First To The Starting Line
Bare-knuckled sleepers have always held significant appeal to cunning street warriors, and with bigger engines being added to option lists in the mid-'60s, the natural thought process led to the notion of more power and less frills. That was the idea floating around Chrysler Planning in 1967-how do you create a screamer and keep the cost under, say, $3,000 so the kids could make their monthly payments? Dodge and Plymouth had a number of suitable platform candidates from which to choose, and with the 426 Hemis and 440 Super Commandos sitting in the wings, there had to be a match-up somewhere that could even out the balance sheet.
Some serious soul-searching and number crunching on the Plymouth side of the aisle turned up the Belvedere pillar coupe as the most likely bang-for-the-budget foundation. In its paired-down form, this was a relatively cheap ride; the profile wasn't all that dated; and with a smoking powerteam and the right mix of appearance upgrades, the car boasted a high dollars-for-horsepower appeal that the marketing department could promote with ease.
Thus the Road Runner was conceived-Plymouth's first volley of the budget muscle war. The name was scooped out from under the nose of Dodge-which the division did not register after using in a '67 Coronet R/T ad-but that was one of the few new items the model brought to the party. Working from the stripped-down Belvedere, the Road Runner borrowed the GTX "performance hood," assorted Belvedere and Coronet R/T interior appointments, and the Belvedere grille. The base engine for the '68 Road Runner became the 383 Super Commando-with a twist. To distinguish the V8 from the same 383 found in the Belvedere lineup, Plymouth engineers cooked up a little recipe which included goodies from the 440, such as heads, high-lift cam, manifolds, and a few other choice components. In truth, the 440-ization of the 383 "Wedge" for use in the Road Runner did not deliver massive gains, yet it was enough to make the base model something "special." For truly special, however, Plymouth made the 426 Hemi available for extra coin.
Why an auto manufacturer didn't officially snag the "Road Runner" name prior to 1967 is anyone's guess, but it all came together for Plymouth when the division aimed its sights on a low-buck musclecar that fit the younger generation's pocketbook.
Outside, the Road Runner made its own subtle mark. Thanks to a licensing agreement with Warner Brothers, Plymouth scored a coup by negotiating for the rights to use the likeness of the Road Runner cartoon character. This arrangement manifested itself not only in Plymouth's marketing endeavors, but also on the car itself. Road Runner emblems coupled with the cartoon-character stickers-even a "beep-beep" horn beneath the hood-certified the Plymouth Road Runner as a distinct performance model that fell squarely into the realm of affordable.
Referring to the debut of the Road Runner, a Plymouth ad stated that "It's all put together for the guy who really digs cars, knows about tachs and staging lights, and knows how to use 'em...." And with a base price of just under $3,000, that spoke to a bunch of "guys" in 1968.
Bringing Up the Rear
Competition was definitely the buzzword during the musclecar heyday, but the fighting wasn't limited to the street, the track, or between GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Divisional rivalries also reared their heads among the manufacturers vying for brand loyalties and sales dollars. Chrysler's Plymouth and Dodge divisions were not spared.
Both divisions knew that low-buck muscle would be an essential marketing ingredient in the late-'60s, and by 1967 both entities were full-tilt in satisfying that endeavor. Plymouth, however, got the jump on Dodge when it released the Road Runner early in the 1968 model year. To add insult to injury, Plymouth successfully swiped the Road Runner name out from under Dodge.