but perhaps the neatest aspect of these cars is that, thanks to homologation, they were sold in dealerships right next to Polaras, Monacos, Valiants, and Belvederes.

Homologation is a fancy word that, in a racing context, basically means that if a manufacturer builds a car for the race track, it has to offer the same car to the public.

Homologation is also the reason the public got to enjoy cars like the Ford RS200, Mercedes CLK GTR, Chevy Laguna Type S-3, and Lancia Stratos.

So when Dodge wanted its Charger Daytona on the track, NASCAR’s homologation rules stated that it needed to build 500 to sell to the public first. And Dodge did, making 503 to be exact.

Next year in 1970 though, NASCAR changed its homologation rules, making the number of cars you needed to produce relative to how many dealerships you had. For Plymouth, it meant somewhere between 1,920 to 1,935 Superbirds made it off the assembly line.

And that’s why Superbirds are far more common (relatively speaking of course) at car shows than their Daytona counterparts.

The Eye of the Bird-holder

It took a few decades, but the Daytona/Superbird twins are now firmly entrenched in the musclecar hall of fame. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

But the problem was, at the time, the public didn’t really see the appeal of buying a 200+ mph race car to get groceries. Worse yet, Daytonas and Superbirds were long, heavy, and had that glorious (yet polarizing) wing on the back. And in terms of stoplight-to-stoplight performance, the added weight of the wings and noses meant that these cars were often bested by their base Charger and Road Runner counterparts.

They were quite a bit more expensive than the other cars in the Dodge/Plymouth lineup too—for example, a 1970 Superbird was just shy of $4,300, but you could get a Road Runner for around $3,000.

So stories abound of Superbirds languishing on dealer lots. And more alarmingly, we’ve heard rumors of some dealers yanking the wings off entirely, simply to make them more appealing to would-be car buyers.

The Wings Are Permanently Grounded

Sadly, the heyday of all the so-called “Aero” cars, including rivals like the Ford Torino Talledega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II, was short lived. NASCAR could sense that, with the cars now topping 200 mph, things could get out of hand quickly. To address the issue, NASCAR tweaked its rulebook.

But what a lot of folks don’t know is that NASCAR didn’t make these outlandish aero kits illegal outright. Rather, it simply limited engine displacement on the superspeedway cars, similar to what other race sanctioning bodies like the FIA and SCCA had done. And without the big-cube powerplants, these monsters couldn’t achieve the speeds in which the aerodynamic kits would offer any significant benefit—the tall wings and sheetmetal nose cones just became unnecessary weight.

Both the Superbird and Charger Daytona featured nose cones made from sheetmetal with fiberglass headlight covers. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Still though, the mark both the Charger Daytona and Superbird left on the automotive world is far-reaching. They’re two of the most easily identifiable musclecars ever made and have spawned countless homage builds and tribute cars.

While their race careers were cut short by changing rulesets, the legacy of the Daytona and Superbird live on—not only with big-buck restorations, but with plenty of tribute cars too, like this one spotted at an ECTA land speed record event. (Image/Summit Racing)

These names have remained in the public lexicon as well, largely due to continued appearances in showrooms. While Plymouth never re-used the Superbird nameplate, Dodge has revived “Daytona” several times over the decades. Most recently, it’s made appearances as a trim level to denote special tire-shredding editions of the LX/LD-era Chargers.

The Daytona name first resurfaced in 1975 as a restyled Chrysler Cordoba, then appeared again on a front-wheel drive hatchback in the early 1980s. (Image/Stellantis)

In the end, when you combine the cars’ short production runs and poor sales, you get two extremely rare and valuable models that are highly coveted by collectors. Heck, even original pieces like the wings and nose cones can command a hefty premium on the used parts market.

So next time you’re at a car show and see one of these beauties rumble up, make sure to get a closer look at a curious chapter in musclecar and NASCAR history.

Original Daytonas and Superbirds remain the darlings of the high-dollar auction circuit. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
Tags: , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

  1. Tyrone E Gross (aka) Tystyx says:

    No Car like MOPAR!

  2. brian Tousignant says:

    I always liked the nose cone of the Super Bird better than the Daytona. On the other hand I’m not a fan of vinyl roofs. But when it comes down to it either one would be welcomed in my garage.

  3. david j thayer says:

    This article is mostly nonsense……..it says the cars dominated 1970…….lol they won 12 races out of 48…….I dont call that dominating…….it also claims the Charger 500 Never saw much track time……is the author on DRUGS……the Charger 500 ran the entire 52 race schedule of 1969 and in most of the events in 1970, accumlating 23 wins compared to 6 by the Daytona……and MOST of the Daytona wins came with a BIG ???? mark beside each one.

    • Paul Sakalas says:

      Hey David, you’ll notice it says “the initial Charger 500.” While admittedly it’s vague phrasing, we worded it that way because, since the Daytona was introduced to the public in April, we were alluding to the fact that the 500 had only been out for a few months before the Daytona debuted and the two were then being developed concurrently.

  4. Pingback: 375 H And H Magnum - Rifle Ammo

Leave a Reply to brian Tousignant Cancel

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.