Auto buffs with a shallow interest in automotive history tend to believe that musclecars simply didn't exist prior to that short window of tire-smoking mayhem during 1967-1973. On the contrary, consumer appreciation of and demand for "fast" over "form" has been with us since at least the mid-'50s.
By our standards today, the post-war automotive evolution seemed a bit slow in coming. OK, a snail's pace may be a more accurate description. Although the Corvette and Thunderbird did shatter the "square and boxy" mold so favored by mainstream designers of the day, it took considerable time for the industry in general to realize the world was ready for something other than chromed-out land yachts.
As the U.S. economy emerged from the post-war era, disposable income went looking for a place to park. And with automobiles being the perennial reflections of status and perceived image, it was only natural that well-heeled enthusiasts searched for something to set their daily commuters apart from the crowd. The think-tank generals in Detroit, Dearborn, and Auburn Hills weren't blind to this. Coat-and-tie professionals wanted distinction on the road beyond style, and the Big Three obliged by stuffing bigger and more powerful engines into those flashy boulevard cruisers.
Then, as today, heavy-pounding engines appealed to a specific breed of automobile buyer. In the old days, these folks could be reckoned as the country-club set-dapper gents bedecked with English leather driving gloves and ascots flapping in the breeze. Granted, these idealistic aficionados were more a product of advertising agencies than genuine Americana, but the image attracted the movers and shakers with gilded pockets.
All that changed, however, when the compacts (sans Corvette) rolled onto the highways in the early '60s. Baby boomers represented the mushrooming demographic segment-they were getting their drivers' licenses, entering the work force, and demanding sporty-not just stylish-transportation.
Part of the "sporty" quotient included more powerful engines. After all, no one wanted his or her car to be accused of being all bark and no bite. More muscle did come online in the first half of the flower decade, but the total "package" of sport and speed was reflected in higher sticker prices. Take the Ford Mustang, for example. The car was definitely sporty, and the 289 Hi-Po engine had the kick, but such a combination in, say, a fastback model, quickly put the price out of most blue-collar budgets. Shelby's GT-350 delivered the real deal for the testosterone crowd, but the cost of this beast could be satisfied only by an upper-crust income.
So it was with automakers across the board in the early '60s.
Drumbeats-Detroit Looks To Muscle For The MassesManufacturing costs aside, the Big Three knew that more power was the key to sales, notoriety on the track, and loyalty among the fastest-growing population segment-the under-30 crowd. Big engines littered the landscape, but the disparity between affordability and performance dampened sales potential, especially with the "new" target market.
By now, Chrysler execs, always looking for ways to break away from their third-place underdog status, saw the handwriting on the office wall. Muscle had to shift from Daddy's car to Junior's new ride, and shift quickly. Although the company wasn't quite ready to let go of the grampa styling, it did realize that high performance and a low sticker price would be a homerun with young buyers. So, working with the tools on hand, Chrysler brass aimed to start a war.
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.
'71 Super Bee The Super Bee...
'71 Super Bee
The Super Bee wrapped up its production run with the '71 model year, but it did so looking quite different than when it all began in 1968. For 1971, the Super Bee switched from the Coronet platform to the Charger.
For its low-budget banger, Dodge also dipped into Chrysler's B-Body stock, tapping the Coronet 440 pillar sedan for the foundation of what would become the Super Bee. As with the Road Runner, a 440-ized 383 engine dubbed the 383 Magnum served as the base engine offering, and like the Road Runner, the sizzling (and pricey) 426 Hemi was optional. A good amount of borrowing also took place in creating the final Super Bee form, including the Coronet R/T's domed hood and grille and the Charger's Rallye gauge package. Underpinnings featured the heavy-duty suspension and large drum brakes as standard.
Although Plymouth was first to slap fresh (for an automaker) cartoon imagery onto its vehicles, the mascot concept was not without precedent within Dodge circles. Dodge kicked off the '68 model year with a marketing campaign called the Scat Pack, featuring a rascally bumblebee with a crash helmet, goggles, slicks, engine, and a nefarious grin as its branding image. This led, obviously, to Dodge planners hanging the Super Bee name onto its latest creation and delivering a counterpunch to the youth-oriented imagery first established with the Plymouth Road Runner. And, in response to the cartoon graphic on the Road Runner, Dodge designers stuck the Scat Pack bumblebee onto the rear fenders, perfectly complementing the signature Scat Pack tail stripe.
With the kick-off of the Scat Pack marketing program in 1968, Dodge embraced the cartoon mascot thing with a bear hug. Given that Plymouth was proud to display the Road Runner cartoon character on its budget muscle entry, it seemed only natural that the Scat Pack bumblebee mascot would also grace the Dodge Super Bee offering.
Unfortunately for Dodge, the Super Bee never reached the sales and production figures of the Road Runner. Even though the two vehicles were near-mirror images of each other in terms of content and performance, and both were aimed at roughly the same audience, the Super Bee fell way, way short of the Road Runner in terms of sales excitement, which is one of the reasons the car fell out of production long before its sibling. Within the Super Bee's production run of 1968-1971, 52,365 units were produced. During that same timeframe, 176,080 Road Runners (not including the '70 Super Bird) were produced. Quite a difference. Little wonder, then, that in 1971 Dodge officially pulled the plug on the Super Bee for the '72 model year.
Plymouth Road Runner: First In, Last Out
Plymouth managed to get the budget musclecar drop on sibling rival Dodge by introducing the Road Runner earlier in the '68 model year than the Super Bee. Perhaps this is part of the reason the Road Runner consistently outsold the Super Bee, and why its respectable showroom performance lasted well into the '70s.
|Road Runner Production|
|Model Year||Body Style||Engine Availability|
|1968||Coupe, Hardtop||383, 426 Hemi|
|1969||Coupe, Hardtop, Convertible||383, 426 Hemi, 440+6|
|1970||Coupe, Hardtop, Convertible||383, 426 Hemi, 440+6|
|1971||Hardtop||340, 383, 426 Hemi, 440 Super Commando|
|1972||Hardtop||340, 400, 440, 440+6*|
|1973||Hardtop||318, 340, 400, 440|
|1974||Hardtop||318, 360, 400, 440|
*Deleted early in model year; only one engine made it to a production model in 1972
Dodge Super Bee: A Short, Wild Ride
Although from a performance standpoint the Super Bee was every bit the equal of the Road Runner, the car simply didn't garner the showroom success of its Chrysler stablemate. It could be argued, however, that the Super Bee had more of a ragged edge than the Road Runner. The powerteam was never diluted with anything less than the 383 Magnum, and the raucous, race-oriented styling cues certainly spelled out its machismo quite forcefully. Perhaps the Super Bee was simply too much car for the muscle-hungry masses? History may never tell.
Wings Of Flight And Fancy
In 1969, Dodge set the NASCAR faithful in a tizzy when it debuted its way-out Daytona 500. Based on the Charger 500, with an eye toward unexcelled aerodynamics, engineers gave the Charger a knife-like frontend to better cut through the atmosphere, but an aggressive oversteer resulted due to the airflow being spoiled in back. The solution was to incorporate an unprecedented wing spoiler that could grab static air above the car and help keep the backend planted firmly on the high banks. Seeing the ways of this wisdom, Plymouth followed suit for its '70 NASCAR endeavors and, due to homologation concerns, chose the Road Runner for its wing car, which it dubbed the Super Bird.
Since the Road Runner had some fundamental platform differences when compared to the Charger, the Super Bird was more than simply a Daytona 500 clone. Wind-tunnel testing required modification to the cone-nose design (which also demanded new fenders), and a special insert had to be grafted on and a convex backlight installed to smooth out the airflow.
Understandably, the Super Bird didn't break any sales records at the showroom, but its 1,935 production run was good enough to meet NASCAR's requirements and solidify the car as the king of the roost in 1970-if only in spirit.
|Super Bee Production|
|Model Year||Body Style||Engine Availability|
|1968||Coupe||383, 426 Hemi|
|1969||Coupe, Hardtop||383, 426 Hemi, 440 Six-Pack|
|1970||Coupe, Hardtop||383, 426 Hemi, 440 Six-Pack|
|1971||Hardtop||340, 383, 426 Hemi, 440 Six-Pack|