The muscle car era was still in full swing when the Plymouth Road Runner was introduced for the 1968 model year, but many aficionados felt as though the whole ethos of the true muscle car was being lost. The original idea at the core of the muscle car was to provide a vehicle that was basic in appearance, options and appointments so that the majority of the money spent on the car went into improving its performance. The end result was a vehicle that packed a lot of punch under the hood that was at the same time affordable to most consumers. And this would especially include younger buyers who wanted the speed but may not have had a lot of money to spend to get it. As the sixties progressed, the industry started to stray from this formula by offering more complicated cars with additional bells and whistles that subsequently carried larger price tags.
So the brain trust at Plymouth decided to produce a car that stayed true to the original definition of the American muscle car. They tasked their engineers with the project of creating a car that could get the quarter mile in about 14 seconds while keeping the suggested retail price under $3,000. The result was the Plymouth Road Runner. The concept behind the car itself made a lot of sense, but the icing on the cake was the marketing angle that came along with the name, “Road Runner,” and its image. Of course the Road Runner was a famous, beloved Warner Brothers cartoon character, so there was instant brand recognition that had already been established in a different context. And of course, the cartoon Road Runner was nothing if not rapid, so the suggestion fit the car perfectly. And the clincher was the fact that Plymouth paid a mere $50,000 for the licensing rights.
The engine that came standard on the first Road Runner offerings was the 383 cubic inch V8 that was capable of 335 horsepower. There was a more potent option, however: the beastly Road Runner 426 Hemi. Many muscle car enthusiasts consider the Road Runner engines to be among the finest ever made. Plymouth had high hopes for the car, and they made what they thought was a fair sales projection of 2,000 units in that initial year, 1968. They sold 45,000.
In 1969 the success of the Road Runner continued as sales jumped to over 82,000 units and the car won the prestigious Motor Trend Car of the Year award. However, sales dropped by half the next year, and a new generation of Road Runner was born in 1971, with a more aerodynamic look and better handling capabilities. But as the 70s moved forward, emissions standards and high insurance premiums took their toll on the true muscle car, and Plymouth ultimately ceased production of the Road Runner after the 1980 model year. The car has shown up frequently on television, appearing on The Simpsons, The Dukes of Hazard, and Adam-12, and it has also played a role in a number of major motion pictures.