Classic car chronicles: The Plymouth Road Runner
Enthusiasts tend to be a little humorless about their favorite performance cars, which makes it all the more remarkable that one of the muscle car era's leading icons is a budget supercar named after a cartoon bird: the legendary Plymouth Road Runner.
The rise of the supercar
Before the 1970s, most domestic automakers offered options on a strictly à la carte basis: each option sold separately. That was great for racers (professional or amateur), who could simply order the cheapest, lightest, most stripped-down model with the biggest engine available and skip all the unnecessary extras.
Then came 1964 and the birth of the Pontiac GTO. Originally an option for the A-body Pontiac Tempest, the GTO transformed the big-engine, midsize performance car concept from a special-order oddity to a merchandising bonanza. Pontiac promoted it aggressively and it became a huge hit, inspiring many imitators.
Paradoxically, though, GTO-style "supercars" were bad news for street racers: crucial performance options were now often restricted to performance models saddled with hundreds of dollars worth of tinsel that young buyers didn't need and couldn't afford.
That was the case with Plymouth's rival to the GTO, the GTX. Introduced in 1967, the GTX was a midsize Plymouth Satellite with sporty trim, a 440 cu. in. (7.2 L) V8 and standard TorqueFlite automatic transmission. Although the GTX could beat the stuffing out of most stock GTOs, it was a lot more expensive than the Pontiac, and sales were depressing.
The econo-racer concept emerges
An alternative was suggested by famed Car and Driver editor Brock Yates, who sent a memo to Chrysler-Plymouth general manager Bob Anderson proposing that Plymouth offer customers a no-frills econo-racer: a low-priced intermediate with a big engine, four-speed gearbox and full instrumentation as standard equipment. Anderson loved the idea and forwarded Yates' memo to Chrysler-Plymouth product planners Jack Smith and Gordon Cherry for development.
Although Plymouth had all the mechanical pieces necessary to build such a car, Smith and Cherry thought it needed more pizzazz than what Yates suggested. While watching Saturday morning cartoons with his children, Cherry had a brainstorm: a tie-in with Warner Brothers' popular Road Runner character, whose maddening ability to elude Wile E. Coyote suggested exactly the sort of image Plymouth was after.
Smith agreed, as did Chrysler-Plymouth's ad agency, but senior management thought the Road Runner idea much too frivolous. Dealers loved the concept, however, and Smith and Cherry finally pushed it through. A licensing deal was struck with Warner Brothers for use of the Road Runner and Coyote characters, and Chrysler's engineering department even modified the Road Runner's horn to approximate the sound of the Road Runner's trademark flippant "Beep, beep."
The Road Runner arrives
Introduced with Plymouth's revamped 1968 intermediate line, the Road Runner was essentially a two-door Belvedere sedan with cartoon graphics and a heavy-duty police/taxi suspension. A four-speed manual transmission was standard, as was Chrysler's 383 cu. in. (6.3 L) V8, with "Coyote Duster" air cleaner decals and 335 gross horsepower. (The 426 cu. in. (7.0 L) Hemi was a $714 option.)
Base price was only $2,870, undercutting a comparably equipped GTO by around $500, which was a lot of money in 1968. Naturally, the budget price entailed certain compromises, including bench seats, taxicab-grade upholstery and rubber mats instead of carpeting. More than $1,000 worth of options were available, from power steering to matte black hood paint, but none altered the Road Runner's low-rent ambiance. Initially, all Road Runners were pillared two-door sedans, but a two-door hardtop became available later in the year.
Chrysler-Plymouth's projected first-year sales were only 2,500 units, but in an era of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and the Smothers Brothers, buyers could appreciate a performance car that didn't take itself too seriously, particularly since it was also cheap, fast and quite rugged. Some 44,599 Road Runners went out the door in 1968 and Plymouth probably could have sold more if they had ordered enough parts.
For 1969, Plymouth added a convertible and an assortment of new options, including an "Air Grabber" pop-up hood scoop and the 440 cu. in. (7.2 L) V8. The Road Runner, which was Motor Trend's 1969 Car of the Year, was now inspiring its own imitators, including the Dodge Super Bee and Ford's Torino Cobra. Production eventually rose to 82,109 units, not including the still-available GTX, which meant Plymouth was now selling more sporty intermediates than Pontiac.
The Road Runner returned for 1970, but sales fell to 41,484 units thanks mainly to skyrocketing insurance premiums. That tally included 1,920 copies of the be-spoilered Road Runner Superbird, a limited-edition NASCAR homologation special.
The Road Runner and other Chrysler intermediates got a swoopy, "fuselage-style" redesign for 1971, with gaudier graphics and gimmicky new options like a pistol-grip shifter. Although the new Road Runners were attractive, punitive insurance rates limited sales to a disappointing 14,218 units. Plymouth responded with smaller standard engines: the 340 cu. in. (5.6 L) V8 for 1972 and a 318 cu. in. (5.2 L) engine for 1974, offering a modest 150 net horsepower.
End of an era
Despite the loss of muscle, the Road Runner returned for 1975, its graphics now looking somewhat ill at ease on Plymouth's restyled, more formal-looking intermediate offerings. In 1976, the Road Runner became a trim package option for the compact Plymouth Volare, where it survived through 1980.
By then, the cafeteria approach to optional equipment was on the way out, replaced by Japanese makers' strategy of offering options in strict trim-level groupings. Today, true à la carte ordering seems to be a thing of the past.
The econo-racer idea still pops up occasionally, usually for racing homologation, but today's lightweight factory specials often cost significantly more than their heavier, more luxurious siblings. Still, as long as there are cars, there will be people enticed by the idea of a stripped-down body with a big engine and a minimum of frills.
What's been missing since the demise of the Road Runner is its tongue-in-cheek whimsy. Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is the reborn MINI, but that's hardly a muscle car. There's nothing like the Road Runner today, which is what makes its deliberate, self-conscious silliness so much fun.
About the author:
Aaron Severson graduated from college with a women's studies degree and a box of old car magazines, pilfered from his father. Since then, he has worked extensively as a professional writer and editor, but in 2008, his ongoing fascination with the auto industry led him to found his own automotive website, ateupwithmotor.com, where you can read the full version of this article.
The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.
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