He's been called the Father of the Road Runner, but Jack Smith prefers to think of himself more as the iconic muscle car's midwife, because he didn't conceive the B-Body Bird, but, as its program manager, he made possible its on-time delivery. One thing's for sure, whatever he calls himself, without Jack and his team, the Road Runner as we know it would not exist. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the tack-sharp 90-year-old in his suburban-Detroit house that he and his wife moved into in 1958.
Schooled as a mechanical engineer, Jack Smith joined Chrysler in 1957, moving from Studebaker, where amongst other things he had overseen that company's very successful participation in the Mobil Economy Run. It is somewhat ironic that a guy previously responsible for demonstrating peak fuel economy should graduate to mileage-be-damned muscle cars.
Jack has in his personal collection a number of the framed renderings of the famous cartoo
By 1965 Jack had become the very first manager of Plymouth's new mid-size (B-Body) product planning group. One of his initial projects was bringing the '67 GTX to market. Then, in the spring of 1967, he received what he considers a far more challenging assignment—the program that would, in mere months, become the hugely successful Road Runner.
To bring this new program to market, Jack faced two truly monumental challenges: limited time and budget. As far as scheduling, the go-ahead to develop what was really no more than an idea into what would become the Road Runner didn't cross Smith's desk until sometime in March of 1967. Keep in mind, the new model had to be ready for the production line, which was late-summer of 1967. He had less than six months to convert a vague, senior-managerial concept into a real, sellable car. Oh, and whatever he came up with had to be cheap—to both the company and its desired customers.
The company was going after young (18 to mid-20 year olds), a demographic not previously inclined to visit a Plymouth showroom. It was Plymouth's new vice-president, Robert S. Anderson, who made the conscious decision to go after the youth market. In doing so, he sought the advice of auto journalists, including Car and Driver's Brock Yates, about what sort of car might help bring young buyers into Plymouth showrooms. In retrospect, Yates' response seems simple and logical: Build an affordable, stripped-down mid-size performance car with a big engine. And that's what Jack Smith was told to do—all in time for the September introduction of the all-new 1968 mid-size Plymouth lineup.
Despite all the colorful poses sketched by Warner Brothers, Plymouth's conservative stylin
Now, one aspect of this new program that Jack's planning group was not intended to be responsible for was giving it a name. That chore was supposed to fall to Plymouth's new advertising agency, Young & Rubicam. Still, it was Jack's assistant, Gordon Cherry, who gets full credit for proposing the idea of using the Road Runner name. And, after watching the Warner Brothers cartoon one Saturday, Jack quickly agreed.
Jack Smith: "The Road Runner name seemed perfect. [The cartoon character] was hot off the line, it was fast, it never got beaten, and could stop on a dime."
A quick Motown lunch with the ad agency guys soon had them convinced that the agency's own list of suggestions for the new car's name (topped by "La Mancha," couldn't hold a candle to the Road Runner moniker.
JS: "Within five minutes [Young & Rubicam] had torn up their list and said that Road Runner was the name they'd take to Bob Anderson."
With that settled, Jack immediately called the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) and reserved the Road Runner name for Chrysler's use. Now they had a generic name, but in order to make the most of the obvious marketing opportunities, they had to negotiate the right to use images of the cartoon bird to go with the name. Those critical negotiations were completed in just one conference call— albeit a six-hour call—between Chrysler's and Warner Brothers' (WB) headquarters. To solidify Plymouth's bargaining position, Jack immediately pointed out that the Road Runner name itself was public domain, and that he'd already reserved its automotive use with the AMA, so that WB would not have the option of trying to shop their cartoon likeness with any other auto manufacturer.
When the mid-year Décor Group came along, its (Satellite-style) taillight trim panel final
JS: "We recognized right off the bat that the name itself was public domain; it's at the zoo, it's in the dictionary, it's the state bird of New Mexico, and we had reserved the name with the AMA. We sort of had [Warner Brothers] in a box, because if they were going to have their bird on any car, it had to be ours."
As Jack recalls, the price for Chrysler's acquisition of the rights to use the bird image was somewhere between forty and fifty thousand dollars. But of course Warner Brothers also got the benefit of first right of refusal in developing animations for the Road Runner and its advertising campaigns—a benefit that was no doubt quite lucrative in the long run.
Not everyone in the notoriously conservative company was enthused with the idea. Dick Macadam, then Chrysler-Plymouth's styling director, wasn't having any part of it, emphatically telling Robert Anderson in an impromptu hallway meeting: "Nobody, but nobody will ever put a cartoon bird on one of my cars," according to Jack Smith. In order to provide decal maker 3M, a Chrysler part number in time for production, Jack suggested to Macadam and Anderson the idea of having the bird decals come packaged in the glovebox, with instructions telling owners how to install them. Macadam reluctantly agreed to this—as long as he could pick the particular image to be used on the decals. Shown a variety of samples penned by Warner Brothers, Macadam then picked the only one that was in black and white. Guess he wasn't much for cartoons.