MotorCities National Heritage Area
grandfather_grandson_car-cropped.jpg

2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the Chrysler Archives and Marc Rozman
Published 7.17.2019

This is a story about Jack Smith, one of the individuals behind the Plymouth Road Runner for Chrysler during the 1960s and early 1970s.

RESIZED 1968 Plymouth Road Runner ad Chrysler Archives 11968 Plymouth Road Runner ad (Chrysler Archives)

I had the pleasure of meeting Smith at the Chrysler Museum a number of years ago. He was a perfect gentleman and very charismatic; he knew the history of Chrysler, along with the Road Runner and Plymouth story.

Jack Smith standing next to Warner Bros Road Runner character 2Jack Smith standing next to Warner Bros Road Runner character

Smith was involved with one of the most successful campaigns in automotive history. During the 1960s, the culture was changing, and the auto companies were beginning to offer muscle cars with more horsepower and styling features to attract a much younger audience. This resulted in higher profits for the companies.

Jack Smith discussing the front end of the Plymouth Road Runner with Chrysler EVP Dick MacAdam 3Jack Smith discussing the front end of the Plymouth Road Runner with Chrysler EVP Dick MacAdam

Chrysler in the 1960s was in direct competition with General Motors and Ford muscle cars. General Motors, Ford and AMC recognized the muscle car culture, represented by successful vehicles like the Pontiac GTO, Ford’s Shelby Cobra GT or AMC’s AMX. Chrysler needed to rebrand some of their cars, and Smith was the person who did that.

RESIZE Plymouth Road Runner ad Chrysler Archives 4Plymouth Road Runner ad (Chrysler Archives)

Smith, who previously worked with Studebaker as a mechanical engineer, started at Chrysler in 1957 and became the manager for the mid-sized Plymouth product planning group during the early 1960s. He said his first assignment was to come up with a name to compete with the popular Pontiac GTO. The Plymouth Road Runner was introduced to the public in 1968. Weighing 3,400 pounds and priced at $3,032, the Road Runner was a high-performance car named for the famed Warner Brothers animated cartoon bird. In the beginning, the Road Runner branding idea almost did not take off because some Chrysler executives were not sold on it.

1971 Plymouth Road Runner ad Chrysler Archives 51971 Plymouth Road Runner ad (Chrysler Archives)

It was Gordon Cherry who came up with the idea of using the Road Runner cartoon bird with Plymouth car. Cherry got the idea from watching the cartoon character on Saturday mornings with his kids. Bob Anderson, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Chrysler and Plymouth, wanted a car that would appeal to younger drivers, and most importantly, compete with the popular Ford Mustang. Cherry had explained his idea to Smith, who immediately came up with a presentation and proposal to use the animated Road Runner to represent the mid-size Plymouth. Chrysler leadership approved the idea, and Smith secured the rights to use the Road Runner character from Warner Brothers for $50,000. Another $10,000 was spent to create the iconic Plymouth car horn that goes “Beep Beep.”

RESIZED Jack Smith at the Walter Chrysler Museum on September 18 2010 Photo by Marc Rozman 6Jack Smith at the Walter Chrysler Museum on September 18 2010 (Photo by Marc Rozman)

In 1968, Plymouth sold around 40,000 Road Runner models in its first year, which was great news for Chrysler. From 1969 to 1972, the Plymouth Road Runner continued to post strong sales.

RESIZED Jack Smith at the Walter Chrysler Museum September 18 2010 Photo by Marc Rozman 7Jack Smith at the Walter Chrysler Museum September 18 2010 (Photo by Marc Rozman)

In conclusion, the standard Plymouth Road Runner included an illustration of the popular animated character. An upgraded model offered a special hood treatment including a two-foot long side-facing integral hood scoops. When buyers selected a Road Runner with a Hemi engine, the word “Hemi” appeared on the scoops and the rear of the car as well. Consumers enjoyed the styling, along with the universally loved Road Runner animated character.

RESIZED Jack Smith tells the Road Runner story at the Chrysler Museum September 18 2010 Photo by Marc Rozman 8Jack Smith tells the Road Runner story at the Chrysler Museum September 18 2010 (Photo by Marc Rozman)

Smith passed away at the age of 94 in 2017, and his great legacy will always be a part of our automotive history and culture.

Bibliography

Frumkin, MJ.  “Classic Muscle car Advertising the Art of Selling Horsepower.” Krause Publications, 2002.

Butler, Don. “The Plymouth and DeSoto Story.” Crestline Publishing, 1978.

Cruz, Francisco. “Father of the Plymouth Road Runner Passes Away at Age 94.” Fiat Chrysler Authority, October 13, 2017.

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Ford Motor Company and Other Websites
Published 7.10.2019

Lee Iacocca was born October 15, 1924 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Lehigh University in 1945 and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton in 1946. After graduation, Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company as an engineering trainee.

Iacocca and Mustang with engineer Don Frey and Ford Falcon RESIZED 1Lee Iacocca on the right with the Ford Mustang with engineer Donald Frey on the left with the Ford Falcon (Ford Motor Company)

One of the biggest accomplishments in Iacocca’s career came when he was directly involved with one of most successful cars of all time -- the Ford Mustang. Beginning in 1961. Iacocca felt that the quality conscious American public wanted something different in automotive design that would change the way consumers look at the American automobile. Iacocca and his research team gathered information on what kind of car Americans wanted: how big or small, how much power and, most importantly, styling. The research team spoke with many consumers, and the results mirrored Iacocca’s hypothesis – that many people wanted something different and unique in an automobile.

Resized Ford Design Studio Mustang images by Edward Bailey for Time Magazine 1964 Ford Motor Co 2Ford Design Studio Mustang images by Edward Bailey for Time Magazine, 1964 (Ford Motor Company)

Iacocca put together a great team of Ford’s automotive designers and engineers, including Hal Sperlick, Gar Laux, Donald Frey, Joe Oros, Eugene Bordinat -- Vice President of styling, and many others. The first concept Mustang I was unveiled at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix on October 7, 1962. The second modified concept model Mustang II was introduced at Watkins Glen the following year. The first production Mustang was introduced to the public at the New York World’s Fair on April 13, 1964 with a price tag of $2,455. The Mustang helped to write a great automotive historical chapter in Iacocca’s career at Ford Motor Company. In 1970, he was promoted to president of Ford. However, after his relationship with Henry Ford II soured, Iacocca was fired in July of 1978.

Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II RESIZED 3Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II (Ford Motor Company)

In November of 1978, Lee Iacocca became CEO and Board Chairman at Chrysler Corporation, the parent company of Chrysler Motors, Chrysler Financial, Gulfstream Aerospace and Chrysler Technologies. At the time he came on board, Chrysler was spiraling toward bankruptcy. Iacocca went to Congress seeking government help to keep the nation’s third largest automaker afloat in 1979. On May 10, 1980, U.S. Treasury Secretary G. William Miller announced the approval of nearly $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for Chrysler. At the time, it was the largest bailout package ever offered by the government to an American company. Under Iacocca’s leadership, it should also be noted that the Chrysler repaid the loans with interest seven years ahead of schedule in 1983.

April 1964 Time Magazine cover featuring Lee Iacocca 4April 1964 Time Magazine cover with Lee Iacocca

Iacocca became the face of Chrysler and its lead pitchman, introducing their line of "K" Cars in 1980 with a popular advertising campaign featuring the slogan “If you can find a better car, buy it!” Another great achievement was Iacocca’s introduction of the Chrysler Minivans in 1983 for the 1984 model year. Minivans created an entirely new category of vehicle and gave a big boost to Chrysler’s sales that is still talked about among automotive historians.

Resized March 1983 Time Magazine cover with Lee Iacocca at Chrysler 5March 1983 Time Magazine cover with Lee Iacocca at Chrysler

In 1987, Chrysler purchased American Motors from Renault, adding the legendary Jeep nameplate to its popular brand lineup. When Iacocca introduced the new Jeep, the ad campaign advised to “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way!” The new Grand Cherokee was manufactured at the new Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit. Finally, when the company made a mistake with an odometer-tampering scandal, Iacocca got in front of the problem, saying “Did we screw up? You bet. We’re human.”

Resized Lee Iacocca with Chrysler K Car Portland Press Herald 6Lee Iacocca with a Chrysler K Car (Portland Press Herald)

In 1992, Iacocca retired from the Chrysler Corporation. One year later, President Clinton spoke with Iacocca in conjunction with promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement. He passed away last week on July 2 at the age of 94. His legacy and dedication to the auto industry will be remembered in our American culture and history books for many generations to come.   

 Resized Lee Iacocca with check paying off government loan to Chrysler Auto News 7Lee Iacocca celebrates with the check paying off the government's bailout loans to Chrysler (Auto News)

Lee Iacocca collage including Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper CarandDriver.com 8Lee Iacocca collage including Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper (CarandDriver.com)

Bibliography

Time Magazine. “Ford’s Lee Iacocca.” April 17, 1964, Pg. 92, Vol 83, No. 16.

Serrin, William. “Ford’s Iacocca: Apotheosis of a Used Car Salesman.” The New York Times Magazine. July 18, 1971.

Smith, David C. “How Iacocca Builds Empire Within Ford.” Detroit Free Press, August 30, 1970.

Abodoher, David. “A Man and His Mustang.” Michigan, the Magazine of the Detroit News. October 10, 1982.

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection/Various Media Sites
Published 7.3.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Robert Tate Collection/General Motors Archives
Published 6.26.2019

by A. Wayne Ferens
Photos from the A. Wayne Ferens Collection
Published 6.19.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images from Various Web Sources
Published 6.12.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the Gilmore Car Museum
Published 6.5.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Chrysler Archives
Published 5.29.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of General Motors
Published 05.22.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images from Various Sources
Published 05.15.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the Robert Tate Collection
Published 05.08.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the Chrysler Archives
Published 05.01.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Published 4.24.2019

 

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection
Published 4.17.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images from Various Sources
Published 4.10.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of General Motors and Barrett Jackson
Published 4.3.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of The National Automotive History Collection/Robert Tate Collection
Published 3.27.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection and General Motors
Published 3.20.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Chrysler Corporation and the Robert Tate Collection
Published 3.13.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of General Motors and the National Automotive History Collection
Published 3.6.2019

 

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Yahn Janou
Published 2.27.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Alex Tremulis Archives, Ford Motor Company, Motor Trend, The Henry Ford
Published 2.20.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of General Motors, Michael Lamm, Dean’s Garage
Published 2.13.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection and Worldwide Web
Published 2.6.2018

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of General Motors
Published 1.30.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of various web sites
Published 1.23.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection (NAHC)
Published 1.16.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of General Motors
Published 1.9.2019

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Michael Paul Smith’s Official Website
Published 1.02.2019