1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird by Clive Branson

Owned by Derek Ebner

If ever there was a Mopar car that was loved or hated for both its performance and unconventional looks, it has to be the 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird with its eccentrically-high rear wing and its shark-snout front grille. But to Derek’s eyes, finding such a car was a dream. “It was pretty much the ultimate ‘barn find’ for a Mopar guy like me. I waited all my life for a chance to own a car like this and I wasn’t going to miss such an opportunity.”

As the story goes, the Superbird lay outside a Florida home for ten years like some discarded trash bin with only a polyethylene cover blanketing it from bird droppings, blistering sun degradation and the odd hurricane. Nevertheless, it was an original with only 45,000 miles ticked on. It just needed some cosmetic nip and tuck and some new enhancements to regain its former glory . . . or so Derek thought.

“My favourite car is the 1970 Challenger (I have had 19 Challengers) and have been obsessed with Mopar cars since I was a kid. The story of how I actually found the Superbird began when I considered restoring one more car, so in my mind it had to be something special. Price was certainly an issue, so looking for something reasonable was a challenge, even for a Daytona clone or a real Hemi car. After a few years of searching in vain, recoiling at ‘junk’ Chargers that were being offered for ludicrous sums, I thought of submitting to a clone of a Superbird from a regular Satellite or Road Runner. They could still be had for a decent price.”

One evening Derek had a friend over for dinner. On noticing a plastic model of a Daytona Charger on a shelf, the friend mentioned that he knew where one was for sale. At this point, Derek was skeptical and pointed dubiously to the model. The friend retorted no, not that model, a Road Runner one. The proverbial eyebrow rose. Derek could feel heart palpitations and sweat in places that shouldn’t sweat. “A Road Runner Superbird?” came an anxious response. The friend admitted he heard about it a year ago. Others were just as curious, but concluded it was an urban myth. After further investigation, it turned out that the car was now in Kingston, Ontario and was sold previously to settle an Estate deal.

“What I know of the car ownership goes back to 2005 with owners in New York, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Kingston. I ventured down to Kingston and had a good examination of the car and it seemed pretty good overall. It needed a lot of TLC, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The owner knew how rare such an iconic vehicle could fetch and though we bartered the price down, it still wasn’t cheap, even though it was battered and bruised, it had all its original numbers. So me and my friend, Garth Titley, loaded her up on a trailer and brought her home to my garage where I just stared at her for hours.” It really was love at first sight.

In fact, it took a lot of TLC. Most of the car was taken apart. Derek either repaired or rebuilt every inch of the car to get it roadworthy and since it was a survivor car, he was emphatic to keep it looking authentic. “When I needed parts, I tried to use used parts if I could. Though the car was original mechanically, there had been some bad maintenance issues over the years, like shorting out the dash and faulty wiring. Nothing worked electronically – most of it was burnt or fried. Some parts were broken or missing. I rebuilt the whole braking system since it had seized, the tires were rotten, the paint had cracked and peeled. I cleaned and detailed the entire bottom and engine compartment (i.e. gasket, engine and exhaust), dismantled the nose cone, cleaned and repainted the interior, re-fabricated everywhere that rust had devoured, removed the complete interior, fixed broken parts in the doors and under the dash.” The list continued for another ten minutes. “It took two-and-a-half years to resuscitate it, including a new build sheet. When the day came and I turned on the ignition and heard its rumble, it was awesome! It was the first time it moved under its own power in almost ten years.”

Of course none of this would be viable had it not been for NASCAR. Ford dominated NASCAR for years and the proceeds were coming off the dealership floor, so Plymouth wanted more of the action and winning NASCAR races was a good recipe. The stipulation was that any car that raced in the series, a street model had to be available for public consumption with specific minimum numbers of 1,920 units. In 1969, Dodge entered the Charger Daytona (‘Charger 500’ named after the number of production cars). It was the first American car to be designed using a wind tunnel and computer analysis and slapped the racing community into stunned submission. It had a nose-cone front and a tall towel-rack rear wing as modified aerodynamics. In 1970, Plymouth wasn’t going to sit back and allow Dodge to enjoy the spotlight, so they introduced the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird as Dodge’s ‘aero-car’ rival with its equally audacious appearance of exaggerated wingspan (2 feet high), submerged hidden headlights and conical nose. The Superbird was more than a carbon copy. It could reach speeds of 220 mph with a finely-tuned Hemi while the Daytona peaked at 150 mph, though both rivals won 21 out of the 38 Grand National events.

Both the Daytona and Superbird were designed specifically for the track to dethrone Ford, but it certainly didn’t hurt winning races every Sunday to bring in prospective buyers into the showrooms. Though at first glance, the Daytona and Superbird looked like twins, there were slight variations. The Road Runner’s front clip wouldn’t adjust seamlessly to the nose graft “borrowed,” actually stole a hood and front fenders from Dodge’s Coronet line, to resolve their problem. The Superbird’s front lip spoiler swept upward while the Daytona’s didn’t. And the Superbird’s rear case was taller, wider and raked back farther than the Daytona’s. In fact, the Superbird was 17 inches longer than the conventional brick-shaped Road Runner, but ego has its price and drivers discovered that the car was a menace to park.

The Superbird’s performance from the incredible downdraft, owned every track to a point where NASCAR, instead of adapting to such engineering feats in aerodynamics, vilified it and, what seemed like a spiteful gesture, demanded that 2,000 units had to be made for the public consumption instead of the original 500. By the time the 1971 season began, NASCAR implemented rules enforcing an engine displacement no greater than 305 cu. in. from the previous 440 cu. in. (the street models came equipped with the options of a 426 cu. in (7.0 L) Hemi engine or a 440 Super Commando). The height of the wing was at the optimum level for maximum downforce. If there was a complaint, it was that it wore out the back wheels. Other restrictions were that the “aero-cars” had to carry much more weight than their competitors thus rendering them uncompetitive. It was a sensational, but ephemeral Cinderella story. Sadly, even dealership sales faltered with the public preferring the Road Runner without the cosmetic cone and wing extravagance. Of the 1,935 units built, just over 1,000 remain in the United States and of the 34 sold in Canada only five are known to exist. Fortunately, they have maintained a jaw-dropping increase in value.

To photograph the car, we went for a spin. For all its testosterone bravura, the car moves like a bare leg slipping under silk sheets – smooth and easy to handle. Nothing rattled, clunked, or strained. Teens wiped the droll from their mouths, men suddenly spoke in monosyllabic tongues as they stared with stupid grins on their faces, women smiled coyly and girls shouted, ‘I like your car’ as the delicious looking neon FJ5 lime green cruised by. “I love driving it. People are so happy to see it.” But what does it feel like when you sit behind the wheel and hear that hungry gurgle and that wobble of anticipation from the engine? “I feel like I’m back in 1970. To me, the car is like a time machine.”

I asked Derek what his prognosis was for the future of classic cars. “I think the future for classic cars is great,” he said adamantly, “We still have a long way to go before they run out. It is a shame that they have become coveted toys of the rich. What that means is those who really enjoyed them, and should continue to enjoy them (as ambassadors), can’t afford them.”

I was intrigued to know whether the car had changed him? “The car has not really changed me since I have had great cars all my life, but what this car represents is more special than most other cars. When I open the door and turn the key, it is magic. When you hear the rumble and put her into gear, it is awesome. It gives me such satisfaction in rebuilding a piece of history from scratch and having a stellar performance. It is worth all the sweat, blood and toll it took. When I’m on the road and I lean on the gas, I’m in heaven. Lots of cars are nice, but this is a Superbird. And what a difference!”