COAL: 1971 Plymouth Road Runner – The Car I Must Own

When I was a kid and cars like this were everywhere, the first question directed towards the owner was “how fast is it?”  Today, that question has been replaced with “how much is it worth?”


By modern standards, 1960s and ’70s American musclecars are not economical and they don’t handle, stop, or generally drive very well in their factory default settings.  But point the car in a straight line, mash the pedal and they are just so damn much fun.   Big, dumb, stupid fun.  Looking for a pleasant, refined driving experience?  Get a Toyota.

I also don’t get off at glaring at the numbers scribed on the dash or any date codes scribbled on radiator hoses.  I understand those that do but its not my thing.  So don’t ask me about VINs, fender tags, and date coded this or that; I really don’t care.  I know what the car is, how many were built, and yes, I know what they sell for at the auctions. 

Unfortunately, it seems most of the excitement around these cars today are centered around 2 worlds; the chalkmark, date-coded restoration crowd, although many in that crowd seem to be aging out of the hobby, and the TV auction crowd, ala Graveyard Cars, Counting Cars, Gas Monkey Garage, etc.  Although entertaining, and I enjoy watching them, but they seem to place more of an emphasis on what they can get out of a car than what they put into it.  At least they keep the next generation interested in these cars.

Anyway, I seem to be part of a dying breed.  I actually drive these cars like normal cars.  I just like driving my cars.  When it comes to old cars, some guys like the build.  While I have built my share of cars, these days, when I work on cars, its a means to an end to make a repair or an improvement in order to make them drive better, although I still do enjoy building engines.   Some guys like the rush of the flip, to buy low and sell high.  Ive done that too, but its another means to get a better driving car.

So, shall we go for a ride?

Walk up to the car; it has a presence.  Nothing built in the last 40 years has the feel of a real, Vietnam-era American musclecar.  You can faintly smell the gas and oil.  Its ok, that’s what its supposed to smell like, and it probably leaked oil from the day it rolled off the St. Louis assembly line.  There are paint blemishes everywhere, evidence of it hitting a deer a couple of generations ago, a rust bubble here and there.  This is no show car.  There is no button to click to unlock the doors, put the key in the door and unlock it yourself, you lazy American.  Grab the chrome steel door handle and give it a pull, it requires more effort than a RAV4.  The door closes with a heavy ka-thunk.

Plant your butt in the flat, all-vinyl seat.  Yes, its orange and black.  Lateral and lumbar support is almost non-existent, but that’s not a big deal because if you’re driving fast, its only going to be in a straight line anyway.  There is no computer screen, no automatic door locks and no chimes to greet you.  If the key is in the ignition while the door is still open, the only sound you hear is an annoying buzzer.

You sit low in a 1971 Plymouth Road Runner, but not as low as in a modern sedan, and the visibility is fantastic.  The padded, metal-framed dash contains nothing but the gauges you need in a serious driver’s car; a speedometer that goes to an optimistic 150 mph (no kilometers, this is pre-Jimmy Carter America, dammit), a tach, and temp, gas, voltage and oil pressure gauges.  You look over the large, thin-rimmed 3 spoke steering wheel with the cartoon Road Runner character in the center and down to the end of the long hood with the large hood bulge in the center, with that famous vacuum-operated air grabbing door with AIR GRABBER lettering on the top and the WW2 fighter decals on the sides.  This car was built for one thing and one thing only; racing on the street, and therefore, there is no radio.  And yes, it has that legendary purple horn that goes “beep beep.”

The key-an actual steel key, with the familiar to those of us that remember the ’70s Chrysler Pentastar emblazoned on the head, and it fits comfortably in your pocket, only costs a buck to duplicate at any Ace hardware store, and slides easily into the ignition.  Twist it until you hear the sweet, sweet sound of the Hamtramck Hummingbird gear reduction starter.  It is about to start something wonderfully violent.

The driver involvement starts before you even start the car; pump the gas 5 or 6 times.  A quick whiff of gas through those three two barrel carburetors and then 8 big pistons inside their cylinders in the cast iron engine block compressing 440 cubic inches of fuel and air inside the big block V8 roar to life and it settles into a rumpity idle.

Give it a quick rev to warm it up and the garage shakes.

The engine is talking to you, and there is no on-board nanny computer to censor what it says.  And it says, Come on man, lets cruise.

There are three pedals hanging below the dash and down to your right, perfectly positioned is the legendary Hurst Pistol Grip shifter.  The clutch is lighter and easier to operate than most expect but it still takes some effort.   Wrap your paw around the shifter handle; it fits your hand perfectly and maneuvers through the gears with a simple click.

Engage the clutch, it takes a little more effort than a modern car with a stickshift, as few of them as there are.  Put the shifter in first; you can actually feel shift gates.  We are going for a ride.

Slightly let the clutch out and the car rolls pretty easily; the torque in these cars is legendary so there’s no need to goose the pedal.  The engine is already idling at 850 rpm, simply bring the engine up to maybe 1ooo rpm, let the clutch out and the games begin.

Lay into the pedal on the right and the engine roars to a deafening level, the car shakes violently, the front end points to the sky while the car’s rear end is desperately trying to change positions with the front.

You, the driver, are the car’s only stability control.   Better stay aggressive on that steering wheel or you’re going to end up putting the car in the ditch, and you only have one hand to do it with because the other has to stay on the shifter.

But wait,  you’re still only on the center carburetor.  This car has three.  Under normal acceleration, 440 Six Packs only run off of the center two barrel carburetor; only under hard acceleration do the two outboard carburetors kick in with their progressive linkage.  That’s what’s about to happen here.

As the nose of the car is still pointed up and you are still trying to keep control of the torque that is liquefying my rear tires,  you feel a sudden kick and the engine noise kicks it up a notch as the outboard carbs are opening up.  The car feels like the Millenium Falcon going into warp speed, and you are quickly running out of rpm and gear; its time to shift into second.

You need to kick the clutch pedal quickly or you lose time and rip that shifter into second as quick as you can all while keeping your hand on the wheel with all of yoru strength.  You get a slight break as the clutch briefly separates the power from getting to the rear tires but when it comes back after the 1-2 shift, like I said, stay on that wheel or my car will end up in the ditch and that will not make me or my insurance rep happy.

The nose settles down for a split second and you get a quick view of the road.  Stay on the throttle, feel those outboard carbs kick in again and by the end of the second gear, we are well over 100 mph and the quarter mile has come and gone.   The shift into third is less dramatic as the car is still pulling hard and by the time you run out of gear at the end of 4th, you are travelling maybe 130 mph.

I’ve had wheel time in some of the best cars in the world.  A Ford GT, BMW Z8,  Porsche 911S, BMW M5, Hellcat Challenger, and more configurations of Corvettes and Mustangs than I can think of.   They’re fun.

But this car is brutal, and I like a little violence in my cars.

Welcome to my 1971 Plymouth Road Runner.  I like that they named the car after a cartoon character, since driving the car always makes me smile.  I always have to play the Road Runner theme song when I’m driving it at least once.

The same basic driving experience I described above can come in the form of any classic musclecar;  Chevelles, GTOs, 442s, Gran Sports, Torinos, Cyclones, etc.; in the big picture, there’s not a whole lot of difference in the way they drive.  So, why a ’71 Road Runner?

Among Mopar fans, its a polarizing body style, although there are more that love it than don’t.  Even almost 50 years later, while the ’68-70 Mopar B-Body musclecars are universally loved and adored to Mopar and non-Mopar fans alike, there are still some that just plain hate the 1971 restyle.  I don’t get it, I think they are gorgeous cars.  Not a bad line on them.  Why the E-Body Barracudas and Challengers are so revered but the 1971 B-Bodys are so divisive is beyond me, given that they were both designed by John Herlitz and look vaguely similar, but Mopar fans are, well, different.  I guess that’s why I tend to hang around with more Chevy and Ford guys.

Anyway, there are probably 20 or so cars that I love and hope to own someday when I win the lottery despite the fact that I have never bought a ticket, but my all-time top-of-the-list 2 favorite Cars I Must Own have always been the 1969 Dodge Charger and the 1971 Plymouth Road Runner. In my first COAL back in November, I was able to rationalize why Chargers were always my favorite car-it started with the Duke boys, but in my opinion, the ‘ 71 RR is simply the coolest, meanest-looking musclecar of all time.  The Charger is a great looking car but the Road Runner just looks mean and like it belongs on a track somewhere.   And that’s what a musclecar should look like.

Then there was my racing hero, King Richard.  Say no more.

And while the ’68-70 Chargers are the media rock stars of the Mopar musclecar era, the gen 2 RRs have had their screen time as well; Daisy Duke, my forever fantasy girlfriend, drove a yellow ’71 in the first 2 seasons of the Dukes until her cousins destroyed it (although, depending on the episode, she could be seen driving a ’71, a ’72 or a ’73)

Even as recently as last year, a black ’72 was the star of F&F 8.

My brother had a yellow ’73 Road Runner in the early 1980s, a rare factory 440 car that was similar to DD’s car except it had a white interior and vinyl top and it had power windows. It was also one of the fastest cars in town.

When I got into car magazines and going to car shows, I would see articles on Road Runners and GTXs with Hi-Impact colors, Air Grabber hoods, Pistol Grip 4 speed shifters and big engines with lots of carburetors, all wrapped in that gorgeously evil sheetmetal, it became a very close second to a ’69 Charger on the list of Cars I Must Own.

And so it was in the spring of 1991, when I was a senior in high school and working my gas jockey job.  I worked on the weekends and when I showed up for my shift one Saturday, there was a rough black ’71 GTX parked at the shop.  The transmission and half of the engine were gone and so was most of the interior but the body was nice and it was a factory black car with an Air Grabber hood and an automatic.   I don’t remember the details but the owner had just moved to New York from North Carolina and brought the car with him.  He dropped it off at the shop to get it running again but then decided he couldn’t afford to get all the parts and decided to sell it.  Despite the fact that I was about to ship off to boot camp in a couple of months and there was no room to park it at my parent’s house, I made him an offer and bought the car for $500.

That didn’t go well with the parents and it didn’t last a month before I realized I was in over my head both mechanically and financially and I sold it just before I shipped out.The next year, I found a really clean, low mileage triple green 318 ’71 Satellite coupe and made it my DD for the next few years.  That’s a car that deserves its own COAL so I’ll save the details on that one for later.

So, for the next 23 years, I lived my life.  Marriage, kids, career, house; all that grown-up stuff.  A frequent topic of conversation between me and my car guy pal John (who happens to own a ’70 Road Runner,) are about our favorite cars and how would we build them.   My answer is always the same-a green ’69 440 Charger R/T and a white ’71 440 Six Pack/ 4 speed Road Runner.

For the record, I know Plymouth officially called them “440 Six Barrels” and Dodge called them “Six Packs” but they’re all “Six Packs,” OK?

I had gotten to know my pal Bruce through and the local VA/NC Mopar scene.  And I got to know Bruce because, why?-besides being a super cool nice guy, he owned the Car I Must Own; a white ’71 Road Runner with a 440 Six Pack and a 4 speed.  As a bonus, it had an Air Grabber hood and a cool “Halloween” black and orange interior.  Kind of jokingly, since I didn’t think I would be able to afford it, but also kind of serious, I told Bruce that if he ever considered selling the car would he give me first right of refusal.

In the fall of 2015, I got an email from Bruce letting me know he was ready to sell.

At the time, I had a pretty nice ’68 Coronet R/T 440/4 speed that I built and loved, as well as my blue ’69 318 Charger.  The Charger was not/is not for sale so if I really wanted Bruce’s car, I’d have to sell the Coronet.

I listed the Coronet on FeeBay and it sold in a week, quickly meeting my reserve and it went to New England.

The car was sold new in the Peoria, IL area and had made its way to Iowa, where Bruce first bought the car in 1981 and then sold it not long after.  It went through a couple of more owners and street iterations before he bought it back in 1988 after he had relocated to North Carolina.

Note the low-key, street-racing look; no stripes, hood scoop, engine call outs or flashy wheels, just business.  From what I understand, it went through several engines but I know where the original block may possibly be.

Bruce did most of the restoration work, using lots of NOS parts, and pretty much built it the way I would have, right down to the color.  He added frame connectors, a quick ratio power steering box, a bigger front sway bar and disc brakes from an ’80s M-Body so besides being a straight-line monster, it actually handles pretty well.By the time it was done, the car was featured at the Wellborn museum.It was also the cover car on U.S. Car Tool’s catalog.

Richard Petty signed the air cleaner.

And now its in my garage.  I really feel honored to be it’s ‘car’taker.

It came from the factory without any stripes and the engine call outs were removed so it was easy to camoflauge on the street.  Bruce added the Air Grabber hood in the ’90s and I put the strobe stripe on just after I bought it.    The only external Road Runner badging on it from the factory was the bird on the grille and Road Runner lettering on the quarter panels.Here is what’s responsible for the violence.  Fuel injection can never be this sexy.  It started out as a 440 and grew from there.   Lots of cubic inches+lots of carburetors=lots of smiles.  When restoring muscle-era Mopars, it’s always easier to mount the engine and transmission to the K-frame and then lower the body over them as a unit.

The car came home with me in January, 2016 and Bruce picked up a ’68 Barracuda for a new project. My normal routine when picking up an old car is to drive it around town for about 100 miles to test its roadworthiness before I put it into my normal driver service as was the plan with this car but I already knew the car and that Bruce took meticulous care of it so that wasn’t much of a concern.  I added the vintage Keystone mags and slapper bars to give it a ’70s street machine vibe as a nod to its street racing history and later I added the strobe stripe since that’s a ’71 Road Runner signature trait.

Im not going to completely turn a blind eye to its rarity and value, so while I do indeed drive it a lot, it is not a true DD, but I guess none of my cars really are since I rotate all 10 of them out daily as their mechanical condition allows.  Looking at the odometer the other day, I put about 6000 miles on it in the 3 years I’ve owned it and there is 126K miles on it.  Not bad for a collector car, but even better considering I spread my routine driving across 10 cars.

So where have those 6000 miles been spent? I have a 114 mile round trip to work every day, and I’m one of those guys that enjoys my commute.  Its my time.  Just me and my car.  The phone gets turned off and the stereo gets turned up.  Its all highway driving and I have a protected parking spot so traffic and parking is not an issue and the Road Runner has been to work maybe a dozen times since Ive had it. I generally have to allow extra time in the morning when I stop for gas for guys to come up and talk about it.

I mentioned before that I’m a regular at the Chryslers at Carlisle show that’s held every July.  I drove the Road Runner up in 2017, adding about 900 miles on the odometer without an issue.  A couple of thunderstorms; no problem, the wipers work just fine.  I watched all of the Hemi and Six Pack owners load their meticulously restored cars into expensive enclosed trailers.I got remarried and for both of us, it was our second marriage so it was a pretty low key affair but we still had a nice church ceremony with a photographer.  I had just retired from the Coast Guard the previous year and she wanted me to wear my dress whites, so white uniform, white wedding dress and white car for pictures.  It also turned out that the photographer that we hired was a Mopar guy that owned a ’66 Satellite so he knew how to artfully use the car in our pictures.

There was a bit of a problem though.  All of my friends that had retired before me had warned me that I would gain 20 pounds immediately after I retired since we were no longer subject the mandatory weigh-ins and fitness tests twice a year, coupled with being a 40-something male that enjoys a good meal.

And they were right.

But I could still fit in my uniforms.  Mostly.  So when it came time to take pictures of me, my wife and the Road Runner, the photographer had me move the car several times to get it positioned just right for pictures.

My uniform pants, which were now quite a bit tighter than they used to be, couldn’t handle the additional strain of getting in and out of the relatively low-slung Road Runner and after the third time of getting in and moving the car, I heard (and felt) it.  I blew out the seat of my pants.

And we were taking the pictures before the ceremony.

We finished up the car pictures and headed back to the chapel for the ceremony but I would have to take care of my split pants first.  One of her bridesmaids was an elementary school teacher that had a healthy supply of school supplies in her car and we patched my pants back together with several strips of Velcro.

Don’t laugh, it held together for the rest of the ceremony and the actual Velcro strips that held my pants together for the ceremony permanently lives on the rearview mirror of the Road Runner, along with my wife’s garter, a time honored hot rodder tradition.

This year, the Hot Rod Power Tour is coming through my state, so if my schedule allows, the Road Runner and I will be cruising down to Charlotte to kick it off and maybe hitting a few legs of the tour.   I did it in 2006 with my Coronet and the Power Tour is something every car guy must do.

So I hung up my dress whites for good after the wedding but the Road Runner has a permanent spot in my garage as a Car I Must Own.