By on September 22, 2017

road-runner-jack-smith

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.

road-runner-ad

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.

The entire car took only two months to develop and was an immediate sales hit. 

In 1968, you could purchase a Plymouth Road Runner with a 335-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.

mopar-mod-top

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. Unfortunately, they didn’t attract the same widespread praise as the Hemi on a budget and were a short-lived niche option on Chrysler’s cars.

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.

mod-top_barracuda_ad

[Source: Allpar] [Images: Fiat Chrysler]

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34 Comments on “In Memoriam: Jack Smith, a Mopar Muscle Car Maestro...”


  • avatar
    incautious

    You mention the Road Runner without one word about the true father of the RR. The Assassin himself writer Brock Yates. Mister Cannonball himself. It was his idea first pitched to the cooperate heads about a cheap go fast car that the “kids” could afford. Mr Yates wasn’t entirely happy with the end result, but it was indeed his brainchild.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      Reread the fourth paragraph.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      You’re generous to Brock Yates for his “idea”, which is what John DeLorean came up with a half decade earlier at Pontiac, when he dropped a big engine in a Tempest and created the GTO, which grew to mid-size. The only difference is that the GTO started as one of GM’s compact (Buick Special, Olds F-85) answers to the Ford Falcon, while Jack Smith started with a mid-size Belvedere that could already be had with a V8.

      • 0 avatar
        MrIcky

        Which really owes it’s inspiration to the Rocket 88, which really owes its inspiration to the bootlegger 40 Ford Coupe…

        GTO gets way too much credit for this formula because car makers started trying to make faster cars than other car makers as soon as there were 2 makes of cars. And car makers started cramming bigger engines into smaller cars as soon as there were bigger engines to cram. This era of cars (60s-73) is really different because it was an interesting switch in design, plus the first real direct marketing at youth for the baby boomers (or, little snowflakes v.1.0).

      • 0 avatar
        rudiger

        The whole “the Road Runner was Brock Yates idea” originated in a Car and Driver article (where, coincidentally, Yates was employed). The upshot was that Yates wanted a base strippo car with a big engine, but Chrysler, wisely, adorned it with some GTX pieces and the cartoon. So, technically, the Road Runner wasn’t really Yates’ idea.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    I wonder how well the flowered and paisley vinyl tops sold? I don’t remember ever seeing one. I expect that those were more popular with the ladies. Talk about a design element that would age quickly and badly.

    • 0 avatar
      mrentropy

      Would those designs fade with age?

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      I’ve never seen one in person, and I’m a Mopar fan who used to go to car shows every week.

      • 0 avatar
        CobraJet

        My parents were in the market for a new car in 1969. We test drove a Plymouth Satellite at the local dealer. They had a Sport Satellite on the showroom floor with this mod top roof. It was colorful, but not something I would want.

      • 0 avatar
        tombalas

        I saw exactly one such top, atop an early 1970s Plymouth Gran Fury that the high school gym teacher brought into our high school auto shop to get some free maintenance circa 1984. All of us students marveled at the paisley vinyl. But what makes me remember it was the (white) gym teacher joking that he could bring it down to Paterson since the “brothers” (his wording) would just love that roof. Even as a kid, I knew the teacher was being politically incorrect. But it made me remember the hippie roof on that old boat.

      • 0 avatar

        The only mod top I ever saw was at the Mopar Nationals in the early ’90s. I can’t remember the model, some B-body I think. Could have been a RR.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      I don’t think they sold that well; as a kid back then, I can only recall seeing one or two, and then only the paisley ones. I do remember seeing a Road Runner with a crazy green metal flake paint job (an emerald green color, probably done by a local painter) and a set of Cragar S/S wheels that I thought looked pretty good.

      And check out the mention in the Mod Top ad of “The Name of the Game” on NBC. Gene Barry FTW! The one episode I can remember is “LA 2017” (gee, that year sounds familiar!) where Barry, driving to a pollution summit, is somehow transported to the year 2017, where the air is so polluted that everyone lives underground:

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0273868/?ref_=ttep_ep2

      Bonus? The episode is directed by Steven Spielberg, in the same year that “Duel” premiered on ABC’s “Movie Of The Week” (and yes, I watched “Duel” the night it premiered, and it freaked me out).

  • avatar
    TMA1

    I love those 68-70 Chrysler B-bodies. They’re what got me into cars.

    Interesting thing about the Road Runner, it was rushed to production so fast they couldn’t even get the sticker logos in color, so they were black & white for the first year.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      The 1968 black and white decals were really more of the fault of Dick Macadam. Macadam hated the whole idea of the car but he ‘really’ hated the cartoon decals. When the car was approved over his objection, he insisted that he be the one to approve the specific decal to go on the car, and then, he wanted the decals shipped separately in the glove compartment to the dealers.

      So, he chose the worst looking cartoon possible (it’s the only one that looks like the cartoon bird is walking). The marketing guys got around the glove compartment decal thing by premiering the car in Albuquerque (New Mexico’s state bird is the road runner) with the decals affixed to the doors. Needless to say, the dealers loved it so the decals would go on at the factory.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    My sister wanted it, but it cost extra and she could barely afford a new car, stripped. My dad talked her out of it and she got a two year old Ford Galaxie.

    I lived through the era, and the only ones I ever saw were on the lot at the Chrysler/Plymouth dealer my sister visited with me and my dad.

    Apple resurrected the flower-power design for its macs, and a modern wrap would be cheaper and more practical than vinyl today. Jack Smith may have been retro before his time.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    As I recall, subsequent Road Runners got pricier and better equipped. As a smaller car fan, I loved the 1970 Duster 340 which offered equal performance for even less money.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Not really. Chrysler tried to keep the Road Runner’s price low, but it was tough with competition from their own Duster 340. Starting in 1971, the base transmission became a three-speed. Worse, in 1973, the base engine was downgraded to the lowly 318. You can tell the later 318 cars because they’re the ones without an engine call-out on the hood stripe.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Pontiac answered in 1969 with The Judge, that dispensed with features like the standard-on-GTO retractable headlights (they could be added back at extra cost) and saved another few bucks by leaving the trim rings off of the standard Rally II wheels.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Wasn’t that another interesting feature of the era? Designers adding stuff, and bean counters taking it off. With the Roadrunner, the stripping turned it into a base Belvedere that could go fast(er). The one option that should have been standard was power brakes with front discs.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    The graduating guy down the residence hall from me at engineering college bought a ’69 Road Runner. The thing came with rubber flooring and a gearshift lever about a foot and a half long to stir the four speed. No power steering (a lot of the Hemis were sold without it as well) so six flaky turns lock-to-lock. Directional stability was about fair or a little less. Never found a Mopar 383 that had much guts – another guy with a Barracuda 340S could smoke the Road Runner, but it had power steering (3.5 turns lock-to-lock) and a Torqueflite, and an under-rated engine horsepower-wise. It was probably SAE net rather than gross like all the rest.

    Next room to the Road Runner guy, another graduating student bought a ’69 Z28. Fit and finish approximated zero on that thing – the hood didn’t fit. He could only stick it out a year before selling it, the engine didn’t idle very well with the wild cam they stuck in it and city driving with a manual that needed truck driver arms to move it didn’t help.

    Yup, you had to be there to see the difference between the hallelujahs from the magazines to the actual units that made it into the field. A bit like today, but worse, that over the top praise of 50 years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      All true. I was a baby when these cars were new, but when I got to high school 60s era ‘muscle cars’ infested the high school parking lots, since they were just cheap, old used cars at that point. Now people will say, “You experienced these cars when they were 15-16 year old rust buckets. True, but it doesn’t change the fact that they where not very good cars. Primitive suspensions. Brakes, that even when sporting new shoes, pads, drums and rotors barely stopped the cars. Huge panel gaps on cars I know for a fact were never in a major wreck. Cheap-ass interiors. On and on it went. People should keep in mind when they go to old car shows that they are looking at cars that have be rebuilt by hand from the wheels up. In most cases they are much better than they ever were from the factory. The truly horrendous state of US cars made in the 70s, combined with some very clever marketing by the likes of Barret-Jackson is what made these cars legend.

  • avatar

    The Roadrunner (complete with RR emblems) was the car that imprinted me at a young age. The 383 and sliding around corners. A spare design without being sparse. Burnt Orange over Black.

  • avatar
    Shawnski

    ….if not for inadequate 4 corner drum brakes.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    A great article but there are a few minor corrections:

    -The 1968 Road Runner’s price was closer to $2900.
    -Horsepower was rated at 335, not 355. The Road Runner’s engine was special in that it used the hipo 440 cylinder heads and cam. It was only rated 5 horsepower more than the standard 383-4v.
    -While the 1968 came standard with a 4-speed, it did not have a Hurst shifter. It was the final year for the universally despised Inland shifter. 1969 got a Hurst, and the 1970 got the awkward Pistol Grip handle.

  • avatar
    seabrjim

    Some early 68 models had the Inland “toilet flusher” shifter. My 68 was a rubber floor unit. Chrysler was known for building cars early and late in the model year with options that were not available, but were. Not to mention engine colors that supposedly didnt exist.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      The golden age of special order. If there was an option on another Mopar model that fit the one you were ordering, they’d put it on at the factory. There was a lot of interchangability in GM cars too, but getting an option not on the list installed at the factory must have been much easier at Chrysler.

      That looseness of controls at the factory might have had something to do with Chrysler’s near-death just a decade later, when Iacocca said he had no numbers to work with, and there was no system for generating the numbers he needed.

      • 0 avatar
        rudiger

        One of the more interesting musclecars that you’d think would have been built, but never was, is a ’68-’71 440-4v Road Runner. It would have been easy to have one built at the factory since most of the GTX parts were already on the RR, but a verified one has never been found, ever.

        Part of the problem is how easy it is to swap 440 engine call-outs onto an RR. Then, there’s the 440-6v that ‘was’ installed in Road Runners. And in 1972, you could get a 440-4v in a Road Runner, but it technically changed it to a Road Runner-GTX.

        Finally, the most damning evidence is the base 1970 Superbird NASCAR special which came standard with a 440-4v. The problem is no one bought them and some dealers were rumored to be so desperate to unload them that they were converted to regular Road Runners (no easy feat). In fact, this was a ‘requirement’ in Maryland which did not recognize the Superbird’s nose cone as a bumper.

        The bottom line is although it wasn’t too difficult to get a lot of odd options on Chrysler products from the factory, a 440-4v in an early Road Runner wasn’t one of them.

  • avatar

    When I was a teenager my uncle, a true Mopar nut, restored a ’68 Road Runner. It had a 440 that he had completely rebuilt, I don’t even know how much power it was making, but he took it to the Mopar Nationals one year and someone offered him 10 grand for just the engine.

    These days he has a ’69 Barracuda, he and my grandfather share a ’73 Barracuda, and the in-progress shell of a ’70 Challenger hangs on a rotisserie in his barn.

    It’s no wonder I couldn’t get Mopars out of my blood if I tried.

  • avatar

    There were two RRs in my small town 68 or 69. Both had the 426 in them – one was the bright orange, the other was purple. They were amongst my favorite cars at the time. Was this the first year Chrysler did the bold colors – Grabber Green, yellow, orange and purple?

    My dad had a 66 Coronet 500 with a 383 Hemi which I thought was quite cool. Someone mentioned the GTO earlier in the discussion. My best friend in high school had an “unmarked” version of the 69 Judge. Instead of orange it was red with a black vinyl top – no Judge badging of any sort that I can remember, Ram Air 400. It had the hood mounted tach which failed to work after a time. He blew the engine in it through what I felt was abuse. He’d do a fast acceleration from a stop and with every shift it would sound like the differential was slamming into the floor board. He got the insurance to pay for a new engine and put in a 455. He blew that engine within about 4 months. He then got a used HP interceptor – a Plymouth with a 440 in it. Don’t think he ever got that one up and running that I recall as it needed work.

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