By on July 14, 2012

In 1980, Chrysler was headed into the financial whitewater rapids of a 2-year recession, paddling a leaky canoe full of weak sales. Their products weren’t moving, and the survival life raft full of government loans was a year away.

Sound familiar?

They needed customers in the worst way, and in early spring 1981, 18-year-old Don Sutherland saw a brand new black T-top 1980 Plymouth Roadrunner sitting in the corner of a local Chrysler-Plymouth dealership. This was his first brand new car.

In theory.

Chrysler was a company that was treading water while strapped to a 500 lb. anvil of debt in the early 1980s. They were desperately in need of customers. They were building cars that people actively avoided. This was the worst time of year to sell last year’s model, and in walks a highly motivated and qualified young buyer named Don. Naturally, you’d expect the sales guy to belly crawl through 30 yards of broken glass sitting on hot coals to get this sale done. That’s the TV movie version.

In real life, this salesman took one look at Don, wrote him off as a young punk, and gave him a terse 2 word answer to the possibility of a test drive, “Absolutely not”. Don was determined to own the ‘runner so he went to the owner and cut a deal himself. He paid $8,700 plus another $300 for a cassette stereo.

No word on whether the half-assed salesman got a cut.

Don didn’t waste any time taking his new car on a road trip. Scant weeks later, Don, his cousin Darcy, and the ‘runner headed to Vegas, LA, and San Diego on a giant road trip. The trip had its share of adventures. Don was clocked at 85 mph in Montana and received the cheapest ticket in his life in the form of a $5 EPA violation.

Darcy inflicted the first major war wound on the brand new Plymouth. Cousin Darcy discovered that he had a pathological hatred of pheasants. He aimed Don’s black beauty at a particularly cocky one. The final score was Plymouth 1 and pheasant 0. But the victory came at a price. The 95 mph impact ripped half the front grill off the car, and Darcy’s trip suddenly became a lot pricier.

Don’s new ride was scarred, but that was the 1st of many great road trips in the faithful Roadrunner. Don and the Roadrunner became life partners, and in 2012,they celebrated 31 years together.

Since then he married Michelle, and they have 2 sons, plus he started a business, but the Roadrunner is still there. That’s a feat because in the early stages of his new marriage he ran into the struggle between the eternal enemies called old car vs. new bride. He solved that by moving the car out of the coveted carport in the winter to neutral storage.

They took the last big trip in the car to Spokane when Michelle was expecting their oldest son Stu in the early 90s, and since then the beeper is in semi-retirement mode.

The car is still completely rust free because it only saw one real Canadian winter, so the game plan is surprisingly easy. Don pulled the 85,000 original mile 318 to replace the seals and allow access to the engine compartment for a thorough detailing.

The power train is solid, because Don has always respected the concept of regular maintenance and the same mechanic for 30 years.

This car should easily be back from cosmetic enhancement in time for the 2013 car show season, because it’s so close to mint condition in 2012. Don wants to exercise patience because he wants to copy the showroom look of the T-roof beeper back in 1981.

He summed it up this way: “how many guys can get behind the wheel of a significant car from their past and be 18 again?’

For more of J Sutherland’s work go to mystarcollectorcar.com

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25 Comments on “Car Collector’s Corner: 1980 Plymouth Roadrunner One Owner T-top Beeper...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Buddy in college had one in the late 90s, no T-tops. He thought it was the baddest thing ever. The rest of us knew it was no cooler than the G-body coupes the rest of us were lusting over.

    This is cool cause he’s the original owner.

  • avatar
    pb35

    Don Sutherland’s Road Runner? Is that like “John” Voight’s Lebaron?

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Great story on a cool car. I understand Don. I was a deep drinker of the Mopar Kool-Ade in those days. The dealer should have been falling all over himself to sell that car to Don, because by 1980, Volares had such a horrible reputation that nobody wanted one.

    In truth, by 1980, most of the car’s problems had been solved and they were pretty decent cars. Congrats to Don on keeping his old ride in top shape. The only pity is that Don wasn’t about 10 years older.

    One minor quibble – Chrysler never got a penny through Government Loans. Instead, Chrysler got government loan guarantees – Private banks made the loans, the government guaranteed them. Because Chrysler’s fortunes improved through new management and new product, Chrysler paid back the loans to the banks, and the government was not out one thin dime. Chrysler had a helluva time getting the loan guarantees – actual government loans was never on the table, and would never have happened in those years.

    • 0 avatar
      probert

      In the present gm/chrysler case no private banks would make the loans. The right thing was done – thousands of jobs saved in the middle of a depression, the car indusrty on the rebound and the money will be paid back with interest. Nice job.

      • 0 avatar
        SoCalMikester

        We are going to lose money on GM, and in a few years they will be selling us (some, probably higher-end Buicks)Chinese-made cars.

        The “Fat Cats” are all going to get their bonuses, of course.

        Same thing they did in the late 80s/early 90s, but those were mostly Mexican built trucks with a high margin.

  • avatar
    seabrjim

    Wow, brings back the memories. I had a 68 roadrunner with a 383 and the unsilenced air cleaner that came on the non n96 package. The noise from that carter avs when the secondaries were opening was awesome. Keep that car and good luck with the resto. An understanding wife is priceless.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    Chrysler never solved the rust problems with the the Volare and Aspen. Here in Buffalo, they were perforated in 3-4 years. LeBarons and Furys were better

  • avatar
    pb35

    BTW, my dad was a Chrysler salesman in the 70′s-80′s. One time he brought home an Aspen with some sort of sport package. 360 under the hood with a floor mounted auto. I wasn’t quite old enough to drive yet but I recall my older brother wanted to buy it.

    Thanks for posting, brings back memories.

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    Wow, I’ve never ever known the existence of such a machine. Hard to imagine something with the legendary Roadrunner name could be so wimpy looking. You learn something new in TTAC all the time! I’m thinking Roadrunner fans probably would rather forget about this car’s existence.

    • 0 avatar
      LectroByte

      I second that emotion… I do appreciate that it is very special to the guy who bought it and loved it all these years, but it does look like a ’75 Nova coupe, not a Roadrunner. I thought they killed off the Charger/Roadrunner in ’73 or so.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    …..He summed it up this way: “how many guys can get behind the wheel of a significant car from their past and be 18 again?’….

    I just go to the garage, start up my Fury, and it is 1980 for me all over again. The car was 8 years old when I got it with 140K on the clock. Ready for another redo, that will be my first retirement gift to myself.

    bufguy, you are correct. I went to school in upstate NY and most cars were Swiss cheese by five years, especially in cities like Sybeiracuse. The salt was relentless. My Fury emerged from four years of that and still no holes. Aspens, Mustangs, Darts, any Honda/Toyota were no match for real winters…

    • 0 avatar
      probert

      I think it was specifically because of the Aspen rust through that the government mandated a 10 year rust through law. After that the manufacturers started galvanizing the metal.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    Reminds me of a 78 Volare Road Runner that I had. Bought it to flip. Baby blue, 318, with column shifter (gotta love that ChryCo sales bank). Ran good, but without a console, it was not a keeper. Put it up for sale shortly thereafter. 18 year old woman was the purchaser. She bought it because she “loved that little road runner decal on the door.” Didn’t seem to care about the rest of the car.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    Great story. And I admire anyone who keeps a car that long. It says volumes about their character.

    I also think it’s funny how t-tops can up any car’s “cool.”

    My stepmom had a white on red Volare/Aspen (I can’t remember which). As with others, the Cleveland winters devoured it in short order.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Yup. Just go out and turn the key and it’s 1957 again. Except I have to dream that the engine turns over. I decided that 13mpg wasn’t good enough so I have been slowly working on it. 283/powerglide/2 door 210 wagon. Too much to say. Old car on hiatus works better. Drove it to work for two years before the gas pumps tried to bankrupt me in 07.

    WTG for both you guys with running old cars.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Nice story, nice car.

  • avatar
    solracer

    “how many guys can get behind the wheel of a significant car from their past and be 18 again?’

    I can, the car I bought when I was 16 in 1975, a 1966 Corvair Corsa convertible is sitting in my garage right now awaiting restoration. Don’t know I’ll have it back on the road quite as quick as Don will but that’s more because I can’t find a Seattle-area bodyshop that I trust to repaint it then because of any mechanical issues.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Nice story. What a nice car you have, and refreshingly; it looks like a car (unlike many a smeared/trouted/pimped design on the road today, influenced by gangstas tryin’ to impress hos).

    I wish I had the foresight, and lifelong means to have kept one or two of my earlier cars. How nice it would be to drive an old friend occasionally, to remember the happy memories.

  • avatar
    gurry

    I bought a 1980 Dodge Aspen around 1990. Amazingly, there was no rust, and this was in Canada. Had the slant six and automatic.

  • avatar
    beefmalone

    Thanks for writing a great article with none of the offhand snideness and Malaise-era “witticisms” that seem to pervade any story about a car of this era.

    • 0 avatar

      Compare, though, this purposeful looking Roadrunner with a Dodge Aspen Super Coupe, which has louvered slats on the rear side windows in addition to the back glass, plus late ’70s style colored stripes. It may look cartoonish but the Aspen Super Coupe was actually faster than the L82 Corvette, Z28 Camaro and Trans Am Firebird 400. Of course, the fact that a Dodge Aspen was faster than all of those cars kind of sums up the malaise-era pretty well.

      http://www.carsindepth.com/?p=5463

  • avatar

    Thanks for the feedback, Jerry and I are unapologetic cheerleaders for every bygone era of cars and trucks. We were judges at a Ford meet today where Jerry picked an Econoline pickup truck and I picked a mint survivor mid-70s Cougar. I won the coin toss to decide between the two and the Cougar owner won a beautiful trophy from one of our local Ford dealerships. He was a very surprised winner with a car from the Rodney Dangerfield decade for automobiles.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    He’ll probably never know if the T-tops leak, cuz this thing will likely never see a rainy day once complete. While this car is not my particular cup of “classic automobile” tea, good on him for the effort and the dedication. Even minor classics need love….

  • avatar
    J Sutherland

    It doesn’t look wimpy in real life.Good stance and trust me, you don’t see two of them in traffic.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    Every decade in the automotive world is made fun of by internet car sites and internet car lovers, not only the 70′s. They also make fun of the 80′s, 90′s, 2,000′s and next will be 2010 and up.


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