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Passed: Father of Road Runner

by David Zatz on

John L. Smith, usually known as Jack Smith — or as the “Father of the Road Runner,” passed away on Friday at the age of 94, according to his wife, Laverne.

While he had many accomplishments, Smith was mainly known for the low-budget, high-performance Plymouth with cartoon emblems. That story began shortly after 1965, when he led Plymouth’s new office for mid-sized car planning. The first effort was the Plymouth GTX, a competent but costly muscle car which sold poorly, partly because of Plymouth’s stodgy reputation.

Smith moved on to fight Plymouth’s staid reputation with the “mod tops,” adding paisley to the roof and interior, but the real breakthrough came with the Road Runner.

Smith credited the idea partly to Brock Yates, but also to his own customized 383-powered Belvedere II. The idea was to get under $3,000, with 0-to-60 in under seven seconds, and a 15-second quarter mile, without modifications.

Smith credited the name “Road Runner” and the cartoon association to his assistant, Gordon Cherry.  The entire car, including the specially tuned and decorated “meep-meep” horn, took two months. to create. It was a runaway success, not only giving Plymouth much-needed muscle-car credibility (which would serve it well with the Duster), but selling well in its own right — with admirable numbers for a true muscle car, not having any economy engines. Over 40,000 were sold in its first year; it beat 80,000 in its second. In 1970, it had to fight with the Plymouth Duster for sales, but still beat 40,000 again.

Most people are not aware of the rest of his life, though.  Jack Smith was trained as a mechanical engineer and started work at Studebaker, rising to manage Studebaker’s successful Mobil Economy Runs.  In 1957, he joined Chrysler.

When Jack retired from Chrysler in 1980, he was the Chief Engineer of Vehicle Emissions and Fuel Economy Planning. In retirement, he joined the development team for the highly successful Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Jack Smith, 2008

Burton Bouwkamp, retired product planner, told us, “He died suddenly at home which, [his wife Laverne] said, was the way he wanted it to happen. At Jack’s request there will not be a funeral service.

“Jack worked for me in Engineering from 1962 to 1964 and then again in Product Planning from 1968 to 1975. We also were personal friends. Jack was a very talented person – and he was a ‘one man band.’ He was personable and could get things done in or out of the Chrysler system, and he had the knack of getting it done without offending anyone.

“The Plymouth Roadrunner wasn’t Jack’s idea but he made it happen. He was responsible for planning and executing the model including getting Warner Brothers approval to use the Roadrunner cartoon decal. In addition he personally pushed/pulled/carried paperwork through the system to get the model launched in production in a short time.

“In my book he was the father of the Plymouth Roadrunner.”

Charles Gunderson added, “Jack was smart, fun and ambitious. He loved his job and all those he worked with. Just another fabulous Chrysler guy. I remember Jack coming back from their trip to California when they  worked out the deal.  Pumped!  He was Mr Roadrunner!

“He was always the best kind of a guy and very encouraging to me personally. I’ll remember him well.”

David Zatz founded Allpar in 1998 (based on a site he had begun in 1993-94), after years of writing reviews for retail trades. He has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. Before making Allpar a full-time career, he was a consultant in organizational psychology. You can reach him by using our contact form (much preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304


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