The Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Super Bee
Fast start: Road Runner is born
The 1968 Plymouth Roadrunner (and its later companion, the Dodge Super Bee — from here on, we’ll talk about the Road Runner incarnation, since it was more common and first out the door) were fairly unique. Based on the heavy luxury cars in the B-body line (Belvidere / Satellite), the Roadrunner was lighter than the smaller ’Cuda. To make it both light and cheap, the Roadrunner had few amenities - forget about carpet, for example. Creature comforts gave way to sheer performance and cost considerations. [“Father of the Road Runner” Jack Smith’s story of the birth of the Road Runner.]
The Roadrunner was not fragile. Unlike some sports cars (such as the Corvette), it was built for serious street work, which might be why so many have survived. The Roadrunner was reportedly a favorite of moonshiners, faster than almost any police car and tough enough to take practically any bump, with good ground clearance to boot. The only thing it didn’t have was aerodynamics; that was the province of the Dodge Charger 500, Charger Daytona, and Plymouth Superbird.
The idea behind the Road Runner had been running around Highland Park for a while, but management had turned it down. Reportedly, it was eventually produced “despite” management opposition, like the Duster — and like the Duster, Dodge immediately clamored for and got its own version when sales figures turned up.
Yes, the Road Runner was based on the cartoon, and came complete with a horn that went beep beep! and an ad campaign featuring Wiley Coyote. Depending on the model and year, the steering wheel had a little Road Runner, and the air cleaner had a cartoon with the logo "Coyote Duster." The Superbird put a huge, helmeted Roadrunner onto its massive rear spoiler.
In 1968, the base engine was a 383, with heads, intake, cam, and exhaust manifolds from the 440 Super Commando; those made it the fastest 383 ever, with 335 (gross) horsepower. A four-speed manual was standard (three speeds were par for the course in those days). The Road Runner was free of glitz and chrome, mostly to reduce weight.
Though it was a hefty price in 1968 and 1969, $714 extra would buy the ultimate street engine, one unmatched by any other (except the Viper-10): the 426 Hemi. That pretty much guaranteed the ability to win at streetlight races.
The idea was apparently good enough for Dodge to steal, without giving Plymouth a single unchallenged model year. The Dodge Super Bee started at just over $3,000; the name was a play on the B-Body on which both Road Runner and Super Bee were based (Belvidere and Coronet, respectively). Chrysler’s other cars were the A-bodies, C-bodies, and D-bodies, at the time.
The Dodge Super Bee used a mascot which did not require them to pay royalties, since it was created in-house; unlike Plymouth, they could use 3D die-cast medallions to show off their mascot, right from the start. Like Road Runner, Super Bee took an intermediate sedan and added heavier duty shocks and suspension components, bigger brakes, and a different hood. It had one inch more wheelbase than the Roadrunner, resulting in a little more weight (around 65 lb). As one might expect from a more upscale brand, as Dodge was at the time, the Super Bee came better equipped, boasting the Charger’s cluster and, for four-speeds, a Hurst Competition Plus shifter and linkage, while Road Runner made do with a cheaper Inland setup.
1968 Super Bees came with just two engines — a 383 Magnum, the workhorse engine with 335 hp, and the 426 Hemi, with a breathtaking price increase to go with its extra 90 hp and complete street cred (not to mention beefed up suspension components).
Plymouth sold 44,599 Road Runners in 1968 — not quite Satellite or Fury territory, but far, far better than the 18,940 GTXs that rolled out, or the 31,987 Barracudas. Indeed, Road Runner managed to outsell (barely) the Belvidere itself.
In 1969, Ford responded with the Cobra (a Fairlane with a 428), but the Road Runner kept going to win Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award; the 1970 440 6-barrel option helped, providing Hemi-like acceleration with a much lower price tag. The 440 four-barrel wasn’t available in 1969, though; as K.C. wrote:
Many people back in the day ordered 440 emblems and installed them on Road Runners and Super Bees because we didn’t like telling people we had a 383. It was common. Used car lots did it too because a 440 car sold faster!
Many Mopar guys today argue that they owned a 1969 440 four-barrel Road Runner or Super Bee. They bought them used, and the seller/car lot told them it was original. This is also backed up by Paul Herd, who wrote the B-body Bible you must have to restore these cars.
The 440 cubic inch, triple-carburetor (two barrels each), 390 horsepower Road Runner took the concept to its natural conclusion, even eliminating hubcaps. The Super Bee, meanwhile, added the Ramcharger air scoop on the hood; unlike many scoops, this one was functional and standard with the deep-gulping Hemi. The Plymouth “Coyote Duster” air induction hood was matched by a less graphically adept Dodge version; Super Bee also got a hardtop model to join the original.
|383 Magnum||440 SixPack||426 Hemi|
|Air Cleaner||dual snorkel||unsilenced||unsilenced|
|Gross horsepower||335 @ 5200||390 @ 4700||425 @ 5000|
|Torque (lbs-ft.)||425 @ 3400||490 @ 3200||490 @ 4000|
Wheels were moderately large for the time, at 15 x 6, albeit laughably small by 21st century standards.
Dodge sold 27,800 Super Bees in 1969 — a far cry from Plymouth’s stunning 84,420 Road Runner sales. There was clearly something to the Road Runner concept which was missing from the pricier Dodge or, for that matter, the upscale GTX.
1970: Road Runner Superbird
1970 Road Runners and Super Bees both gained a new grille; the Plymouth grille was shared with Belvidere, and was both moderately aggressive and neat. The more complex Super Bee front end had a twin-loop design. Whether due to the looks, changing times, or, the cheaper-but-still-potent Plymouth Duster 340, sales of the Road Runner fell lower than they had been in 1968, to 43,404. (They sold 24,817 Duster 340s in the same year, and an astounding 192,375 other Dusters.)
In 1970, the Road Runner added the Air Grabber hood, which was remote controlled from the passenger compartment. Press a button, and you have a scoop. Press again, and you have a normal hood.
Dale Mathews wrote: “The blue 70 Road Runner was original white car [shown above] and is the 1970 Pilot car, a Hemi, the first 1970 Road Runner made, and believed to be the car in the press release photo for the 1970 Road Runner as well as the car used in Rapid Transit advertisements in 1970. The wagon is a 1961 plymouth bought from original 87 year old owner in 2000, and is powered now by a 413 long ram.”
New for 1970 was the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, an astonishing car with a remarkably slippery shape, largely due to wind tunnel design. It was inevitable that when Dodge had developed their Charger Daytona for NASCAR speedways, that Plymouth would demand their own, for the same purpose. Both spent time in wind tunnels; the Plymouth was somewhat more challenging due to the original shape of the car. Top speed on these cars, equipped with either a 440 or 426 Hemi engine, was reputed to be over 150 mph as they arrived at the dealer, and over 180 mph with relatively minor modifications; Chrysler itself set a record of over 200 mph.
1971 Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Charger Super Bee
The Super Bee well and truly changed in 1971, its final year, moving to the Charger platform. Only 5,054 were made, roughly one third of 1970 production; Super Bee maintained its traditional “roughly one third of Road Runner” production, as well. Gaven Govier, as quoted in the Standard Catalog of Chrysler, said that there were just 99 Super Bees with the 440 Six-Pack, and 22 with Hemis.
1971 brought the first major changes, including what Plymouth called “an all new body;” John E. Herlitz’s groundbreaking styling featured swoopy lines, and large, looping bumper/grill assemblies. There was an optional Air Grabber hood, which used vacuum to pop open a hood scoop. There were no mid-size convertibles for the first time, and Plymouth sold an optional power sunroof instead. The Road Runner’s wheelbase went down from 116 to 115 inches, and the engines were changed to meet emissions standards; the 383 went from 335 to 300 hp, and the 440+6 went from 390 to 385. The Hemi squeaked through with its original 425 hp (sources vary on net horsepower; many have noted that Chrysler appears to have deliberately under-rated the Hemi. Note our copies of the dyno sheets which show over 460 hp!).
Advantages of the 1971 redesign include a three-inch wider rear track for better handling, flush door handles and ventless side glass for better aerodynamics (higher top speeds and lower noise), and options such as sun roofs, “tuff” steering wheels, functional air-grabber scoops - a highly desirable option now, especially since they could be opened or closed at the press of a button - and more features.
Plymouth Road Runner sales plummeted down to 14,218 for 1971, possibly the victim of high insurance surcharges, possibly due to the styling change. Duster 340 sales also fell dramatically, down to 12,886 — around half of 1970’s total. (Overall, Duster sales were 173,592, so the issue was not the car itself, but the performance variant of it.)
John Belbas pointed out that the 1968 Road Runner had the 383 or Hemi; the 1969 and 1970 Road Runner had the 383, Hemi, or 440 triple-twin-barrel.
According to Plymouth ads, the 383 and 340 Road Runners received a standard insurance rating from most auto insurers, despite the four-barrel carb, heavy-duty brakes, and go-fast look; yet, the cars were quite potent.
1972: Road Runner is still potent, but Hemi and Six-Pack are gone
In 1972, the Hemi and 440 six-barrel dropped out of the picture, but the 383 was bored out to become the 255-net-hp 400, and the 340 was added to the lineup, with nearly as much power as the heavy 400 (240 hp) but lighter weight, helping the Road Runner’s cornering. The 340 was later replaced by the 360, which had less power than the original 340; the 440 dropped out of the Roadrunner in 1974 (and was dropped completely by Chrysler in 1978).
Also in 1972, electronic ignition, a Chrysler invention, became standard, cutting tuneup costs and increasing consistently usable power. The Plymouth Road Runner was still well-endowed with power, but the in 1973, the shape of things to come appeared: the mild-mannered but indestructible 318, with 170 hp, was the standard base engine, make standard Road Runners more cosmetic packages than moonshine delivery vehicles.
1972 would not bring a sales respite, with only 7,628 sold.
Finally, in 1973, the Plymouth GTX — which started as the only 440 powered Belvidere — was dropped, and the GTX name, associated with a high-end, feature-laden muscle car, was fastened to the Road Runner, known as the budget-performance muscle car. The 280 horsepower four-barrel 440 (net rating) was only available as part of the GTX option package, which essentially consisted of that engine, various suspension and brake upgrades, and three glued-on emblems.
The 1974 Road Runner was, as one might expect, a virtual clone of the Plymouth Satellite coupe, at least on the outside. Under the hood lurked a big block engine, still; and a Hurst edition was still available. Dan Diehl, for example, owns a 1974 Plymouth Road Runner Hurst edition, with a four-speed transmission connected to the 400 cubic inch B engine. The car was luxurious for a Road Runner, coming with air conditioning, a rear defroster, FM stereo, interior hood release, and hood pins.
For 1973, sales had gone back up again, to just over 19,000, but 1974 saw them fall right back to 11,555.
For 1974, the 440 V8 engine was also available in the Plymouth Road Runner. “plybirdman” wrote that there were 388 such cars made in 1974.
The end of the road
1974 was the final year for the Belvidere/Satellite-based Road Runner ... in one sense. In 1975, Plymouth “downsized” the C-body Fury and dropped Belvidere and Satellite. It would be equally valid to say that they merely renamed the B-bodies to Fury. In any case, the appearance of the Plymouth Road Runner changed again, this time matching the 1975 Plymouth Fury. 1975 sales, just over seven thousand, were a new low point, and it should come as no surprise that there was no 1976 Road Runner.
(Courtesy lio45) In 1968 and 1969, Road Runners had the same 120mph speedometer as the basic Belvidere. The Sport Satellite and GTX were the ones who had the 150mph speedometer.
The rallye dash with round gauges (used by the Charger and Super Bee since 1968) only appeared in 1970 on the Runner. (For once, it was Plymouth who borrowed something from Dodge!) 1968 and 1969 Runners all had the standard B-body Plymouth dash, with a rectangular speedo with the needle going from left to right. (GTX of 1968 and 1969 had a very similar dash. No Plymouths had the rallye dash before 1970).
Plymouth’s ad copy, 1968
Until now, there were two distinct type of stock cars. There was street stock. And, indeed, it was just that. Despite the acquisition of big-displacement engines and ferocious nicknames, it was basically just a boulevard car. The emphasis was on luxury: expensive interiors, lavish adornments, and lots of brightwork.
Then there was the other type — the Grand National stocker. You couldn’t buy it, and even if you could, your name would have to be Petty or something to get it started on a cold morning. Nevertheless, it was infinitely attractive — the low silhouette; the super-wide tires; the stovepipe exhausts; the absence of chrome; the Spartan cockpit — sort of brutally good-looking.
Obviously there was a need for a car that combined some of the creature comforts of the street stock with the integrity of the Grand National type. So we created the Missing Link. It’s called the Road Runner, and you’d better believe it’s one hairy-idling, stiffly-sprung, squat-sitting, wide-tired, de-chromed automobile.
Unlike most stocks, Road Runner doesn’t sport an interior of hand-rubbed, fake Ukembeki wood. It doesn’t even have Buck Rogers signature-model seats. Like a real stocker, it’s all business inside: a couple of gauges, a bit Hurst gear lever and clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. The exterior is similarly functional.
The standard engine is an exclusive high-output version of Plymouth’s 383 cubic inch V8. Optional, and very fitting, is the big 426 Hemi.
The body is a two-door coupe with a hardtop roofline, and it’s rigid as only a stocker can be. The suspension is completely heavy-duty, front and rear. The only real concession to the boulevard is the addition of a horn, and even that has character, it goes "beep-beep!" just like the bird in the cartoons.
Oh, yes - and the doors work. On Grand National cars they’re welded shut.
The primary information source for this page was an April 1993 article in Mopar Muscle by Tom Shaw. lio45 provided some clarifications and over the years there have been many other updates.