The Wild Years of the American Muscle Car
It had been a wild four years since the first muscle car, the 1964 GTO, had appeared on the automotive season. Wild for car buyers, whose muscle car dreams were coming true in the showrooms across the land and wild for the car companies, who were turning out more and more of these great cars every year. But somewhere along the way, the original muscle car idea had gotten lost, putting top of the line engines in low cost cars had created this phenomenon. But the car makers scrambled to load these cars up with style and comfort options and by now inflated some muscle car’s price tags to over $4000.
With muscle cars selling like hot cakes, nobody noticed that they were becoming a little fat and a little pricey Tom Shaw recalls: “Well, as the muscle car market moved through the 60s it picked up a pretty good price tag. The Mopars, you had the Belvedere GTX, the Coronet RT. And they were not cheap! There was a prestige factor at work here, too and Mopar was the first one to really identify the market for a low buck no frills maximum bang for the buck muscle car.”
The 1968 Plymouth Road Runner
This is the 1968 Plymouth Road Runner and it’s one of the most important cars of the entire muscle era. The Road Runner is important because it took the muscle car movement back to its roots. Plymouth’s goal was to create a car that would run 100 mph in the quarter mile drags and sell it for under $3000. For Mopar fans, it was a gift from muscle car heaven. It wasn’t that Chrysler corporation didn’t already build fast cars. Far from it. Mopars were stand out performers on every race track from Daytona to Bonneville. In drag racing, the max wedge cars and the mighty 426 Hemis were nearly unbeatable. Chrysler’s big engines in these light weight bodies made beautiful race cars. But for the gang at the drive in, it wasn’t enough to be fast, you had to look fast, too. “You take the ’67 GTX, for example, fabulous car, fast car, beautifully executed,” Observes Paul Zazarine, “They couldn’t sell it! Because it didn’t have an image, okay? And marketing and packaging your muscle car, it had to have image.”
So in 1968, Plymouth gambled that the original muscle car premise was still valid and created a muscle car that followed this formula to the letter. They took their re-designed satellite, stripped it of practically everything but four tires and a steering wheel and put in a heated up version of the old reliable 383 cubic inch power plant. Then they stuck a price tag on it that just about anybody could afford. Plymouth knew they had to build image into the car so they came up with maybe the best marketing gimmick of the muscle era. They named the car after a little bird from a popular Saturday morning cartoon that scorches the asphalt as he blows the doors off the coyote. It was sheer genius.
The ’68 Road Runner was a bold step for Chrysler corporation, a company best know for lavish automobiles. Despite their reputation as a luxury car builder, Chrysler was into performance in a big way. Chrysler’s emphasis was clearly on performance. But America’s definition of performance car in those days was the full size, top of the line, big boat. With all the bells and whistles and a price tag to match. Detroit and the whole world knew that going fast cost money. The more you wanted to spend, the faster you could go and this is how things were until 1964.
Paul Zazarine recalls: “Plymouth and Dodge and just everybody in the industry had watched Pontiac just blow right by them with the GTO. The concept of a packaged muscle car AXX was something that no one else had ever done before Pontiac had in 1964. Sure people had put in 309 engines or 413s but they weren’t a package where it was all put together with one name plate and sold that way. Pontiac did that in 1964 and it was extremely successful and it took the other people in the industry a little while to understand what the concept was and how important it was.”
A Car Company For the Youth
The GTO started a rush among the car companies to make cars which appealed to the youth market. Fortunately for Ford and GM they had intermediate body styles which were both inexpensive and sporty looking, both qualities necessary to attract the young buyer. But Chrysler didn’t have any sporty intermediate cars. Instead, they had an endless parade of business coupes and land yachts. Engine power, the essential muscle car ingredient was no problem. With a Hemi or a 426 max wedge, a Plymouth Belvedere could walk all over a stock GTO or SS Chevelle. But no matter how fast it went, the Belvedere just wasn’t a cool car.
Paul Zazarine laughs: “You just couldn’t stick a motor in a car and say ‘Here it is, guys.’ The youth market gravitated towards excitement and if the car wasn’t exciting, they weren’t going to buy it.” The situation clearly called for something outrageous. What could be more outrageous than a best bang for the buck street racer with an irresistible look? The legendary street battle between a cute little Road Runner and a mean old coyote. The car was the epitome of the factory hot rod and people loved it immediately. Keith Cavegn of Lawrenceville, Georgia describes his car: “They made two styles. Mine is called the Coupe because it has the post and they made a hard top. Those are the only two styles. The other thing that was unique is that most of them came with no carpeting in them. They were very basic. The four speed was not an option, the four speed was standard and if you wanted an automatic, I’ve got the original window sticker on it, you paid $39 more for the automatic. It sounds crazy to say that, but it’s true.”Adds Paul Zazarine: “In base form you got a bench seat, a rubber floor mat. You got a taxi cab, basically with a little trim on it and either a 383 or a 426 Hemi motor. I mean, it was all seriousness, there was no puff here.”
A Spartan Belvedere
Inside the Road Runner you discovered just how spartan a stripped down Plymouth Belvedere could be. The rear side windows didn’t even roll down, they popped down on little hinges. Plymouth brought the car in for $2870, $130 under their $3000 target price. In one bold stroke, Plymouth had solved their identity problem with young America and had slid right into a market niche full of hungry muscle car buyers. They had literally reinvented the muscle car. By the middle of the 1968 model year, there were thousands of Road Runners beep beeping their way up and down America’s cruising boulevards. Young people had taken to this car like they had taken to Saturday morning cartoons.
The Road Runner’s philosophy of keep it simple extended to the available engines. Plymouth’s standard Road Runner motor was their old reliable 383 but with a few welcome enhancements: large port heads from the 440, a beefier valve train, and a special 450 lift cam made 335 horsepower at 5200 RPM. And 410 foot pounds of torque at 3600 RPM with a single Carter ABS carburetor. Following the classic Mopar style of big engine light body, the 383 equipped Road Runner was most pleasing to the lead footed segment of the buying public. But when it came to muscle car engines, the rule was, bigger is better. So Plymouth decided to offer just one alternative engine: the 426 Hemi.
There was no more revered engine in motor sports than the mighty Chrysler Hemi. And it propelled stockers, dragsters, sports cars, and even Indy style race cars into the winner’s circle since 1951. With its reappearance on the street in 1965, a Hemi badge in your car’s fender got you instant respect. Paul Zazarine comments: “The 383 with 335 horsepower, your base engine, the only optional engine in ’68 was the 426 Hemi. The street Hemi, of course, was literally the king of the street. There was nothing that could touch it. A Hemi automatic in a Road Runner was a very, very fast car.” The 426 street Hemi used a 4.25″ bore and a 3.75″ stroke and Chrysler rated this engine at 425 horsepower at 5000 PRM and 490 foot pounds of torque at 4000 RPM.
The Hemi in the Road Runner was the ultimate street weapon in 1968. In its low key Plymouth satellite body, this little bird behaved more like a wolf, prowling the street, ready to pounce on its prey. Plymouth knew the base model stripped down Road Runner wouldn’t suit everyone’s tastes so the car’s short option list did include a few comfort and appearance items. For $355 your Road Runner could have A/C. For another $94 dollars each, power steering and power brakes. Stereo tape with AM radio was priced at $195 and cruise control would set you back $53. The cruise wasn’t available with the Hemi. Plymouth obviously figured that the only cruise control that anyone needed with a Hemi was a heavy foot. Even the dress up stuff so vital to the muscle car image was optional on the Road Runner. Sports stripes cost $15 and a blackout hood treatment was an additional $18. The only adornment that came with the base model was the little Road Runner on each door and the tail and of course the horn.
By mid year 1968, the Road Runner had become so popular that Plymouth expanded the line to include a two door hard top, almost 45,000 Road Runners sold that first year, a fantastic success for a simple sedan built around a little cartoon bird and a big engine. Plymouth went into 1969 with great momentum and a plan to make the Road Runner more attractive and even faster. The ’68 Road Runner’s popularity told Plymouth they were doing it right with this car. So, for 1969, they decided not to fix what wasn’t broken.
The 1969 Road Runner
The ’69 Road Runner had even less shiny trim. The stainless steel panel on the ’68 was deleted for ’69 and the only other exterior change was a slight grill re-design. Along with the Road Runner’s success came an increased price tag for 1969. Base Road Runner Coupes now stickered for $2945. Two door hard tops sold for $3083 and the all new convertible came in at $3313. Even with the price increases, Plymouth was still giving the muscle car crowd the biggest bang for the buck.
Says one car enthusiast: “Basically they were a muscle car to go fast. People didn’t want power windows, they didn’t want power steering, they didn’t want power brakes. Anything that came off the engine, they didn’t want to do it.” Plymouth was pouring engineering into this car. The Road Runner featured heavy duty brakes and suspension, wider tires and wheels and sure grip differentials. The four speed and torque automatic transmissions used in the Road Runner were the beefiest in Chrysler’s inventory. Under the hood, Plymouth added the rompin’ 375 horse 440 cubic inch wedge engine with a trio of Holley two barrel carburetors. Dubbed the 440 six pack, this engine was one of the fastest street power plants ever offered in the Mopar intermediates. The street Hemi was still king of the jungle even though the cost inflated the price of a ’69 Road Runner by more than $800. Explains Tom Shaw: “In stock form, a strong Hemi could run through the quarter mile in low 13s and if you wanted to tune it and tweak it you could get it down to the 11s without losing a lot of streetability.” The Roardrunner opened the door for a parade of theme cars like Pontiac’s Judge and Ford’s Fairlane Cobra. Both cars attempted to copy the Road Runner’s formula of low cost high visibility horsepower. Ford left no question in anyone’s mind as to who they were going after with the Fairlane.
The Plymouth Super Bee
The one place from which Plymouth didn’t expect competition was their own corporation. Over in the next building, the Dodge boys were busy working on a low buck high concept rocket ship of their own based on the Coronet. They used the same mega horsepower 440s and 426 Hemis put bumblebee stripes around its tail and called it Super Bee. “This is a version of the Road Runner. It’s the Dodge version. I bought this car in 1984 from my father who bought it originally in Buckley, West Virginia,” discusses Bee owner, Andrew Caldwell, “The car, when we originally bought it at 20,150 miles on it. I basically raced the car from 1984 on up to 1995 strictly as a drag car. I kept all the original parts to the car and in 1995 I decided to return the car back to its original condition. It takes me back to when my father actually had one of these. It’s just a time in my life I’ll never forget and I’ll always remember. That’s why I have this car.”
Super Bees were only offered in two door Coupes and hard tops and base models had sticker prices under $3000. To go with the big horsepower, Dodge included the rally suspension and bigger brakes. But unfortunately for Dodge, they just couldn’t find out a way for the horn to “Bzzz.” The Super Bee was a limited production car and didn’t eat into the Road Runner’s sales at all. Road Runner was, by far, the success story of the industry.
The Peak of the Muscle Car Years
1970 was the peak of the muscle car years. More horsepower, more wild graphics and paint schemes, more of everything. Plymouth already had all its cards on the table with the Road Runner since they decided from day #1 to go with the Hemi and from day #2 to offer the 440 six pack. So, for 1970, they did the only thing they could do. They made the car more beautiful. After the success of 1968 and 1969, it was hard to see how Plymouth could improve on the Road Runner. One look at the 1970 and you had your answer. A more sculptured shape graced the sides of the car with stylish scoops, rear wheel openings, the grill and tail panel underwent their first real upgrades.
The redesigned grill was actually a more effective air intake to help cool the big Chrysler engines. A little bird still adorned the car from its sides and tail and the car still went “Beep beep!” as it dusted off its competition. Added to the under hood lineup was a new engine for 1970: the 440 Commando with a single Carter AVS four barrel. This engine produced 350 tire burning horsepower without all the maintenance of the six pack carburetor system. And at a lower price. The Commando 440 added $234 to the Road Runner’s bottom line compared to the 440 six pack’s 250 and the hefty $841 upcharge for the Hemi. They also did something unheard of for 1970. They rolled back the Road Runner’s prices to just about 1968 levels. A base model two door Coupe stickered for $2896. The hardtop cost $3034. The convertible sold for $3289. And for that, Plymouth now threw in carpeting. It was an unbeatable deal.
Thanks to the momentum from the Road Runner, the Super Bee, and the whole lineup of Mopar muscle machines, Chrysler was on an incredible roll. Their designers made the entire era memorable with all their wild colors and graphics. Colors like plum crazy, go mango, sublime, banana, Hemi orange, and all the rest are symbols of the muscle car era at its height. But there is no more striking symbol of the muscle car than the Superbird.
Ford and Mercury snuck up on Chrysler in 1969 with their new super speedway cars: the Torino Talladega and the Cyclone Spoiler. These cars were made to run on the Nascar high banks and were several miles an hour faster because of their aerodynamics. Plymouth had even lost the racer Richard Petty to Ford in 1969. Plymouth’s solution was typical Mopar: go big or stay home. To qualify under Nascar rules, Plymouth made 1920 Superbirds: an average of one car for every 2 Plymouth dealerships in the US. With a price tag of over $4300 they were well outside the Road Runner’s magic $3000 target. But these cars had one purpose in life: to put Plymouth back in the winner’s circle. And they succeeded. They lasted one year until Ford cried foul and Nascar’s rules forced them off the track. The years after 1970 were not kind to the muscle car, the Road Runner in particular.
Explains a car enthusiast, “Three things contributed to the death of the muscle car: the oil embargo where OPEC shut off the spickets, the ever tightening insurance industry regulations on muscle cars, and the emissions standards that all cars had to meet.” Like an old athlete, the ’71 Road Runner gained weight and lost a step or two. Its new base engine was now a lower compression 300 horse 383. To make up for the loss of power, Plymouth made the graphics larger and added more comfort options. But it wasn’t the same car.
Road Runners existed in this new body style until 1974. The last standard power plant was the 318. Recalls Paul Zazarine: “The muscle car market itself had peaked by 1970 and was on the decline and the Road Runner was one of the victims. In 1978 they tried to restore the name and hang it on another car as a trim package which was not a good idea. But the glory days for the Road Runner were most certainly 1968-1971.” Greg Rager adds: “It ended gradually. Each year horsepower and compression ratio were done. Performance was down. And I lived through that era. I was involved with the muscle cars of that era and it wasn’t something that we noticed taking place. It happened so gradually over a five or six year period of time that all of a sudden we woke up and realized that muscle cars don’t exist anymore yet we had never seen it happen.”
The Road Runner lived as maybe the single most memorable car of the muscle era. It hit while the horsepower war was at its very hottest and it made the whole world stop and take notice. Even these days, when you hear a little “Beep beep!” and a blast of acceleration, you know it’s a Road Runner!