May 25, 2013
Written by Steven Macoy
Thursday, 15 October 2009 11:02
Even when he was a 12-year-old clipping articles about hot rods, Brian Chaffee knew there would be something big in his future. And now it’s here: the 1970 Plymouth Superbird that shook the automotive world.
Superbirds were racing-bred versions of the popular Road Runner, with big V-8 engines, exaggerated rear spoilers and extended front ends. Plymouth built 1,920 of them in 1970, the only year of production. But the Superbird in Chaffee’s E-Muscle automotive repair and restoration shop in Middlefield is one of a kind.
Spike TV has called it “The Car That Killed the Muscle Car.” It chased Boeing 727s down runways at Raleigh-Durham Airport, and prowled streets and highways in the region, not for an action movie but to scoop up emissions data. Today, Chaffee is trying to sell it for an anonymous owner for a staggering $3 million.
Chaffee, 47, still lights up when he tells the story of the Superbird he and his E-Muscle crew spent three years restoring, even though he’s told it hundreds of times.
The Superbird’s troubling findings about aircraft and motor-vehicle emissions led to the elimination of carcinogenic asbestos from brake shoes, the removal of lead from gasoline, the depowering of engines during the mid-1970s to curb emissions, and the downsizing of entire fleets to improve fuel economy. The muscle car had no place in this environment and largely disappeared.
The car began life Nov. 30, 1969, as a conventional Alpine White Superbird with an automatic transmission and 440-cubic-inch, 375-horsepower V-8 engine. Wind-tunnel tests done by Chrysler suggested a Superbird could fulfill the EPA’s need for a rolling emissions-testing platform.
The agency bought the Superbird and commissioned NASCAR legend Ray Nichels, designer of Pontiac and Chrysler stock racers during the 1950s and ’60s, to modify it. He added a heavy-duty 4-speed stick shift, an air suspension to lower the nose so the exhaust blast from jet engines wouldn’t flip the pursuing car (and a roll bar in case it did anyway), and a camshaft that could bear sustained high speeds. The EPA installed sampling equipment and had Nichels paint the car Ice Blue Poly, apparently to make it less conspicuous.
After the car completed its year-and-a-half mission in October 1973, the EPA stripped its equipment from the car and parked it. Finally, the car was sold at auction in 1979 for just $500 to Wilbur Walker of Goldston, N.C. Walker slowly brought it back to original condition. But tantalizing hints of the Superbird’s historic role remained: a dash plaque identifying it as a Nichels car, and a small, faded green-and-white EPA tag on the dash.
In 2006, Walker sent letters to 35 people in the muscle-car community, including Chaffee. “He said ‘I have this car, I think it’s special, I have documentation it was built by Ray Nichels for the EPA.’ … Really, with what the car was, he felt he couldn’t do it justice.” Chaffee’s client, for whom Chaffee once had restored a Chevrolet Corvette, won the bidding.
Rather than restore the car to its original condition, Chaffee sought to bring the car back to its glory days as an EPA bloodhound. That required hundreds of phone calls to people who drove or worked on the car more than 35 years ago, and poring over old photos and documents.
The Superbird presents something of a paradox for muscle-car collectors. Few individual cars have had as much impact on the industry. Yet, people who love muscle cars don’t love the EPA or the changes the agency’s Superbird wrought. And many old-car enthusiasts bitterly resent the way price inflation has driven many collectors out of the hobby.
Who will buy the Nichels Superbird? Somebody who is taken in by the one-off collectible cars; who wants to be able to say, “I have something no one else can have. … I’ve got the car that dictates what you have.”
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