Automotive History: Muscle Cars To Malaise Era-Part 3

muscle to malaise part 8 Satelite cover

(first posted 4/19/2015)

The transition years, 1969-1974

In the third installment of this series, I’m headed back MOPAR country where I began with an analysis of the Dodge Charger. Today, I’m looking at the Plymouth Satellite, with a focus on the GTX and Road Runner muscle models. Read on to find out which generation I have dubbed “the transition years” and why.

1971-1974 Plymouth Satellite

The Satellite’s story naturally parallels its Dodge Charger stablemate. While not as dramatic as the ’68-’70 Charger, the closely related Satellite attained peak design at the same time.

1970 Plymouth GTX

If you like your cars styled with a t-square and a triangle, you may prefer the ’65-’67 Belvedere/Satellite to all other generations. Not an unattractive body by any means, especially compared the horror show early 1960s cars. That story has been told a thousand times, so here’s the shorthand version. Virgil Exner suffered a heart attack, William C. Newberg, newly named President of Chrysler mistakenly overheard a cocktail party rumor that Chevy was going to downsize the Impala, and hilarity ensued in the Chrysler design studio. By 1965 all the weirdness had been washed out, courtesy of Elwood Engel, and by 1968 Chrysler was coke-bottling it up, GM style. It was ok to copy to GM, as long as you weren’t taking your design direction from wild rumors. But to my eyes, the hardtop Satellite, in Road Runner or GTX guise, was more attractive than the ’68-’69 Chevelle SS, Cutlass 442, or Skylark Gran Sport. The GTO beat them all, every year.

For this generation, my favorite flavor is the ’70, with its predictive snarling face that warned us about the full loop bumper coming for ’71. Note that the bare bones Road Runner handily outsold the luxo GTX every year. This was the go-fast, low-cost, big-engine, lightweight setup that the Age Of Aquarius lead foots wanted from Plymouth. After all, it was the value brand, and every time Plymouth tried to go a little upscale with cars like the GTX or the VIP Fury, customers voted with their pocketbooks and bought Road Runners, Valiants, and a lot of Dusters. Chrysler’s $50,000 payment to Warner Bros. for the rights to use the Road Runner cartoon character paid off handsomely. Scoops, stripes, decals, and the “beep beep” horn all added up to one of the most iconic muscle cars of the decade.

In 1971, the Satellite fell into step with the current corporate design language and declared “fuselage was the future”.

1971 plymouth road runner 2

More specifically, designer John Herlitz was assigned to create a more aggressive, contemporary look to take on the GM and Ford intermediates, according to Herlitz stated, “I came from a design education where form and curvature to metal is a desirable, if not essential, objective. The 1968-’70 Road Runner suffered from Chrysler’s mid-’60s devotion to linear design; the value of the metal was limited to connecting the various flat surfaces–lots of sharp character lines. This delineation of separate hood and fender surfaces creates unnecessary visual distractions.”

Whether you agree with Herlitz’s philosophy or not, it was clear that curves were in. Like Bill Shenk at Ford, Herlitz was inspired by aircraft, specifically the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. In hindsight, it seems ludicrous to apply the design principles of a twin-seat, Mach 2 fighter jet to a mid-sized family car. Wouldn’t honest, utilitarian functionality better serve the occupants? Well sir, if your tastes are that pedestrian, we have a fine selection of forest green Valiants and Dusters.

daisy duke road runner

But c’mon, would Daisy Duke have looked cool doing power slides in a Valiant? Speaking of curves, I’ve always thought that the squareish wheel cutouts were a bit discordant with the rest of the round, organic theme. Why make the wheel wells, which house the most naturally round objects on a car, square? I think it looks particularly odd in the side view and especially heavy at the rear. There is a lot of sheet metal between the top of the rear wheel cutout and the c-pillar. The Torino SportBacks all suffered from this phenomenon as well. Perhaps this is what happens when the car designer really wanted to make a jet airplane.

Herlitz explains his decisions here. “I wanted the body surfaces to have more homogeneity in order to focus the eye on the wheel and wheel cutouts. This was accomplished by flowing the fender shape from plan view (directly above) and side view to the wheel cutouts,” Herlitz explained in the same interview, adding that, “The flares drove the modelers crazy. The surface had to be just right or the reflections went to hell. Finally, [studio boss] Dick Macadam told me I had one last chance. Fortunately, it was enough.” (Source:

There was new, more formal sheet metal for ’73-’74, which substantially changed the Satellite’s look. The ’71-’74 Charger didn’t receive a similar restyle, and was able to keep the cool loop bumpers until ’74. So was the Satellite restyle was about sales, (which did increase 40% for ’73) or safety? When you see what transpired for ’75, it seems like the former may have been true.

Everything changed for ’75. The upright grill, dual opera windows, and even the name – as Satellite begat Fury.

1978 plymouth fury

In 2-door hardtop form, this model was positioned as your cheapest ticket to ride on the personal luxury train. An analog to the Road Runner, which had cultivated a strong image as the bargain, no-frills muscle car. But frills were needed if you hoped to compete against Monte Carlos and Ford Elites. You could say Plymouth switched from Cheap Thrills to Cheap Frills. By ’77, they adopted dual stacked headlights, that neoclassic late Malaise Era styling gimmick. The dual opera window treatment was either an option or part of some arcane sub-model dreamt up by the marketing guys looking to catch a little cut-rate Cordoba magic. I frankly became too bored to research that detail. The only thing I’ll give this generation credit for is keeping a hardtop model into the ’70s and marginally better 5-mph bumper integration than its competition at Ford or Chevy.

My remaining candidates for transition cars are the ’69-’72 Ford Galaxie / LTD, the ’68-’70 Oldsmobile Toronado, and the ’71-’75 Jaguar XKE Series III. Which one would you like to see next?

Automotive History: Muscle Cars To Malaise Era-Part 4

See all my other posts at my blog, Wired On Cars. It’s about car culture; the focus is on car shows, car museums and car design. But all things automotive are fair game.