In a by-gone age of big muscle cars with heaps of options and interior features, some drivers yearned for something simpler. Enter the Plymouth Road Runner, one of the most iconic and legendary muscle cars of all time. The Road Runner may have been named after a cartoon bird, but that made it crystal clear what this model was about – simple, no-nonsense fun.
Sold as a stripped-down street racer, the Plymouth Road Runner was released in 1968. Its back-to-basics design removed most mod-cons of bigger muscle cars and focused on a spartan interior, stylish body, and big engines. The simple nature of the Road Runner made it a firm favorite with hot rodders and street racers during the late 60s and early 70s.
But as the market evolved, the Road Runner refused to change its approach. Although engine sizes and performance figures were reined in, the Road Runner retained its image as a bare-bones muscle car right up until 1975. Although the Road Runner badge survived until 1980, the final model was a shadow of its former self.
From its powerful engines to its enduring legacy, this article will delve into the history of the Plymouth Road Runner.
Development & History
Plymouth's role in the Chrysler lineup was always at the cheaper end of the scale. And in 1968, this legacy continued with the Road Runner. To create the foundation for the new model, Plymouth utilized Chrysler's B-Body platform – a mid-size body that had previously been used on models like the Belvedere.
Plymouth's engineers stripped away most of the standard mod cons such as air conditioning, heaters, and even carpets to make the Road Runner incredibly light and fun to drive. Sportier suspension and brakes were added, inspired by Plymouth's larger sports models such as the Barracuda. Plymouth also beefed up the Road Runner with some of Chrysler's most powerful engines, including several Hemi models.
Because it was a combination of a mid-size body and impressive engines, the Road Runner took the “cheap but fun” label to a whole new level. Plymouth even made a deal with Warner Brothers for the car's name, inspired by the beloved Road Runner character that was the nemesis of Wile E. Coyote. The Road Runner was an instant hit and soon became a favorite with racing drivers and drag racers. Nearly 130,000 cars were sold in the Road Runner's first two years, vastly exceeding Plymouth's expectations.
From 1968 to 1975, the Road Runner maintained its charm and character despite several facelifts. The various versions of this legendary muscle car – spread across three generations – created a devoted market, with enthusiasts each preferring their own incarnation of Road Runner. There was even a racing-inspired version, the iconic Plymouth Superbird, in 1970.
However, despite the model's initial popularity, sales figures began to tumble in 1970 thanks to stricter emissions regulations and higher insurance premiums. Despite a brief spike in 1973, sales continued to dwindle until 1975. In a reshuffle of its lineup, Plymouth moved the Road Runner badge from the traditional B-Body onto a smaller A-Body platform.
From 1975 until 1980, the Road Runner became little more than a special package option for the Plymouth Volare. The badge disappeared entirely in 1980, but the Road Runner had already gained a cult following that still remains today.
The Road Runner's secret to its legendary status was its combination of stripped-down weight and high-performance engines. Initial powertrains were instantly popular with hot rodders, especially the brutally strong Hemi engines. Early versions of the Road Runner were happily adopted by moonshiners as fast getaway vehicles.
In the model's first year in 1968, there were two available engines. The standard powerplant was a 383 cubic inch 6.3 liter V8, establishing a no-nonsense approach right from the start. This delivered about 335 horsepower as standard and featured a dual exhaust system and a four-barrel carburetor. The second engine, a 426 cubic inch 7.0 liter Hemi V8, proved extremely popular and delivered around 425 horsepower.
An even larger 440 cubic inch 7.2 liter V8 with a six-barrel carburetor was introduced as an option in 1969, although it had less power than the Hemi engine. These three engine options formed the foundation of the Road Runner's first-generation and were available with either a four-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic gearbox. These transmission options continued for much of the car's production run.
The second generation of Road Runner emerged in 1971 with a revamped look. A 340 cubic inch 5.6 liter V8 capable of 300 horsepower was added to join the previous three engines. In 1972, the 383, 426 Hemi, and 440+6 V8s were dropped from the lineup due to new emissions regulations. The remained engines also had their horsepower dropped.
The 340 engine continued in 1973 and was joined by a 6.6 liter 400 cubic inch V8 with 280 horsepower and a 440 cubic inch 7.2 liter V8 with 370 horsepower. The following year, a smaller 5.2 liter 318 cubic inch V8 was installed as the basic engine, producing 170 horsepower. The 440 was also no longer available on manual transmission models.
In 1974, the 340 engine was replaced by a 360 cubic inch 5.9 liter V8 that offered similar power. The Road Runner's third generation, beginning in 1975, retained the 318, 360, and 400 cubic inch engines, but the 440 version was only available for police models.
To build the Road Runner, Plymouth took the B-Body platform that Chrysler models used for mid-size saloons and made several modifications. First, they stripped out all unnecessary components to create a spartan shell. They left only the bare essentials behind, drastically reducing the weight of the car for better handling. Plymouth's engineers also removed the B-pillar.
The suspension and brake systems on the Road Runner weren't inspired by other B-Body cars like the Belvedere. Instead, they took their cue from Plymouth's sports muscle cars like the Barracuda, making the Road Runner fun to drive. Chrysler later used the same approach to create the Dodge Super Bee, but the Road Runner pioneered the trend for cheap, sporty, stripped-down muscle cars.
The 1968 Road Runner established the iconic look of the first generation, with four round headlights, a long lightweight body, and a utilitarian grille. Some of these features received small tweaks in 1969. Plymouth also introduced a convertible version, although these would cease production in 1971. The front and rear grilles were further updated in 1970, as were the disc brakes.
1970 also saw the one-year release of the Plymouth Superbird – a racing-inspired version of the Road Runner with drastic aerodynamic changes. Inspired by NASCAR racers, the Superbird had an enormous two-foot-high rear wing and a distinctive wedge-shaped front end that obscured the Road Runner's trademark grille.
Plymouth heavily revised the Road Runner's looks in 1971, creating the second generation of the model. The grille and headlights were set deeper in the front fender, while the sides of the car took on a more rounded shape. To improve the handling, Plymouth slightly shortened the Road Runner's wheelbase despite making the car longer overall. Some versions also came with a small rear spoiler for improved aerodynamics.
Two more style revisions followed in 1973 and in 1975, when the final generation of the Road Runner emerged. For 1976, the Road Runner badge was transferred to the smaller C-Body Volare model as an optional styling package. The famous styling of the original Road Runner was now long gone.
Impact On Muscle Car Culture
In the mid-1960s, many muscle car enthusiasts and hot rod owners felt that the larger models – Mustangs, GTOs, and others – were being festooned with mod-con extras. This began pushing these cars out of the price range of many street racers and gear heads.
Plymouth saw an opportunity, and the Road Runner was born as a back-to-basics muscle car that was easily accessible. With enough trunk and seat space to still be usable, the no-frills Road Runner won over drivers with its lightweight handling and powerful engines.
The original Road Runner, released in 1968, retailed at $3000. In the first year, Plymouth thought they would sell around 20,000. Instead, almost 45,000 Road Runners rolled off the production line. The following year, those sales figures nearly doubled to around 84,000.
Although sales began to dip in 1970, the Road Runner's approach didn't change much. Several cosmetic evolutions created a wide array of Road Runner models that are still sought after today. The no-nonsense charisma of the Road Runner was a return to the traditional joy of a muscle car – a cheap, fast car with pulse-pounding looks.
The racetracks of America also helped build the legacy of the Road Runner. Plymouth supplied the famous Superbird version of the Road Runner to Petty Engineering, hoping to tempt the team back after they defected to Ford. In the 1971/1972 season, several teams used the Road Runner as the foundation for their cars. In both years, it was Petty and Plymouth who claimed the NASCAR championship.
Although the true Road Runners ended in 1975 and the badge was discontinued in 1980, diehard fans continue to revere this legendary model today. The Plymouth Road Runner is rightly one of the most beloved and iconic muscle cars of all time.