By 1966, muscle cars were hitting peak stride. But some argued they had become too expensive and strayed too far from the original concept. As performance models had grown in displacement and technology, some crossed into premium pricing territory. Pontiac’s GTO, for example, could easily exceed $4,000 with a handful of options when the average cost of an American automobile was closer to $2,750.
Enter Jack Smith.
Plymouth had fallen into the pricing pitfall like most other manufacturers. Smith, who owned a souped-up Belvedere II, had recently been promoted to head of the company’s mid-sized car planning division. He wagered the public might enjoy a car like his and Plymouth introduced the GTX in 1967 to compete with the GTO. But it was still too expensive, especially for a budget brand like Plymouth, and garnered a lukewarm sales response — which gave Jack an idea.
With muscle cars getting progressively more costly, Smith figured the best solution was to come up with something affordable and fast. Chrysler’s then vice president of sales and marketing, Bob Anderson, already wanted Smith to come up with something to attract the youth market. This was encouraged by a letter from Brock Yates suggesting a stripped-down midsize two-door stuffed with a larger engine.
Smith’s goal was to build a 15-second car with over 300 horsepower that could be sold for less than $3,000. Going back to the Belvedere for inspiration, he cobbled an example together using police-spec components and leftovers from the GTX. The name for the vehicle came while his assistant, Gordon Cherry, was watching cartoons with this children.
Smith secured the rights to use the Road Runner image from Warner Brothers for $50,000, much to the chagrin of executive vice president of Chrysler Dick Macadam, and spent another $10,000 designing the car’s iconic horn. Smith estimated the remaining tooling costs for the Road Runner was under $500.
In 1968, you could purchase a Plymouth Road Runner with a 355-horsepower 383-cubic inch V8 for roughly $2,800. That’s the modern cash equivalent of a base Chevrolet Malibu that’s able to outrun a mid-tier Camaro.
Of course, for an extra $714 you could have the Plymouth equipped with the 426 Hemi, an improved suspension, and the standard Hurst four-speed — making it just about the fastest thing on four wheels. But four wheels and an engine was about all you got for your money. While the Road Runner was a performance miracle in its day, it was almost laughably barebones. Some early models didn’t even have carpeting.
That didn’t hurt sales, though. Plymouth sold around 40,000 Road Runners in its first year and doubled that volume in 1969.
Hoping to remain on a roll with the youth market, Smith later developed flowered and paisley “mod tops” for Chrysler vehicles — pushing Mopar roofs and interiors into an era of maximum grooviness.
Jack retired from Chrysler in 1980 after serving as the Chief Engineer of Vehicle Emissions and Fuel Economy Planning. In retirement, he joined the development team for the Chrysler Technology Center and became a regular fixture at car shows in Southeastern Michigan.
We were tipped off that John “Jack” L. Smith passed away last Friday at the age of 94. As a major contributor to the funky persona of mid-century Mopar and staple at the Woodward Dream Cruise, he will be missed.
[Source: Allpar] [Images: Fiat Chrysler]