By on October 8, 2013

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Like so many broken down old cars, the old Plymouth sat forlorn and alone at the far edge of the driveway. Even from a distance, it looked like it was a mess, its green paint was peeling away and the hood, which for some reason had a flat black square in the middle, was entirely oxidized. Up close I could see that the interior was just as bad as the exterior. The dash pad was totally cooked and the vinyl seats had split wide open along their seams. My buddy Rick, however, insisted the car was cool and to prove his point he raised the hood to show me a tired old engine that he insisted was a 383 big block. I looked it over, noting the four barrel Holley double pumper without an air cleaner and the unpainted valve covers that had leaked an impressive amount of dirty black oil over the years, and tried to find something to be positive about. Finally I found it, bolted to the inner fender was a splash of faded purple and a sticker featuring a cartoon character. Its text proclaimed “Voice of the Roadrunner” and I knew in an instant, with all the certainty that 19 years of life experience had given me, that my friend had been right all along.

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I suppose now that I had driven by that house a million times over the years and never once noticed the old Plymouth that sat deteriorating in its driveway. It wasn’t until my friend Rick had gone to work for the man who owned the car that we became aware of its presence and after seeing it in the driveway thoughts of buying it soon swirled around inside our primitive, teen aged brains. Muscle cars were good and if we could score one we would be awesome.

We examined our situation. Rick had a job and a few dollars in his pocket but his family situation wasn’t stable and, since his single mother often struggled to make ends meet, he usually ended up using most of his paycheck to help the family get by. My family situation was a lot better, I certainly never wanted for any of life’s basic necessities, but I lacked a job and the drive it took to get one. As a result, the only money I had was what I could skim off the top of the gas money that my parents slipped me so I could “look for work.” Still, we were young and ignorant so we decided that between the two of us we could work something out with the car’s owner. Before we struck the deal, however, we needed to make sure the old car ran.

The car’s owner told us it needed an alternator so Rick and I pooled our meager resources and scraped together the $30 required to buy a rebuilt part at the local auto parts store. While we were there we also bought a new set of plugs and a can of starting fluid. Back at the house, we charged the battery while we worked on the car. Although neither of us were master mechanics, we managed to get the old alternator off and the new on back on without breaking anything important. The spark plug change went just as well, and within a couple of hours we had progressed to the point where we could add some old lawn mower gas to the car’s tank and start cranking.

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The Plymouth’s gear reduction starter gave a raspy growl and the big engine started to slowly turn. Inside the car, Rick pumped the gas pedal and I gave the open carb a shot of starting fluid. For a second the car chuffed, then fired and struggled to life. It ran for less than five seconds and then stopped as painfully as it had started. Rick cranked the engine again and the car stumbled back to life as I added another shot of ether. The car popped, sputtered and started to die again, but this time I thought to give it another shot of starting fluid before the engine quit and it struggled back to life. On and on the cycle went and between Rick pumping the gas and my occasional shots of starting fluid we managed to keep the car running long enough for our fresh lawnmower gas to make its way up from the fuel tank to allow the car to begin to idle on its own. It sat there, running rough and emitting a cloud of rich smelling black smoke out the back, but between the two of us we had done it. We had breathed life back into the old car.

The car’s owner was impressed and he gave us a hearty pat on the back for our efforts before inviting us up onto his porch to talk about price. He laid it out in simple, broad terms. He wanted $1000 and he wanted it in cash, up front. No payments, no working it off, just $1000 cash on the barrelhead, please. Rick and I looked at one another dumfounded and it suddenly dawned upon us that between the two of us we had never even seen $1000 in our lives. There was no way we could actually buy the car we had just repaired.

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A week or two later someone else came up with the cash and just as quickly as we had found and fixed it, the old Plymouth was snatched away. It was a bitter lesson, but like another cartoon character, the Grinch when he discovered the Christmas spirit, my brain previously two sizes too small, grew three sizes bigger that day. I have never forgotten that lesson. Cars, houses, and in the case of my sister when she thought she was going to fix one of her dead beat boyfriends a long time ago, if you are going to put your time, effort and money into something, make damn good and certain you have the title in hand. They are words to live by.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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57 Comments on “Life Lesson: Falling For The Roadrunner...”


  • avatar
    thelaine

    You got Ruggled.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Interesting lesson.

    In summer 1969, my buddy and I were cruising junkyards for stuff for my bomb of a 1961 Bel Air along Hall St. in north St. Louis, came to one of the many junkyards out there at the time, and sitting out front was an amazingly nice 1956 Chevy Nomad, sans motor and one piece of tailgate trim missing.

    We inquired about it, the guy asked $25.00 to haul it away!

    We thought for a minute – we didn’t have $10 between us. We went home, he spoke to his dad, we all got in his tan w/off-white vinyl interior, 1963 Buick Electra Dynaflow-equipped hardtop sedan, drove down there, and the Nomad was gone. The guy at the yard said we should have acted sooner. He told us it went to the crusher.

    Yeah, right…

    We suspected it wasn’t titled or something else fishy, and the guy smelled a rat when we said we’d bring my buddy’s dad back.

    We still talk about that one that got away!

    I believe we all have some similar story.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Actually getting the Roadrunner would have been a different – and possibly more difficult – life lesson.

  • avatar
    seabrjim

    My first muscle car at age 20 back in 79 was a 68 roadrunner with a 383 and 92k on the clock. Unlike the Edelbrock repro which stays in tune a little longer I had original AVS, which needed tuning with the change of seasons. Someone swapped the horn in from a later year I see. Mine was an early production model before they replaced the rubber with carpet in the late fall of 67. Great story! ps, the hood blackout was an option.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    I’d say you got off light on that one. The fact it ran at all was easy teen buyer bait. You would have spend loads on it and still not have a running machine in the end. Love those Roadrunners though.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    As always, another great life story which also happens to have a car as its main character.

    Indeed, when one is young and naive, one will get shell shocked by life quite a few times.
    But as I explain to anyone asking about my abundance of gray hairs, that is called experience!

  • avatar

    http://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1087492_gm-follows-teslas-lead-plans-to-sell-directly-to-online-shoppers#src=10065

  • avatar
    lon888

    If you have never wrenched on a car, its hard to understand that feeling you get when you bring a dead car back to life. It almost makes you feel like you’re some sort of magician (or Frankenstein!).

  • avatar
    Mr Imperial

    Great story, Tom!

    Your description of the Road Runner’s condition reminded me a little of Joe Dirt’s Charger Daytona:

    http://www.californiaclassix.com/archive/69_Joe_Dirt_Daytona.html

  • avatar
    The Butler

    I can see the free labour and the starting fluid yet you weren’t even reimbursed for the price of the alternator and plugs? I’m surprised you didn’t attempt to get your parts back or at least sneak back in the middle of the night for them if refused…

  • avatar
    BigOldChryslers

    A good story, but I think it was a stretch to say you “fixed” the car.

  • avatar
    challenger2012

    What sort of human being would cheat 2 kids like this? I can see offering to pay for the parts if they could not come up with the cash to buy the car. But to screw 2 kids over for such a small amount of money, what a jerk. No doubt the Road Runner owner is now a preacher, screwing over hundreds.

    • 0 avatar
      thelaine

      I can think of someone…

    • 0 avatar

      That’s OK. He got his in the Great Fireworks War of ’86. We ran out of bottle rockets but had plenty of firecrackers and Rick’s mom’s henhouse was full of eggs.

      An egg with a firecracker taped to it makes a pretty big mess when it air bursts over your position.

    • 0 avatar
      Wheeljack

      Personally, I would have charged the battery and tried to get it running without the alternator and only replaced it had you bought the car. Any car will run for a little while without an alternator as I’ve personally experienced on multiple occasions.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        Right there with you- in hindsight, wouldda/couldda/shouldda just brought a good battery and jumper cables. Wisdom of age and experience.

        But I get why Thomas and his friend, Rick, went with replacing the alternator–youthful exuberance and all that–and I smiled at the phrase, “without breaking anything important” because it reminded me of my younger self and my car-maintenance M.O. back then: fix what’s broke but accidentally break something else, fix that but accidentally break another thing, repeat until whatever I just broke isn’t a critical item. And a lot of fighting stuck, rusty nuts and bolts in awkward places where I couldn’t get good leverage or I didn’t own the proper tool for the job. (Well, I wasn’t *that* bad.)

  • avatar

    These cars did not come with a Holley double pumper. The pic shows an Edelbrock version of a Carter…. couldn’t tell if it was an AVS version or not…. the AVS had a spring loaded air flap that worked off of airflow, to help control bogging that could occur when secondaries are opened suddenly.

    The original hood black out was flat black, not glossy. Rubber mats were standard with carpet an upgrade. The engine was a standard 383 with 440 spec camshaft and heads, 440 cast iron exhaust manifolds, with the Carter AVS and a windage tray in the pan. This bumped the rating from 330HP to 335 HP. IMHO the 335 HP was accurate, while the old 330HP was somewhat over rated. The old 330 HP engine, however, was faster the the newer 335HP engine when installed in the lighter Savoy and Belvedere bodies from previous years. Many a RR driver was smoked by an older Plymouth or Dodge not saddled with the extra weight of the new body.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    It made me sad to hear of some opportunist okey-dokeying a couple of kids. One of the rare occasions in auto land where the car did exactly what they advertised it to do – go fast for a great price. Can you think of many other go fast cheap packages?

    • 0 avatar

      I can. Mopar offered 383 4 barrels in earlier years that were both faster and cheaper. But the RR arrived to a barrage of PR, billed as almost as fast as a 440 GTX GTX for hundreds less. I just never warmed up to the bigger, heavier body. Having said that, the 400 6 pack in the heavier body was a knock out. But the lighter and earlier stage motor 426 wedge engines were the real deal, and faster than the 68 and 69 Mopars, with the exception of the HEMI, which actually arrived in 1964.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    You may not have gotten the car but the experience itself was worth it on its own in the long run, though it’d be nice if the owner took the price down a little.

    Its events like this why whenever I see a good car I ask the owner to hold it while I get the money. With my Volvo I dropped $200 to the owner and paid the $800 a few days later. During that time someone actually tried to outbid me offering $1200, thankfully the owners stood by his word and refused the $1200.

    Now I get to have fun with screwy Swedish electronics and old-timey styling, I’d love a roadrunner horn if I could ever get one at a reasonable price.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    Ahh, the Great White Buffalo. The one that got away. I have such a story, but the dollar amount we (my brother and I) had to come up with at the time was defensibly stupid money at the time, so at least I can feel we were justified in walking away. The car was a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird, rust free, in yellow with black interior, 4-speed with functional wing angle control, and a numbers-matching 440 Six Barrel under the hood. The guy owned TWO Superbirds, actually. The yellow 440 car he was selling, and a gorgeous Orange Hemi car he was not. The year was 1982, and he wanted $10,000 firm ($24,235.96 in 2013 dollars) for the yellow 440 car. Simply not worth it at the time, but take one look at what a clean, rust-free numbers-matching 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird will go for today. Wikipedia says no less than $300,000, and crazy folks at Barrett-Jackson pay $1.2 Million.

    The story ends well, though. My brother went out and bought an original GSS (Grand Spaulding Super Sport) ’71 Demon 340 6-Pack/4-speed pistol grip/Rallye package car that he still owns to this day.

  • avatar

    Title in hand is even worse! I can’t just stop working on it and let it be someone else’s problem so easily, you guys were only out $30 and some plugs, plus you learned how to change an alternator! Wanna come over and learn brake lines on the Rampage I just got the title for?

  • avatar
    ajla

    When I was 17 my sister and I planned to go in together on a ’67 Eldorado, we drove by it everyday to check it out, but we just couldn’t quite get the cash together before it was sold.

    A few years later we thought about buying a ’71 Toronado. This time we had the money but the car was too ratty so we passed.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The mistake here was forgetting to remove the new alternator and plugs on your way out of his driveway.

  • avatar
    Cubista

    .

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Terrific story Thomas .

    I too got hosed a few times when young , it smarted but that’s how you learn : by life experiences .

    Trivia : the Road Runner horn was a standard forklift horn made by Spartan . , they just painted it purple and slapped a decal on it .

    I once found an N.O.S. one in a British Car Auto Jumble , I nearly wet my self and asked how much , the seller eyed me and asked if I knew what it was , I said yes I do , how much please ? ~ $4.00 , I *instantly* stuffed it in my pocket , then I paid the nice man . it turned out he ran a body shop and when doing a front end wreck repair , the customer _insisted_ on having the correct but mangled horn replaced , it took three months to arrive and by then he’d given up his weekly visits asking for it .

    Sadly , my then 17 Y.O. Son took it even though I’d told him not to , I never saw it again , he’s not concerned as I have ” to many horns anyways Dad ” .

    J.C.Witless used to sell these for $9.95 , purple but no decal.
    I assume they sold lots and lots of them in the 1970′s and I’m always looking in the Junkyards….

    Last year I found some off brand knock off ” Meep-Meep ” horn on a junker and bought it but i8t’s not purple , not made by Spartan etc. , dammit .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    MoDo

    Brother had an ex-drag car 69 Roadrunner (beater) with a tired 383 the owner sold it with to replace the race hemi. It had the same race 727 with reverse manual valve body and an 8 3/4 sure grip rear with 4:56 gears though. He paid $2700 in 99 or 2000, got a hot safety for it and we ran the piss outta that thing all summer long!

    Slabs of bondo down each side that had been poorly sanded (still had circular marks from the DA sander in it) that filled up with wax when my brother tried to wax it..lol

    Oil leaked from the p/s valve cover and blue smoke would emit from under the fender – this was always interesting while sitting at stop lights in the passenger seat. One guy I just looked at and said “what can you do” – he said nothing if you dont got the coin and gave a thumbs up for it being a “cool car”.

    Thing was the black beast, 4 really nice Cragar SS wheels that gave the initial impression that you were looking at a better car than it was (until you got close). Mini tubbed, no back seat, 6-point cage and a green bench seat, dash and door panels.

    I think it was September or so when a black Mustang GT followed us into a restaurant parking lot. Old guy (obviously dumb founded by the aforementioned wheels) offered to trade straight up right there for his MINT black 1982 Mustang GT w/ 1985 GT running gear and interior. (roller 302, 5-speed, 8.8)

    My brother traded and drove that through the winter, the old guy I stayed in touch with, the RR was too much of a project and he got rid of it, I later saw it in the Tri-ad for sale in the Kingston area? Called the guy and asked about it – he said the passenger side head gasket was blown when he got it (remember the oil / smoke?) and that “it’ll burn a block of rubber now” – the car was kinda torquey for us ((probably just the 456′s)), but nowhere near where it should’ve been with a cam, holley 750 and headers that it had.

    Haven’t seen or heard of the car since then, probably fully restored by now or turned back into a race car, at least I hope so. It was rough but it was still a legit 69 Roadrunner.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    Instead of starting fluid/ether I always preferred WD-40 (it has soooo many uses!).

    The pluses: It’s not explosive like ether-heptane mix, I have it around anyway, and even in ridiculous cold (down around -30C) as long as it would squirt out of the can then it would still ignite once I cranked the engine.

    The minuses: I can’t think of any.

    How many of the B&B out there have used WD-40 for this too? :)

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    I’ve always liked stuff off the beaten path and I’ve always had an affinity for fullsize iron.

    The “one that got away” for me was a 40,000 mile unmolested 1967 fastback Mercury fullsize coupe (I want to say it was a Montclair) with a 410 engine. If memory serves, the 410 was basically a 390 block with a 428 crankshaft, so while it wasn’t a “racy” engine, it made boatloads of torque thanks to that long stroke.

    The car was turquoise on turquiose and had a solid, rust-free body with mildly tired paint that may have responded reasonably well to some rubbing compound and some elbow grease. Interior was near perfect save for one seam on the driver’s side of the bench seat that was coming apart. The only other thing it needed was a nice set of dual exhausts to give it some ‘tude.

    I so wanted this car and the owner only wanted $700 for it, alas I couldn’t scrape that kind of money together at the time…I want to say it was around 1986 or so. I still have regrets about not beg/borrowing/stealing the money to buy it.

  • avatar
    davew833

    I’ve learned from sad experience that you never, ever fix a non-running car that’s for sale, on the owner’s property. Make an offer based on the worst-case scenario (blown engine, bad trans., whatever…), pay cash, get bill of sale in hand, and tow it down the road before you throw in a battery, douse it with starting fluid and drive it home.

    About 15 years ago a guy offered me a decent non-running 8-year-old Honda Accord (no RoadRunner, I know…) for $500 because the timing belt had jumped. He agreed to let me put a new T-belt on before I bought it, which I did one night in the street after dark by the light of a single bulb. (At least it wasn’t snowing.) Lucky for him, it ran fine, and as you might guess the following day the asking price had nearly quadrupled. He would not honor our verbal agreement. After a nasty exchange in which I threatened legal action, he paid me something for my time and labor and I left in a huff, but I never got the car. Lesson learned!

    On the other hand, I have, on occasion enjoyed buying “non-runners” for next to nothing at impound or salvage auctions where the seller has little or no vested interest, tweaking a few things, and driving them off the lot while the auctioneer stands there with his mouth open. (Only after I paid for them of course.)

  • avatar
    Mark in Maine

    I snagged a clean ’88 Camry wagon once, for $200 bucks. I’d learned about the car through a girlfriend – it belonged to a coworker of hers. It had four brand new tires, and “Something wrong with the clutch” – so I went over to see it, and brought along $200.00, a new clutch slave cylinder from the local parts place ($14.00, IIRC), a container of fluid, and two wrenches. I paid the guy for the car, had him sign over the title, and went to work. From beginning to end, I think the repair took about ten minutes. I had him get in the car and pump the clutch pedal while I bled the system. I then started the car and drove it home. The seller didn’t complain, but he did seem to be a bit disappointed at how easy the problem had been to fix. Those kinds of deals don’t come along often enough.

  • avatar
    Scribe39

    The problem is obvious. The deals only come when you are broke. In 1957, fresh out of high school and making about $25 a week, I had become acquainted with one of the local old car enthusiasts. He was cutting down and offered to sell me his 1930 Buick Limited Six (running, green mohair upholstery, etc.) for $250. Needless to say, I was too dumb to pursue it.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    I have one of those horns on the shelf somewhere. Interestingly, it came out of the ’71 Superbee owned by my father. I guess some previous owner thought it was too cool to be restricted to the Plymouth.

    MEEP! MEEP!

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    Reminds me of when my friend bought his seriously underage girlfriend a 1971 Chevelle a little more than a decade ago. The car was a basket case; pretty much stripped out for racing with a little rot thrown in for good measure. I finally got it running, but the project barely progressed beyond any of the work I ever did.

    The girl ran out about as soon as she (finally) turned 18. He kept the car for a bit, but knocked up another girl and trapped himself. Now he has two kids, another on the way, and no more Chevelle.

  • avatar
    TOTitan

    Roadrunners are cool. Ive got a triple blck 69 hemi roadrunner that is numbers matching and is nearly perfect. It has excellent pick up I’ll say….lol

  • avatar
    MK

    Yeah in 1988 I passed on the offered 1962 silver/blue corvette from my dads childhood friend, it needed a transmission (it had been removed) but it had a nos interior and an an extra new convertible top.

    Having none of the skills to get it going and short by about $500 I passed….he wanted $5500 for it.

    Compounding my mistake, I bought the wrecked 1984 model instead … That sordid saga is relayed in the most recent vette junkyard finds comments.

    So yes, I have a damned good reason for drinking.

  • avatar
    luvmyv8

    The one that got away from me isn’t as hot as a Road Runner, but it’s much sought after regardless.

    It was the summer of ’02 and I was passing the local junkyard in my ’97 Ranger when I saw upfront they had an ’85 Corolla. An AE86 hatchback. It was clean and the body was good; no dents and no rust. It was a 5 speed. It wasn’t a GTS, just a plain Jane SR-5 with the puny little 4AC engine, though this 4AC was toast. Still, the car was perfectly presentable as was. All they were asking for was $300. I had the money, not on hand but I could get it and yes I was thinking of turning into a Trueno GT-Apex clone (ala Initial D) and since I worked at a Toyota dealership (still do, but a different one now) parts and service would have been a non-issue. Getting a 4AG engine would have been cake back then.

    I walked away though. Had I bought it, my dad would have killed me for bringing a “junker” home and keeping it there, had it been a Road Runner, he would have been quite enthusiastic about it. Even so, I regret not getting the AE86, at worst it would have made an excellent fuel sipping commuter car that I sure could use today, or I could’ve flipped it and made decent money selling it to the drifter crowd or had my own ‘Haichi Roku’, all this was before the drifting craze came state side and when Initial D was relatively unknown outside of Japan.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    The one that got away from me was my dopey cousin’s ’70 black Roadrunner hardtop, 383, auto, in pretty much showroom condition in around May 1973. He was going into the Navy (Scary that they would even take him, let alone draft him), and so the RR had to go. We had a verbal agreement, it was mine when he sold it. As dopey as he was, and is, he was anal about his cars and that was his first new one. I was at a friend’s house, working on his car with him, and I saw it coming down the street, being driven by a kid I went to school with. I was pretty sure it was my cousin’s car, but I had to be sure, so I asked him where he got it from. He pointed down the street, “About a quarter mile down there, on the left side!” I was really upset. My cousin said he “forgot” our deal, made like 6 months before. I saw the car almost every day for the next two years, he kept it looking great and it was pretty much trouble free. I’ve avoided asking him what happened to it, I would probably just get all upset again if I found out it was junked. I hope it wound up like my ’74 Roadrunner did, restored with a huge stroker 440 in it, better than new. But odds are, it’s gone.


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