Have you heard about the Plymouth Roadrunner? At a time when many of the early muscle car entrants were searching for a new identity for themselves, the Roadrunner was a back-to-basics muscle car minus any luxuries or trims.
This was a car one used solely for powerful driving with the base models even lacking floor carpeting – that is how basic the Roadrunner was. And yet, it's one car that holds a fascination for classic car collectors to date, even though it lasted a good 12 years from 1968 to 1980. Must have been a good one, since the oil embargo wasn’t able to kill it off.
At the time, the Roadrunner cartoon was owned by Warner Bros Seven Arts, a company that later became just the Warner Bros. To use the Roadrunner name, and “hire” Wile E. Coyote for their TV and print campaign, Dodge paid Warner Bros Seven Arts a princely amount of $50,000. The monies that changed hands also granted the Roadrunner a license for a special horn, which we will talk about later. So yes, it was the Roadrunner toon that came first in 1949, and the Plymouth Roadrunner followed suit nearly two decades later in 1968.
So while Wile E. Coyote can talk when he plays antagonist to Bugs Bunny in later cartoons, he is largely silently conniving in the Roadrunner shorts. The Roadrunner, a toon version of a roadrunner or chaparral birds, has two sounds: A clucking version and then the very famous “beep-beep” the sound he makes as he whizzes by a flummoxed coyote.
This beep-beep (or meep-meep sound, so licensed by Plymouth, was developed into the Plymouth Roadrunner horn at an additional cost of $10,000. So yes, when you press the horn of the Plymouth Roadrunner, it does go “beep-beep”.
The first generation of the Plymouth Roadrunner lasted from 1968 to 1970, and at the time, it was based on the Belvedere. Spartans would have loved the interior – all it had was one long vinyl bench and no carpets in the early models. The engine was also dubbed the Roadrunner and exclusive for its namesake of a car – a 6.3-liter V8 that jetted out 335 horsepower and 425 ft-lb torque. Since the interiors were spartan and the car was light, the V8 propelled the Roadrunner to good speed and enough power.
Even though the Plymouth Roadrunner was a low-trim muscle car, Plymouth expected to sell some 20,000 of these in its first year. This was a reasonable break-even number. Except that the Roadrunner did not sell 20,000 units; it sold 45,000 units. This made the Plymouth Roadrunner outsell other muscle cars in its rookie years.
It came third in sales, behind in numbers to the Pontiac GTO and the Chevy Chevelle SS-396. Note that the Mustang isn’t in the top three. With Plymouth on a roll, Chrysler decided to take advantage of this unprecedented sale and gave Dodge a badged chance at success as well.
Impressed by Plymouth Roadrunner sales, Dodge general manager Robert McCurry requested a similar miracle – and the Dodge Coronet-based Dodge Super Bee was born in mid-1968. Senior designer Harvey Winn suggested the name as well as a logo based upon the Dodge Scat Pack Bee medallion – which was then prominently displayed on the front grille of the Super Bee. The Dodge Super Bee wasn’t as stripped as the Plymouth Roadrunner and so was priced higher than its sibling – this affected sales from day one and by 1971, the Super Bee was out. It later came as trim levels of the Dodge Charger.
While the 383 Roadrunner engine was adequate, people with a need for speed had the option to pay some $714 more for a Roadrunner than carried a beastly engine under its hood. This was the 7.0-liter Hemi V8 with 2x4 Carter AFB Carburettors. This produced 425 horsepower and 490 ft-lb torque and ran like a hurricane on the road.
Approximately 1,000 of these were made of 1968. In 1969, only 10 Hemi Roadrunners were offered on the market. Many experts would agree, the Hemi was overkill on a Roadrunner. Lard less in nature, the Roadrunner ran fine on its 6.3-liter V8, with or without the air con.
The Dodge Charger turned into the Dodge Charge Daytona for the NASCAR Aero wars, so why would Plymouth not do something as spectacular? So for 1970, Plymouth Roadrunner made the Superbird with massive aerodynamic changes to the nose and a huge rear wing. On the track, the Superbird was unstoppable. But for consumers, it was a bit of a meh reaction. Many dealers would remove the wing and the nose to make this supercharged car still look like the Roadrunner everyone loved. In 1960, only 500 of these were made. But for 1970 there had to be one Superbird built for each dealer – thus 1,935 were made.
Amongst the Superbirds, the basic Super Commando 7.5-liter V8 with just one four-barrel carburetor was the most popular. This one jetted 375 horses. The model above this was the same engine but the carburetor was a six-barrel, and this gave out 390 horses. Finally came the 7.0-liter Hemi that pulsed out 425 horsepower – and only 135 of these were ever made. So getting your hands on this is not only super rare but also super expensive – even V8s go for upwards of $150,000. In 2014, a Hemi Superbird four-speed manual fetched $575,000 at an auction.
When Dodge raced the Daytona Charger, it did so under the able steering of Richard Petty. After winning the Daytona Charger many laurels, Petty now wanted the Plymouth Roadrunner to develop a Charger Daytona version. At the time, Plymouth couldn’t comply so Petty dumped Chrysler and drove for Ford – angry at being denied his request. Finally, Plymouth got down to work but faced many problems. They put a huge wing in the rear, used a Belvedere body, added that huge nose and pasted on Dodge Coronet front fenders. Petty happily raced the Superbird to a decent finish. But by 1971, NASCAR banned all aerodynamic models, starting with the Plymouth Superbird.
A fairly forgettable movie with an IMDb rating of 6.1, Love and a .45 star a pre-fame Renee Zellweger and a pre-disappearance Gil Bellows as the lead pair. It is a typical story of boy-meets-girl, they rob the convenience store, have a bunch of crooks and the cops after them, and finally drive off into the sunset. Why mention the movie here, though? Because a lot of that driving happens in a 1972 blue Plymouth Roadrunner that looks awesome throughout. Sadly, despite its legacy, by 1976, the Plymouth Roadrunner was a Volare trim. When the Volare went belly up, so did the legendary run of the Roadrunner.