Jack Smith and the Plymouth Road Runner
I’m going to talk about the Road Runner, the birth of the bird, and how it happened that the conservative company that Chrysler was at that time could field a car named after a cartoon bird.
Muscle cars came out of the youthful exuberance that followed World War II. Many people who came back from military assignments had a lot of experience in motor pools. They were accustomed to working on vehicles and doing things to improve them. It was from this experience that street rods were born and a culture of performance was built up.
This culture was recognized by a guy named Jim Wangers, the account executive for the advertising agency that handled Pontiac’s LeMans. He foresaw the possible success of a muscle car, a performance car in the mid-sized category, and prevailed upon a sufficient number of people at Pontiac to give it a shot, and the GTO was born in 1964. It immediately conquered the street and became the performance image icon Pontiac needed. The GTO was copied by just about everybody. Within General Motors, the Chevy SS 396 and the Oldsmobile 442 shortly came into existence.
Chrysler eventually copied them, but before they could do so, Chrysler had to create a plan aimed specifically at the mid-sized market. At the time, the Plymouth product planning group was split into two sub-groups. One group did the Furys together with the mid-sized cars, with the latter a sort of second thought. The other group did the compact and the pony cars. The mid-sized cars just didn’t have a home. That was corrected in 1965 when Plymouth created an office for mid-sized car planning. At the same time the company set up a similar office over in the Dodge camp.
I was there to become the manager of the mid-sized Plymouth product planning group. When I got that job, one of my first chores was to field something that could compete with that GTO. Thus, the Plymouth GTX was born. Frankly, it was just a philosophical copy of the GTO. We took a premium Belvedere with a premium interior, premium accoutrements and moldings—all that stuff—and added the biggest engine that Chrysler had, the 440 four-barrel. A very strong car! It could easily compete with the GTO.
But the Plymouth showroom was considered by the kids in the youth market to be a very conservative, stodgy place. They didn’t flock in. As a matter of fact, those who went in, did so with their collars up to make sure their friends didn’t recognize them in an old folks’ shopping spot. In 1967, we sold 12,000 GTXs — that was 8.7% of Plymouth’s mid-sized sales effort, but that seems pretty small when Pontiac was selling about 81,000 GTOs in its mid-sized market. One out of four cars from Pontiac was in that price range. One out of four! My God.
Chatting with a number of you, I see that some of you remember things like the Mod Top cars. How many of you remember the Mod Tops? A few... Oh, lots of you!
The mod top was something that came out of my office. At that time psychedelic clothing and the whole spirit of Carnaby Street prevailed in the youth market. We tried to steal into that general emotional atmosphere, creating a sort of a turquoise-bluegreen-paisley pattern that we used as a vinyl roof on a car with body paint colors that complimented it. We also took the same material and we used it as inserts on the seats, making the car paisley on the roof and paisley inside. It sounds a little strange by today’s standards, but at the time, it struck a chord. We were trying to tell the kids, “Hey, we understand. We want to give you something to drive!“ and we hoped they would buy it from our store.
Still, the conservative issue remained as we were getting ready to do our 1968 car. That was an all-new mid-sized car that, as you know, if you’re in this room—and there’s more Plymouth enthusiasts here than in probably any other room in the country right now. Now you people—it’s intimidating to talk to you about Plymouths because you know more about them than I do—I’m going to give you some personal experiences. The stories I’m going to tell you are things I’ve been involved in personally. Hopefully, it will be of interest.
A big thing happened early in 1965. Robert S. Anderson was named vice-president in charge of the Chrysler-Plymouth sales division. Behind his back, we called him Big Bob. He never knew it. We never said, “Hey, Big Bob” — it was, “Mr. Anderson.” But Big Bob was a real car guy. As a car guy, he knew the task he had.
He was aware, as we were, that surveys had been done to discover how people felt about the mid-sized Plymouth, specifically the Belvedere. The most damning thing that came out of that survey was what a little old lady said: “Oh, I just love that name Belvedere. It’s so serene.” (Apologies to those of you who are driving cars with Belvedere nameplates.) We weren’t looking for serenity, we were looking to get into this social beat and trying to attract the people in the youth spectrum of the market. Anderson was well aware of this.
The first thing Anderson did was to take a look at what the advertising agency had planned for the new 1967s which were about to come out. The agency had developed a marketing plan aimed at getting people to switch from Ford and Chevy to Plymouth. Their program was called “Switchcraft,” and they had a real cute gal dolled up like a witch who was to be featured in the ads for the year. They even did a parody on the song “Witchcraft.”
Anderson wasn’t sure this was the way he wanted to go with the 1967 cars, so he brought a second agency into the picture, Young & Rubicam, challenging them to come up with a theme. At the same time he gave the original agency an opportunity to rethink the Switchcraft thing. He set up a timeline—it was short notice—about three weeks away, He said, “Okay, you guys, we’re going to get together and review how we’re going to market these new cars in 1967.”
The original people did not abandon Switchcraft. They refined it a little, dolling up the pretty little witch even more. They worked on the song and all that stuff. But Young & Rubicam, starting from scratch, came up with the theme: “We’re out to win you over.”
They invented the heart with the little red devil’s tail, a real ingenious stroke! The guy who did it had come up with the idea at home, late at night. Just sitting there, pondering notes, he had a vision of the little heart. So that became the pitch and Anderson bought it. The first agency was out. The new agency came in. Young & Rubicam proved to be a very creative outfit. That was the first thing Anderson did.
Another thing he did was to contact one of his grassroots advisors from the outside world, Brock Yates, a writer for Car & Driver. Anderson asked Brock, “What do I do to get the kids’ attention?” Brock’s advice was, “Take a car and just strip it down. Anything that isn’t essential, get rid of it. And then stuff the biggest engine you’ve got into it, so that car will sit at a red light and go: Vroom, vroom, vroom. All the other cars will see it, and they’ll be so frightened that they will run up alleys and hide. Do that car and you’ll get their attention.”
Although Brock Yates had made the suggestion to strip the car, when it came down to the end, my boss, Joe Sturm, told me, “Okay, it’s not that you can just think of something and say ’Hey, that’s neat! Let’s do it!’”
If you’ve got a great, fresh, new idea that’s never been done before, conservatism can take over and it becomes a tough sell. Now, a bare-bones performance car hadn’t been done before. Here was our opportunity to do it. We had been thinking about it, I have to admit. My 1967 company car had been built to my specifications. It was a Belvedere II two-door hardtop, and it had a 383 four-barrel engine, four-on-the-floor transmission, heavy duty suspension, 11-inch police brakes and wide-rimmed wheels with F70 red striped tires. It was one hell of a car! What I just described was a specification of the Road Runner. I was driving—in 1967—a car that I just loved. It felt like the car we were about to propose.
So, we were going to propose a car. We adopted some standards. It had to please the kids if it was going to be successful. Number One, it had to do 0-to-60 in under seven seconds, right off the showroom floor. You could break it in, but you wouldn’t have to buy headers and all that stuff. It was to be stock, but it had to do over 100 MPH in the quarter mile in less than 15 seconds. That was another objective. Yet another objective was that it had to have, as standard equipment, all the mechanical toys the kids wanted: high performance brakes, transmission and stuff like that. Lastly, it had to sell for under $3,000.
This was a challenging task to take on, but we knew how to do the mechanical stuff. The mechanical stuff was easy because Chrysler was blessed, at that time, with a fleet engineering operation, run by a chap named Dave Hubbs, that was just wonderful. Dave devised the engineering specifications: the suspensions, the brakes and all the things wanted by police agencies from coast to coast. These sales-coded options used in creating police cars were available to anybody. (At that time—as you may already know—Chrysler had 51% of the nationally available police car business. In regular cars, we were way under 25%, but in police cars we had over half the business.) So the tangible stuff was easily available and wasn’t really a test.
The intangible stuff for the car, though, was extremely important and very elusive. It’s the stuff that makes people want to buy cars. A good salesman recognizes that he’s not just selling transportation, he’s selling social admittance. He’s selling the impression that you make when you drive up in front of the country club. He’s selling the impression that you make on your fellow parishioners when you drive up to church on Sunday. “Oh, there’s Jack Smith. He’s driving that great big car.” You’re selling that. And, to the kids, you’re selling admission to various social atmospheres and, let’s face it, you’re selling sex, because for guys, it was thought to be a lot easier to attract the “dolly of your choice” if you had a hot set of wheels. So, it’s the intangibles that we had to find for this car
The big issues remained: What were we going to call it? Anderson said, “Hey, you product planners, you take care of the tangibles. I’m going to give the name chore to the advertising agency.” So we got to work on it, on that basis. They were to do the name and we were to do the rest. We also got to work on it ourselves. We had to have it named in three weeks.
All of this came up after the ’68 cars were released for production. The drawings had been released. The engineering paperwork had been cleaned up. The corporate planning office would have said, “It’s too late to even think about anything new, particularly, a whole new car.” But we were thinking about it and that’s the part of the story I’m about to tell you.
About a week into our planning, my ace assistant, Gordon Cherry, came into my office, and said, “Jack, I think I’ve found a perfect name for our car.”
“What is it, Gordon?”
“It’s a name that involves all the characteristics we want in our automobile.”
“What is the name, Gordon?”
“Tell you what. Do you ever watch cartoons... on television... on Saturday morning?”
And I said, “No.” I had two girls and they were already in school, beyond that age. Gordon was younger than me and had smaller kids.
So he said, “There’s this bird. And he has all the characteristics of our car. And I want you to watch television and tell me what you think.”
It was Road Runner and his ace adversary, Wile E. Coyote. Those of you who have seen the cartoons know that Wile E. Coyote is always trying to snag Road Runner, and Road Runner cannot be caught. He cannot be caught because he is so agile. He’s just a happy-go-lucky guy, loping along. He’s just a happy personality. He can take off the line very quickly! When he gets going, he is very fast. Now, anything that goes that fast has to be able to stop very quickly; stop on a dime. You can see the characteristics that he had. He is never caught and that’s why! And best of all, he whoops: Beep, beep!
When I saw the cartoon on my television set, I fell in love with the thing. I’ll be frank, I didn’t know what the Road Runner was before Gordon mentioned it. I looked. The Road Runner was perfect! He appealed to me for one reason that may not be overly apparent. I had developed a philosophy that the way to appeal to the youthful generation was to do something that leaves the next older generation feeling a little awkward. Not that you want to alienate them, but just have them feel a little awkward. The younger generation would recognize that and embrace the product you have.
That philosophy came from a number of things. Back in that era, it was not like today when a kid gets a driver’s license and feels entitled to a car. Back in that day, if a guy had a date, chances were he’d have to say, “Hey, Pop! Can I borrow the car tonight?” Now, chances are that once he borrowed the car, the first thing he’d do would be to drive the car around the corner, open the trunk, get the tire iron, kick off the wheel covers and put them in the trunk. Because a car without wheel covers says “This ain’t my dad’s car. Dad wouldn’t drive a car without wheel covers.”
The idea of putting a bird on a 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!” It wouldn’t necessarily make the older people mad; they’d just sort of maybe give it a few whimsical snickers. Hopefully they’d go and buy a Chrysler Newport, which was a typical car for that generation
I was sold! I had Gordon come in and I said, “This is great! But we’ve got to get this information to Young & Rubicam so they can consider it.”
Then the phone rang. It was Young & Rubicam inviting me to preview the presentation they had already prepared. They had done the job. They had selected their name. They had a presentation to give to Big Bob Anderson. Now, I was suspicious. Either they were patronizing me by asking me in to preview it or they weren’t fully convinced that they had the right name, and they wanted to get cohorts: a few other guilty parties to share the feeling with.
They invited me to lunch at the London Chop House, a very nice restaurant. I took Gordon Cherry with me. We were seated at the end of a long table. About seven or eight people from Young & Rubicam were there, One of them was a young man whom I will remember until my dying day. He was from the art department.
They made the presentation which included a sheet of paper with two lists of candidate names. They explained how they had researched these names and done studies and their suggested name was on the bottom: AND THE NAME OF THE NEW CAR IS ... LAMANCHA! Man of La Mancha was the hit musical of the time.
The presenter said, “Well Jack, what do you think?” I stood up and congratulated them on a job well done, thanking them for the effort they had expended in analyzing all this stuff. I suspected that LaMancha might have been influenced by the fact that the GTX name was a copy of the GTO.
And I can tell you how we got GTX, if you want to know. What does that X mean? It’s just a letter. We arrived at it in sort of a logical way, but it was a copy of GTO.
Maybe the agency said, “Aha! Pontiac has LeMans ... LeMans ... LaMancha.” There might have been that association. I don’t know if it entered their minds or not, but I suspected it might have
While I was on my feet I said, “You know, you guys have done a great job, but there’s one little disappointment we have. In addition to your candidate names is the name that Gordon and I think would be perfect for the car. It has all the characteristics of the car and we think it would do a good job.”
They said, “What’s the name?”
I said, “You’ll love it!”
They said, “What’s the name?”
I said, “Do you guys ever watch cartoons on television?”
It turned out, they did; they were better than I was. So I said, “We think a perfect name for the car would be Road Runner.” There was absolute silence at the table. I remember this clearly. The young man from the art department was at the other end of the table with his head in his arms. He was thinking. And I think he got lost in his own thoughts because he was dreaming of how he viewed our suggestion and his body began to convulsively shake. And he got our attention for fifteen to twenty seconds—that’s a long time for a table to be quiet—his body was going “like this” and everybody was starting to watch him. Suddenly his hands came down and he sat up and he said, “God! I could really do a lot with that!”
He broke the spell. God bless him, And God bless Young & Rubicam because they recognized the possibilities. Within a minute of quick conversation, they had torn up their list and said, without research, “Road Runner is the name we’re going to suggest.”
So, it happened just like that. .. just that easily. We left the restaurant and Road Runner was the name we used. We knew Bob would buy it. We knew we needed that name.
As soon as I got back, I called the AMA — Automobile Manufacturers Association. They maintain a gentleman’s agreement that if anybody puts a name on the AMA list, that name is theirs. Calling the AMA and talking to the young lady in charge of the list, I asked, “Is Road Runner on the list?”
“No, it’s not.”
“Put me down.”
Now, I knew that we had the name.
At that point, we approached Warner Brothers about buying the rights to the Road Runner name. To short-circuit the story: they sent an emissary, a cute little guy who represented all these little animals. He was almost a Yosemite Sam, and he took care of all of them: Tweetie Bird, Sylvester the Cat, and Road Runner, of course. All these Warner Brothers characters were just like his children! His job was to see that nobody did anything that would damage the image that Warner Brothers had spent so much money to develop.
They have certain rules. Road Runner has nine rules that he never violates. For example, if anything is purchased, it has to come from Acme Corporation; Wile E. Coyote keeps buying things to try to blow up Road Runner, and they always comes from Acme. Road Runner never runs on the prairie, he only runs on roads. Things like that.
We did the negotiations in one afternoon. We placed a long distance call from our advocate’s office—George Calvert was his name—to Warner Brothers in California. We had George, the attorney, of course, and representation from Product Planning and from our purchasing table and the advertising agency, about six people. There was a similar group on the phone in California. That conference call was placed at about 3:30 in the afternoon and we had completely worked out the contract with all the details, price and everything, by the end of the call at about 8:30 that night. We went right through the dinner hour and wrapped it up.
The opening shot by Warner Brothers was, “Hey, guys, this is a very valuable property. Be prepared to share in the investments that we have made in creating this.” They were preparing us for a high-ball price.
Our opening shot was: “There’s an organization called the AMA, and they’ve got a list. And if you’re on that list, you’ve got the name and no one else can build a car with that narne.”
They had said, “If you don’t want to pay the price, maybe somebody else will.”
Our reply was: “We are going to build a car and we’re going to call it Road Runner. We don’t have to buy ‘roadrunner’ because it’s in the dictionary. It’s the state bird in New Mexico. You can see a roadrunner at the zoo. A roadrunner is a part of our environment. Everybody can see roadrunners. But what we’re debating here is: Will the car that we’re going to build—called Road Runner, that nobody else can ever build by that name—have your bird on it or not?”
That was entirely different. There was a quick retraction, and actually, it was checkmate because we really had them to the point where they had to join us or discourage us by saying: “We don’t want to join the party.”
We worked out details. They gave the rights to do all the commercials and art work for ads and stuff like that, and it was a profitable arrangement. I have forgotten, frankly, the set annual fee. I think it was $50,000, which is peanuts now. Anyway, we had the bird!
We decided it would be so nice for the Road Runner car to have a horn that would go “Beep, beep.”
You might be interested to know the Road Runner cartoon celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1999. Chuck Jones, the cartoonist, was still alive at the time of the anniversary and was still doing cartoons. [He died in 2002 at the age of 89.]
At the time he was inventing Road Runner, Chuck Jones was at his desk in his studio while one of his fellow cartoonists pattered down the hallway with a big armload of drawings. Not wanting to bump into people, he was going, “Beep, beep! Beep, beep!” As he walked past Chuck Jones’ door, Chuck turned and said, “That’s it!” So, that’s how the beep, beep was born.
I asked Warner Brothers to give me a tape of the beep sound. They sent me a tape of a human voice attempting to sound like a car horn. And the tape just went Beep, beep (PAUSE) Beep, beep (PAUSE) Beep, beep.“ The whole tape was like that!
I went to purchasing and I asked who on the approved source list sells us horns. (We were really out of time. This whole Road Runner car was being done, not overnight, but in less than two months.) They gave me the three horn vendors that we were permitted to buy horns from, so I called the chief engineer of each of these three companies and told them the story. I said, ’’I’m going to send you a tape in today’s mail. I want you to listen to it at once. Call me back as soon as possible if you have anything in your roster of horns that is anything like this sound: “Beep, beep!”
Very shortly, they all called back. Two of them said, “Not a prayer!” The third one, the Sparton Horn Company and Richie Vanstroodle—who turned out to be a heck of a guy—really wanted to get into the swing of this thing. He said, “Hey, we’ve got a horn that sounds pretty close. We’re building it for a military vehicle. It’s built to government specifications. It works under water. And it’s really expensive because it meets all these requirements: Forty-five dollars a piece.”
I said, “No way! I tell you what, I want you to get your best cost estimator to review that horn. Have him work all night at this. Call me back tomorrow and tell me the cost after you take off all the waterproofing and everything else but keeping it a legal horn, meeting government regulations. Tell me what you can sell it for.”
They called back and it turned out to be like a 47-cent penalty over what we were already spending for horns, so we had a horn. Sure, we said we’d buy that little bit of “plus;” at least I say “a little bit.” People in the industry would drive each other up the wall just to save a dime on a car. But a dime times a couple hundred thousand cars is a lot of money! In that case, we would have done a lot to save a small amount of money on each car. Cars are implicitly the product of a lot of cost reduction: coldly looking for pennies, trying to get the money out so we can be a competitive company and sell a car for a competitive price.
But we had the horn and it almost fit into the car. The horn was held by one bolt. There’s a little tab that goes into one hole and there’s a second hole for the screw that mounts the horn. That hole in the horn bracket was about 5/32 of an inch long. So we had to have them move that hole that little distance and moving that hole that little distance was the biggest tooling cost ($243 out of a total of less than $500) associated with the production of the Road Runner car!
Anyway, we had the horn. It turned out that they had a test that had to be conducted on every horn before it was authorized to be released: an engineering cycling test. The horn was placed in a sound-proof box and the switch was flipped—beep, beep, beep, beep—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. At that rate there wouldn’t be enough time to get the test completed in order to support buying it for the start of production of the car. Remember, we were doing this car at the very last minute, so there were a number of things that came up which almost scrubbed the car.
I told my story to the supervisor in charge of the lab and my understanding that his engineering responsibility was to never release anything that hasn’t passed all engineering tests. Fortunately, his view of it was, “Hey, I’m responsible for releasing only things that are right, and I can’t shirk my responsibility. ”
So, I offered hjm a bargain: “If you will release the horn, right now—we both expect that it’s going to pass the test—I will write you a letter assuming full responsibility for the horn.” Now, I had no authority to do that! Who was I? I was just a product planner, but the guy said, “Okay.” And he actually released the horn. And I wrote the letter.
Eventually, after the horn was in production, the test was completed and the horn was a hit. But, it’s just a little example of the inter-relationships that were played out in getting the horn and in getting the car itself. We got the horn, we got the bird. We had all the mechanical components.
There was one thing that we really wanted. We wanted the engine in this car to be unique to Road Runner. We felt, for whatever reason, that it had to be a Road Runner engine; that when you lift the hood that “pie plate” on the air cleaner should say ROAD RUNNER ENGINE, and to be honest, it had to be unique. How, with the little time remaining, could we do that in a positive way and, hopefully, get the horsepower we needed?
I consulted my friends in the racing fraternity at Chrysler. Dick Maxwell was the chap who made the suggestion. He said, “Hey! Why don’t you take the camshaft out of the 440 (known as the A-134) in the GTX. Take that camshaft; it’s a hotter cam than that in the 383 4-barrel but it will fit in exactly. Slide it into the 383 and you’ll have an unique engine that has somewhat more capacity. It has to be established on a dynometer.” It was a fantastic idea because it legitimized us saying,“This is a Road Runner engine,” The trouble was, doing so created an extra engine assembly in the plant.
Now, the plant was going crazy already with the complexity of multiple parts. And an engine is a big part to keep in stock. They call it an assembly because the transmission is a part of it. So, if we did this, there’d be one 383 Road Runner engine with a manual transmission—a four-speed—and another would be with the automatic. That would result in two more assemblies for a plant that was already choking on what it was putting out.
The chief engineer in Car and Truck Assembly was a guy named Bob Steere, one of the most fearsome men in the corporation. He would fight to the death to do things to benefit the Car and Truck Assembly Group, and he completely dominated the chief engineers’ meeting every Monday morning. He was on a campaign to reduce the number of engine assemblies because they couldn’t handle them all.
There we were, proposing yet two more. What to do? I could have just written a Product Planning letter, saying, “Do it,” but he would have ... well, this would have roused his ire. When he was confronted, he’d get emotionally involved and his voice would shake. He was a hell of a nice man. I had a great relationship with him. We respected each other. We were friends. But we were tough.
So, I had to make peace with him personally, and hopefully before we gave a “go” to this plan. I tried to reach him while he was on vacation, asking his secretary when he would be coming back. “He’ll be in first thing on Monday morning.”
When Bob arrived back from vacation on Monday morning, he came to his office an hour early. He was a hard-working guy. But when he arrived, I was sitting at his desk! And he said, “What in the hell are you doing here?”
I said I had a story to tell him, and I told him about the Road Runner and the youth market and how we had to get this and why it was important to do. He heard me out, didn’t say a word, and when I was finished, he just said, “Go do it!” He was, in my mind, one of the several big heroes of the program, just because he said those words.
It was quite a different situation on the engine row with Dean Engle, the chief engineer of Powerplant Engineering. He was the guy responsible for the design and development of all engines, He had to release this engine. I told Dean we wanted to do it. Dean and I had a very, very good relationship, but, even so, he said, “Jack, you don’t want to use that camshaft!”
“The engine won’t be right.”
“My racing friends told me I’d love it.”
Dean said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll build up a car, so you can check it out yourself. We’ll build up an engine with that camshaft; in a mid-sized car for you to drive.”
So, he did. Two days later the car arrived. I drove it overnight... and I agreed with him. That car didn’t seem right. So I took the car to Frank Anderzjak at the Product Planning garage which had great contact with the racing community, including Ronnie Sox and Dick Landy, and many big name dealers. It was a good place.
I said, “Frank, check this car out.”
Frank did and called me back, saying,“Of course it doesn’t feel right. It has the wrong axle ratio.”
So I called Dean and said, “Hey, Dean! You were right. I didn’t like the car, but it has the wrong axle ratio.”
He said, ’’I’m sorry about that. You can bring it back and I’ll get the axle corrected and then you can drive it. But you still won’t like it, because, you see, it’s just not right.”
The car was back in a day or so; he was right. It was better, but it still wasn’t right, and I didn’t like it. I sent it back to the Product Planning Garage and I said, “Frank, check it again.”
He took that car apart and he found that we had the wrong torque converter. Now that was a hard problem to find. So I called Dean, said “Dean, you’re right. I didn’t like the car, but it has the wrong torque converter.”
Dean gave up.
Now, as I stand here, I don’t know whether this (the car having wrong parts) was done intentionally to support his contention that I wouldn’t like it, or if it was an oddball coincidence of mistakes. But Dean settled it, and two years later, he liked it so much by then that he used the cam in all the 383 four-barrel engines.
Now, the biggest part of the story is about to unfold. You’ve got the car. You’ve got the bird. You’ve got the horn. You’ve got the engine. You’re ready to go and tragedy takes place
You remember, I talked about doing things to a car that might alienate an older generation? I didn’t realize that this alienation was at work on Dick Macadam, who was styling director for the Chrysler-Plymouth studios reporting to Elwood Engle, vice president of Design, He had all the Chrysler and Plymouth styling activity under his wing. Eventually he became the vice-president, so he was a very serious man to contend with. He had a lot of influence.
He must have been brooding at night about the cartoon bird, because it led, one day, to a three-man conversation in the hallway. The three people were Dick Macadam, the stylist, Big Bob Anderson, the corporate vice-president in charge of sales for all these cars, and little old Jack Smith, the manager of the product planning activity. Now, if I assigned importance to the three of us, I’d give myself two votes, I’d have to give Macadam four votes but Big Bob would get eight votes, he was the controlling influence.
In this conversation Macadam got so perturbed that he laid his job on the line and, pointing his finger on Mr. Anderson’s chest, saying these very words (I’ll never forget): “Nobody! But nobody will ever put a cartoon bird on one of my cars!”
Hell of a time for that to come up!
Now, Anderson was on the spot because he’d depended on Macadam for all of his styling activities. And, doggone, Anderson said to Macadam, “OK, Dick, we won’t do that.” Now at that point, the whole thing was down the drain!
I had one piece of information that they didn’t have. And that was that if Purchasing didn’t have a drawing (of the bird) with a part number on it within two weeks, they couldn’t meet Job One with any of them. We had to move. We had to get a drawing. We had to have something in a purchasing agreement. So, with one of the few flashes of inspiration I’ve maybe had in my life, I made a proposal on the subject. I said to Big Bob, “Look, we’ve done enough research to think this is a great idea. We think the kids are gonna love it. At least, let’s get this decal going, and we can put it in the glove box with instructions, and we’ll let the owner decide whether he wants it on his car or not. Now, how can you say ’No’ to the owner?”
So Anderson looked at me and said, “OK, Jack. We’ll do it that way.” That let me go to Purchasing with the drawing. At least we could keep the idea alive and hope to save it at some future time.
That made Macadam a little pouty, so he said, “Well, okay. But I get to pick the bird.” What he meant was, he got to pick one of the renderings of the bird submitted by Warner Brothers. By that time, we had a big stack of them. Anderson said to Macadam, “Okay, you get to pick.”
So I took all of my drawings to Macadam and he picked the bird. If you’re familiar with the bird on the initial 1968 Road Runner car, you know that the bird on the outside of the car is not running; it is walking. And it isn’t in color; it’s in black and white. We were left with a decal of a black and white bird.
You may wonder, “What if we had lost the plate that Warner Brothers had sent?” What would we have done? Some of the stylists had already been inventing birds of their own. I found a lot of the original drawings done by these people who were generating their own ideas of the bird. I tore them out and pasted them on a big piece of cardboard The one in the upper left is one I think I could have lived with, it’s not bad. But some of them, like those on the middle right—with a lot of plumage—l think these were so close to the Warner Brothers ’Road Runner bird that we might have been in court with them. We were a lot better off with the real bird than anything like these.
The 1968 black-and-white decal that was on the Road Runner car for the first year is the one we had to pick under duress. With one minor exception, that bird was not used in advertising. When Young & Rubicam ran their ads and their TV commercials, everything was done in color. It was all speed. Everything was, you know, “Road Runner.” But it was the black-and-white bird that was on the 1968 car. At this point, the decal was still in the glove box.
Now I’ll tell you how the bird got on the car. How did we overcome Mr. Macadam? Virgil Boyd was the president of the company at that time. He had developed a way in which he could work out how he felt about a car. He had something called a Dealer Council made up of four Chrysler-Plymouth dealers and four Dodge dealers who pretty much represented all dealerships in the country. He’d bring them to Detroit, now and then, for meetings to preview future products. He’d give them a preview of the cars and learn what they thought about them while there would still be time to make little changes. Virgil Boyd had a meeting coming up. The cars were going to be displayed in what we called Fort Zeder, a wooden fenced stockade at the north end of the engineering complex. In the facility was room to park a dozen cars. It was a place to show cars privately for product security reasons.
Macadam had the cars parked in there. Virgil Boyd, president of the company, was going to take this viewing body through to show them the new cars. One of the cars was a Road Runner; and, of course, it didn’t have the Road Runner decal on it.
A young man working for me, Bruce Scott, happened to be a bird fan. He raised pigeons and won awards at the state fair. I gave him this assignment: “Bruce, get some black-and-white photographs of the decals that were done for glove box. I told him to make them the right size. There is one decal for each side of the car and another of the bird standing that is for the back of the trunk, and one more for the dash panel. Four decals. Get black-and-white photos of those decals and then get out your Exacto knife, and ve-e-ery carefully cut them out so they look sort of like the decals. Then, take your pot of rubber cement and get over to the stockade just before they have the show for the dealer honchos. Do whatever it takes to get those birds on the car.” Needless to say, they accomplished that. God bless them.
So, the meeting took place, and fortunately, the dealers liked the new mid-sized Plymouth models which were all-new that year, an ideal base for the Road Runner. Recall that the ’66s and ’67s, although attractive cars, were sort of linear in style: crisp. The new cars were sort of organic, the lines flowed. They liked that. It was good at the time. All these things made a great impression on the dealers
God bless one guy, and I didn’t know this ahead of time. He had a dealership in New Mexico, where the ’runner is the state bird.
It was a very happy meeting. When the big stockade door opened up, Anderson, Big Bob, was coming out with a dealer hanging on each arm patting him on the back and praising him. Everybody was smiling and all and I thought, “Well, it’s now or never.”
So, I broke into this chummy situation. (You may remember the W. C. Fields movies where a little boy would come up and tug on W. C. Fields’ pants and he would say, “Go away, boy! You’re bothering me!”). I felt like the little boy when I went up to Anderson. I said, “Hi Bob.”
“How’s it going, Bob?”
“Did you notice that the bird was on the car?”
“I noticed it.”
“Everybody seems pretty happy.”
“I’ll tell you what: let’s make a decision, and put it on the car in the factories, if they’ll do it.”
In telling these stories, I hope to give you some feeling for the human relationships we had with each other and some of the nonsense we had to go through in order to get our job done. That’s what put the bird on the car.
The official pictures of the Road Runner from the Chrysler records show, in black and white, what we had to sell. The car looks plain, the real Road Runner was even plainer; from the front view, it looks just like a Belvedere. Obviously, it’s a nice car, but it was not what you’re going to go out and sell to kids. So, let’s take a look at how we sold the car
We start with the bird. There he goes, beating a cloud of dust. Now what if we took his feet and added a wheel? Then he is on wheels and the dust becomes burning rubber and we tum it into a car. There’s the car. Now that’s Road Runner in every respect except it’s exaggerated a little bit. Needless to say the tires are bigger. The scoops on the hood are bigger.
See the two-page ad that appeared in November of 1967 in the hard core muscle car magazines such as Hot Rod, Car Craft and Popular Hotrodding. That’s a Road Runner ad, That’s the way the car was presented in the advertising.
There’s another piece of artwork that happens to be something we found that in the hands of a guy named Jim Ramsey who was working at Young & Rubicam back in those days. It’s a picture of a jigsaw puzzle (which he still had in the original format, under cellophane). It’s a good picture and it’s the only piece of artwork I know of in which, if you walked up to the picture, you can see the little black-and-white bird on the door. (It was the stance of the bird in the back, with his racing outfit, that was far more typical of the way the car was marketed.) The same artwork was turned into an ad. We don’t have to read the ad to know what it should say about performance and the four-on-the-floor as standard equipment, brakes, engine and all that stuff.
These ads did a really good job, and after a while we expanded it beyond the Road Runner. Here is a GTX ad in which we used the same technique on that car. You’ll recognize the car except, of course, the wheels are overemphasized as it is driving off in a cloud of burning rubber.
But by the end of the year the car was introduced, 1967, and early in 1968, we could see that the car was transcending the youth market and was being sold in substantial numbers to an older crowd
When we propose a car, we cannot write a Product Planning Letter without including an official volume forecast from the marketing department. They have to agree: “Yes. This is a sales-worthy car. It will be profitable.” The official forecast number for Road Runner was 2,000 incremental units. Incremental units means that you can build this car, and at the end of the year the corporation will have sold 2,000 more cars than they would otherwise have sold. It was a pittance: 2,000 cars. And it was a tragedy because purchasing volumes and manufactured parts volumes based on that forecast would limit the production we might have had.
The car was an instant smash success, and buyers couldn’t get enough of them. A truck load of Road Runners would arrive in front of a dealership and the dealer would practically deliver them right off the truck to the guys who were waiting for them. The demand was very great.
Of course, they increased the volume level. Then, they doubled it. And then, when that wasn’t enough, they doubled it again. And when that wasn’t enough, they kept going up, all year. How many Road Runners could we have sold if we had a more optimistic volume forecast? Who knows? We did sell 45,000 during 1968. My personal opinion is that it could have been at least twice that many. The GTX had sold 12,000 units in 1967. In 1968, even with Road Runner selling from the same store, GTX sales were up to 18,000. That was close to a 50% increase. And Road Runner sales came to 45,000 out of a total of 63,000 units for the year for Plymouth’s two mid-sized muscle cars.
We thought that GTOs selling 25% of Pontiac’s mid-sized cars was the speed of light. For us, even with our problems in getting parts, by October, 1968, the Road Runner was making up 30% of Plymouth’s mid-sized production—thirty percent and the GTXs were making up another portion. Road Runner’s success was that good.
In 1968 the industry-wide numbers for sales volume were up 3.5% from the previous year, Plymouth’s volume was up 18% from the previous year. That represents a lot of success and a lot of money. Part of it was the fact that the new cars were styled better than those of previous years. I’m not saying it was all Road Runner, but Road Runner had made the showroom a swinging, desirable and interesting place to be. Now when a kid would say, “Daddy, buy a Road Runner when you get that new car,” the guy may say, ’’I’m not going to buy a Road Runner, son, but I’ll at least buy a Plymouth.” That’s how it would work. So, what was the Road Runner responsible for in overall profit? I don’t know. One time I made a few estimates, and I figured it might have been $100 million, which is a hell of a return on a tooling investment that was under $500.
The car was selling, and some of the sales were to older people, so they began advertising for that generation. Reflecting that reality is an ad created featuring the fictional Mipswich Valley Sports Car and Goodfellows Club with their cars in the back—all British cars. The written material tells the story of the club and how their secretary had been so audacious as to go out and buy a Road Runner with a Hemi engine, he was almost thrown out of the club but he entered the car in the club’s competitions and won; took them for rides and they thought, “Boy, it goes where it’s pointed, and it handles pretty well, and it’s a thoroughly desirable car.”
The ad concludes: “What saved George ultimately was when he took everyone for a ride. The Bird didn’t lean or sway as everyone expected; moreover it went where it was pointed, it stopped when asked, the ride didn’t shake any fillings loose; and the interior, like the exterior, was functional and businesslike. It even had these neat, Porsche-type drafter windows in back. The effect was educational, to say the least. No, the membership didn’t rush out en masse and buy Road Runners. But now, late at night, when the coffee runs low and the conversation turns to Let’s-knock-Detroit-iron, somehow the MVSCGC just isn’t the same. Beep-Beep. The Plymouth win-you-over beat goes on.”
We wanted to get the company to get behind the project and to understand and be enthusiastic about it. How do you do that? How do you communicate to people in finance and service and the whole organization in Highland Park?
Well, we had a barber shop in the basement of the administration building and every executive would go there for a haircut. All he had to do was call up, make an appointment, show up, get his hair cut. He could read his mail, even make phone calls, while getting his hair cut. Everybody wins because they save him the trouble of getting his hair cut on his own time.
The three neat Italian barbers—Sam, Phil and Pete—wore white smocks. I took each of them one of these jackets and said, “Hey, you guys! How about wearing a Road Runner racing jacket instead of your barber’s jacket. How about letting me set one of these Road Runner statues here in the barber shop to get the conversation started.”
They said, “Sure!”
So, I’d stop in the barbershop every day or two and give them a Road Runner story: How the program was going; what had been happening. And they’d feed that to all these people because the statue of the bird would start the conversation. It just shows some of the devious means that we went to in trying to keep things active and happy, even within our own ranks.
For 1969, we had improved the car. The horn had been made purple and had a decal on it that read: VOICE OF THE ROAD RUNNER. The four speed stick was now a Hurst unit. The decals were in color and the bird was running. The car was now available as a hardtop as well as a coupe, and we added a convertible. The convertible idea had been sold to Big Bob while he was getting a haircut. I couldn’t get an appointment with him, so I had his secretary line me up, As he was getting his hair cut, I took my board in and made the presentation. That convertible was “sold” to him while he got a haircut. It really was a nice car.
We continued to use exaggeration in ads. That’s a ’69 GTX on the right; Roadrunner on far left. And the car in the middle is a car we’ve seen a lot of people with out in the yard today. That’s a Barracuda.
Arriving in the mail one day, with letter from Ray Brock, the publisher and editor of Motor Trend, was something that said, “The Birds of America.” One’s the eagle, the next is the robin. And if you can read what it says about the roadrunner, it says, “It’s a great American bird, and not only that, it’s just been selected as Motor Trend Car of the Year.”
The car was only a year old and it had won that very, very prestigious award. Car of the Year! I went to the awards ceremony. Gordon Cherry and I were sitting at a little table along the wall. Ray Brock, the publisher, made the presentation.
By this time Big Bob Anderson had left the company for North American Rockwell where he became CEO, eventually to became the father of the Space Shuttle. So you know the nature of the man. He was one heck of a guy. But he was gone.
I was gone from the Road Runner job, but I was sitting there, though already at a new job. At the ceremony the award was presented to Big Bob’s successor. He was a handsome smiling chap. I said to Gordon, “My God! Look at the guy!” (Glen White’s his name.) “He’s got a grin on his face. Just made the vice-president of sales and already getting these big awards!”
Glen White, even to this day, doesn’t know the story I just told you of what we went through to get that car.
Jack Smith, trained as a mechanical engineer, joined Chrysler in 1957, after working for Studebaker on chassis assigmments. From 1952 to 1955, Jack was the head of Studebaker’s successful Mobilgas Economy Run team.
At Chrysler, Jack took on management assignments in engineering and product planning. The latter brought him to Plymouth in 1967, where he became manager of the team that conceived the Road Runner. When Jack retired from Chrysler in 1980, he was the Chief Engineer of Vehicle Emissions and Fuel Economy Planning. In retirement, Jack was on the development team for the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan.