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When less (money) was more (sales) – Plymouth’s 1968 Road Runner

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1968 Plymouth Road Runner. Ad courtesy Lov2XLR8.

A casual observer may have said that Mopar had all the muscle cars it needed in 1967, but Chrysler’s market research indicated that simply wasn’t the case. To appeal to the broadest segment of enthusiasts, Chrysler took a less-is-more approach by de-contenting a Belvedere, adding licensed cartoon graphics and a purpose-built 383 V-8, and launching the car as the 1968 Road Runner.

The first muscle car with a cartoon character tie-in (in this case, licensed from Warner Brothers), the Road Runner had two main targets during its development: It would deliver a trap speed of 100 mph in the quarter-mile, and it would carry a sticker price not to exceed $3,000. Neither goal was random, but instead were based upon Chrysler’s own detailed market research. If Maslow had his “hierarchy of needs” pyramid, then Chrysler was certainly entitled to its “hierarchy of speed.”

Atop Chrysler’s own pyramid were professional racers, blessed with virtually unlimited budgets and comparable influence over the performance marketplace. Below the pros were the hardcore drag- and road-racers, who were more concerned with performance than appearance or brand reputation. Next came the part-time enthusiast racers, who took their daily drivers to the track on the occasional race weekend, and thus were concerned about both performance and image. Finally, the last group consisted of enthusiasts more into cruising than racing, and those performance fans who identified with a particular brand over all others. This bottom group represented the largest segment, as well as the most budget-conscious and least well-funded.

The bottom of the pyramid was precisely where Plymouth targeted the Road Runner. To fit in a suitably low price point, the Road Runner was largely devoid of brightwork inside and out, though “Road Runner” badging (and subtle cartoon birds, rendered in vinyl) let potential stoplight rivals know this wasn’t just a bare-bones grocery-getter. Chrysler sunk the money it saved back into the parts that counted, such as the 383 V-8, which was a variant unique to the Road Runner. To squeeze out more performance, the Road Runner 383 received the same cylinder heads used on the 440 Magnum V-8, along with a hydraulic-lifter camshaft (also from the 440 parts bin), a cast-iron high-rise intake manifold topped by a Carter AVS four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhausts.

Output was rated at 335 horsepower and 425 pound-feet of torque, and a bone-stock 1968 Road Runner could come achingly close to the 100 mph mark in the quarter-mile, achieving 98 mph for a sticker price of $2,870. For 1969, a few checked option boxes (Coyote Duster cold-air intake, high-performance axle package with 3.91:1 gears and Sure-Grip differential, dual-point distributor, viscous drive fan, fan shroud, and heavy-duty radiator) could get the Road Runner in the high 13s, at a trap speed of 101.7, with Ronnie Sox at the wheel. If that wasn’t fast enough, and one’s budget were a bit higher, the 426 Street Hemi was the other available engine choice for Road Runner buyers.

Chrysler’s market research proved correct, and in the Road Runner’s first year, Plymouth sold 29,240 coupes and 15,359 two-door hardtops. Its sophomore year was even stronger, with sales of 48,549 hardtops, 33,743 coupes, and 2,128 convertibles. In this case, less really was more in terms of market share, and the Road Runner name would soldier on (generally, in ever-less-potent versions) through the 1980 model year.