Flights of fancy

by Larry D'Argis . Mar 10 2017

The Ford Motor Company was enjoying much success on the NASCAR circuit in 1969 with its aerodynamic Ford Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler models. Dodge countered with its own winged-warrior, the Charger Daytona. That left legendary Plymouth racer Richard Petty without a viable ride. Petty actually jumped ship and joined Ford, running a number 43 Talladega in ’69. Out of the 54 races that year, the results were impressive. Petty posted nine of the 29 wins for Ford.

For 1970, Petty returned to the Plymouth camp wheeling their new Superbird. Based on the Road Runner, it used a 19-inch aerodynamic nose extension that cut the wind reducing drag. In back, an adjustable aluminum horizontal stabilizer rode atop two gigantic 25-inch tall uprights. Additional wind-cheating treatments included stainless steel covers to smooth out the transition between the windshield and A-pillar and flush-mounted rear window glass Fender top vents were added to allow additional clearance for tires. The modifications, similar to those used on the Daytona, substantially increased down force allowing the car to remain stable on the track and post speeds never seen before in the sport of stock car racing.

To qualify as a stock car under NASCAR rules, Plymouth had to build one Superbird for every dealer, approximately 1,935 units, and while it allowed the car to compete, it brought about several other problems. Offered at a base price of US$4,298, Plymouth was still losing more than $500 per car in production costs and interested buyers were asked to shell out $1,250 more than the standard Road Runner hardtop. Visual impact aside, the aerodynamic equipment was totally ineffective below 145 km/h and added 310-pounds over the base Road Runners weight and correspondingly had a negative effect on handling and performance.

Fender top vents on the street cars were purely decorative and the projected nose made parking and manoeuvring in tight spaces more than a little tense. To hide the rough and hurried bodywork from grafting in the flush rear window, all Superbirds were fitted with a vinyl top, something no race car would ever have. For Plymouth dealers, most were a tough sell as some languished on their lots for more than a year, even with heavily discounted prices. Others had the rear wings removed to make them less obtrusive and more suitable for sale.

Pat Fletcher of Winnipeg is no stranger to Mopar performance vehicles and having been a fan all his life, he thought it was time to look for one of the rare Superbirds.

“When these were new cars sitting on the lot, we basically laughed at them and bought something more reasonable,” Fletcher says.

Today, the Superbird is a coveted vehicle and recognized as a “Milestone Car” by the Milestone Car Society.

While not just any Superbird would do, Fletcher put the word out he was looking for a numbers matching car, in number one condition. It had to be the real deal and no race cars or rust buckets, would even be considered. In February 2016, Fletcher’s friend — who is also a North Carolina dealer — called with a real opportunity: a two-owner car, that had just undergone a full 18-month rotisserie restoration to full factory condition, all documented with photographs. The only caveat was that there were others looking at the car, so Fletcher had to act fast. With the purchase complete, the Superbird was on its way to Winnipeg.

The original owner traded the car in after only one year and it was picked up by the second owner in May 1971 for $3,300 in Portsmouth, Va. Owned for 46 years, the fellow was a stoic NASCAR and Richard Petty fan and he had the car painted Petty Blue. Over the years, he had Petty autograph the car more than 100 times. Fletcher says, “Photos show Petty signed it everywhere, including the seats.”

For the restoration, the third owner chose Durbin’s Auto Body in Accomac, Va., where they stripped the car and repainted it the correct Blue Fire Metallic, with a new black vinyl roof. The engine and transmission were rebuilt and a polished stainless steel exhaust installed and the car put up for sale.

Fletcher’s Superbird is one of 1,084 U-code cars equipped with the Super Commando 440 V-8. With a compression ratio of 9.7:1 and one Carter AVS four-barrel carburetor it produces 375 horsepower and is backed by a heavy-duty 727 TorqueFlite automatic transmission, leading to a 3.55 ratio Sure-Grip rear axle. Nicely optioned with bucket seats and centre console it also features power steering, power front disc brakes, solid state AM/FM radio, Tic Toc Tach, three-spoke wood steering wheel, tinted windshield, hood pad, styled road wheels, Goodyear Polyglas tires and that distinctive “beep beep” Road Runner horn.

Fully documented with its original data plate and broadcast sheet, the car has been decoded and verified by noted Mopar historian Galen Govier. Believed to be one of the highest optioned wing cars in existence, Fletcher’s Superbird will be in a special display at the upcoming 43rd Annual Piston Ring World of Wheels Car Show, held March 24 to 26 at RBC Convention Centre.

Photos by Larry D’Argis / Winnipeg Free PressPat Fletcher of Winnipeg bought this 1970 Plymouth Superbird in February 2016.

Photos by Larry D’Argis / Winnipeg Free Press

Pat Fletcher of Winnipeg bought this 1970 Plymouth Superbird in February 2016.