Vintage Car & Driver Comparison Test: 1969 Hemi Roadrunner, Chevelle 396, Ford Cobra, Cyclone CJ, Superbee and GTO The Judge – “Six Econo-Racers”

1969 could well be considered the apex of the muscle car era. The ’64 GTO created the genre and 1968 Plymouth Roadrunner redefined it by stripping it down to the essentials. And by 1969, Ford finally had a competitive street engine in the 428 Cobra Jet. Car and Driver set out to compare six stripped-down “Econo-Racers”, and the results make for a (rapid) time travel back to 1969. Just don’t be too disappointed to find out that one of them was disqualified for being no where near stock; you can probably guess which one was judged to be an outrageous “ringer”.

The first wave of the mid-sized muscle cars (or whatever moniker you prefer) were high-trim as well as high-performance versions. That formula changed with the massively successful Roadrunner, and everyone else quickly jumped in too. There was something about the no-nonsense stripped down look combined with the serious performance equipment that was just more compelling — as well as cheaper. That didn’t apply to all of them; the Pontiac GTO Judge was actually more expensive, but it sported the look anyway.


C/D requested cars that would be as basic and comparable as possible including the standard base engines but with the optional functional hood scoops. The one major deviation was on the two otherwise very similar Mopars: the RR was ordered with the 426 Hemi; the Super Bee with the standard 383. There were a few other options requested: automatic transmissions, rear axle ratios of as close to 3.50 as possible with limited slip, disc brakes, power steering, radio and a tachometer.

As is so commonly the case in these comparisons, some of the cars didn’t arrive as per the requests: The two Mopars did, but the rest came with optional bucket seats, consoles, and various other doo-dads.  C/D was annoyed; GM and Ford said the six-week window was too short to meet the requests, yet Chrysler had no problem.

#1: Plymouth Hemi Road Runner:

Not exactly a surprising outcome, as Chrysler’s Hemi-powered B-Body cars had been enjoying top-dog status ever since they arrived in 1966. It wasn’t just its brute acceleration either, although with a 1/4 mile result of 13.54 seconds @105 mph, this one more than lived up to its name. It’s one of the faster times I’ve seen for a genuine stock Hemi B-Body. The ’66 Hemi Belvedere review we posted a while back weighed the same and had a slightly lower numerical 3.23 rear axle. It was a fair bit slower, with a rather pokey 0-60 time of 7.1 compared to the ’69’s 5.1, and was a full second slower in the 1/4 mile  (14.5 @ 95 mph). The one big difference was that the ’69 had significantly wider F70-15 tires compared to the skinny 7.77-14s on the ’66.

C/D made the point that the RR wasn’t first just because of the Hemi, although it certainly added to the equation. The RR also stopped in the shortest distance and came in second in handling. But it was more than mere metrics that made the RR stand out; it was “the most exciting” and came a cross as “a tamed race car…the Hemi Road Runner has more pure mechanical presence than any other American automobile”.


The hemi created very visceral sounds and sensations: “open everything on the two 4-bbl. Carters…the exhaust explodes like Krakatoa and the wailing howl of surprised air being sucked into the intake turns heads for blocks. Baby, you know you’re in the presence.

The suspension was “incredibly stiff, guaranteed to produce extreme discomfort for anyone but the enthusiast.” The RR handled well, but not as well as the Chevelle, and had a strong understeer tendency that required a heavy foot on the throttle to counteract.

The taxi-cab worthy instrument panel without even an oil pressure gauge to keep tabs on the health of the expensive ($813) Hemi was considered “a true felony“, and the optional tach was poorly placed.

The Hemi RR wasn’t exactly all that “Econo” either, given the stiff price for the Hemi. It would have been the most expensive car of the test if all had been similarly equipped.

#2:  Dodge Super Bee

The decision as to which car came in second was a bit difficult, as the Ford Cobra was a strong contender. The Super Bee was only fourth in acceleration and third in both braking and handling, so it had to be in other qualities that pushed it ahead of the Cobra. Those were its “exceptionally well-coordinated feel of the Dodge combined with really outstanding instrumentation (shared with the Dodge Charger) that made the difference.

The Dodge was the lightest of the group (3765 lbs. curb weight), which probably helped explain in part its somewhat surprisingly quick 14.04 second 1/4 mile time @99.55 mph, given the 335 hp 383 V8. A bit oc checking showed that the engine had a dual point distributor and a large diameter exhaust system. But a check of the AMA specs showed that those were standard, but a further check showed that the Super Bees coming off the assembly lines had single point distributors and a smaller exhaust system.

Technically it was “stock”, but not quite representative of what was actually being sold.

The softer torsion bars and springs on the 383-equipped cars resulted in more body roll, more than any others in the test. Even then, the Super Bee was deemed to handle well. Even though the Super Bee was a bit less super than the Hemi RR, it still felt like a civilized racer. It was a quality that endeared these Mopar B-Bodies to their loyal fans.

#3: Ford Cobra

The Fairlane/Torino based Cobra was Ford’s new entry in the muscle car wars, and finally they had something truly competitive in price and performance. The 428 Cobra Jet engine, which sported the deep-breathing 427 heads and other goodies, made it a strong performer, with a quick 14.04 @100.61 1/4 mile time and trap speed. The rather pricey ($433) fresh air package was obviously effective, as when the scoop was closed, it lost 0.2 seconds and 1.4 mph in the 1/4 mile.

The four-pod instrument panel failed to elicit any love, as did the power steering, which was summed up as “numb“. The brakes were good, and the handling reflected the typical Ford pattern of strong understeer. The ride was comfortable and quiet, only exceeded by the Chevelle. Build and material quality were a positive. C/D summed it up by saying that from its gnarly looks, the Cobra is clearly trying to come across as a racer, but driving it, it feels more like a family sedan with a big engine.

#4 Mercury Cyclone CJ

Since the only real differences between the Cyclone and the Cobra were stylistic, it’s not exactly surprising that the Cyclone slotted in just behind the Cobra, due to significantly worse braking performance. But it was a hair quicker than the Cobra, due to its higher numerical 3.91 rear axle ratio. That resulted in a 13.94 @100.89 mph 1/4 mile time, but the increased engine noise at cruising streets was not deemed worth the slight improvement. And its instrument panel was deemed superior.


#5 Chevelle SS396

The Chevelle was on the other side of the spectrum from the Hemi RR in terms of its civility. It was very smooth, quiet and refined; anything but a race car in feel or demeanor. How much that hurt it in the rankings is hard to say, but clearly C/D was more excited by the rough and tumble Mopars.

Chevrolet didn’t actually offer a single RR-like package, but since the SS396 option was available on the low-priced Chevelle 300 coupe, its starting price ($3409) was the lowest. A genuine Econo-Racer. But with the standard 325 hp version of the 396, its acceleration was not quite up to the lofty standards set by the others. It took 5.8 seconds from 0-60, and the 1/4 mile was acquitted in 14.41 @97.31. But…the 325 hp 396 had no performance pretensions (or actual components) unlike all the others in this test. This was an engine that was much more at home in a Caprice than on the drag strip. Comparing it with the 426 Hemi and 428 CJ is more than a bit unfair, given that both a slightly warmer 350 hp version and a decidedly warm 375 hp version were both available. The latter would have made a much more interesting point of comparison, but nevertheless, the Chevelle’s acceleration numbers are still quite decent. A 14.4 second quarter mile was nothing to sneeze or laugh at.

The Chevelle’s poor brakes didn’t help matters. But what did was its handling, deemed the best overall, thanks to its HD suspension package that now included a rear sway bar, as pioneered by the Olds 442 a couple of years earlier. The handling was enhanced further by the best power steering of the bunch.

The Chevelle that arrived was a Malibu version, complete with bucket seats and console, so once again C/D’s Econo-Racer expectations were dashed. The result was that the Chevelle was neither econo nor racer, but for an extra $252, the optional 375 hp 396 would turn it into the real thing.

Not Rated: Pontiac The Judge

Pontiac’s obsessive need to sneak in cars into magazine reviews that were anything but stock had been going on for some years, and the Judge was no different. It didn’t take long to notice that the vacuum lines and such looked non-stock, and a bit of further digging revealed the engine to have ID numbers for a 1968 manual transmission unit, which differed from what should have been there in a number of not unimportant ways, including its camshaft. Pontiac admitted “it’s kind of a prototype”.  A smog check showed that it was also madly out of compliance. And there were 7″ wide wheels, not available as options. And…

C/D, which had been duped a number of time before by Pontiac, ruled The Judge to be guilty, and banished from the test.

The choice was pretty clear: the Hemi RR was an Econo-RACER; the Chevelle an ECONO-Racer, and the Cobra and Cyclone were somewhere in between. And The Judge was nowhere, thanks to Pontiac’s subterfuge.