1969 Motor Trend Car of the Year: The Plymouth Road Runner
The peak of the the muscle car era is generally considered to have taken place between 1964 and 1972, and the reason for the decline of these cars wasn’t that they were no longer popular. The introduction of unleaded gasoline led to reduction in engine size and performance, and cars were engineered for better fuel efficiency and emissions reduction rather than speed and power. 1969 was one of the last years for the true muscle car, and it was the second year of production for the Plymouth Road Runner.
The designers at Plymouth felt as though the muscle cars that were being released throughout the industry were straying from the true muscle car ethos and becoming too fancy. The whole idea behind the original concept of the muscle car was to make it affordable to most people by keeping the external bells and whistles to a minimum. The primary investment was to be under the hood. This is what Plymouth did with the Road Runner, which was priced at less than $3,000 and capable of traveling a quarter of a mile in under 14 seconds, reaching 105 miles per hour in the process.
The automotive industry has to engineer products that they can sell at a profit, and that is a very tricky endeavor. But they also need people to actually buy these cars, and that’s where marketing comes in. It can be difficult to capture the attention of the buying public with an unknown commodity with zero name recognition. In a significant stroke of marketing genius, Plymouth was able to negotiate licensing rights to take the popular Road Runner cartoon character and use it as the name of, and image behind, their new muscle car. Looking back, the amount of money that they paid, $50,000, seems like a paltry sum considering the revenue that the car wound up generating.
Before a company places a new vehicle into production, they project sales expectations for the first year. Plymouth figured they could sell about 2,000 of these Road Runners, in 1968. They were stunned when sales figures actually reached some 45,000 units. The Road Runner was a hit, and the true muscle car was back.
In 1969 things only got better for the Road Runner. The car won the prestigious Motor Trend Car of the Year award, and sales were almost double what they were in 1968. Plymouth sold 82,109 Road Runners in 1969, which made it the second most popular muscle car on the market in just its sophomore season. Only the Chevelle SS-396 sold more.
These early Road Runners came with a 383 cubic inch Road Runner V8 standard, but they were also offered with the beastly 426 ci Hemi that was rated at 425 horsepower. These engines upped the price by over $700, a price most were unwilling to pay, so they are rare. In 1969 Plymouth introduced the Road Runner convertible, and only ten of the 2,128 that they produced had the 426 Hemi. It is said that only three of them are still around today.
The Road Runner remained in production through 1975, but the ’69 Road Runner is a snapshot of the glory days of the car. The Road Runner has been immortalized in a number of movies and television shows, including a Simpsons episode and the 1973 film The Friends of Eddie Coyle that starred Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle.