WHAT PEOPLE THINK THEY WANT AND WHAT THEY REALLY WANT AREN’T ALWAYS ONE IN THE SAME. EVERYONE SAYS THEY WANT THE BEST, BUT HISTORY IS CHOCK FULL OF CLASS-OF-THE-FIELD PRODUCTS THAT SANK TO THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL.
After the passage of time bestows the gift of clarity upon the misguided masses, it’s then and only then that consumers finally appreciate what they missed out on. It happened with Betamax. It happened with Paul’s Boutique. And most outrageously of all, it happened with one of the most coveted muscle cars of all time, the Plymouth Superbird.
To this day, audio/video nerds praise the picture quality advantages of Betamax over its peers, lamenting the fact that a technically inferior product like VHS won the home video cassette war. Likewise, music executives considered the Beastie Boys’ second studio record, Paul’s Boutique, a commercial flop in 1989, but nearly three decades later it’s considered one of the most innovative hip-hop albums of all-time thanks to its multi-layered sampling and hypnotic beats. Most alarming of all, while Plymouth dealers in the ’70s had to deconstruct Superbirds back to their Road Runner roots to move them off the lot, today’s hot rodders dream of reconstructing Superbirds from ordinary B-Bodies. With online forums running amok with questions on how to build a Superbird clone, isn’t it about time someone showed everyone how it’s done?
We think so, but more importantly, so does Smithfield Foods. As luck would have it, there are some real-deal car guys calling the shots at Smithfield, and the company knows that having a NASCAR driver make a cameo in one of your commercials isn’t the most effective way to plug a product. That’s why Smithfield Foods teamed up with Petty’s Garage to build the ultimate giveaway car for one lucky race fan. “NASCAR fans eat a lot of pork, so the sport has always been a good fit for our brand. At the same time, we’re a pork company that’s in the same space as Goodyear and Sonoco, so we had to come up with a creative way to help fans enjoy the sport even more,” says Bob Weber of Smithfield Foods. “You can’t be a huckster. You have to engage with fans by giving them something they really want.”
Most race fans would unanimously agree that a Pro Touring rendition of a ’70 Plymouth Superbird tribute car is definitely something they really want. For practical purposes, Smithfield wanted to deviate from the script a bit instead of building a bone stock clone. “We can’t give away a real Superbird, because whoever won it wouldn’t be able to afford the tax on it. We decided to build a clone from a Road Runner instead,” Weber recounts. “Our goal was to build an all-around performance car that you can throw your wife the keys to, and have her drive it to Albertsons. For this build, we wanted to send the message of how to build a car the right way, not like on reality TV. It’s turned out so nice that I want to keep it for myself!”
While many of the cast of characters who built original Superbird race cars for Richard Petty have long since retired from NASCAR, many of them still work for The King at Petty’s Garage. Naturally, there’s no one better qualified to transform plain-Jane B-Bodies into Superbirds, and this is actually the second time Smithfield Foods has executed this brilliant strategy. “Last year, we had Petty’s Garage build a replica of The King’s Hemi Belvedere to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his unbelievable 1967 season. It was by far the most dominant performance of any driver in NASCAR history, with Richard Petty winning 27 races total, including 10-consecutive races during the summer,” says Weber.
Smithfield Foods and Petty’s Garage conspired to build the Superbird as a follow-up to the ’67 Hemi Belvedere giveaway car, but with a slight twist. While the Belvedere proved to be a bit rowdy by design—with a lumpity 650hp motor, lots of roll cage, and no carpet in sight—the Superbird’s intent is to encourage its new owner to rack up lots of miles on the street. “The Belvedere was a very successful car, but this time around we wanted to build something that looks like a race car, but can be driven comfortably on the street. You could kinda-sorta drive the Belvedere on the street, but the Superbird had to have a nostalgic look as well as modern drivability,” Russ Stellfox of Petty’s Garage explains.
Before giving the finished car away at the season-finale 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup event of year at Homestead-Miami Speedway, plans call for showing it off on race weekends to whet people’s appetites.
That’s great news for fans, but it gave Smithfield Foods and Petty’s Garage an incredibly tight five-month window to finish the entire build. Undeterred by the immense challenge at hand, Petty’s Garage tracked down a solid 1970 Road Runner in December 2016. Although the ex-street racer appeared structurally sound by cruise night standards, a trip to the sandblaster revealed substantial sections of rotted-out sheetmetal. Over the next four weeks, the crew worked overtime replacing the floor plan, quarter-panels, rockers, trunk pan, and sections of the framerails with all-new AMD sheetmetal.
By the time late January 2017 rolled around, Petty’s Garage was elbow-deep transforming the ordinary B-Body into a modern winged warrior. Janak Repros provided all the fiberglass pieces necessary for the conversion, but building a Superbird is far more involved that slapping on a nosecone and wing, then calling it a day. “A Superbird conversion is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of fabrication work involved with panel-bonding all the fiberglass pieces to the steel body, then getting everything to line up,” Doug Murph of Petty’s Garage recalls. “We spent 80-100 hours on the conversion process alone. It took three full days to modify the hood. If you expect to just bolt these parts on and go, you’re in for a big surprise.”
With the clock ticking down in late February, the “aero-fied” Road Runner made its way to the paint shop. While final prep work is incredibly important to the quality of any paint and body project, it’s particularly challenging when that body mixes in substantial chunks of fiberglass. Cutting, welding, and gentle nudges with a hammer aren’t an option. Instead, tweaking fiberglass panels for proper alignment involves many, many hours of cutting, filling, sanding, and waiting for resins to dry. After finishing up the prep work, the Superbird was sprayed with three coats of R-M Petty Blue paint. In total, final prep work and paint consumed another 200 to 250 hours.
As soon as the last coat of paint dried, it was off to final assembly. At this stage in the game, there was only one month to go until the mid-May deadline. Like the last four-tire pit stop before the white flag, the Petty’s Garage crew hunkered down in an impressive feat of masterfully orchestrated chaos. In went a 392ci Mopar Performance Gen III Hemi, a Silver Sport Transmissions A41 overdrive, and a rebuilt Chrysler 8.75-inch rearend. On the underside of the chassis, the front and rear suspension received a simple yet effective blend of stock and aftermarket components. Factory torsion bars and Super Stock leaf springs team up with QA1 double-adjustable shocks and sway bars for an excellent balance of ride quality, stance, and handling. Reigning in the propulsion potential of the 505hp Hemi are big Wilwood brakes with six-piston clamps up front and four-piston units out back. Sticking everything to the pavement are General Tire’s all-new G-Max AS-05 tires.
While one team tackled the major mechanical hardware, other crew members circumnavigated the melee, hopping in and out of the cabin to button up the interior. Like the suspension, it’s mostly stock but with some key aftermarket enhancements that provide a much more enjoyable user experience. Auto Meter gauges housed in a Classic Dash instrument panel report the vitals, while a Vintage Air A/C system, an Alpine stereo, and a thick layer of HushMat keep the cabin nice and comfy.
By the time you read this, the Smithfield Foods Superbird will be touring the NASCAR Monster Energy Series race calendar, filling fans with fantasies of flat-footing that big, bad Hemi down the backstraight at Daytona. Fortunately, that fantasy (minus Daytona) will come true for one lucky fan at the season-finale race at Homestead. Best of all, entering the contest is as easy as it is delicious. In an era when society advocates forcing flavorless goo down your throat in the name of healthiness, Smithfield is doing the exact opposite. Anyone who purchases three delicious Smithfield Foods pork products—you know, the good stuff red-blooded Americans eat anyway with their grits and fried okra—at any one of Albertsons family of 2,500 grocery stores and texts a pic of the receipt to Smithfield is automatically entered to win. As with last year’s Hemi Belvedere giveaway, there’s a good chance that The King himself will hand over the keys.
And that, friends, is how you build a Superbird. At best, dearly departed video recording gadgets and hip-hop albums from the ’80s may inspire geeky conversations between fellow nerds, silly talk that other normal people don’t care about. In contrast, thanks to its racing pedigree, scarcity, history, and far-reaching technological innovations, the Superbird fills peoples’ imaginations with dreams of building exact replicas of the original, perhaps more than any other car ever built. The misguided masses overlooked these magnificent machines the first time around, but the passage of time has given them the clarity to finally appreciate what they missed out on. Potentially righting this wrong is as easy as eating some thick-cut bacon!