One of the most prominent car-guy memories from my youth was what I considered to be my first real brush with an honest-to-horsepower muscle car. I had barely gotten my driving permit when I went for a ride with some of my friends in a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner, and as I recall, I giggled and laughed like a foolish school boy (which I was) at every throttle rush, howling rear tire, and roaring exhaust note. It was a memory that stuck deep, and I’m sure was rooted in how often I watched cartoons where the Roadrunner would flip his tongue and zing away from the hapless Coyote.
Once bitten by the car bug, the effect has never let go, and I fawned over the muscle cars I watched rumble by me at every turn, dreaming of the day I would feel the punch from the driver seat. By the time I graduated high school, the muscle car era was history but many examples of the proud pavement warriors still roamed the streets.
Most regard the late 1960’s as the heyday of the muscle car, and while Chrysler might have come late to the party, they made their mark with some of the most legendary cars and engines in modern automotive history.
The Roadrunner was born in 1968 as an entry-level performance car. Plymouth was Chryslers’ budget division and they already had a performance model in the GTX, but the Roadrunner aimed to be a less expensive, bare-bones tire cooker. Utilizing the base Plymouth Satellite gave them a wealth of go-fast goodies to pick from since its B-body platform shared mechanicals with not only the police units of the day but the already well-known Dodge Charger and Coronet. While options like air conditioning, plush carpet, and leather seats fell by the wayside, stout drivetrains and engines all the way up to the mighty 426 Hemi could be checked off in the options list.
One such animal proved to be my first hands-on experience when I took a job in the service department of a local Chrysler-Plymouth dealer shortly before I graduated high school. I started to leave for lunch one day when the parts department manager asked if I would grab him some food while I was out. The conversation went something like this,
“Hey, dude, grab me a burger while you’re out?”
“Sure, whatcha want?”
“Get me a double, and here, take my car,” he said as he tossed his keys to me.
“Umm, okay, which one is yours?”
“Right outside the back door of Parts, it’s a maroon Roadrunner. You can drive a stick, can’t you?”
“Yeah, I can, but are you sure about this?”
“Plenty of guys here have driven it, just don’t wreck it.”
It was a hot summer day and the Roadrunner had no a/c, but did that matter? Not a chance. The car was slick and shiny and wore the factory Rallye Wheels wrapped in Goodyear raised white letter tires. I suppose to him this was a basic, daily driver car, especially since I had heard stories of his radical 340 ‘Cuda parked in the garage at home. A twist of the key and the 383 Magnum big block rumbled to life, and a slow release of the clutch and I was officially at the helm of a dream muscle car.
Reality rarely measures up to fantasy and in this case that held true. The black vinyl interior was cooking hot and the lack of power steering made parking lot maneuvers challenging, but once on the street things changed for the better. I admit I didn’t choose the closest burger joint just for the excuse of driving the car a bit further, and every stoplight made me fight the urge to unleash the wild bird. I managed to hold my reserve for the most part as I spared the tires by not launching the car but pulled slowly away until I shifted up to second, and then I mashed the loud pedal. The rush of sound, wind, and speed was immediate while slower traffic forced me off the throttle in short order. This was probably for the best since I already felt guilty about that little dose of jollies but the conversation when I got back was even more surprising.
“So, dude, you like it?”
“Yeah man, that’s nice”
“Did you punch it?”
“Just a little,” I admitted sheepishly.
“Don’t you love that tire chirp between gears?”
“I didn’t do that.”
“Dude, what’s wrong with you?”
It wasn’t until 1969 that Chrysler offered the Roadrunner in a convertible body style, but soft tops in those days suffered from a multitude of ills. Convertibles were also not looked on as the best candidate for a muscle car because just like today, they are heavier than their coupe counterparts. Chrysler was one of the first domestic automakers to build cars with what they called “uni-body construction,” but today, virtually every mass produced car is built this way. This means there is no frame for the body to sit on, but the strength of the body itself provided the rigidity of the vehicle. When you cut away the roof, you’re left with the equivalent of two bricks being held together by a single playing card, so a bit of increased support becomes necessary, therefore adding to the overall weight.
General Motors began offering the “T-Top” with their lift out glass panels to give that open air feeling while holding on to some of the unit body strength. My other youth dream car was the Pontiac Trans Am, which exploded in popularity in the late 70’s after being immortalized by Burt Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit.”
In 1980, I finally managed to get my grubby mitts on a gently used, black and gold Bandit Trans Am, complete with the screaming bird across the hood and T-Tops overhead. Sadly, I only got to keep the car a scant three or four months before I was forced to sell it due to a layoff on my job. In the long run, it may have turned out for the best as I soon realized the car had a back seat fit for no human over three years old. The trunk was miserably small and if you put the glass roof panels back there the space was completely filled.
As hauntingly beautiful as the car is to me to this day, I’d have to admit it’s one of those cars only good for a fun drive and little else, let alone any kind of travel that requires luggage.
I have since owned many different cars in search of one that would fill that emotional void and move me the way the Trans Am did, and it has been a unicorn hunt to say the least. I feel I’ve come very close on a couple of occasions, and the internal inspiration has led me to name most of my cars after various birds of prey. I find wild raptors in nature to be fascinating creatures and their speed and hunting techniques make them great mascots of power and awe-inspiring beauty. On the whole, a natural fit for a car that wants to be a fighter jet.
The Roadrunner on the other hand is one of nature’s great deceptions with its unassuming and non-threatening appearance. A bird that is capable of flying but chooses to run also makes for something comical, and probably what inspired the cartoon artists at Warner Brothers to begin with. But in reality I was amazed to learn the desert Roadrunner is a strictly carnivorous creature, making meals of lizards, frogs, scorpions (yikes!) and even leaping to snatch other small birds in mid-air. However its true badge of respect is watching it make short work of a rattlesnake. Yes, you read that correctly, and this isn’t a freak occurrence of luck, as the roadrunner easily matches the snake in lightning-fast reflexes, and as it taunts the snake to strike, it will jump and clamp its beak with a death-grip on the neck of the rattler. Then with blinding quickness, it will execute a rapid series of vertical slamming motions, breaking the snakes’ back in several locations, after which the bird consumes the reptile whole. Maybe Wile E. Coyote should’ve done a bit of research to consider what might actually happen if he ever caught said bird. The results might not be pretty.
From my car-guy perspective, the Trans Am was always about sleek power and beauty while the Roadrunner personified driving fun. Sadly, Chrysler Corp. ended its affiliation with Warner Bros. and the last Plymouth Volare Roadrunner was offered as a 1980 model and I have to say it was a paper tiger at best, a mere shadow of the hoot-to-drive animal it once was. To be fair, those years saw all performance cars fall prey to the quest for cleaner emissions and the crunch of the gas pump. True performance cars were rare beasts indeed.
My 1976 Volare Roadrunner was a weak bird when I bought it but a sprinkling of 340 parts onto its 318 engine along with a close-ration four speed transmission turned it into a respectable street machine. The better than average performance along with a bellowing set of Thrush sidepipes proved to be enough to make me a constant source of attention to local law enforcement. This Hemi orange cop magnet proved to be another car that provided a torrid, short-lived romance and was best sent on its way before I lost my driving permit.
Years and cars came and went, and most for the very pedestrian uses of family life, but the mid-life crisis is a well documented phenomenon and my personal hormone imbalance bypassed the desire for a motorcycle and went for the open top car. Thankfully, convertible technology had made huge strides in three decades and I dove in with a 2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible as my rite of passage.
In the last ten years, retro styles and names of cars have become all the rage as automakers reach back for a slice of their glory days. The results of some have been impressive, and the 2005-up Mustang probably reigns supreme as the most successful retro design. If there is one thing car-guys are famous for, it’s the adage of, “If you can’t find one, build one yourself.” High dollar auctions are replete with replicas masquerading as vintage iron, but the well done replica has gained a level of respect many never thought possible.
I had no desire to pass my Sebring Roadrunner off as anything valuable, but more to play into the fun aspect of “what if?” The end result got more than a few thumbs up from other enthusiasts and even a few “are they making these again?” from the less informed passer-by. All in all, the fun quotient was partially achieved but the nagging problems of an older car and the lackluster performance of the tiny 2.7 V6 engine made it expendable.
I’m on my forth convertible now, and I feel I’ve finally run across another Chrysler worthy of wearing the Roadrunner birds. My previous 2008 Sebring was a great car in a lot of ways, and I put over 50k miles under its wheels including an amazing cross-country drive, but it suffered from the same under-powered 2.7 engine and an outdated four speed auto trans. The Chrysler 200 that followed in its footsteps is a vastly improved car in many ways, most notably its impressive 3.6 engine and six-speed Auto-Stick trans. The interior is also a major upgrade and the tweaks to its exterior styling softened some edges and transformed it into an attractive cruiser.
To me, the most beautiful Roadrunner is easily the 1972 model year. I owned a 72 Satellite Sebring in classic Petty Blue with a white top that I had high hopes of turning into a Roadrunner clone but finances never made that possible. The slick aero lines of the 71-72 made it one of the favorites of King Richard Petty, and mine too. I’ve always thought this model would look amazing in a targa roof style but that will be up to a custom builder and customer with deeper pockets than I’ll ever have.
The 200 however cuts a handsome figure with its top down and its transformation in to modern feathered flyer is well underway. I may not be authorized by Chrysler or Sergio Marchionne, but I plan to attend the All Chrysler Nationals in Carlisle, PA next year and show off a prime example of what the designers passed up on. I say long live the Roadrunner, even if it’s a Do-It- Yourself retro package.
– T. August Green