By 1966, muscle vehicles had been hitting peak stride. However some argued they’d turn into too costly and strayed too removed from the unique idea. As efficiency fashions had grown in displacement and expertise, some crossed into premium pricing territory. Pontiac’s GTO, for instance, may simply exceed $four,000 with a handful of choices when the common price of an American vehicle was nearer to $2,750.
Enter Jack Smith.
Plymouth had fallen into the pricing pitfall like most different producers. Smith, who owned a souped-up Belvedere II, had lately been promoted to go of the corporate’s mid-sized automobile planning division. He wagered the general public would possibly take pleasure in a automobile like his and Plymouth launched the GTX in 1967 to compete with the GTO. Nevertheless it was nonetheless too costly, particularly for a finances model like Plymouth, and garnered a lukewarm gross sales response — which gave Jack an thought.
With muscle vehicles getting progressively extra pricey, Smith figured the perfect answer was to give you one thing reasonably priced and quick. Chrysler’s then vice chairman of gross sales and advertising and marketing, Bob Anderson, already wished Smith to give you one thing to draw the youth market. This was inspired by a letter from Brock Yates suggesting a stripped-down midsize two-door full of a bigger engine.
Smith’s aim was to construct a 15-second automobile with over 300 horsepower that might be bought for lower than $three,000. Going again to the Belvedere for inspiration, he cobbled an instance collectively utilizing police-spec parts and leftovers from the GTX. The title for the automobile got here whereas his assistant, Gordon Cherry, was watching cartoons with this kids.
Smith secured the rights to make use of the Highway Runner picture from Warner Brothers for $50,000, a lot to the chagrin of govt vice chairman of Chrysler Dick Macadam, and spent one other $10,000 designing the automobile’s iconic horn. Smith estimated the remaining tooling prices for the Highway Runner was underneath $500.
Your complete automobile took solely two months to develop and was an instantaneous gross sales hit.
In 1968, you might buy a Plymouth Highway Runner with a 355-horsepower 383-cubic inch V8 for roughly $2,800. That’s the fashionable money equal of a base Chevrolet Malibu that’s in a position to outrun a mid-tier Camaro.
In fact, for an additional $714 you might have the Plymouth geared up with the 426 Hemi, an improved suspension, and the usual Hurst four-speed — making it simply concerning the quickest factor on 4 wheels. However 4 wheels and an engine was about all you bought to your cash. Whereas the Highway Runner was a efficiency miracle in its day, it was nearly laughably barebones. Some early fashions didn’t even have carpeting.
That didn’t damage gross sales, although. Plymouth bought round 40,000 Highway Runners in its first yr and doubled that quantity in 1969.
Hoping to stay on a roll with the youth market, Smith later developed flowered and paisley “mod tops” for Chrysler automobiles — pushing Mopar roofs and interiors into an period of most grooviness.
Jack retired from Chrysler in 1980 after serving because the Chief Engineer of Car Emissions and Gas Financial system Planning. In retirement, he joined the event crew for the Chrysler Expertise Heart and have become a daily fixture at automobile exhibits in Southeastern Michigan.
We had been tipped off that John “Jack” L. Smith handed away final Friday on the age of 94. As a significant contributor to the funky persona of mid-century Mopar and staple on the Woodward Dream Cruise, he can be missed.
[Supply: Allpar] [Images: Fiat Chrysler]