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This or That – Season 2: 1970 Shelby G.T.500 or 1971 Plymouth Hemi Road Runner

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1970 Shelby G.T.500 (top; image by Terry McGean); 1971 Plymouth Hemi road Runner (bottom; image my author).

That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a weekly basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.

Featured in this edition of This or That are two cars muscle cars that may leave you in a pick-n-choose predicament: a 1970 Shelby G.T.500 or a 1971 Plymouth Hemi Road Runner? Although one is a pony, and the other is an intermediate, both are street-n-track legends with strong followings. Additionally, each were featured in our Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine, so in this installment we’ll cut right to the chase and provide the bare-bone basics of each, starting with the former of the two.

As penned by Editor-in-Chief Terry McGean in the original article,

It was the new styling of the redesigned ’69 Shelby that set it apart, with a dramatically different appearance from the Mustang it was based on, using more unique styling elements than any prior Shelby. The entire front clip–everything forward of the cowl–was specific to the Shelby, and those body panels were fiberglass. The deeply recessed wire-mesh grille was distinctly un-Mustang, but very aggressive and appealing in its own right. While it may not have been in keeping with Shelby’s original mantra, and for that reason, may not have been loved by devotees, it was an undeniably sexy design.

While the G.T. 350 was able to benefit from Ford’s new small-block in ’69, the G.T. 500 stuck with Cobra Jet power, a proven runner and generally considered to be somewhat underrated at 335hp. If the buyer selected steep rear axle gears, such as those that were part of the Drag Package, the engine automatically gained Super Cobra Jet status–while this didn’t bring any more power, it added stronger bottom-end hardware like the “Le Mans” style connecting rods and an oil cooler.

These visual and mechanical elements of the G.T.s were carried over to the 1970 models – including niceties such as a Toploader close-ratio four-speed manual with a Hurst shifter; Tracton-Lok differential; and a performance-inspired suspension system – for good reason. The lore you’ve heard is true in that these final-year examples were really leftover ’69 editions, retagged by Ford under the watchful eye of the Feds. The slight visual difference was that the ’70 versions, such as our feature G.T. 500, received a chin spoiler and black stripes on the sections of the hood between the ventilating ducts. Although the G.T. 500 had drifted from a (more or less) gutted street-legal racer to comfortable Grand Tourer in the minds of many, they were still straight line movers. Hot Rod published a 0-60 mph time of 5.8 seconds, and a quarter-mile ET of 13.38 seconds @ 103 mph, in their July 1969 issue. Unfortunately, the marriage between Shelby and Ford had essentially ceased, and, inevitably, so, too, did production. In 1970, Ford, via Shelby Automotive, produced 286 G.T. 500s, of which 147 are believed to have been convertibles.

As to the 1971 Road Runner – a car that was designed to fit all type of prospective owners, rather than aimed specifically at those with racing traits coursing through their blood – fellow editor Terry Shea couldn’t have described a senior member of the “Rapid Transit System” more succinctly, stating,

Even as the original “elephant motor” was making its final stand, the Road Runner itself was all new. No longer a derivative of the now-defunct Belvedere line, the Road Runner had become part of the Satellite family, as had Plymouth’s more upscale performance car, the GTX.

As part of Chrysler’s implementation of the “Fuselage” design language that started with the massive full-size C-body cars in 1969, the Road Runner featured wider, rounder bodywork with more curves on a slightly shorter wheelbase, bumpers cleverly integrated into the front and rear ends and a high beltline along with correspondingly smaller windows. Gone was the convertible: All Road Runners were two-door, pillarless hardtops. Though taller and wider than the previous-generation Road Runner, the ’71 looked lower and leaner, its hard edges having been swapped for something far more curvaceous. … The halo-type bumpers could be ordered with an elastomer coating, giving an appearance similar to Pontiac’s Endura nose, though chrome was standard.

Fortunately, the engineers in the powertrain department continued to produce some stellar engines, adding an appropriate soundtrack to the otherwise visually compelling Road Runner. Under the hood, changes were afoot, to be sure, though not as severe as they would be in coming years. The high-performance four-barrel 383 remained standard kit for all Road Runners, though with compression down to 8.5:1, Plymouth rated the power output at an even 300hp. Of course, 1971 also witnessed the debut of the SAE’s new net horsepower ratings, which saw the effective output of the 383 tumble to an even more sobering 250hp. But the 440 Six Barrel also remained in the mix, down just 0.2 in compression and still good for 385hp (305 net), knocked back just a nickel from the previous year. At the top of the heap, you could still get a Hemi, virtually unchanged from previous years, despite barely making ends meet when it came to satisfying the EPA and the California Air Resource Board, the latter of which mandated a quieter air cleaner for the Golden State. A new addition for the Road Runner in ’71 came in the form of Mopar’s hottest small-block, the engine that was still rated at 275hp (235 net), despite the switch from a Carter AVS to a Carter Thermo-Quad four-barrel carburetor.

But it is the Hemi Road Runner we have come to study… With just 55 built, a fuselage Road Runner with Hemi power is indeed a rare creature. Of those 55, just a shade over half of them, 28, were backed with a four-speed manual transmission, as found in our feature car. Choosing the Hemi also required a host of other changes to the car that were optional on lesser models: Extra Heavy Duty suspension (up-rated torsion bars, leaf springs and shock absorbers, along with a fat anti-roll bar); 26-inch high-performance radiator with fan shroud; dual-breaker distributor; a 70-amp hour battery; and Air Grabber, a driver-controlled cool-air system to feed that hungry Hemi.

When Motor Trend tested a TorqueFlite-equipped 1971 Dodge Charger Super Bee (a model nearly identical mechanically to the Road Runner) in December 1970, they managed a potent 13.73-second quarter-mile at 104 MPH.

Given their power and rarity, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?