by James Kraus
While aerodynamic efficiency was occasionally a consideration in the design of road cars as early as the 1920s, it was only from a perspective of achieving reduced air resistance. Interest in generating aerodynamic downforce did not manifest itself until the 1960s. Not surprisingly, experimentation and development first occurred in the competition arena.
The initial appearance of aerodynamic addenda to create downforce came not in Formula One, but in sports car racing. The earliest application was the lip or ducktail spoiler developed for the Ferrari 246 SP Dino in 1961 by legendry Ferrari engineer Vittorio Jano.
Soon thereafter, Ferrari installed one on the 250 GTO, at first separately affixed, then integrated into the aluminium bodywork on later cars. Thus the early 250 GTO became the first road car with a bolt-on (or in this case, riveted) aerodynamic aid.
Rear ducktail-style lip spoilers quickly spread among the racing fraternity.
A few years later, during the 1965 season, the Chaparral 2A and McLaren M1B sprouted lower front spoilers (air dams) designed to reduce front-end lift.
By the end of 1965, the first separately attached lower front spoiler was added not to an exotic road car, but as standard fitment on the 1966 Chevrolet Corvair.
The black molded-plastic Corvair air dam made perfect sense; prior to the mid-1960s, it was thought that rear-engine cars were overly sensitive to crosswinds at speed because they lacked the stabilizing mass of a front-mounted powertrain. The fact however, was that the vast majority of cars of the era suffered from severe frontal aerodynamic lift at speed, often in the range of 130kg (300 lb) or more.
The presence of a heavy front engine and gearbox was merely a band-aid that camouflaged the source problem. With it’s new front air dam fitted, the Corvair’s high-speed stability became a non-issue. Although largely unheralded upon its introduction, this front spoiler was the progenitor for all those that followed in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The functionality of the separate front air dam is generally incorporated in contemporary automotive designs from careful shaping of the front facia, although in many instances, a flexible black-plastic dam is still utilized, often recessed back far enough as to be unnoticable.
On the race circuit, front air dams or downforce-inducing front corner winglets began to appear with increasing frequency; spreading quickly to the Ferrari 330 P3, Lola T-70, Porsche 906 and others during the 1966 World Sportscar Championship.
1966 also saw the first application of a rear-deck lip spoiler on a mass-production road car; the newly-introduced Dodge Charger. As with the Ferrari GTO, this spoiler was born on the racetrack.
Chrysler engineers had high hopes for their new fastback Dodge on the high speed NASCAR superspeedways, and the new car indeed displayed superb high-speed capability during testing, but drivers found it woefully unstable. The cure was a small aluminium rear spoiler.
The spoiler would not be legal on the track unless it was offered to the public (in the 1960s American “stock” car racing was still actually based on stock production cars.) Thus the spoiler became available in mid-1966 over the counter or as a dealer-installed option for $29.95. They also came in a box as standard equipment with 426 Hemi-engine models, to be installed by the dealer or owner.
Unfortunately, very few of these spoilers were ever purchased or installed. At the time, only diehard race fans had any clue as to what a “spoiler” was and the average buyer was probably aghast at the idea of having holes drilled through the sheet metal of his shiny new Charger.
Following in the Charger’s footsteps, in 1967 Chevrolet dealers began offering a rigid plastic rear deck spoiler through their parts departments for the new Camaro in order to homologate it for use in SCCA Trans-Am racing. It first appeared at the press launch of the Camaro Z-28 at California’s Riverside Raceway in November of 1966.
This spoiler became available as a standard factory production option (paired with a front air dam) on 1968 Z-28 models.
The all-new 1968 Chevrolet Corvette C3 debuted in the fall of 1967 with a standard black ABS plastic front spoiler, similar in design to the earlier Corvair unit.
By 1969, Buick, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Mercury, Oldsmobile and Pontiac were producing cars with bolt-on front air dams, rear spoiler lips, rear wings, or some combination thereof. Unfortunately, some of these were mere styling accoutrements, offering no actual improvement in downforce.
Instead of being mandated by engineering and designed by aerodynamicists, aero aids were all too often mandated by marketing and designed by stylists. As an example, the street version of the 1969 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II had a rear wing, but when it went racing, the engineers removed it and added a more efficient small ducktail.
In the realm of add-on attachments, drag minimization was not neglected in the quest for downforce. The 1969 Dodge Charger 500, Daytona and 1970 Plymouth Road Runner Superbird featured an added aerodynamic modification designed to decrease drag rather than increase downforce; stainless steel trim at the sides of the windscreen were added to smooth airflow over the A-pillar rain channel.
A decade later, a similar version of this device (in black molded plastic) was used the VW Golf GTI.
In 1973, BMW launched the 2002 Turbo with a flexible black polyurethane rear spoiler lip of the sort that would soon become ubiquitous on road cars harbouring any sort of sporting pretensions. With the advent of flexible paints, most rear lip spoilers migrated back to body-colour, although some are now rendered in carbon fibre for that boy-racer allure currently coveted by automobile manufacturer’s marketing departments.
Most of the benefit of the traditional rear lip spoiler has been achieved in late-model automotive designs by simply raising the height of the rear deck.
Interestingly, BMW has recently taken to calling their rear deck spoilers Gurney Flaps, even though Dan Gurney himself did not utilize such devices until the 1970s, and then only atop wings. If one wants to give a rear deck lip spoiler a proper name, they should rightly be called Jano Flaps.