The Plymouth Road Runner (1968-1974)
The Plymouth Road Runner was a car built by the Plymouth division of the Chrysler Corporation in the United States between 1968 and 1980. In 1968, the original batch of muscle cars were in the opinion of many moving away from their roots as relatively cheap fast cars as they gained more and more options. Although Plymouth already had a performance car in the GTX, they decided to go back to the drawing board and reincarnate the original muscle car concept. Plymouth wanted to create a car that would run 14 second times in the quarter mile and would sell for less than US $3,000. They met both of their goals and the idea of the low-buck muscle car hit the street.
Paying $50,000 to Warner Brothers to use the name and cartoon likeness of their Road Runner cartoon character (as well as a "beep-beep" horn), and using the Chrysler B platform as a base (the same base as the Belvedere, Satellite and GTX), Plymouth set out to build a back-to-basics muscle car. Everything essential to performance and handling was beefed-up and improved; everything non-essential was left out. The interior was spartan, lacking even carpets, and few options were available. The standard engine was a 383 cu.in.(6.3L) V8 rated at 335 bhp and 425 ft·lbs of torque.
For an extra US $714, Plymouth would install a 426 cu. in. Hemi rated at 425 bhp and 490 ft·lbf of torque. Combined with low weight, the 6-passenger Roadrunner could run the 1/4 mile in 13.4 s @ 105 mph. It would prove to be one of the best engines of the muscle car era and the Road Runner - one of the best platforms to utilize it. Plymouth expected to sell about 2,000 units in 1968; actual sales numbered around 45,000. (It should also be noted that Dodge debuted the Roadrunner's cousin, the Superbee, that same year.)
The 1969 model kept the same basic look and was slightly changed cosmetically. While the 383 engine remained the standard power plant, a 440 cu.in. engine, known as the "440 Six Barrel", was added to the lineup at mid-year. The 440-optioned Roadrunner had 390 hp, no wheel covers or hubcaps, three 2-barrel carburetors, and a lift-off fiberglass hood. This 440 engine had 490 ft·lbs @ 3200 rpm, very similar numbers to the hemi and at a lower engine speed, meaning the cheaper 440 was nearly as fast as the 426 Hemi, at least up to highway speeds. This option, along with the economical, yet fast 383 and the outrageously fast 426 helped propel Dodge and Plymouth to the top of the drag strip echelon. 1969 also saw the Roadrunner named Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1969. Sales almost doubled to 82,109.
This year brought new front and rear end looks to the basic 1968 body, and it would prove to be another success. The 1970 Roadrunner and GTX continued to be attractive and popular cars. The engine lineup was left unchanged.
The Plymouth Superbird
As a result, Chrysler engineers cobbled some pieces together and built a Plymouth version of the Charger Daytona with a 1970 Dodge Coronet hood and fenders for the sole purpose of getting Petty to come back to Plymouth. At that time though, NASCAR took the 'stock' in stock car racing reasonably seriously - vehicles to be raced had to be available to the general public and sold in sufficient numbers, a requirement known as homologation. In fact, in 1970, NASCAR raised the production requirement from 500 examples to one for each of that manufacturer's dealers in the United States; for Plymouth, that meant having to build 1,920 Superbirds. 1970 would prove to be its only production year.
The Superbird was basically a modified Plymouth Road Runner, but it was realized that while it was alright on the street to have the 'aerodynamics of a brick' (typical of most American cars of the period), something a little better would help at high racing speeds. So, following the lead of the previous year's Dodge Charger Daytona, the Superbird sported an aerodynamic nosecone adding nineteen inches to the length and containing retractable headlights, a slightly smoothed-out body, and to counter a tendency to lightness at high speed, a rear wing was mounted high on very tall tail fins. The reason for the fins was mostly to give clearance beneath them to lift the trunk deck lid, but it probably didn't hurt that it put the wing into less disturbed air.
The name "Superbird" appeared on a decal placed on the outsides of the vertical fins of the rear spoiler, with a picture of the Roadrunner cartoon character. This was a natural equivalent of the Dodge Super Bee, and had nothing to do with the Ford Thunderbird.
All Superbirds used for racing were fitted with the 426 Hemi engine, but for the street, two lesser engines were available, the 440 Super Commando with a single 4-barrel carburetor and the 440 Six Pack with three two-barrel carbs. Only 135 street cars were fitted with the 426 Hemi; 665 took the option of the 440 Six Pack, and the rest were equipped with the 440 Super Commando.
On the street, the nosecone and wing made quite an impression, but the aerodynamic improvements hardly made a difference there or on the drag strip. In fact, the 1970 Road Runner was a slight touch quicker down the quarter mile. At 90 mph or greater, though, things were quite different.
The Superbird did reasonably well against strong Ford opposition on the NASCAR tracks that year, winning eight races and placing well in many more. It didn't hurt, of course, that Richard Petty, known as one of the greatest NASCAR drivers, was behind the wheel of a Superbird that year.
Contrary to popular belief, the Superbird, and the other "aero-body" cars in NASCAR, were not banned outright. The rules implemented for the 1971 season limited the aero cars to an engine displacement of no greater than 305 cid (5.0 liters). So while they were still legal to race, the extreme loss of horsepower which would come with the smaller engine, rendered the cars uncompetitive.
The Superbird's styling proved to be a little extreme for 1970 tastes (many customers preferred the regular Road Runner), and as a consequence, many examples sat unsold on the back lots of dealerships. In fact, some were converted back into 1970 Road Runners in order to sell them. In recent years, a Superbird has become quite valuable. A car in good condition can reach $50,000 to $70,000 USD or more, even with the more common 440 Super Commando, and examples with the 426 Hemi fitted at the factory (retrofitted doesn't count) and in near-perfect condition have changed hands for about $250,000. On eBay, bids for original Superbirds crossed $100,000. In a stark turn of events from 1970, some manufacturers are currently making kits to convert standard 1970 Road Runners and Satellites into Superbirds.
In 1999, the Superbird and the Plymouth Road Runner were featured in the game Gran Turismo 2.
In 2005, the Superbird was featured in Gran Turismo 4, as one of two Plymouth models; the other being the Barracuda. I
n 2006, the Richard Petty #43 Superbird was rendered as a cartoon character, and featured in the Pixar movie "Cars" -- voiced by none other than Petty.
In 1971, the bodywork was completely changed to a more rounded "fuselage" design in keeping with then-current Chrysler styling trends, including a steeply raked windshield, hidden cowl, and deeply inset grille and headlights. That year saw the writing on the wall for the Roadrunner, as it wasn't quite the performer the others were and it wouldn't be long until new emission regulations would drive power down and 1/4 mile times up.
The '72 model was nearly identical to the 1971. The big difference came in the engines, the 383 being replaced by a larger-bore 400 cu.in. version, with a small-block (the 340) now optional for the first time. Also, for the first time, a 440 cu. in. engine with a 4-barrel carburetor was available and was part of the "GTX" package(the GTX was no longer available as a separate model).
From '72 to '74. Power ratings on all engines looked much lower on paper due to the new SAE net measurement system. The famed 426 Hemi was gone for 1972, and less than five 440 Six Barrels were produced. The 1973-74 models had more conventional squared-up styling with the front fenders slightly raised above and jutted forward of the hood. 1/4 mile times were getting close to the 16s and further away from "muscle car" status.
The base engine for the 1973-74 models had dropped down to Chrysler's workaday 318 cu. in. V8; however, dual exhaust was still standard. After 1972 no 440 four speed cars were built; the 400 was the biggest engine Plymouth offered with the four speed. Other four speed-equipped engines included the 340(1973)and 360(1974). One could still get a 440 from 1973-74 but only was equipped with the 727 TorqueFlite automatic.
This model was based on the newly restyled B-body which was now called Fury(the former Fury being called "Gran Fury"), and in 1976 the Road Runner name was switched to the 2-door model of the replacement for the Valiant/Duster series. This car, based on the new F platform, would be known as the "Volaré".
The new Road Runner was little more than a trim and graphics package; however, many suspension parts were borrowed from the police packages. A 360 cu.in. engine was eventually offered as an option, but only paired with the 3-speed automatic transmission. Rated at 190 hp, the F platform's best 1/4 mile times would be just inside 16 seconds at 88 mph. Although no comparison to the earlier stormers, the 360 powered models were respectable performers in their time. The Roadrunner continued as part of the Volaré line until its discontinuation in 1980.
Note: Only 1968 to 1974 Plymouth Road Runners are in this section.
Please see our Classic Cars 1970s section for the later years.