Performance car enthusiasts tend to be a somewhat humorless bunch, whether you’re talking about Ferraristes, old-school muscle car fans, or import tuners. If they have one thing in common, it’s that they’re none too keen at being laughed at. That’s why it’s remarkable that one of the premier icons of the muscle car era is one of the most irreverent of them all: a budget Supercar named after a cartoon bird — the Plymouth Road Runner. This is its story.
THE SUPERCAR BOOM
The Road Runner story will only really make sense if you understand something about the way American cars used to be sold. Before the 1970s, most U.S. manufacturers offered their cars on a strictly à la carte basis. Even on high-end cars, you often paid extra for many accessories we would now consider de rigueur, such as heaters, windshield wipers, outside mirrors, and turn signals. Certain options might be unavailable on certain models or trim levels and required on others (resulting in that curiously American concept of the “mandatory option”), but each was, as the toy commercials like to say, sold separately.
The motivation for this curious financial prestidigitation was twofold: the à la carte approach allowed manufacturers to advertise lower starting prices and it enabled dealers to mark up options individually, which was good for profit margins.
Up until the early 1960s, this approach worked to the advantage of racers, both professional and amateur, who could simply order the cheapest, lightest, barest-equipped model in the catalog with the biggest engine the dealer would sell them. If you were really going racing, you would strip off all the non-essentials anyway, so why buy them in the first place?
For several years, manufacturers were happy enough to abet such transactions. A stripped-out, big-engine business coupe was not a profit-maker, but only a handful were sold that way and any racing victories they achieved were good publicity, whether on the track, the strip, or the street. Then came the fall of 1963 and the birth of the Pontiac GTO. As has oft been recounted, general manager Pete Estes, chief engineer John DeLorean, and ad man Jim Wangers figured out a way to transform the big-engine, midsize-car concept into a package they could promote aggressively.
The GTO package was originally just an option for the new A-body Pontiac Tempest. Priced at a bit under $300, it included the division’s big 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) V8, dual exhaust, slightly stiffer suspension, and jazzy trim and badges. (“GTO,” incidentally, was a racing acronym meaning gran turismo omologato, “Grand Touring, Homologated,” in Italian.) Pontiac couldn’t exactly promote or advertise “stripped-out business coupe with a big engine,” but they could (and did) promote the hell out of the GTO. Even though the GTO was technically a violation of several General Motors corporate policies, it was a hit, helping to establish Pontiac as the most performance-oriented — and youth-oriented — automaker in America. The GTO soon inspired a host of imitators both inside and outside GM. By 1968, every domestic automaker except Cadillac offered at least one.
The success of the GTO and its ilk presented a dilemma for the hardcore street racers who had inspired them in the first place. To get all the performance-oriented options you needed (many of which were still extra-cost options even on a GTO or Oldsmobile 4-4-2), you were often compelled to order the performance model or package. Not only were those models highly conspicuous — an important consideration given the dim view most municipalities take of street racing — they usually had hundreds of dollars worth of tinsel that the serious runner neither needed nor wanted. Since many of the diehard racers were under 25, an age at which most people even in that affluent era were not exactly rolling in cash, this put many of the serious factory-built street rods out of reach.
Plymouth had recently launched its own GTO rival, the GTX, which was new for the 1967 model year. Like the GTO, the Plymouth GTX was a fancier, big-engine version of a midsize car, in this case Plymouth’s intermediate Satellite. Plymouth went Pontiac a few better by making Chrysler’s big 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) V8 standard on the GTX, along with the excellent TorqueFlite automatic. A 440-powered GTX would beat the stuffing out of most showroom-stock GTOs except the handful of cars worked over by Michigan’s Royal Pontiac or other performance-minded dealers, but the big engine, standard automatic, and plush trim pushed the GTX’s price well above the standard GTO. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Dodge Division soon insisted on offering its own Coronet R/T, which was functionally identical to the GTX and sold for a similar price. Unsurprisingly, GTX sales made for somewhat depressing reading.
THE BROCK YATES INITIATIVE
This sad state of affairs was noted by, among others, Car and Driver editor Brock Yates. At some point during the 1966 model year, Yates drafted a memo to Chrysler-Plymouth general manager Bob Anderson, outlining the problem and proposed a new variation on the Supercar theme: the econo-racer. This would be a stripped-down intermediate with a big engine, four-speed manual transmission, and a full set of gauges, all as standard equipment. There was to be no plush trim, non-essential equipment, or gratuitous decoration to drive up the price or attract wary gendarmes.
Anderson was highly enthusiastic about Yates’s proposal and forwarded the memo to Plymouth product planning. Yates received a noncommittal response — Anderson just said they’d consider it for 1968 — and had no idea what, if anything, Chrysler-Plymouth might do with his idea.
A key aspect of Yates’ proposal was a restrained approach to styling and marketing, including limiting color choices so as to cultivate an aura of understated menace. However, subtlety is not a concept product planners readily embrace, particularly when their division is struggling to establish itself in an image-conscious market segment. Plymouth product planning chief Joe Sturm and product planning analysts Jack Smith and Gordon Cherry didn’t want an understated street racer — they wanted an icon, something that would steal attention away from the GTO.
A week or so later, Cherry had a brainstorm while watching Saturday morning cartoons with his young children: a tie-in with Warner Brothers’ popular Road Runner cartoon character, whose maddening ability to elude Wile E. Coyote suggested exactly the kind of image Plymouth was hoping to cultivate. Cherry had to explain the premise to Smith, who wasn’t familiar with the cartoons, but Smith agreed that Cherry was on the right track. Smith subsequently presented the idea to Chrysler-Plymouth’s new ad agency, Young & Rubicam, who embraced the concept wholeheartedly; their idea had been to call the car the Plymouth La Mancha, after Man of La Mancha, the popular Broadway musical based on Cervantes’ 17th century novel Don Quixote.
Senior Chrysler management was none too happy with either the implicit self-mockery of naming one of their cars after a cartoon character or the fact that doing so would involve paying licensing fees. Styling director Dick Macadam was particularly appalled. Dealers, however, loved the concept and their response, combined with the support of Young & Rubicam, finally persuaded management that the Road Runner’s irreverence was exactly the point. A $50,000 deal was struck with Warner Brothers for the rights to use the Road Runner and Coyote characters while Engineering set to work modifying the Belvedere’s horn to approximate the Road Runner’s flippant “Beep-Beep.”
(As an aside, we have noticed that some historians inexplicably assert that viewers of the Warner Bros root for Road Runner in his frequent duels with Wile E. Coyote. Your author has never met anyone familiar with those cartoons who did not root for the Coyote — indeed, we would worry about any child who actually rooted for the bird — although we always assumed the point of Plymouth’s pitch was that by buying the car, you could be the Road Runner rather than his eternally frustrated pursuer.)
PLYMOUTH ROAD RUNNER
The Plymouth Road Runner was introduced as part of Plymouth’s revamped intermediate lineup for the 1968 model year. It was essentially a Belvedere two-door sedan fitted with the heavy-duty suspension normally found on cars earmarked for police or taxi duty. The standard engine was Chrysler’s familiar 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) V8 with the cylinder heads, camshaft, and intake and exhaust manifolds from Chrysler’s bigger 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) engine. With single four-barrel carburetor, this combination yielded 335 gross horsepower (250 kW) and 425 lb-ft (574 N-m of torque), about the same as a base GTO. A four-speed manual transmission was standard equipment and the only really essential straight-line performance item not included was a limited-slip differential, which was available as part of the Performance Axle Group for an extra $87.50.
The base price of a Plymouth Road Runner was $2,870, which was a little above Brock Yates’ proposed target price, but undercut a base Pontiac GTO hardtop by $231. If you included the extra cost of adding a four-speed and heavy-duty suspension to the GTO, the price differential became closer to $500 — not small change in 1968. The Road Runner was also $559 cheaper than an equivalent Plymouth GTX.
Naturally, that budget price entailed certain compromises. Choosing a Road Runner over a GTX condemned you to flat bench seats, taxicab-grade upholstery, dog-dish hubcaps, and rubber mats instead of carpeting. There was of course a host of dress-up and luxury options ranging from power steering and front disc brakes (unimportant to drag racers, but of more than passing interest for street driving) to a padded vinyl roof and a big swash of flat black paint on the hood. Buyers were well advised to exercise caution with the options list, which could add almost $1,000 to the list price. As a stripped-down street racer, the Road Runner was a bargain, but if you were looking for a fully loaded cruiser, the GTX made far more sense, offering better performance without the Road Runner’s low-rent ambiance.
When Car and Driver finally saw what had become of Yates’ idea, the editors were mildly appalled by what they saw as a gimmicky dilution of the original concept. They admitted Plymouth had managed the “econo” aspect of the equation and done a passable job with the “racer” part, but there was nothing stealthy or subtle about it. Nonetheless, they predicted it would sell like mad.
Chrysler-Plymouth was not so sanguine, grimly predicting initial sales of only 2,500 units. According to Cherry, Chrysler’s mostly straight-laced senior executives were never comfortable with the Road Runner’s whimsical image; they just didn’t get it. Nonetheless, the Road Runner turned out to be perfectly attuned to the cultural zeitgeist of its time. In an era of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the Smothers Brothers, and TV’s campy Batman, buyers could appreciate a performance car that didn’t take itself too seriously. The fact that it was legitimately fast and quite rugged didn’t hurt; even with the standard engine and 3.55 axle, the Road Runner could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 7 seconds and run the quarter mile (402 meters) in about 15 seconds with trap speeds in the 96–98 mph (155–158 km/h) range.
Some 44,599 Road Runners went out the door for the 1968 model year and Plymouth probably could have sold more if not for the conservative sales projections, which limited the supply of parts. Initially, all Road Runners were pillared two-door sedans, but a pillarless hardtop became available later in the year. Most had the stock engine, but a few were ordered with the 426 cu. in. (6,974 cc) Hemi, a $714 option that instantly expunged the ‘econo’ portion of the Road Runner’s econo-racer credentials in exchange for 425 gross horsepower (317 kW) and 490 lb-ft (662 N-m) of torque.
Plymouth expanded the line for 1969, adding a convertible model and a host of new options. An “Air Grabber” pop-up hood scoop was newly optional, as was the 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) V8, which was nearly as strong as the Hemi for about one-third of the Hemi’s price. Motor Trend named the Road Runner its 1969 Car of the Year and total sales rose to 82,109. Since Plymouth also still offered the GTX, which sold some 15,602 units for 1969, Plymouth’s sporty-intermediate sales now outpaced Pontiac’s by about 35%. (Pontiac sold 72,287 GTOs that year.)
THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
Like the GTO before it, the Plymouth Road Runner was soon besieged by wannabes. Dodge, naturally, demanded its own version, the Super Bee, complete with its own cartoon mascot. Ford offered the Torino Cobra (so named to preserve Ford’s rights to the Cobra name, since the Shelby Cobra had recently been discontinued). While Chevrolet didn’t offer a specific econo-racer model, you could create a comparable package by careful use of the Chevelle/Malibu order form.
The Plymouth Road Runner returned for one more go-around in its original body shell in 1970, although sales fell to 41,484, a victim of skyrocketing insurance premiums for performance cars. The Road Runner also lent its name and decals to the Road Runner Superbird, Plymouth’s version of the streamlined Dodge Charger Daytona, offered as a NASCAR homologation special. Only 1,920 were sold and they are prized collectibles today.
The Road Runner and other Chrysler intermediates got a swoopy, “fuselage-style” redesign for 1971 and the graphics grew even more lurid than before. Although the new Plymouth Road Runners were attractive despite their gaudiness, punitive insurance rates continued to take their toll, dropping sales to only 14,218. Plymouth responded by making the 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc cc) LA-series V8 standard rather than the 383, but even that engine could be prohibitively expensive for younger buyers to insure. For 1974, the 340 gave way to the 318 cu. in. (5,204 cc) V8, now offering only 150 net horsepower (112 kW).
Like most of its Supercar brethren, the Plymouth Road Runner’s muscles atrophied as the 1970s wore on, a result of lowered compression ratios and ever-increasing emissions standards. Surprisingly, the Road Runner remained popular enough to survive the decade. In 1975, when the intermediates were redesigned and renamed Fury, the Road Runner continued, now looking a little ill at ease in its new formally styled surroundings. The following year, it became a trim and graphics package on the compact Plymouth Volare. The last Volare Road Runners were sold in the 1980 model year.
By then, the à la carte approach to optional equipment was on the way out. Emissions standards put an end to the plethora of engine and axle ratio options that had existed in the sixties; each engine/transmission/axle ratio combination had to be certified separately with the EPA and NHTSA, which was simply too expensive. At the same time, Japanese automakers had whetted the appetites of American buyers for much more comprehensive levels of standard equipment, often in strict trim-level groupings. (That wasn’t necessarily the case in Japan, but it was customary for Japanese automakers’ U.S. offerings.)
By the late 1970s, domestic automakers were beginning to realize that that approach offered more than customer value. Limiting factory options also simplified production, lowered costs, and (at least in theory) permitted higher levels of quality control. Of course, the tiered approach has its own drawbacks, forcing customers to buy options they don’t need to get the equipment they wanted. For better or worse, however, true cafeteria-style new car optioning appears to be a thing of the past.
What of econo-racers? The idea pops up every now and then, often for racing homologation purposes, like Chrysler’s Dodge/Plymouth Neon ACR or Mazda’s rare RX-7 GTUs. In general, though, modern manufacturers are loath to pass up the profit margins of fully loaded cars with fully loaded price tags. Many of the lightweight, stripped-down factory specials you could buy, like the BMW M3 CSL or Honda’s Integra Type R, have actually cost more than their heavier, more luxurious siblings. Still, as long as there are cars of any kind, there will be people who will be enticed by the idea of a stripped-down body with the biggest engine that they can buy.
What’s been missing since the demise of the Road Runner is that touch of whimsy. Commercial tie-ins of the kind the Road Runner pioneered are now commonplace (even the Warner Brothers Loony Tunes cartoon characters popped up again on a special edition of Chevrolet’s undistinguished Venture minivan a few years ago), but they now have a calculated, even cynical aura that makes them far less amusing. Perhaps the closest modern equivalent to the Road Runner’s tongue-in-cheek spirit is BMW’s reborn MINI (particularly in its brilliant Canadian ad campaigns), but the MINI is a subcompact, not a muscle car. There’s nothing like the Plymouth Road Runner today, which is exactly what makes the deliberate, self-conscious silliness of the original so much fun.
In 2012, we licensed a condensed version of this story to the Angie’s List classic cars channel. However, Angie’s List had no connection with the original article.
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Linda Clark, “1968 Plymouth Road Runner: A MoPar to Ruffle the Competition’s Feathers,” Special Interest Autos #75, May-June 1983, reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000); Eric Dahlquist, “Beep Beep!” Hot Rod November 1967; “Car and Driver Road Test: Plymouth Road Runner,” Car and Driver January 1968; “Road Runner: Explosion in Budget Supercars, Car Life January 1969; Eric Dahlquist, “‘Beep-Beep-Beep!'” Motor Trend February 1969; and James Lee Ramsey, “The Bare Necessities,” Automobile February 2000, all of which are reprinted in Plymouth Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003); “Pour It On Six-Pack,” Car Life July 1969, and “Dodge Builds Bee with Bite,” Road Test December 1970, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Cars 1967-1970 (Brooklands Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1984); “Six Econo-Racers,” Car and Driver January 1969, and A.B. Shuman, “A Date with Three Strippers,” Motor Trend December 1969, reprinted in The Great Classic Muscle Cars Compared (Muscle Portfolio), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999); James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); “History of the Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Super Bee,” Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 25 October 2008; Mike Mueller, Motor City Muscle: The High-Powered History of the American Muscle Car (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); remarks by former Chrysler-Plymouth product planner Jack Smith, originally presented in a speech in 2000 and transcribed on the web by Plymouth Bulletin and Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 8 May 2012; A.B. Shuman, “The Thing of Shapes to Come,” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 38–41; and Paul Zazarine, GTO 1964-1967 (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers, 1991).