They were affectionately known as "winged things."
Parked on the showroom floor beside a hulking Monaco wagon or plain-Jane Dart sedan, the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona must have looked like it was from another planet . . . or at least another world. Winged thing, indeed.
Truth be told, that wasn't far off the mark since back in the late 1960s, car sales were heavily connected with racing and, of course, winning. Since you had to race what you built for street, the Daytona's slippery shape - and the strange bodywork that went along with it - was solely intended to play along with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) rules of the day.
Sure, the roof and doors appeared to be regular-issue, but the protruding snout and giant-sized wing that extended high above the trunk were anything but.
Who in their right mind would want to be seen driving such an oddball contraption? Chrysler Corp. probably didn't care at the time since its focus was on race-track speed, not the street cars that had to be built to attain it.
A bewildered public could actually thank NASCAR rules makers for the Daytona, so named for Daytona (Fla.) speedway where the NASCAR season kicks off.
That was then.
Today's so-called "stock" cars are all hand-built to a common standard using custom-formed sheetmetal that's carefully bent and shaped around a stout steel frame, intricate roll cage and other high-tech safety systems.
However, from NASCAR's earliest beginnings in the late 1940s until the mid '70s, life on the track was governed by a different set of rules. Teams couldn't build a specially prepared race car that wasn't based on a real "stock" car that the public could purchase from the local dealer. It was called homologation, and it existed for one simple reason: keep the "stock" cars "stock" and keep the Big Three playing fair.
Fair? While it would have been relatively easy to build a few specially designed ringers and make them available to a select group of buyers (as was the case for the factory-backed drag-racing racers that competed in the Super Stock class), NASCAR strictly prohibited the practice by setting minimum production numbers. If automobile manufacturers built a specialized car intended for high banks of Daytona, for example, they had to first create production versions for public consumption.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were willing to do just about anything to win both the horsepower race and, ultimately the sales race, even if it meant bending the rules, or at least interpreting them to suit their needs.
In the quest for lap speed - then averaging 200 mph on some tracks - it became necessary to look beyond mere horsepower. However, NASCAR rules prohibited giant spoilers, shovel-nosed ground effects or any other wind-cheating devices to be grafted to any race car, unless they were available from the factory. And what self-respecting manufacturer would dare to create such a production model?
NASCAR obviously wasn't counting on Chrysler to pull out all the stops to gain an advantage over Ford and General Motors.
Both Chrysler's Dodge and Plymouth divisions already had a race-proven engine in the 426-cubic-inch "Hemi" V8. What was needed was a more streamlined street car to homologate for racing.
The decision was made to make the Dodge Charger more competitive by moving the grille flush with the front bodywork and altering the angle of the rear window so that it followed the contour of the roof line, all in an effort to reduce drag and gain precious speed.
Initially, 500 of these cars, dubbed the Charger Daytona 500, were produced for public consumption, all in accordance with the homologation rules. On the track, the cars were faster than the stock-bodied versions, but proved unstable at high speeds. It was back to the drawing board and into the wind tunnel.
What the Charger actually needed was more downforce to keep it glued to the track. The radical solution was to add a pointy 18-inch extension to the nose plus a giant stabilizer wing mounted above the rear deck. Outrageous, of course, but very effective and entirely within the letter, if not the spirit, of NASCAR regulations.
Nearly all 505 of the radically altered winged Charger Daytona models (the "500" designation was dropped) built for public consumption arrived with 375-horsepower 440-cubic-inch V8s, while a handful came with the 425-horse Hemi that was capable of launching the 4,000-plus-pound car to 60 mph in around six seconds.
The Daytona was no drag-racer, but in "superspeedway" trim, the monstrous looking Charger proved its worth on NASCAR's faster oval tracks, winning 80 percent of the races in which it competed, including the season opener Daytona 500. However, Dodge failed to achieve as many victories as Ford due to the predominance of short tracks on the NASCAR schedule where the aero-body offered no real advantage.
Following the 1969 season, Chrysler moved the program to its Plymouth division (with the SuperBird), which carried on for another year with considerable success until NASCAR, fearing a field of mutant models running around its race venues, legislated the cars out of existence.
Each of the 500 or so private-citizen Charger Daytona buyers probably endured much derisive laughter for making such a seemingly imprudent purchase.
Today, though, the highly sought-after Daytona basks in the aura of its own lore and legend, a remnant of headier times when NASCAR's competitors literally ran amuck.