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Jack Smith, father of the Plymouth Road Runner, dies at age 94

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Photo by Jeff Koch.

“Nobody but nobody will ever put a cartoon bird on one of my cars.” The threat from Dick Macadam was real enough that he poked an executive vice president of Chrysler in the chest to hammer his point home. And in that moment, in that hallway in Highland Park, the Plymouth Road Runner nearly died before it was born. It took the persistence and vision of John L. “Jack” Smith — who died last week at the age of 94 — to make sure that the cartoon bird would become the most beloved Looney Tunes member among the muscle car crowd.

Smith, at the time a manager for product planning for the Belvedere, never took credit for actually coming up with the idea. Rather, he always attributed that to his “ace assistant,” Gordon Cherry. Still, the Road Runner wouldn’t have happened without Smith.

As he related in an interview with Hemmings Muscle Machines for its January 2009 issue, Bob Anderson, then the new executive vice president of sales and marketing for Chrysler and Plymouth (and the guy who stylist Macadam poked in the chest), wanted to do something to capture the burgeoning youth market that Lee Iaccoca and his cohorts so accurately targeted with the Mustang.

Enter Smith. A former mechanical engineer for Studebaker, he’d joined Chrysler in 1957 and at the time ran a hotted-up Belvedere on the streets of Detroit. The year prior, he helped create the Plymouth GTX to compete with the Pontiac GTO, and in a short time he’d help put Mod Tops on Plymouth and Dodge products. To answer Anderson’s missive, he and his boss Joe Sturm, then the product planner for all of Plymouth, got their heads together and considered the letter Brock Yates had written to Anderson in 1966, in which Yates suggested “taking a midsize two-door, stripping it down, making it cheap and light, and stuffing in the biggest engine you got,” as Smith paraphrased.

“Kids back then wanted big brakes, a harder suspension, and a four on the floor, and my objective was to have something that could do the quarter in under 15 and over 100 with a sticker under $3,000,” Smith said. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to strip it completely down — we still wanted something marketable.”

As Aaron Severson wrote, Cherry came up with the Road Runner idea while watching Saturday morning cartoons with his kids and had to explain the schtick to Smith. From there, Smith “almost overnight” pulled the Road Runner concept together, aided largely by the work he’d already done on his own Belvedere.

“We tinkertoyed that car together from parts we already had,” he said. “We loaded the Belvedere with police components — suspension, steering, brakes, wheels, the 383 — and added the louvered hood from the GTX. Our total tooling for parts unique to the Road Runner was under $500. The big tooling item on the whole car was the horn — I found one made by Sparton for military vehicles.”

As Smith pointed out, had there been no Road Runner, “you still could’ve put one together.” Due to Macadam, that was nearly the case, but Smith had already secured the rights to use the Road Runner image from Warner Brothers, so he proposed putting the bird decals in the glovebox and letting the owner decide where to put them. Macadam relented, likely out of fear over where exactly the intended buyer might stick the decals.

“He still didn’t like it, but he said ‘I get to pick the bird,'” Smith said. “So I bundled all the drawings together and out of all these wonderful speed and color images, he picked the black-and-white bird walking.”

Smith’s concession gave the car not only its chance at production, it also didn’t matter in the long run: Later production versions of the Road Runner gained colorful running bird graphics, and the marketing materials all took the co-branding and (*ahem*) ran with it.

Not long after helping develop the Road Runner and the Mod Tops, Smith “got promoted away from” his Belvedere job to other product planning duties. According to David Zatz at Allpar, who initially reported Smith’s death, Smith eventually returned to the engineering side of Chrysler and retired in 1980 as chief engineer of vehicle emissions and fuel economy planning.

Smith died on Friday. Zatz reported that Smith requested no funeral service.