Rule changes in NASCAR rendered Richard Petty’s 1970 Plymouth Superbird obsolete after a single season, while his 1971 Plymouth Road Runner lasted two seasons before suffering the same fate. Once cast aside and sold for pennies on the dollar, the cars are blue-chip collectibles today, and both will cross Mecum’s Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, auction stage this summer, part of the Todd Werner Collection.
Ford lured Petty away from Mopar in 1969, and The King finished second in NASCAR Grand National Series championship points that year, losing to fellow Ford driver David Pearson. Plymouth wanted Petty back for 1970, so it created its own winged warrior for high-speed ovals and tri-ovals: the Plymouth Superbird.
Petty debuted his Superbird at the 1970 season-opener, the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside Raceway in California. There, he finished fifth, the victim of a blown engine on lap 187, and his bad luck continued in Florida, where he suffered another blown engine — this time on lap eight — at the Daytona 500. By the end of the season, Petty still amassed 18 wins in 47 races, with the Superbird driven on superspeedways and a Road Runner raced on smaller, lower-speed tracks.
Chrysler had begun a development program for a new generation of aero warrior cars when NASCAR head Bill France rewrote the competition rules ahead of the 1971 season. The winged cars were simply too fast and too abusive on the primitive tires of the day, so for 1971 the Mopars would be restricted to 305-cu.in. V-8s. The same displacement rule applied to the aero cars from Ford Motor Company, which rendered them effectively obsolete as well.
The Petty team built up several Superbirds for 1970, but at the end of the season these held little appeal, even for underfunded teams. Much of this car’s history isn’t known, but after Werner’s purchase, the detail-oriented collector noticed a few things that pointed to this being a NASCAR Grand National car. Turning to Petty Enterprises for guidance, Werner was able to verify his suspicion: Not only had this Plymouth been raced in NASCAR, but it had been campaigned by the Petty Team, and driven by Richard Petty himself.
Verification came from old photographs, which revealed that the rivet pattern in the car’s floor precisely matched that of a Petty Superbird. An arch beneath the shifter, fabricated by hand and used to stiffen the transmission tunnel, was further proof that this had been a Petty race car, verified by Petty Enterprise employees Richie Barz and Dale Inman.
Its provenance documented, Werner asked for help from Petty Enterprises in restoring the car. Where possible, new old stock parts (including sheetmetal) were used, and the car’s 426 Hemi was rebuilt by Maurice Petty and his son, Timmy. Today, the Superbird — perhaps the most recognizable of Petty’s cars, and the basis of the Strip “The King” Weathers character in the Pixar animated feature Cars — appears as it would have during the 1970 NASCAR Grand National season, the one and only year that the aero warriors ruled the sport’s fastest circuits.
With the Superbird rendered uncompetitive for the 1971 season, Petty turned to the newly restyled Plymouth Road Runner as his competition car of choice. Further NASCAR rule changes required the use of production bodies for the 1972 season, the last time such a rule would apply. Sponsorship from Chrysler was drastically reduced as well, with only the Petty team and Buddy Baker receiving money from the automaker. Petty ran 46 of the season’s 48 races, while Baker, driving a Petty-prepared Dodge Charger, entered just 18.
For The King, 1971 was a standout season, one in which Petty earned 21 Grand National wins and an additional 15 podiums, enough to deliver his third NASCAR championship. In September, at the request of President Nixon, Petty and this Road Runner visited the White House, and his success that season drove Petty’s career earnings over the $1-million mark.
His 1972 season began with sponsorship from Andy Granatelli and STP, in the same Plymouth Road Runner updated with a new rear bumper. Again, the car was a winner, helping to deliver four victories and three additional podium finishes in the first 10 races. At Talladega in May 1972, Petty switched to a Dodge Charger, though he’d alternate between the two cars for the remainder of the season. Once again, Petty finished first in points (with the Grand National Series evolving into the Winston Cup Series), claiming his fourth NASCAR championship.
Following Petty’s time with this Road Runner, it was sold to Herschel McGriff, who ran it for a short period in Winston Cup competition before selling it himself. Decades later, Werner ran across the car in Seattle, Washington, after its then-owner had documented its history as a Petty car (and one of just two built with the unique “peace symbol” headrest). After acquiring the Road Runner for his collection, Werner had the car restored to its as-run-in 1971 specifications, powered by a 426 Hemi V-8.
It’s hard to say which car is more significant to racing history. The 1970 Superbird is the car that lured Petty back to Plymouth, and it represents a period when top speed was determined by gearing and the driver’s right foot, not a restrictor plate. The 1971 Road Runner helped carry The King to back-to-back NASCAR championships, and it’s the last production-body and production-engine car to do so. Though Mecum has not yet provided pre-auction estimates for the Petty cars, both have the potential to crack the sale’s top 10 if the right bidders are present.
The Harrisburg auction takes place from July 31 to August 3. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.