Cars We Love: 1968 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi

1968 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi

Plymouth was looking for a new muscle car for their 1968 product lineup to combat the front-running Pontiac GTO. The Plymouth GTX, a “gentlemen’s” muscle car introduced in 1967, hadn’t caught on with the younger buyers, a market that Plymouth needed to compete against the GTO and the other new muscle cars. Bob Anderson, vice president of Chrysler-Plymouth sales division, and the Plymouth product planners took a gamble, hoping that the Road Runner – an inexpensive, stripped-down screamer named after a cartoon character – would give them a presence with the young buyers in the muscle car market.

A return to muscle car roots

The muscle car market had moved away from the relatively inexpensive and fast cars they originally were when the market was created back in 1964, with the introduction of the Pontiac GTO. Manufacturers added more and more comfort and convenience options and by early 1967, most muscle cars were priced beyond the affordability of younger buyers as costs of the options and insurance premiums skyrocketed.

Plymouth product planners wanted their new muscle car to return to muscle-car roots. The as-yet unnamed car was based on the Plymouth Belvedere mid-size platform. Everything essential to performance, like suspension and brakes, was beefed-up and improved, and everything else was tossed out the window. The new Plymouth muscle car would have the following characteristics:

  • Had to please younger buyers
  • A 0-60 time of under 7 seconds, right off the showroom floor without modifications
  • A quarter-mile time of under 15 seconds at a speed of over 100 mph
  • All high-performance items (brakes, transmission, etc.) were to be standard at a price under $3,000

It would have a spartan interior with a basic vinyl-covered bench seat and no carpeting (carpets would be added to later models). The only options were to be front disc brakes, power steering, AM radio, automatic transmission, air conditioning (except with the Hemi engine), and the famous Chrysler 426 Hemi V8 engine.

1968 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi

Here comes the Road Runner (beep beep)

When the Plymouth muscle car had already been approved for production, it still didn’t have a name. Jack Smith, head of Plymouth mid-size car product planning, his team, and their advertising agency were all burning up their brain cells, but not having much luck finding a name that was emblematic of the car’s rapid performance, and also attractive to younger buyers. Gordon Cherry, a product planning assistant who enjoyed watching Saturday morning cartoons with his kids, suggested that Jack Smith take a look at the “Road Runner” cartoons.

Smith did so and thought the Road Runner name was perfect! Later, he would explain that one way to appeal to the younger generation is to do something that leaves the older generation feeling a little awkward. He noted that, “The idea of putting a bird on your car, and maybe going so low as to make the horn go ‘Meep Meep’ was exactly the kind of thing that would say, ‘This is a young person’s car’.”

Chrysler Corporation’s legendary Hemi

Chrysler first introduced Hemi technology in its passenger cars in 1951, and throughout the ‘50s expanded the use of Hemi engines to DeSoto and Dodge. Hemi refers to the semi-hemispherical shape of the engine combustion chambers, which makes it more efficient, cooler-running, and more powerful than other engine designs. For all of their performance benefits, Hemi engines were expensive to produce, thanks to the hemispherical combustion chamber and the complex valve train required to operate the valves, so Chrysler phased out the Generation I Hemi in 1958.

A Generation II Hemi displacing 426 cu. in. made a comeback in the early ‘60s as a racing engine for the Plymouth and Dodge NASCAR and NHRA racing programs. The engine was so successful, finishing 1-2-3 in the 1964 Daytona 500, that NASCAR changed its rules to limit engines to those available in production cars. Chrysler boycotted NASCAR in 1965 and came back in 1966 with a street version of the GEN II Hemi. This version became known as the ‘Elephant’ due to its large physical size and its tremendous power, and is the version that was used in the Road Runner, as well as other Plymouth and Dodge cars in the ‘60s.

The Hemi was a $714 option for the Road Runner and was conservatively rated at 425 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. The GEN II Hemi was discontinued in 1971 thanks to continued high manufacturing costs and impending emission regulations.

Road Runner sales leave the Coyote and others in the dust

It’s probably a pretty safe bet that there were some older-generation types in Chrysler Corporation upper management who were aghast at the whole Road Runner concept. To their credit, they went along with the program and maybe even whispered a “beep beep” or two when the Road Runner finished third in muscle car sales for 1968, trailing only the GTO and the Chevelle SS-396. The Road Runner more than doubled its estimated sales of 20,000 units with total sales of 44,599 cars, of which 1,011 had the Hemi.

If the Road Runner is one of the cars on your wish list, be aware that there are some responsibilities of ownership. You must always be on the alert for falling boulders, anvils, or cannon balls; don’t ever attempt to drive through a tunnel entrance painted on a rock face; and if you receive a package from the Acme Corporation, don’t open it – it belongs to Wile E. Coyote.




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Photo by Sicnag and Jack Snell

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