50 Years of HEMI

1968: The Hemi Road Runner 

Geoff Stunkard - March 31, 2014 07:47 AM


This Hemi-powered example in basic black was one of 840 built, and was on display at MCACN in Chicago last year.

Geoff Stunkard

The original publicity concept drawing and idea for Road Runner; only the Hemi option is not shown.

Courtesy of Geoff Stunkard

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The real reason any car company would choose to go racing was to sell new cars. To justify building the Hemi as a production engine, Chrysler’s Product Planning guru Bob Rodger had estimated selling 4,000 examples a year. In 1967, fewer than 1,500 units were built across three expensive model platforms – the Plymouth GTX, Dodge R/T, and Dodge Charger. The Hemi was being perceived as an out-of-reach banker’s special by the youth market.
Robert Anderson, Chrysler-Plymouth Division VP and General Manager, had Plymouth create a pyramid chart to figure out their target audience for performance, showing four possible buyer groups, the smallest at the top to the largest across the bottom. At the pinnacle were actual big name racers and semi-amateurs who lived for racing. The next group was the weekend drag racer, who would sacrifice to buy the right stuff; Super Stock packages already covered this market share. Next was somebody with the wherewithal to buy performance, but wanted to have comfort as well; this was the market for GTX, R/T and Charger. At the bottom, the largest group was the under-30 guys, with a job and perhaps a family, who watched racing with a passion but also had to watch their wallets. A plan was formulated to create an image car for this market.
The goal was a base model with heavy-duty equipment that could run a 15-second quarter-mile at 100 mph, cost under $3,000, and have street appeal. A reworked version of the 383 integrating the better 440 Magnum pieces in a base Belvedere post coupe would work with the right driveline; the four-speed as standard equipment, and the Torqueflite optional. There would be one engine option available – the Hemi. Something more was needed to give this car the kind of appeal the average Plymouth didn’t display.
The Madison Avenue guys came up with LaManche, but Plymouth executives watched a popular cartoon on Saturday morning television and knew the car would be Road Runner. Registered with the Automobile Manufacturers Association as a car designation, they paid Warner Brothers $50,000 for the bird’s usage and also gave WB additional money for an advertising campaign. The company had hoped to sell 2,500 that first year; they sold 52,000, with just over 1,000 Hemi-powered.
The Road Runner would be a trend-setter for the industry, and it did end up Hemi-fortified on the race track. Ronnie Sox had one and Richard Petty drove one on the NASCAR circuit. While not a pure Race Hemi, guys who could tune the engine properly found the Road Runner was a great way to win trophies on Sunday afternoons, or $20.00 at a stoplight on Saturday night, and chicks wanted to hear that funny horn…
(Geoff Stunkard, former editor of Mopar magazines, is presently writing an overview history of Chrysler’s Race Hemi engine for Cartech books to released in 2015. He will be highlighting Hemi heritage on this 50th Anniversary for Cars & Parts throughout 2014.)