1946 Willys CJ2A 

By the mid sixties, the hotrod movement of the fifties had finally fully penetrated the consciousness of Detroit product managers.  The avant-garde was Pontiac, led by enfant-terrible John DeLorean, (see what I did there? Two french phrases in one sentence, in an essay about to explore a quintessentially American automotive phenomena, that's what we Americans do...)  DeLorean transformed a moribund GM brand into a performance-car vanguard with the GTO (stealing the name from Ferrari) while inventing an entire new category of product: the two door businessman's coupe outfitted with a big engine, 4-speed transmission, and heavy-duty driveline.  Ford and Chrysler scrambled to follow with the Torino and GTX, but Chrysler hit paydirt finally with the Roadrunner thanks to the inhouse creativity and subversive energy of some younger Plymouth execs who watched Saturday morning cartoons and had a comprehensive understanding of the MoPar spare parts catalog.  The full story is sheer wonderful automotive anthropological Americana, see it here:  The Story of Jack Smith

The summary version: Plymouth took their sleepy Belvedere sedan, added a heavy duty brakes and suspension from the police car and truck parts bins, and for cachet, offered the ~500HP monster hemi head 426 as an option.  Then they pasted decals of a cartoon bird on the side, priced it really really cheap, and sold them at a rate that exceeded projections by 10X.  

 

There once was an engineering maxim holding that car design is a zero sum game of cheap, fast, or reliable.  Someone made a movie in the '90's where the title riffed on this as: Fast, Cheap, and Out-of-Control.  Well, that was the Roadrunner, and it connected exactly with the car enthusiast vibe of 1968.   It was really cheap, about $2200 which was less than a Dodge GTX or a Pontiac GTO.  (BTW, reflecting on the creativity of Detroit product guys, what does it say that John Z ripped of 'GTO' from Ferrari, and the best the Dodge guys could do by way of emulation was change one letter to 'GTX?')  It had crazy performance (MotorTrend immediately proclaimed it 'Car of the Year').  I can testify personally that with factory delivered Firestone bias ply tires mounted, the Hemi version can spin the tires at will in any gear.   I will also say that a Hemi Roadrunner is the undisputed Alpha-male of the highway merge lane.  I don't care what you are driving; Corvette, Ferrari, M3, 911 turbo, WRX, when you see the massive blue roadrunner hurtling down the on-ramp, WOT in third gear, you move over.  It's a wise decision: the Plymouth's ability to execute abrupt stops or course corrections is limited, and it represents a lot of inertia!  

 

Nothwithstanding all the forgoing, none of the above explains why I bought this car.  I own a Roadrunner because of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.    The first time I heard Roadrunner in 1979, I didn't understand I was hearing the birth of punk rock, the inspiration for the Ramones, and predicate to the entire new wave movement. What I heard was a poignant anthem to the teenage car-guy experience: driving late at night with the windows down and the radio on.  The drums beat like tires over the highway's pavement expansion joints, while the guitar rhythms flow over you like the veil of darkness beyond the hurtling capsule of headlight beams.  Richman‚Äôs voice expresses simultaneously the joy of driving late at night but also teenage angst and overarching loneliness.  The Roadrunner was the perfect car for this aimless driving on Rte 128 (AKA the Yankee Division Highway!) which is a partial ring road/beltway around Boston, the city of the original tea party and minute men.   


My car was owned by a nice man named Don who bought it in 1975.   He restored it top to bottom, and installed the vinyl roof.  (It was an option the next year, in '69)   I haven't done much to it other than small details like repop Mopar battery, and a return to period correct, date-coded steel 15" wheels and dog dish hubcaps.  


1950 Willys CJ3A

1968 Plymouth roadrunner 426 Hemi