One of the greats from NASCAR history is gone from us. Cotton Owens, who won races as both a driver and team owner, passed June 7 at the age of 88 in his home in Spartanburg, SC.
Owens was elected into the 2013 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame but didn't live to see his enshrinement. Owens won nine races as a driver and the championship in 1966 as an owner with none other than David Pearson as a driver.
There's plenty of information out there about Owen's stats in NASCAR racing. But to help remember the man I thought I'd pass along a story I wrote for Mopar Muscle magazine a few years ago about a recently restored Dodge Charger that was originally owned by Cotton himself. The car has a very interesting backstory, and I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Cotton talking about it. At the time, Cotton still owned--and ran--his scrapyard and was more than happy to sit down and tell a few stories. By then he had already been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would eventually take his life, but he was vibrant, funny and full of energy. It was a great day, and I hope you enjoy this story.
Seemingly destined for the scrap heap twice, this Charger 500 emerged a collector’s item with a racing history
NASCAR Winston Cup racing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was marked by constant innovation. The race cars are nowhere near as advanced as they are today, but they definitely had a lot more character—and they also had a real influence in what was driven on the streets. Those were the good old days, you see, when stock cars were actually stock. If you couldn’t buy it off the showroom floor, you couldn’t race it.
That is why Dodge, in an effort to keep up with the more aerodynamic Fords, created the Charger 500 in 1969. Based off the ’69 Charger RT, the 500 featured a Hemi engine, fastback rear glass and a flush front grille, all with the explicit purpose of producing greater speed—and better finishes—in NASCAR competition.
Lewis Summerville’s ’69 Charger 500 was one of the first produced, but it nearly met an untimely end two different times before it was ever driven on the street (legally). This car, you see, was stolen off a dealer’s lot inCalifornia. Fortunately, instead of wrecking or otherwise ruining the car, the thieves took only the engine and transmission, unbolting it cleanly from the chassis. Then, in a clever means of disposing of the evidence, they simply left it sitting in a parking lot. Undamaged on the outside, no one knows exactly how long the car sat before the local authorities decided to check on the unclaimed Charger.
Once the car was discovered, it was dutifully returned to Dodge sans Hemi and transmission. But the company couldn’t sell it and didn’t exactly know what to do with it, so someone within the organization decided instead of scrapping the car to call a friend and see if he would store it for them.
Of course, that “friend” happened to be one of the great figures in Dodge’s racing history. “Yeah, they called me and asked if they could bring it to my shop,” explains Cotton Owens, one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers of all time and a team owner at the time. Owens, who is still 14th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list as a car owner with 40 victories, operated a team with factory support from Dodge and Chrysler and was willing to loan the company a little shop space until it decided exactly what to do with the crippled car. So the Charger was fitted with a tow bar and dragged across the country from California to Owens' shop in Spartanburg, SC.
“So the car sat here a little while,” Owens continues in his matter-of-fact manner. “Finally, they called me and said they needed it up in Detroit. It wasn’t my car, so I took it up there to ‘em.”
The reason Dodge needed the car back in Detroit was because Creative Industries, the company’s hired gun for racing R&D, needed a car for wind-tunnel testing. It turned out the Charger 500 was a suitable solution on NASCAR’s shorter tracks, but the car’s boxy shape still left the car at a disadvantage on the Series’ two biggest circuits: Daytona and Talladega. Dodge, Chrysler and Creative Industries had come up with a plan to modify the cars to make them aerodynamically superior to the competition (creating what eventually became the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird), but it had yet to be tested in the wind tunnel. The Charger in Owens' shop made a perfect test mule.
This Charger 500 was one of at least two to be used in that wind tunnel session to develop the Daytona/Superbird. Engineers modified the front end to accept the pointed nosecone that made the Daytona immediately recognizable. It wasn’t, however, fitted with the Daytona’s signature rear wing. (Apparently, the original plan included just the nosecone, but it caused so much front downforce it made the rear end light. The rear wing was added to balance the car.) Once the engineers at Creative Industries finished the session they removed the nosecone as well as the front fenders and hood, reducing the car’s apparent value even further. But again, the 500 somehow avoided the scrap heap.
“A few weeks after I dropped the car off, they called me back and said if I wanted the car I could have it,” Owens says, continuing the story. “They said they’d sell it to me for three- or four-hundred dollars—I don’t remember exactly how much anymore—and I told ‘em yeah, I’d come get it.
“I had a couple of brand new street Hemi engines and transmissions laying around the shop, so I put one in there. It wasn’t no trouble, whoever had stole the car had taken the engine and transmission out as pretty as you please. All the lines and hoses were still right there.
“Then, I guess about a month after they sold me the car, they told me to go down to Charlotte (NC) and get me a load of sheetmetal. Back then we raced the stock sheetmetal, and we were always tearing up fenders and stuff. When I went to get more sheetmetal for my race cars, they had fenders and hoods the same color as the Charger, so I got ‘em. I put ‘em right on the car and didn’t even have to paint it. And that’s the way it is today.”
When the Charger was finished, Owens’ gave it to his son, Donnie, who only drove the car for a short while before it was sold to Joe Littlejohn, another Winston Cup racer and a family friend.
Littlejohn, who according to Owens was notoriously tight with his finances, gave the car to his son to drive but never quit chirping to Owens that he had paid too much for the car.
“Joe Littlejohn was accusing me of overselling the car to him,” Owens continues. “I told him I would buy the car back from him, and if anything I had sold it too cheap. I said, ‘Listen, that car will make you money any day of the week. All you’ve got to do is let it sit.’ But Littlejohn wouldn’t listen.
“This went on for about a month, and then a gentleman from Tennessee who knew I had the car called and asked if it was for sale. I told him yeah, and he said he be down to see it that Saturday. I called Littlejohn and told him, ‘Look, a man is coming down to see your car. The price is $3,500. That’s a profit, and don’t take anything less than that.’
“They didn’t show on Saturday, but they called Sunday morning. Turned out he had been snowed in in Asheville (NC), and wanted to know if he could come down that afternoon. So he came and I carried him over to Littlejohn’s to see the car.
“Littlejohn’s shop was in the basement of his house, so we went through the house to see the car. When that fella saw it his eyes got about this big (Owens, with a wink, holds his hand apart the approximate width of a hub cap), ‘cause the car was just beautiful. There wasn’t a scratch on it and it just sparkled. Anyway, he said he’d like to buy it but he’d have to go get a check to pay for it.
“I thought the deal was done,” Owens says with a growing smile, “but then when we were walking back up the stairs Littlejohn says, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you want the car I’ll go ahead and sell it to you for $3,250.’ I could have kicked him right back down those stairs!”
The buyer that Sunday afternoon was Lewis Summerville, and he’s owned the car ever since that fateful day in 1971. A true Mopar enthusiast, Summerville has kept the car as-is all these years until he brought it too auto restorer Lee Hodge to be freshened up recently. It was a type of homecoming for the 500 since Hodge’s shop (dutifully named Hodge Restorations) is located in Owens’ backyard. Hodge and his two-man crew (brothers Trey and Shannon Bogan) spent two-and-a-half months bringing the car back to the luster Summerville first found it in Littlejohn’s basement shop.
Besides specializing in classic Mopar restorations, Hodge is a longtime friend of Owens’ (who, despite being in his 80s, still works every day at his salvage yard) and knew about this Charger’s special history when Summerville brought it to his shop. Hodge completely stripped the car, repainted it and painstakingly put it back together, all the while uncovering more clues to its past.
“We found out that this was one of the very first Charger 500s produced,” he says. “The serial number for the 500s, and later the Daytonas, began with the letters ‘XX’ while the serial numbers for the RT models began ‘XS.’ On this car, the fender tag has XS for the RT Charger because that’s what it started out as. The serial number on the dash says ‘XX’, so just by that we know that it was one of the first Charger 500s to be produced. It probably came off the assembly line sometime in mid ’68.”
For a car to be legal for NASCAR competition, the rules said a manufacturer had to produce at least 500 of that specific model for sale to the public. That number was too low to be cost efficient for production on the assembly line, so Dodge hired Creative Industries to take cars that were basically RT models and convert them to Charger 500s. “500” was the unoriginal designation for this new model. A window plug was welded into place to produce the fastback glass, and a new grille was installed flush to the front of the car to improve aerodynamics. The fastback significantly shortened the rear deck, so although the trunk was kept, it had to be cut to fit the much smaller opening.
“I’d heard that the work at Creative Industries was done hard and fast,” Hodge says, “and, on this car at least, that was apparently true. When we removed the rear seat I found pieces of glass, so instead of removing the back glass they must have just busted it with a hammer and then swept it up as best they could. Also, when a car came in to become a Charger 500, Creative Industries jerked the seats out and stored them somewhere. Then, when a car was done they just grabbed whichever seat was on top of the stack and used it. This car had a broadcast sheet in it from a car that was built six months after this one, so it had to sit in Creative Industries for a while until the work was done. The broadcast sheet that I found in this back seat actually fit a Daytona.”
Those were just the changes made during the Charger’s first trip to Creative Industries. Remember, after it was stolen and stripped of its engine and transmission, it eventually found its way back to the Detroit shop to be fitted with a prototype Daytona nose for wind tunnel testing. To get the new sheetmetal to fit, Creative Industries engineers had to cut and narrow the radiator supports. This is evidenced by two braces bolted into place on the supports. Other holes were cut in the supports to bolt up mounting brackets, and those, too, are still in place. Because Owens, the car’s original owner, lives so close by, he was able to vouch that these modifications were a part of the car when he purchased it.
The best part about the restoration is that so little had to be done. Summerville knew the value of this Charger’s history and kept the car protected from the elements all these years. “The car was completely original when I got it,” Hodge says. “Everything that had been done to it prior to when Cotton had it was still there. And the engine and front clip that Cotton put on it hadn’t been touched, either.”
The focus of the restoration was to keep as many of the original components as possible. Hodge replaced only the headliner, seat covers, clutch and window gaskets—even the glass is original. The engine has been refreshed, but the exhaust system was kept intact because it still has the racing headers that Owens installed when he put in the Hemi. On the exterior only the paint is new, all the Hemi emblems and chrome are original survivors.
Now that the car has been returned to the condition it was in when Owens first sold it to Littlejohn over 30 years ago, there is no doubt this Charger is a long way for the scrap heap. Now, instead of being one of 500, this Charger is one-of-a-kind.