What makes Plymouth great? Sounds like a question that the cartoon Road Runner's nemesis, Wile E. Coyote, would ask as the Bird (or back bumper of one) he was chasing disappeared into the distance ahead of him, while his Acmemobile sputtered to a stop amid a trail of broken parts.

A lot of what made Plymouth successful over the years, in the low-price field, also made for outstanding muscle cars. Those can be summed up in four words: engineering, styling, performance, and value.

Engineering: Ma Mopar's Pride & Joy
A lot of what makes Plymouth great was what Chrysler engineers came up with-features like unit-body construction, "total contact" brakes, the alternator, torsion-bar front suspension, and multi-step dip-and-spray rust proofing.

All these innovations were standard on every Plymouth as of the 1961 model year. By then, Chrysler used computers in the new vehicle design/engineering process to make the unibodies stiffer, stronger, and lighter than comparable body-on-frame cars.

But the R&D crew in Highland Park wasn't done yet. When Borg-Warner came up with its T-10 four-speed manual transmission, it proved popular-but was limited in how much power it could handle, and by B-W's capacity to make them. The Transmission and Chassis engineers were told to develop a four-speed that would handle not just production engines, but race engines also. That led to the A-833, which debuted in 1964 and found a welcome place on Plymouth's option list behind the BRB engines and the 426 Hemi.

Speaking of the Hemi, much has been written about that legendary powerplant's history. But its first success, in the Daytona 500 in 1964, came not in a Dodge, but a Plymouth. Thank the smaller Plymouth B-Body, with its wheelbase which was three inches shorter than Dodge's. That made it a force to be reckoned with, taking the first three places, and fifth, in the Daytona 500.

The engineering advances kept coming, especially disc brakes and electronic ignitions (both standard across the board by 1974).

Styling: Beyond the Forward Look
Say what you will about the Forward Look Plymouths styled during Virgil Exner's reign as Chrysler's corporate styling chief, but it was what came out of the styling studios during the time of his successor, Elwood Engle, which made for Plymouth's most memorable muscle.

First was the B-Body for 1964, especially in two-door hardtop form. They took the shrunken-down-for-'62 Plymouth and gave it a convex front end and a hardtop roofline as clean-looking as it was aerodynamic. Not only was it a good seller, but its record in stock car racing is beyond question. Meanwhile, the two-door sedan body was as fierce a competitor on the dragstrip as the hardtop ovals.

If you want arguably the best styling of the muscle car era, you have to go with the 1968 and 1969 lineups. The "crease-edged" lines of the '66-'67 B-Bodies had been rounded just enough, with "Coke bottle" contours added to the rear quarters. The sales numbers don't lie: 1968 was Plymouth's best sales year ever, and the B-Body cars were a big part of it. For 1969, the best got better-and the Road Runner hardtop was not only the best selling midsized Plymouth, it was also the division's best-selling two-door car of any kind!

Styling-wise, the A-Body held its own, despite the Barracuda being a little bigger than the Blue Oval and Bow Tie ponycars. For 1970, Plymouth's styling crew outdid itself when it came up with the Duster body. Not just on the way the finished product looked when translated into steel, iron, and horsepower, but because they did it on a miniscule budget in very little time.

Then, there's the E-Body Barracuda. When Plymouth finally had a car to compete in the ponycar class, they went all in, with a body design that's still a sharp looker four decades later.

Performance
Do we have to remind you about the 383 in the early B-Body Plymouths? About the Hi-Po 273 and 340 LA-series engines in the mid/late '60s Barracudas? What about the 383, and later the 440 in the '68-'69 'Cudas, or the 440 Magnum and 440 Six Barrel? Finally, do you know about the 383 Road Runner Special?

And do we have to remind you about the 426 Hemi?

We didn't think so.

Value: Best Bang for Your Buck
For years, Ma Mopar's dealers moved thousands of Plymouths equipped with special-deal option groups that combined available convenience and trim items into one package, then priced them so their stickers were less than if you ordered it all separately. (Think Gold Dusters and the Silver Specials of the mid and late '60s.)

But the best buy during the muscle car era had to be the Plymouth Road Runner. Conceived when The General added more and more luxury features (and weight) each year to its mid-sized muscle offerings, the Road Runner bucked that trend. It offered a base Belvedere two-door sedan body fitted with the high-output 383 from the police-car equipment lineup, your choice of the A-833 four-speed or 727 TorqueFlite, the 83/4-inch rear end, plus heavy-duty suspension gear from the cop-car parts list. Add the GTX, hood, a blacked-out grille, a horn that mimicked Warner Brothers' cartoon bird (and Bird stickers on the doors and trunk lid), and you had it.

With a base sticker price of $2,870 for the four-speed, and $2,909 for the automatic Road Runner, that was over a hundred bucks less than a base Chevelle SS396 (which only had a three-speed manual transmission standard) and about $230 less than a base Pontiac GTO (which also only had a three-speed). Ford? Their Torino GT hardtop may have stickered near the base Road Runner's price, but if you wanted a big-block and a four-speed in one, you had to shell out $450 more.

Options on the Road Runner were available separately as well as in packages-including interior and exterior décor groups, which added Satellite-level trim inside and out without putting much of a dent on the sticker price. If you really wanted to go big on the Bird's sticker, you went with 1968's only engine option: the Hemi. With it, you got a Dana 60 rear end, a bigger radiator, plus plenty of structural bracing not otherwise available in a fixed-roof B-Body. That added $714 to the Bird's price, with a heavy-duty SureGrip differential for the Hemi adding another $169. Do the math, and you're still below four grand for the Bird, at a time when more than a few of its competitors rolled off dealer's lots with stickers pushing five grand.

But Plymouth wasn't done yet. Late in the 1969 model run came the A12 440 Six Barrel option. For about $400 over the Bird's base price (which was still under three grand, even for the hardtop), you got a 440 Magnum topped with three two-barrel Holleys on an aluminum Edelbrock intake, your choice of an A-833 or 727 transmission, a Dana 60 rear end, a pin-on scooped fiberglass hood, and no wheel covers or hub caps-or air conditioning, or power brakes. A genuine 13-seconds-in-the-quarter-mile car for around $3,500.

Final words
If Ma Mopar's management had stayed focused on what the Plymouth brand offered from day one in 1928, and kept the emphasis on its engineering, styling, performance, and (especially) value for the dollar-and not had Dodge poach sales by offering same-size and same-price cars starting in 1960-it wouldn't have become the watered-down, badge-engineered clone of Dodge that it became from the late '70s onward.

Nonetheless, we still have the memory of the best that Plymouth offered, exemplified by the ones that we've brought you (and will continue to) here in the pages of Mopar Muscle!

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