A chance encounter when he was a teenager led Tommy Roberts to dreams of owning this 1970 Plymouth Superbird. Four decades later he finally got his wish…
Words: Mike Renaut Photography: Jonathan Fleetwood
Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to call that day on the cricket field life-changing, but the experience has certainly had a profound effect on the life of Tommy Roberts. “I’m 55 years old now,” explains Tommy, “and I was 14 back then. I was playing cricket one Friday near Yateley in Surrey and a yellow Plymouth Superbird drove past. I heard the V8 roar, saw that massive rear wing and I was captivated. I didn’t know what sort of car it was, but one of the kids there did. He explained it was a Superbird and it belonged to a local guy named Blondie. I always wanted a chance to see that car close up.”
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David ‘Blondie’ Melbourne was a celebrated stock car driver/banger racer and was often also known as ‘The Guv’ since he headed a team of racers; a team which produced two world champions in the early Seventies. Although Tommy never got the chance to meet Blondie or examine his Superbird, seeing it that day further encouraged his enthusiasm for American cars. “I always liked cars,” continues Tommy, “and used to go the Blackbushe Airfield dragstrip with my dad who had an old American pick-up, so I always had an interest. But that Superbird had pretty much disappeared. I understand Blondie put it away in a shed and stored it for several decades and the car hardly ever came out. It was put into an auction in 2019 and that’s when a mate of mine saw it for sale and gave me a call.”
The Superbird had apparently been entered into the auction then withdrawn and it would be 2021 before Tommy got another chance. “It came up for sale again, this time in an auction at Bicester Heritage and I went along, saying to my son, ‘Whatever that car sells for, I’m going to have it.’ I was bidding against another guy and after I finally won it he came over for a chat. It turned out he’d planned to take the car back to America, where obviously it’s worth far more than it is in the UK. I was really glad I’d managed to keep it in this country.” Particularly, since the Superbird has been in England virtually all its life.
“I don’t have any real history of the car,” admits Tommy, “just what I’ve been told, but apparently it was imported by a Hells Angel in 1976 and Blondie bought it sometime in the 1980s. When I got the Plymouth it was a non-runner so I took it to a guy I know called Billy Roe who runs Namco; the North American Motor Company. It turned out Billy had worked on the car back in the day when Blondie owned it and he knew it well, so Billy’s filled me in on what little history I do know. I was also told by a guy at Santa Pod that the Plymouth once ran with the fender scoops and the nose cone painted matt black.”
Tommy has since found some period photos, one showing the Superbird with a black front end and another with the Road Runner bird and Plymouth decals removed and wearing wide five-spoke mag wheels on the rear. In one photo, it’s even pictured with three other Superbirds, leading one to wonder just how many of these rare wing cars made it to the UK back then… “Blondie re-registered from PPV 405R to the appropriate numberplate it still wears, since the car has the 440cu in engine. After he got the Superbird in the Eighties, it mostly stayed in his shed; Billy remembers repairing the gearbox and it taking Blondie 12 years to put it back in the car!”
Four on the floor
Incidentally, that gearbox is a four-speed manual with pistol grip atop a Hurst linkage. The Lemon Twist Yellow Superbird has front disc brakes, the optional bench front seat, and the Tic Toc tach – a clock in the middle of the rev counter − although the list of available options was always quite brief. Plymouth’s Superbird was born out of Chrysler Corporation’s desire for stock car wins on the oval NASCAR tracks; wins achieved by experiments into aerodynamics. Their 1969 campaign had been fought by the Dodge Charger-based Daytona, but for 1970 Plymouth took tricks learned by Dodge and applied an aerodynamic front of its own design with pop-up headlights, a flush rear window and a 24-inch rear ‘stabiliser’ wing to its Road Runner and called it the Superbird.
This ‘speedway package’ added 19 inches to the length and some $1264 to the cost of a Road Runner, now making the purchase price $4298. At least 1920 examples − several sources say 1935 − were made; enough to satisfy regulations about the Superbird being a genuine production model. The cars lured NASCAR king Richard Petty back from Ford to drive for Plymouth once again. However, the big ’birds were less enticing in the showrooms, where their outlandish appearance and high sticker price meant limited appeal to potential buyers. After these cartoonish vehicles sat unsold for sometimes well over a year, more than one was converted back to a regular Road Runner to facilitate a sale. Although Chrysler had plans to build a Superbird based on the 1971 Road Runner – and a prototype version exists − following NASCAR’s effective ban on aero cars, those plans came to nothing.
Tommy now had himself a rare Mopar since his ’bird is matching numbers and, so far as he can tell, largely original even down to much of the paint. “The front end was repainted since, as I said, it was black at one point, but most of the rest of the car looks really original. Since it was in storage for so long and barely driven, it’s survived very well. Several people have said it looks like the original factory paint underneath since the car was never undersealed, while others have commented that the interior must have been reupholstered, but again I believe that’s just lasted well because it was stored for so long.
“When I bought it the passenger front wing had a dent, which I’m told happened when the car was in storage with one of the auction companies, which is perhaps even why it was withdrawn from the initial sale. A friend suggested a dent removal guy and he tapped the dent out without even cracking the paint, which really impressed me. Otherwise, the car just needed a few little bits to get it running again; like a flush through for new fluids, some brake work and a new fuel tank. Of course, I kept all the original parts we took off.”
What is the Plymouth Superbird like to drive?
The first journey was to the Rally of the Giants at Blenheim Palace. “I was a bit nervous getting used to the car, but it was faultless all the way up there. Then, once I arrived, it stalled and had a hard time restarting,” laughs Tommy. “I got it running again and parked on the show field where the car got loads of attention. Then, at the end of the day, surrounded by people, I was ready to leave and again it wouldn’t start. It turned out to be a simple electrical short that we fixed in less than five minutes, but it was a bit worrying until then – but that’s just old cars. Now it starts on the button. I must say thank you to my good friend Nathan Thompson who has also helped me work on the Superbird.”
Tommy has owned a few other American cars over the years but, naturally, the Superbird is by far his favourite. “I used to visit the States and bring back cars, so I’ve had a few classic Mustangs, an International Harvester pick-up I bought in Orlando and a few Chevrolets, but I never expected to own a Superbird. I’m still getting used to driving it really. Honestly, it’s a dinosaur, but I love it. It holds the road really well and I achieved a lifelong dream when I ran it up the dragstrip at Santa Pod. I only took it up to 90mph, but that was enough for me just to say I’d done it.
“It gets so much attention; people pull out their phones and video it on the motorway. But then others say it’s the ugliest car they’ve ever seen. It’s so original that I don’t want to touch anything on it − I want to keep it unmolested. The Superbird lives in a heated garage, it gets babied and only gets used for car shows or drives on sunny days. It will stay in the family after I’m gone.
“It’s honestly my dream car and I’m so happy I’ve finally managed to get my hands on it after all those years.”