STUART SUTTON'S BIRDABLE (Superbird convertible clone)
Text by Stuart Sutton; Photos by Stuart Sutton and Sue George
Here is the beginning of the long drawn-out story of my 10-year dream and project to build this car. It almost didn't happen several times but now it is finally done.
It has always been my dream to own a 1970 Plymouth Superbird and/or a 1969 Dodge Daytona Charger--or winged cars, as they call them in the musclecar world. My best chance of owning one was an R4 red Daytona I had spotted in Hemmings Motor News in mid-1996. Ernie Pyle was the man's name that owned it. He was asking $25,000 for it which was not a bad price. It had some rough spots but was actually a decent non-numbers matching 440 car. Ernie had owned the car for like twenty years and it had somewhere in its past come from Cotton Owens (famous name in the Daytona NASCAR racing world).
I had only $17,000 saved at the time, so I needed cash fast. The car had already been in Hemmings for three months and not sold yet. Ernie and I dickered for four weeks, he even snail-mailed me pictures of it, back before our high-tech e-mails of today. After begging to borrow three-thousand dollars from my dad, I got Ernie to slowly come down to $20,000 on the car.
I was packed and ready to head for the northern Texas area, when he called and had sold it to some guy for the same $20,000. I had done all the work beating him down to that price because that was all the money I could scrape up at the time. This guy reaped all the benefits of my work. The buyer had promised Ernie he was going to restore it back to perfect and keep it all his life. Ha-Ha! I found out a few years later that the guy had only held on to it for a couple of months. Then he sold the Daytona to people in Illinois for several thousand dollars more. The new owners informed me later that Ernie had died one year later after he sold the car. He was retired, but did a lot of toy collecting and RVing across the country.
I have been chasing buying a winged car ever since I could drive. Every time I could just about afford one, they would jump in price. Then I would save up some more money and they would jump in price again. Still dreaming I could own a real one, I was told by Dick Drake about a guy who had all the parts to make one. They were off a car that had crashed in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The car was not worth fixing at that time so it was scrapped.
The car was Limelight and supposedly from Colorado. The body shop owner pulled all the good usable parts off the car. The rear window plug was either not salvageable or he was too lazy to cut it out? He had the nose hanging in his shop rafters for fifteen years or so. Dick had heard rumors of the parts for year and finally chased them down to Curt's Body Shop which was located at Truman Road and Sterling in Independence, Missouri.
At the time, he didn't want to sell them and Dick wasn't interested in them once he saw the condition of the parts. The nose was beat up and full of bondo--one inch thick in some places. The hood had a huge ugly sixpack scoop riveted to it with a badly hacked hole two-foot wide and nasty jagged sheet metal folded under. The fenders, latch tray, upper and lower bulk heads, Z-brackets, wing, speedometer cluster and console were all in good shape.
In late 1996, I did some thinking and figured I had better try to find these parts again by tracking Curt down and building myself a car, giving into the dream of owning a real one, but at least I would have a clone I could still call my own. Dick was great in letting me know about Curt and the parts he had. I had sold aftermarket body parts to Curt in the past at his shop, so I started there. Unfortunately Curt had hit hard times and had gone out of business six months before I started looking for him. Talking to some other shops I had dealt with in the area, I tracked down his last name and got his home phone number out of the phone book--Curtis Hill of 1926 Blue Mills Road in Independence, Missouri. I called him and it just so happens that he was hurting for cash at the time after losing his business and shop. He ran right down to my job, at the time it was Certifit Auto Body Parts, with pictures of the stuff and was very ready to sell it. He wanted to feel me out on what he thought I should pay for them and also he knew--even in their condition--they were worth good money.
He had looked up Ted Janak's reproduction fiberglass parts. The price new for all the stuff at that time was $2,000-$2,500. So he figured he could get $4,000 or more for his parts. Me, being cheap as usual but knowing he knew what he had, offered him the $2,000. We dickered back and forth until I purchased the parts for $3,000.
He also had a Hemi Cuda and a sixpack or Hemi Challenger, both in pieces, that were NOT for sale at any price!? The Challenger was in his garage and the Cuda was at a storage locker he had out on 7 Highway south of Fort Osage. We had to go out to the storage locker to get the console from the Superbird. The Cuda was a manual car that had exploded the bellhousing and ripped the transmission tunnel badly. He had a tunnel cut out of another car to install it. He was really pushing to sell me his Cosworth Vega, which I had no interest in. I was happy at that point--I owned a wing! I then joined both winged car clubs to find out all I could about these awesome cars. After seeing pictures of my Limelight hood with a sixpack scoop in the middle of it, Kyle Drake (Dick's son) vaguely remembered seeing the car in the mid-to-late 1970s on a used car lot on Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City. He said it was in bad shape at that point and they were asking way too much for the car.
Now it was time to find a car to put the parts on and make it my Superbird. I had seen several clones in the magazines. I figured since this car was a clone, I was going to make it the way I wanted. I was going to drive this car a lot and wanted air conditioning to be comfortable. Not getting a rear window plug with the parts and having seen a couple of convertible Superbirds in the magazines and in photos from friends who went to the Nationals, I fell in love with the idea of a Limelight green Superbird convertible clone, made out of parts from the original Superbird.
Now that I had a plan and the Superbird parts, it was time to find a convertible. Since only a 1970 RoadRunner or Satellite convertible would work, and they were very rare also with less than 3,500 of each made, I really had my work cut out for me. I looked for the better part of a year before I found a car I could afford. I really should have looked longer but I was so excited to get the car, I bought the first one that showed up in my price range. It was a white 383 Sport Satellite I found in Hemmings from New York State on Long Island. At the time, it looked like a great value for $5,500 shipped to Missouri.
What a mistake it was buying a convertible that had spent all of its life close to the salt air. Don't get me wrong--on delivery, cosmetically, the car looked really good and very nice in all the pictures that I got. It was all a cover-up job though, as you can see in the pictures it was rusted badly.
So now it was late 1997. Now I had all the parts and the car to make my dream car. All I needed was someone to do the body work and restoration. I have plenty of mechanical skills and have done several upholstery interior jobs. I have no talent in body and paint skills whatsoever. I was already having my high school car, a 1969 RoadRunner, restored. The work was being done at Dukes Body Shop in Warsaw, Missouri, but they were already overworked and a little behind on the RoadRunner. So I decided to get several estimates and find someone who could do it reasonably fast. I then decided to shop around several restoration shops but I found nothing reasonable or even in my price range. I decided I was really happy with Dukes' work and craftsmanship. I was just not happy with his progress/timeliness. I really had no other choice though, because of the price. Having no better alternative, I had Dukes come and pick up the car and all the parts to make it into a Superbird.
Dennis Duke, the dad, had been having back problems from weight for quite a while. Soon after they got my car, Dennis developed really bad health problems. He had gastric bypass surgery and had bad complications. He has since had over ten surgeries to make him better. Needless to say, he passed the shop on to Sean, his son. Sean does great body and paint work, but he didn't have the right business skills to keep up the business correctly.
My car, by then, had sat for almost five years when Dukes started working on it. I bought every part that was available to finish the car as Sean requested. At first, he got right on the car hard and did some great work. After a year of off-and-on work, he quit working on it. the car then sat for four years untouched.
I, being over two hours away from the car, thought he had made progress on the car and had been sending him money on a monthly basis. He bilked me for five-thousand dollars worth of work he didn't do. I had been trying to get him motivated to work on the car again for four years without any results. I was stubborn and wouldn't pay any more. I had also become very depressed over my stupid situation and just let the car sit there.
Finally Jim Cordell, a good friend of mine, pushed and prodded me to move the car, take the loss and just get it done. After ten years of having my car, and having Sean quit working on it while still owing me about $5,000 in labor, made me sick to my stomach every time I thought about it. For the last few years, I have tried to block it out of my mind. I finally decided that I had better move the car. I had really been looking for a good body shop to take over the project for quite some time. Being gun shy already, with the previous shop experiences, I looked long and hard. Finding someone to take over somebody else's work in midstream was tough. I also needed to find someone reasonable because of how upside down I was from getting ripped off.
Four different friends in HPAC who also had work done or knew of his work recommended Ed Horner of Adrian, MIssouri. It was also a shop I had heard of before and I gave him a call. He was willing to take the car quickly. I contacted him in June and he wanted the car in the shop on July first! So that got the ball rolling and finally my car restoration was rolling again.
Sunday July 1, 2007 was moving day. With Jim Cordell (fellow Mopar winged car guy) and his trailer we got to Warsaw at 9:00 am and loaded it all up. Sean had all the parts ready (or so we thought) for us to load up and go. Two hours later, we had the car winched up onto the trailer, and my diesel truck with a stake bed was loaded to overflowing with parts. Two hours after picking up the car, we had it at Ed's body shop. Now my project was going again. In just two weeks, Ed's shop managed to get the rear frame rails, trunk floors, quarters, doors, fenders and hood welded on or ready to install.
One part that went missing while the project was at Dukes Body Shop was the Superbird wing. Attempts to obtain the wing or at least learn the truth of what happened to it from Duke have not been effective. It was a very distinctive wing: Limelight green with no decals and lots of black paint on the horizontal bar. I was lucky (though my wallet wasn't) to be able to purchase a wing from Wayne Perkins after I begged and badgered him. Wayne sole me a yellow Superbird wing that he had bought at the Mopar Nationals some-twenty years ago. I needed it in a hurry because Ed's body shop was ready for it just weeks after starting work on my car!
The speedometer cluster looks amazing and was restored by David Patik (Performance Car Graphics). David also did all the custom and standard white decals (custom white headlight white-out surrounds and custom black letters for the bird decal to go on the headlight door). The Bird has a white convertible top and white interior.
The steering wheel is a nice used one off of a 1969 GTX my brother parted out in approximately 1977. It's not cracked or darkened with age like most and some of the original graining is still left on it. I hate the remanufactured look, how dark the stain is. I love the look of my used original.
The steering column was restored by Kevin Penquite of Wichita, Kansas. He power-coats all the brackets, replaces all the wiring and paints them up pretty for a very reasonable price and also sells them out-right. He re-keyed mine with a new cylinder lock also.
The A/C dash has all new wiring and was rebuilt, repainted and installed with all the A/C stuff by Jim Edwards of Belton, Missouri. What a pain it was to find a good and correct A/C heater core. Not a common part but Classic Air makes them.
The console and dash cluster are both original to the Superbird that the body parts came off of so the car will show right at 50,000 miles on it. We had used POR-15 rust product on the new floor pans that were installed some five years ago. By the time Ed, my new body man, got the car it was all peeling up in long strips. They claim it bonds to rust and metal. That is BS. I'm not so impressed with POR-15.
Wow, what a learning experience it has been. That's the story of my crazy ten-year saga. It's really been more than ten years because I always wanted a winged car since the first time I laid my eyes on one. My brother got me hooked on Mopars when he saw a Bird on the show room floor at age nine. He was seven years older than me. His dream was to have one also ever since then. He is no longer with us now, so I feel like I am fulfilling his dream too. And this Superbird convertible clone is certainly my dream car!
MISBEHAVIN' BIRDABLE (Update on Stuart's Bird clone)
Text by Sue George; Photos by Sue George and Stuart Sutton
As you can see from the photos above, the Birdable turned out to be a really beautiful car. Finally after many years of the bodyshop from hell experience, Stuart and his boys proudly drove the Birdable to two local shows in the Kansas City area early in the spring of 2008. With a newly installed white convertible top, the car set out on its first real outing to Branson, Missouri for the Mopars in May car show. Several club members met at Branson for this event and we had a great time.
Upon arrival in Branson, Stuart reported that the Birdable had seemed to be missing at times and had experienced a couple episodes of overheating. so Ed George took a look under the hood and discovered the distributor hold-down wasn't tight. After re-timing the car he did a little bit of adjustment on the sixpack carbs. It was found that a vital special clip was missing from the outboard linkage. I always carry a big box of carb parts and after searching through every clip I had, there was not one of the correct size we needed. Luckily Stuart was able to purchase the correct clip at the Branson O'Reilly's Auto Parts Store. (This clip will relate to a bit of humor later). So now the Birdable was running much smoother and cooler and it seemed all was well.
About 65 Mopars showed up for the show on Saturday and we had a great time. A group of us toured the '57 Heaven museum and then went to the Dolly Parton Dixie Stampede. In the evening we watched racecar bloopers on the huge outdoor drive-in screen. Sunday mid-morning our group consisting of Wayne Perkins and his silver Hemi Daytona, Ed and I with our orange Daytona, Stuart and son Quintin driving the Birdable, and Michele Sutton and sons Taylor and Ian were driving the minivan relief vehicle so they could go for help if needed. We left Branson and headed back north to Lambert's Restaurant (home of the throwed rolls) in Ozark for lunch. After lunch we all filled up with gas and hit the road for home.
At the next gas stop, about one-hundred miles down the road, Stuart and Q reported that the Birdable had never run better and had even managed to get a very respectable 17 miles per gallon! We were all happy for them and they were really enjoying this car. Michele decided we were okay and she put the pedal to the metal and headed for home. Apparently losing Michele and our relief van was a bad omen.
Stuart and Q in the Birdable were leading the group. About 100 miles from Kansas City, we saw a black puff of smoke exit from the Birdable and Stuart immediately headed for the shoulder of the road. When we all got stopped behind him, we were so disappointed to see a stream of oil coming from under the front of the car. A quick look under the hood and it was obvious to see the Birdable was not going to drive the rest of the way home on its own. There was a long crack in the front corner of the engine block! We felt so bad for Stuart having to endure yet another setback after finally getting to enjoy the car of his dreams. But these old cars do break and they can be fixed.
We stayed around for awhile and then Stuart suggested we get going for home since we had another 250 miles further to go than the rest of the group. We hated to leave them out there along the road, but Wayne was going to stay. Stuart called his mechanic friend Leo McGraw who was super helpful to come from Kansas City with his enclosed trailer to haul the Birdable back home. Wayne got out his camp chair and set it in the middle of the ditch to wait for Leo to arrive and what would he see down in the weeds in that ditch? One of those little sixpack carb linkage clip that Stuart needed the day before! We all had a good laugh about that before we took off for home. We thought the highway sign where the Bird broke would have been more appropriate if it said Deepsh**
The only evidence left of the Birdable's break down was this puddle of oil on the highway. In the photos below you can see the crack in the block (two views), the chunks of cast iron that were the corner of the block, the broken cam and the rod and piston.
Leo delivered the Birdable safe and sound back to his shop and after disassembling the engine it was found that a rod had failed. It had been full of microscopic cracks. It broke the rod, cam and the block. Stuart was able to find another good 440 block and the Birdable is back on the road and running better than ever! In fact, it has participated in Time Warner's "RoadRunner laps around the Kansas City Speedway" twice now. We'll be seeing a lot of the Birdable now, because Stuart and the boys drive it everywhere and enjoy it as it was meant to be!
I don't know who enjoys the Birdable most, Stuart or son Ian? Take a look at that groovy Limelight automatic shifter handle! What a cool custom touch.
|MAIN PAGE||TABLE OF CONTENTS|
© 1997-2009 Winged Warriors/National B-Body Owners Association. All rights reserved.