In Memoriam: The Homologation Special, Part 1
If you stop and think about it, the phrase “racecar for the street” is tossed around pretty liberally. But when, pray tell, was the last time you switched on the boob tube and saw a loud cycle-fendered kit car designed by two English blokes who spend as much time at the pub as they do at the drafting table leading the pack at Daytona or shutting ‘em down at Pomona? Exactly. It used to be that if manufacturers wanted to campaign competition cars with trick aerodynamic bits or a brawnier drivetrain, they had to build a handful of production models with those same features to satisfy the sanctioning bodies’ requirements. Why don’t we see that anymore? For the answer, first we have to turn back the clock about six decades.
During NASCAR’s toddler years, competitors figured out that in order to have a great racecar, they needed to have a great road car since, you know, the term “stock car” actually meant something back then. Consequently, many gravitated toward the two sportiest American passenger cars of the day: the Hudson Hornet and the Oldsmobile “Rocket” 88. As the Fifties rock ‘n’ rolled on, the OEMs gradually began upping the performance ante to keep them out front, whether through compound carburetion, fuel injection or just plain old extra cubic inches. But thanks to a series of nasty accidents in the racing world, including the 1955 Le Mans disaster, the Detroit makes made a pact to end financial and technological support of racing. Sure, there was some back-door support extended to some entrants, and production cars still got more powerful, but officially subscribing to the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” school of thought was verboten…
…right up to the point that Ford and Chrysler mucked things up in the early 1960s by breaking the pact and building lightweight, mountain-motored cars for super stock drag racing. In addition to elephantine V8s and ridiculous rear axle ratios, machines like the Max Wedge Belvederes and Polaras and lightweight Galaxies employed tricks like trunk-mounted batteries, aluminum front bodywork, and ditching the rear seats. For the brief time that the General got in on the action with Pontiac, it went one better by drilling holes – some bigger than silver dollars – through the chassis to reduce weight on select Super Duty Catalinas.
But as truly-stock doorslammer drag racing slowly fell out of fashion in favor of proto-funny cars and proto-pro stockers, big league stock car racing fell in to fashion, and as speeds climbed, the designers in Motown realized they’d have to make their cars slipperier. Ford fired the first salvo with the fastback Ford Torino and Mercury Cyclone in 1968. Chrysler was caught off guard, since the new ’68 Dodge Charger’s recessed grille and buttressed C-pillars just didn’t cut the mustard air. So for 1969 the Charger 500 was developed, with a flush-mounted grille housing four exposed round headlights and a flush-mounted back window. The 500 did perform slightly better on the big tracks in early ‘69, but it wasn’t enough, because by that time Dearborn was ready to unleash the Torino Talladega (left) and Cyclone Spoiler, with longer, pointier noses than the standard versions. This in turn, led the folks running Dodge’s circle track program to say, “Screw it,” and fire back with both barrels. This second, far more fearsome weapon was the Charger Daytona, which won in its debut race: race for what is now the Sprint Cup Series, on September 14, 1969. It retained the 500’s flush back window, but added an exotic-looking wedge-shaped nosecone with pop-up headlights up front and a pornographically ginormous basket handle of a wing on the back. Additionally, the front fenders were capped with rear-facing scoops that allowed the tires of the race version to clear even with lowered ride heights, though it is worth noting that, by this time, “stock cars” were built on bespoke chassis and clothed in sheetmetal that had to mirror the contours and proportions of the street version’s bodywork.
Plymouth initially declined to do a similar model, loosing its number one star – Richard Petty – to Ford for the 1969 season as a result. Thankfully for the Pentastar folks (and , for that matter), Plymouth created the Road Runner Superbird for the 1970 model year. It featured all of the same tricks as its Dodge cousin, and managed to lure the King back into the fold. Unfortunately, 1970 would also mark the end of Aero War I, as NASCAR took steps to reduce the advantage the wild FoMoCo and Mopar machines had over the rest of the field beginning with the ’71 season, including raising the minimum homologation number from 500 road versions to 3,000. Combine this with the impending end of the muscle car era, and dismal sales of such cars despite there being only a handful available, and
such a burnout was almost inevitable, though not before Ford had built a couple prototypes of its second-generation aero cars, the Torino King Cobra (right) and Cyclone Spoiler II. Not bummed by this? Okay, Mr./Ms./Mrs. Blue Sky, let me remind you that GM was in the proverbial locker room during this whole period. Think how different the canon of muscle car history would look if the General had decided to send its troops to war; how bitchin’ would it have been to see ZL1 Chevelles with Corvette-esque schnozes and 4-4-2s with giant dorsal fins on the trunk and s under the hood zinging around the high banks at 200+ mph and mixing it up with their cross town rivals? Answer: More bitchin’ than any human brain is capable of comprehending without melting into a puddle of goo.
But just because the Malaise Era arrived, doesn’t mean the era of the homologation special departed. But that’s a story for another day…
Pictures courtesy CarBodyDesign.com, GT350H.com, Super Chevy, and TorinoCobra.com.