1968 Plymouth Road Runner
Hot on the heels of our Camaro muscle-fest I went back and pulled this post out of the "Pending" box and decided to finally finish it. When I hear the word 'muscle car' the '68 Road Runner is the first car that leaps to mind. The Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro probably get the lion's share of attention these days given, as Rob noted, the abundance of aftermarket parts and experience out there such that just about anyone with a modicum of mechanical aptitude can get a decent, great-looking street machine going. And, truth be told, those cars have a certain fascination; they captured the cultural zeitgeist of the mid-late '60s youth culture perfectly and that nostalgia for lost youth is probably the major driver (pun intended) behind the huge market for those two models.
That and they were serious street racers. Big engines. Cool names. Camaro! Mustang! And heck, throw in Corvette! as well.
Then along comes a car from Plymouth named after a cartoon character with that bird's signature Beep! Beep! for a horn. Hello?
Although many came before and after, the Road Runner--and I really include only the '68 in this--is, to my mind, as close as you get to the bare essence of what American muscle was all about: a cheap, stripped-down, mid-size coupe, bereft of nearly anything that didn't contribute to its getting down a quarter-mile strip of street or track in as little time as possible. Nearly anyone could afford to buy one and commence doing whatever modifications it took to take on anything else on the road.
Up until 1964 there were two ways to get a high-performance American car--you either bought a higher-end luxury model complete with (heavy) options providing the comfort and convenience that people who could afford them were used to, or you could order the cheapest, most basic model with the biggest engine that a dealer was willing to put in it. Dealers didn't really like this latter idea--options increased profit, after all--but as long as only a few racers and bootleggers were ordering them, no harm, no foul, and winning some races on Sunday just might generate more sales on Monday. That all changed in 1963 when Pontiac introduced the GTO: an option package on the 1964 Tempest that gave the buyer a bigger engine, better suspension, and a sporty look, all without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on extra comfort-and-convenience doodads. It was affordable speed and it changed the landscape.
Trouble was, as soon as the concept started to take off, manufacturers smelled profit and in short order the only way to get the really good performance equipment was to buy an entire performance package, which not only cost extra dough, but tended to lard the cars up with the weight of those extra all-show no-go options. The higher price also bumped the cars up and out of range of many younger buyers, the prime market niche for muscle cars.
The story goes that Brock Yates, a writer at Car and Driver, sent a memo to Bob Anderson, then-general manager at Chrysler, describing an idea for a basic street racer that could be purchased for a song and be able to compete on the strip right out of the box. Despite reservations from upper management, Mopar went ahead and decided to make it as iconic as possible by tying it in with the Warner Brother' avian road racer. And thus was born the Road Runner.
Management was rightly concerned with the entire concept of naming the car after a cartoon character--that involved licensing fees which would just add to the cost, especially worrisome when the whole point of the car was to make it cheap. And on top of that, would any serious street racer want to be seen driving a cartoon bird with a funny little Beep! Beep! horn?
Well, whoever thought it would work was right: Plymouth sold nearly 50,000 of them that first year. In essence, the Road Runner was a Belvedere two-door pillared sedan with a heavier suspension usually reserved for commercial applications such as police cars and taxis. The base engine was a 383 (6.3-liter) 4-barrel that put out 335 horsepower and 425 ft-lbs of torque; it was obviously pretty good to begin with, and a little tuning could make it into a real fire-breather. You could also order the legendary 426 Hemi which bumped up the horsepower to 425 and 490 on the torque. I'd take the 383, just because it seems more at home in a smaller, cheaper car and typifies the bang-for-the-buck nature of the car, but that's just me.
Now, you could lard it up with options, and who could blame you? For the base model, you got vinyl bench seats, plastic mats instead of carpet and a limited selection of colors. This brought the base price down to $2,896 which was only about $300 less than the 1967 Plymouth GTX; of course, now that the low end was taken up by the Road Runner, Chrysler could afford to jack up the price of the somewhat more upscale GTX to over $3,300 for 1968 (price data from HowStuffWorks.com)
Of course, they started ruining it the very next year (heck, even by the end of 1968), adding bucket seats, carpet, a convertible, and other hedonistic frivolities, and by 1971 the clean lines gave way to the chromed-out behemoths of the 1970s, not to mention the vaguely obscene Superbird in 1970. Yeah, yeah, they had bigger engines, were faster and meaner-looking, all seeming "improvements" over the plain-jane '68. But they were also fatter and more expensive, and that, in my view, took away from what made the original '68 such a jewel--it was simple and fast.
This all shouldn't be taken as an implicit criticism of other cars of that era though. I would kill for a Boss 302 and maybe maim for The Judge, but I think if you put a gun to my head and demanded I state my favorite pure 1960s muscle car, the '68 Road Runner would be it, plain blue paint, bench seats and all. It was just that good.
[edits made for corrections and added links]