03 July 2012

The Only Cool Thing the EPA Ever Did . . .

alas, to statist ends

Saving-the-Earth in a 1970 Plymouth Superbird

As many of you are likely aware, the 1970 Plymouth Superbird was a special 'aero' version of the popular Plymouth Road Runner created as a NASCAR homologation special (the company was required to build a minimum of 500 cars in a street version of any specific model to qualify in NASCAR as a 'production car'). 

Similar to the aerodynamically-advanced 1968 Dodge Charger 500 and further-evolved 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, Plymouth's 1970 Superbird was intended not only to hit 200mph on NASCAR Superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, but was also an attempt to lure King Richard Petty back (from Ford) to Plymouth- which it did.

Due to some additional demand 1935 examples of the Plymouth Superbird were screwed-together it's one and only model year, yet a mere 135 came with the Earth-shaking 426 Hemi option.

The most obvious variances from a standard Road Runner involve radical styling that included 19-inch aero steel nose with hidden headlights, chin spoiler, smoothed body, and a sky-high rear wing: it was said this was meant to clear the trunk lid, yet the foil did provide useful down-force at speed while operating in undisturbed air. 

None of this was just for show: the Superbird was among the first cars with computer-developed aerodynamics that were tested in a wind tunnel, and Chrysler engineers achieved an astonishing drag-coefficient (.028) not matched in the industry for many years to come (42 years later, a slick-looking 2012 Chrysler 300 still scores an inferior .032).

Under the hood came one of Chrysler Corporation's three most powerful engines: the 440 Super Commando (4 bbl) at 375HP, optional 440 Six-Barrel with 390HP, or the legendary
-and rare- 426 Hemi bringing 425HP (a figure widely assumed to have been understated for insurance reasons- the Hemi was a thinly-veiled race engine with 10.25 compression, solid lifters, and a real lumpy cam... some consider the actual figure to approach 475-500HP).

Plymouth 440 Super Commando V8

How ironic it is then that the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency or EPA -an aggressive bureaucracy that was to doom -along with the insurance industry- the entire US supercar market with smog regs- came to own their very own Plymouth Superbird... the embodiment of all they were out to destroy (or at-least banish).

See, back in the early 70s there was a lively and unresolved debate going on amongst environmental experts and other scientists as to the actual sources of urban smog in this country. Beside auto, diesel, and jet emissions, some theoried that auto brake dust was a major source, others argued as to how much plane exhaust dispersed or dwelled, etc.

Finding the cost of an indoor lab to test jet engines prohibitive even for their bloated budget, the EPA decided to meter aircraft emissions by chasing planes (with testing equipment) right-down-the-runway at takeoff: all they needed was a vehicle actually capable of keeping-up with a rapidly-accelerating jet(!)

The gub'ment put out bids and the winner came in at $25,000: Plymouth NASCAR builders Nichels Engineering proceeded to obtain a 1970 Plymouth Superbird with 440 Super-Commando V8 and TorqueFlight automatic trans: not only were the car's performance credentials suitable, the NASCAR-inspired aerodynamics were of great help while attempting to accelerate the car directly into a plane's jet-blast. As the Chrysler's factory racing effort's preferred race-car builder, Nichels knew instinctively that a Superbird was the one for the job.

Back at the shop they swapped in a heavy-duty 4-speed manual trans and a NASCAR roll-bar along with other upgrades beneficial for repeated high-speed runs, repainted the car Ice Blue Poly (over the original Alpine White), installed an aircraft-band radio that allowed the driver to contact the plane and/or tower, then added minor performance mods along with EPA equipment designed for sampling air pollution, noise, and tire/brake dust on-the-fly.

In the event, the EPA did indeed run the powerful supercar -to my eyes gorgeous sans stickers/stipes and with base dog dish hubcaps- behind jet planes for three years. Testing with this very car is said to have led directly to regulations banning asbestos in brake-pads as well as to the introduction of unleaded gasoline, leading some enthusiast wags to brand the car 'The Traitor'.

Long after EPA testing programs were complete, the Superbird was sitting in a government surplus warehouse in 1979 with 10,000 hard miles on the clock -listed plainly as '1970 Plymouth car' and almost hidden between dated office furniture and worn-out forklifts- when it was auctioned off for a mere $500. That buyer cleaned it up, painted it white again, and drove it for 20 years before it found it's way to it's current anonymous owner, who pledged to restore the 'bird to its original glory.

And boy did he ever: restorer Brian Chaffee of Middlefield, CT says the buyer put $700K into the Superbird to bring it back to exactly the way it was the day the EPA took delivery, including all the testing equipment and yet another color conversion, again Ice Blue Poly. Sadly for his client, in February of this year the reserve price of $750K was not even close to being met and the car was withdrawn from auction. 

If you take away the story, that's a lot of money for a 440- one could have an ultra-rare Hemi Superbird for $250K in today's recession... tho this EPA car has got to be the cleanest-looking one I've ever seen, I'll give him that- love the 'undercover cop car' look.

Interested? It's still for sale, and they're 'negotiable' -here-

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