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Beep! Beep! meant plenty of speed in '68

September 18, 2005|By MALCOLM GUNN

It was a flighty idea that turned into a magic formula for selling cars. Interestingly, Chrysler didn't realize that fact until the orders began piling up for its new 1968 Road Runner. It's a magic formula that has been tough for any manufacturer to duplicate since then.

During the 1960s, Chrysler, along with GM and Ford, pulled out all the stops to produce the biggest and baddest cars around. After all, there was a huge population bulge of Baby Boomers, weaned on guitars, surf music and hot rods, who loved cars. The Ford Mustang's overnight success easily proved that point. Afterward, corporate attention turned to making cars that not only looked hip, but were really, really quick.

Pontiac's 1964 GTO was the first to cash in on this lucrative mixture of hormones and horsepower. The division's engineering and marketing whiz kids, led by the infamous John Z. Delorean, first came up with the ingenious idea of cramming an intermediate-sized coupe with a big-cube motor, then shipping it off to kid-hungry dealers, complete with an eye-poppingly low sticker price. It didn't have to stop on a dime or provide crisp handling, in fact, few cars did. The GTO's primary mission was to light up its skinny bias-ply rear tires while making the anguished sounds of a thousand bellowing beasts under the hood.

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Chrysler Corporation didn't exactly arrive late to the big-engine, low-buck party. A year following the GTO's birth, intermediate Dodge Coronets and Plymouth Satellites could be optioned with blistering V-8 power, including - on special order only - the awesome 425-horse Hemi.

However try as it might, Chrysler hadn't found the right recipe to get the kids flocking to Dodge or Plymouth showrooms. Meanwhile, the competition - GTOs, SS Chevelles, Ford Fairlanes and the like - were winning over the hearts and minds of millions of youthful speed worshippers.

Just when it seemed they would never get in the game, a spark of inspiration ignited within Plymouth's product planning department. The idea was to take a stripped-down intermediate model, fill it with a high-output motor and send the resulting low-priced concoction on its merry way. The icing on the cake would be its cartoon character name, the Road Runner, and its unmistakable "Beep Beep" horn.

In fact the horn was probably the most exclusive (and at $50,000 to develop, probably the most expensive) single ingredient that went into the Road Runner mix.

With a target base price of less than $3,000 - the actual base price was $2,870 - the 1968 Road Runner didn't come with many, or any for that matter, frills. Deleting equipment that was not essential to meeting the Road Runner's price objectives made attaining the performance criteria even easier. Less stuff means less weight, which means a quicker, faster car that handles and stops better, all with less power. There was no air conditioning, no bucket seats and no roll-down rear windows, at least initially.

Instead, you got a thinly-covered bench seat, column-shift automatic or floor-mounted four-speed shift with no console and pop-out rear windows.

No one seemed to mind, especially considering what came under the hood of the Belvedere-based body. The standard engine for the Road Runner was a unique 335-horsepower version of the 383 V-8. Hardly a technical marvel for the day, but a stout, basic performer, it featured a mild camshaft, moderate compression ratio, large-valve 440 V-8 cylinder heads and matching cast-iron intake manifold, as well as cast-iron exhaust manifolds exiting into dual mufflers. That's it. Nothing fancy. It was good enough, though, when coupled to the lightweight Unibody for quarter-mile times in the high 14-second range at 100 mph.

Of course, the underpinnings were of the heavy-duty variety, including heavy-duty drum brakes and torsion-bar springs up front, and chunky leaf springs and a heavy-duty 8 3/4-inch rear end with 3.23:1 gears out back.

Although the Road Runner could be ordered with dressy Rallye wheels, standard-issue steel rims and "dog-dish" hub caps were more than likely what you saw on the streets in 1968.

But, you had to be careful. You see, for 1968 there was only one engine option: the 425-horsepower 426 Hemi. An option equaling one-fifth of the base price of entire car, the Hemi ensured street supremacy for Chrysler and gave the Road Runner nearly overnight legendary status. The 375-horsepower 440 "RB" engine became available in 1969, as did the convertible.

The 1968 Road Runner might not have represented the pinnacle of styling and technology for the day, but it did offer budget-conscious, performance-oriented buyers exactly what they wanted. For that reason, the 1968-'70 Road Runners have earned a very special place in the annals of automotive history and in our hearts.

How do we know? A little bird told us.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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