When the Warner Bros. cartoon character "Roadrunner" was chased by "Wylie E. Coyote", the audience chuckled at the speed and sure-footed cornering the little bird would display. With that same hope of lightening-quick take-offs and ability to turn on a dime at speed, the engineering staff at Plymouth in late 1967 aptly named their new entry into the expanding muscle-car market, the Road Runner.
Punches above its class
Lots of copies from Belvedere/Satellite shells
The usual tin-worm plague
Officially, the Road Runner was a part of the totally redesigned Belvedere family. Placed between the base Satellite and Sport Satellite series, the Road Runner shared body and soft trims with the other lines, but was built for performance. In its initial year, this sporty little Plymouth was available only as a two-door sedan and a two-door hardtop coupe. Under the hood resided the 330 horse version of the proven 383 V8, coupled with a standard four-speed manual shift. Optional for those wanting more oomph was the fabled 426 Hemi, rated at 425 horsepower. The Road Runner was fitted with heavy duty suspension and brake components that gave the car (for its day) quick responses and sure-footed stopping ability.
Various road tests of the day proved the Road Runner was not just a cute cartoon character, but something that could really move. Zero-sixty times were posted between 7.1 to 7.3 seconds with the base 383, or a neck-snapping 5.3 seconds with the 426 Hemi. Quarter-mile times ranged from high-fourteens to mid-fifteens for the 330hp standard V8, while the Hemi could make low- to mid-thirteens. While these numbers may not seem all that impressive today, keep it mind that they were accomplished on skinny, slippery bias ply tires and without sophisticated traction control or all-wheel drive setups. For you newbies, old muscle cars are at a serious disadvantage during the launch phase of a run relative to modern vehicles.
Production for the first year of the Road Runner saw a total of 44,599 units, with sedans produced at a rate of about two-to-one compared to the hardtops. The pavement-shaking Hemi found its way into just 1,019 Road Runners.
When the 1969 Plymouth line was unveiled, a new convertible joined the sedan and hardtop models. Under the hood, the base 383 was tweaked a little and boosted to 335 horsepower. Acceleration test results remained about the same. The 426 Hemi V8 was still employed as an option and this year offered a newly tuned suspension. One publication was able to shave a little time off the quarter-mile run to 13.35 seconds, posting a top speed of a little over 107 mile per hour. Another choice offered this year to Road Runner buyers was the addition of the already proven 375 horsepower, 440 cid V8 with a single four-barrel carburetor. This mill provided a little more straight-line performance, placing its performance envelope in between the 383 and the Hemi. This big-block powerhouse could easily top the 100 mph mark and was a little quicker in the quarter mile (14.35 vs. 15.0 seconds), but just about equal to the 383 in 0-60 times. Mid-year saw the addition of a three 2V carb intake unit for this mill, nicknamed the Six Pack. Rated at 390hp and equipped with the Hemi suspension and a 4:10 Dana rear, a well-tuned "Six Pack" would give a Hemi a run for it's money in the quarter.
Sales remained strong for the 1969 model year, with a total of 33,743 two-door sedans, 48,549 hardtops, and 2,128 convertibles being built for a total of 84,420 for the season, a very impressive muscle-car number. For 1969 it was reported that just 356 units were fitted with the legendary Hemi V8, making it very rare, especially if found in a convertible. Only 13 hemi convertible Road Runners were produced.
As the 1970s dawned, the Road Runner, like most muscle cars, saw a decrease in production. High horsepower ratings as well as a high frequency of insurance claims created astronomical insurance rates, steering a number of people away from muscle cars and more towards the sport-luxury class. Production fell to 43,404 Road Runners for the 1970 model year with 24,944 hardtops, 15,716 sedans, and just 824 convertibles being produced.
Base 1970 Road Runners kept the 383 V8 with 335 horsepower which turned in similar performance figures as before. Further work on the suspension and a little engine tuning for the Hemi produced a slight boost in performance numbers.
The Super Road Runner
Undoubtedly, the star of this year's line was the Superbird. The Superbird wore a fiberglass nose that came to a point and concealed the headlights in an aerodynamic fashion. That, along with an over exaggerated rear "stabilizer" wing, the graphics and wild colors of the day made these among the most easily recognized muscle-cars of all time. They were built to meet minimum production requirements for NASCAR stock car rules, and were limited in theoretical numbers to one for every two Plymouth dealers. Superbirds got a standard 440 V8, equipped with a single 4-barrel Carter carburetor (rated 375 hp).
A popular option for the Superbird was the 440-Six Pack. One magazine tested the Super Bird and found it would go from 0-60 in just 5.9 seconds with this triple threat. If that wasn't fast enough, the Hemi was still around which could get you to that magic 60 miles-per-hour mark even faster. Quarter mile speeds for the Superbird with a Hemi was actually a little slower than the base Road Runner, (13.50 vs. 13.35) seconds.
1970 marked the end of the first generation Road Runners, the ones most loved by muscle-car fans today. While the name lived on for several more years, downsizing, emissions and safety concerns replaced unlimited horsepower. Even the wild colors of the era were tamed down to common reds, blues, greens and tans.
The Real McCoy
Identifying a real Road Runner from those early years is a fairly simple task if you learn about ID numbers. All Road Runners were identified by line and body type in the first four digits of the vehicle identification number, or VIN, with the engine code as the fifth digit. There were certain speed and performance goodies that came standard on the Road Runner such as a 150 mile-per hour speedometer, F70X14 performance tires, special trim and emblems, and most important of all, the patented "Beep-Beep" horn! These little lavender colored noise-makers were standard equipment on all Road Runners and and was a big hit with the youth of thirty-plus years ago.
Another key item Road Runner buyers should look for are the build plates, or "buck tags" affixed to the inner fender wells under the hood. In recent years there has sprung up a cottage industry of reproduction fender tags. One expert told this writer he had even encountered counterfeit build sheets proclaiming a car's authenticity. Be very careful when purchasing an exceptionally rare Road Runner, as even the old ways to prove if it is real or not are no longer foolproof.
Fifteen inch wheels, power disc brakes and the vacuum operated "Air Grabber" hood are all desirable options. Trim items such as Rallye wheels and the interior decor group add a little flash to the spartan Road Runner, as do the optional bucket seats with console. Many though, are basic bench seat, column automatics.
One item that many MoPar fans thrive on is the word "rare". To arrive at "MoPar" rare, minute trivia in production is often looked at, such as engine/transmission/ body color combinations creating examples with under 10 units. However there are a number of legitimately rare Road Runners that do command premium prices.
Superbirds from 1970 with a Hemi under the hood are hot, with only 75 produced. For those who love the idea of speed and open-air driving, you could choose one of the 2,952 convertibles built during the 1969 and 1970 model years. Those with full power, such as the 440 V8s with Six-Packs, backed up with a four speed transmission, are always in demand. Hemi convertibles, of which only approximately 13 (depends who you talk to) were produced are the rarest of the rare and bring well into six figures.
True to their original mission, Road Runners also do well as a "stripper" -- steel wheels with hubcaps and a bench seat make very little difference in market value.
Today, the Plymouth Road Runner is among the most popular of all muscle-cars, and with the market in this area on the rise, prices have seen a steady increase. Since the beginning of 1998, Road Runner prices have seen a fifteen to twenty percent increase in value according to asking prices from a number of noted dealers, and recent auction results. Well restored examples are often meeting and exceeding the consignor's reserves, often surpassing price guide estimates. When the cars do go unsold on the auction block it is likely because a more educated buyer is looking closely and not blindly throwing money around for lesser quality examples.
Prices have not quite reached the astronomical heights seen back in the speculative days of 1988-1989, but they're getting close. If trends continue for the next few months, we'll be back at those levels. 2020 Update: Trends did, in fact, continue. Values moved past earlier levels and kept on going, fueled by the "Mopar Mania" of the 2000's. Mopars were particularly hard hit by the market correction of the late 00's, and have struggled to reach those levels again. A nice, driver quality 383ci Road Runner can be had today for around $30,000--less if you're patient.
For those lucky enough to purchase one of these first generation Road Runners from Plymouth, you will find the same exhilaration and enthusiasm that swept the nation's muscle-car youth just over thirty years ago. In a crowd? Just give them a little "Beep-Beep" on the horn, and watch the smiles light up their faces as quickly as you can light up those tires.Current Values
(C) Copyright 2001- VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the February 2001 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide.