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The Ungainly History of NASCAR's Wing Era

Ford, Mercury, Dodge and Plymouth all built wild road cars based on NASCAR aerodynamic experiments. They're hardly beautiful, but they have a charm all their own. FEB 21, 2020 ELANA SCHERR

For 50 years, designers imagined that air moved around a car like a lover, whispering sweet nothings over smooth curves. They assumed the shapes that delighted hands and eyes would seduce the molecules they moved through, that the air would part to let a car pass in a sort of lingering caress. Poetic, but wrong. There’s nothing gentle about the way an object moves through air. Controlling the grabby, rude flow of gases requires slats and tubes and blocks and wings—shapes that rarely look traditionally fast or pretty. But that revelation didn’t come overnight, and it wasn’t born on a European drafting table. It was forged on the high banks of stock-car tracks in the late Sixties.


Nearly three-quarters of the way through the last century, factory involvement in NASCAR spurred engine development faster than series founder Bill France could ban it. When race officials began catching on to manufacturers’ horsepower tricks, engineers looked elsewhere for speed. In 1968, Ford and Mercury got streamlining started with sleek versions of the Torino and the Cyclone. Those models weren’t radically aerodynamic, just less boxy than before. But the move didn’t come from wind-tunnel testing. Designers just thought slicker bodywork looked sporty. “I’m sure they were inspired by cars like the Ferrari GTO, but in a cosmetic way,” said NASCAR historian John Craft. “The understanding of aerodynamics was pretty rudimentary, and cars that looked fast, like the [fastback] ’66 Charger, were actually such aero turds that NASCAR had to make a mid-year rule change and allow rear-deck spoilers to make it possible for them to race.”Dodge got serious about aerodynamics in late 1968. The result was the 1969 Charger 500—a flush-front, smooth-back model that solved some, but not all, of the ’68 Charger’s air problems. The paint was barely dry on the 500 when the car’s engineers caught sight of Ford’s next step: the Torino Talladega. This was a longer, lower Torino, and Mercury would soon have what Ford had. By March 1969, the Cyclone Spoiler II joined the Talladega on NASCAR tracks.Chrysler’s head of Special Vehicles Group, Larry Rathgeb, still remembers his devastation when he and a fellow Chrysler engineer, George Wallace, first saw the reworked 1969 Ford. “George and I were at Riverside testing. We saw the Talladega and said, ‘Oh boy, we are really in trouble.’ We’d thought we were caught up with the Charger 500, but really, it was just back glass and a grille. The Talladega was long and narrow. You could tell by looking at it that it was going to be fast.”After losing several races to Ford in 1969, Dodge decided to skip the incremental upgrades. Most automotive engineers were then weighed down by focused trade educations that barely touched on aerodynamics, so Rathgeb expanded his team to include former missile designers. The two aerodynamicists who came up with Chrysler’s stock-car nose cones and wings had previously worked on rockets. Predictably, the resulting car looked like a spaceship on wheels.


In September 1969, Dodge introduced the Charger Daytona. The model was a pointy-beaked, bookshelf-tailed monster so fast in testing—243 mph on Chrysler’s five-mile proving-ground oval track—that Dodge asked its drivers to sandbag in qualifying, knowing that NASCAR might otherwise ban the Daytona before it could race.Drivers being what they are, the Daytona’s first appearance produced a qualifying speed of 199 mph, nearly 20 mph faster than the car’s previous lap average. Fortunately for Dodge, an unrelated driver’s strike kept Bill France’s attention elsewhere, and the Daytonas weren’t kicked out then and there. Sometimes you’re fast, sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes you’re both.

With the rest of NASCAR’s field on the aero train, Plymouth gave in and developed a wing car of its own for 1970: the Superbird. Things would have continued this way, with Chrysler and Ford racing from wind tunnel to race track and back, bringing out ever-wilder versions of their passenger cars, but France had no intention of letting NASCAR go the way of the SCCA’s famously tech-heavy, self-consuming Can-Am series. He wanted to keep speeds and costs under control. France thus limited the engine displacement of so-called “aero” cars to 305 cubic inches before banning the vehicles altogether. Ford, already cutting back on NASCAR spending, gave up on its in-progress Torino King Cobra. Chrysler abandoned its 1971 wing-car plans, and the last Daytona raced—appropriately enough, at Daytona—in 1971, a little 305 under its hood. Driver Dick Brooks led five laps and crashed but still finished seventh.

Ford, Mercury, Dodge, and Plymouth each sold homologation versions of these cars, with varying success. It wasn’t too hard to move the required 500 examples of the Daytona, but Mercury didn’t even try to meet the minimum for its Spoiler II, producing only 351 cars. Changing rules forced Plymouth to send 1935 examples of the Superbird to dealerships in 1970.But those cars did sell, and in large enough


numbers that there’s a regular gathering of aero-enthusiasts at the Wellborn Musclecar Museum in Alexander City, Alabama. Tim Wellborn and his wife, Pam, have a vast collection of muscle cars, including a Dodge Daytona he bought in high school and the K&K NASCAR Dodge famous for racing the first Talladega 500 and setting multiple land-speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Called the Aero Warrior Reunion, the event attracts owners of Dodge Charger 500s, Ford Torino Talladegas, Mercury Cyclone Spoiler IIs, Dodge Charger Daytonas, and Plymouth Superbirds. They get together to learn about each other’s cars and to continue bench racing over which design was superior. The argument can be difficult, because the cars never all raced in the same numbers, with the same level of factory support, at the same tracks. (Overall win count gives Ford the advantage, but no Mopar owner will let that pass without noting the Daytona’s late entry.) Everyone at Wellborn’s publicly agrees the battle was close, but they’ll each pull you aside to point out that the Mercury was 1–2 mph faster than the Ford, or that the Daytona was the fastest and purest of the five with no non-engineering design input. I eventually stopped asking, because I wasn’t interested in race wins. The aero cars as a group were undeniably faster and more stable than anything before, but to achieve that, they were also uglier.


Yep, I was going to walk into a group of 200 aero-car collectors and ask them if they thought their cars were ugly.I started with Larry Rathgeb, who didn’t even flinch at the suggestion. “I showed the car to the head of sales at Dodge,” he said. “He saw the wing and said, ‘I can’t sell that shit.’” Only after promising that the Daytona would win races did Rathgeb get permission to continue the project. Even contemporary owners find themselves bringing up the racing history to explain the Daytona/Superbird’s appeal. “I’ve had a couple people say it was ugly,” said Daytona owner Eric Hesselberg, “but once I told them the reason for the design, they thought it was cool.”

The Ford and Mercury owners suffer less the slings and slurs of an uneducated public. The changes to the Torino and Cyclone are more subtle: a longer nose, a strangely tucked-in front bumper that doubles as an air dam, and a clever trim of the rocker panel that allowed the car to sit lower and cheat the NASCAR ride-height test.“My dad had a ’68 Torino, but of all the cars, I thought the Mercury was prettiest,” said Barbara Brown, who has owned her 1969 Cyclone Spoiler II since 1980. On the Ford side, racer Tom Bailey said the Talladega’s radical design worked well with his plans to modernize the drivetrain and handling with a Coyote 5.0-liter V-8 and a Roadster Shop chassis: “I didn’t touch the sheetmetal, but it was so ahead of its time that it looks modified.”Even if they are less bizarre than the wing cars, the Talladega and Spoiler II still look strange when parked next to more mainstream muscle cars, and it’s taken a long time for them to gain a collector audience. There’s a definite trade-off of crowd-pleasing beauty for race performance.“Those cars are so outrageous and so cartoony,” said Dodge head of design Mark Trostle, who worked on a bit of a cartoony machine himself during the Viper ACR years. “But they are more than that. They are the ultimate example of engineering solving a problem for performance. When NASCAR told them they needed to put them on the street, they just said, ‘Screw it, we’ll put them on the street.’”That mindset has led to some marvelous cars since the first Daytonas and Talladegas showed up at dealerships, but even today it’s possible to bring out a design that requires an engineering degree to fully appreciate. To round out my fun new habit of asking engineers if they see their mechanical children as ugly, I called Dan Parry-Williams, director of engineering design at McLaren Automotive. “Certainly the Superbird is iconic, and the impact of that design definitely was noticeable in Europe as well as in the States,” he said. He then immediately delved into the aerodynamic strong points of each NASCAR aero car, declaring the Ford and Mercury more efficient and theorizing that the wide wing supports of the Dodge and Plymouth would act as stabilizing elements at high speed, just as we see elsewhere.“If you look at modern Le Mans Prototype endurance- racing cars, they have a central rib, which goes from the cockpit back to the rear wing,” he said. “That rib has a similar function, it helps the car in corners. And if the car gets really out of shape, it helps to pull it straight again.”


He’s right about the wing. During research for this story, three NASCAR drivers from the aero era told me that those massive wings had helped straighten out cars at speed. But does Parry-Williams think the aero cars are beautiful? Does the design director of the McLaren Senna—an astounding performance car whose function-first styling has prompted its fair share of discussions regarding automotive pulchritude—think cars get their beauty from how they are curved, or how they perform?“The question is a philosophical one, isn’t it?” Parry- Williams said. “If something works properly and it really does deliver, then it has an integrity and an authenticity, which gives the design more weight. I mean, I would say that the Superbird is not obviously beautiful, but when you have a design that is functional and effective, it can develop its own beauty. As for the Senna, I think that a new design needs to be a bit challenging. I just find it an opportunity to stretch people’s imaginations a little bit.” Perhaps it’s this idea that makes aero cars so astonishing. Why people like the Wellborns gather to marvel at them every year in Alabama. Even 50 years later, they still challenge our perceptions of what a car should look like and, in doing so, continue to stretch our imaginations. That’s beautiful.


Original story at here at Road and Track https://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/a30349118/eye-of-the-beholder-february-2020/

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