Unlike our previous entry, the '69 AMC-Hurst SC/Rambler, which is quite obscure, muscle car aficionados already know this one. But we were saying something about a time when a certain whimsy found its way into the automotive world...
It's 1966 or thereabouts, not long after the introduction of the 1967 models. Pontiac's GTO is the hot ticket for the muscle car set, and Ford has already sold a million Mustangs. If you're Plymouth, you are the odd man out. You have the Hemi (or I suppose I need to say Hemi® now), which cleans up at NASCAR and smack around most street machines, but it's hardly affordable -- it costs more than $800 to buy (as much as a decent used car at that point), putting it out of reach of the kids buying Mustangs and GTOs. The Barracuda, Plymouth's answer to the Mustang, was pretty much a non-starter. What to do?
The legend says that Car & Driver's Brock Yates talked to Plymouth marketing and suggested a street sleeper package for the mid-sized Plymouth Belvedere -- an unadorned model with no frills but a lot of standard performance equipment. Even if it wasn't Yates, someone might have suggested it anyway, because they saw a hole in the market between the Mustang (which started at around $2500 and could top $3000 in a hurry with options) and the GTO (which realistically ran about $3500 with desirable options, and could easily add a thousand to that with extras). Give the youth market a car with GTO-like speed potential for a base price under $3000 and perhaps you have a new niche.
This is where the whimsy kicked in. Now, if you tell a marketing staff you want an unadorned, inconspicuous performance car, they will think you are joking or perhaps drunk. A performance car must have an image, right? But an image that will appeal to kids.
So, they went to Warner Bros., paid them something like $50,000, and got a license to call it the Road Runner.
The Road Runner cost $2,896 in basic two-door sedan. At a time when "base price" on most cars got you a six-cylinder engine incapable of getting out of its own way, a manual three-speed with unsynchronized low gear, and even a heater wasn't necessarily standard, it included a four-speed manual transmission, heavy-duty suspension, and a high-performance version of Mopar's 383 V8 (essentially the police-package engine, with heads and crankshaft from the larger 440). Rated power -- this in the old SAE gross numbers, so deduct about 30 if you want something like the net rating -- was 335 bhp @ 5200 rpm and torque was 425 lb-ft @ 3400 rpm. This was not bad: 0-60 in around 7 seconds, the quarter mile in 96-98 mph in pure stock form. If that wasn't enough, for $714 you could add a Hemi and really eat everyone else's lunch.
Interior was basic taxi cab, with black vinyl, crank-up windows, and rubber mats instead of carpet. But they did add one final whimsical touch, along with all those decals. They found that by changing the wire in the horn, they could get it to do a pretty good imitation of the cartoon Road Runner's "beep-beep" sound.
They sold 44,600 of these things in 1968, 84,510 in 1969, and 41,484 in 1970, when the bottom started falling out of the supercar market. It actually survived until 1980, although after 1974 it was basically a tape-stripe-and-decal package.
Groovy, man, groovy.