Founder of Roadrunner, GTX Co-Creator Passes At Age 94

Founder of Roadrunner, GTX Co-Creator Passes At Age 94

Photo by Jeff Koch.


“Nobody but nobody will ever put a cartoon bird on one of my cars.” The threat from Dick Macadam was real enough that he poked an executive vice president of Chrysler in the chest to hammer his point home. And in that moment, in that hallway in Highland Park, the Plymouth Road Runner nearly died before it was born. It took the persistence and vision of John L. “Jack” Smith — who died last week at the age of 94 — to make sure that the cartoon bird would become the most beloved Looney Tunes member among the muscle car crowd.

Smith, at the time a manager for product planning for the Belvedere, never took credit for actually coming up with the idea. Rather, he always attributed that to his “ace assistant,” Gordon Cherry. Still, the Road Runner wouldn’t have happened without Smith.

As he related in an interview with Hemmings Muscle Machines for its January 2009 issue, Bob Anderson, then the new executive vice president of sales and marketing for Chrysler and Plymouth (and the guy who stylist Macadam poked in the chest), wanted to do something to capture the burgeoning youth market that Lee Iaccoca and his cohorts so accurately targeted with the Mustang.

Enter Smith. A former mechanical engineer for Studebaker, he’d joined Chrysler in 1957 and at the time ran a hotted-up Belvedere on the streets of Detroit. The year prior, he helped create the Plymouth GTX to compete with the Pontiac GTO, and in a short time he’d help put Mod Tops on Plymouth and Dodge products. To answer Anderson’s missive, he and his boss Joe Sturm, then the product planner for all of Plymouth, got their heads together and considered the letter Brock Yateshad written to Anderson in 1966, in which Yates suggested “taking a midsize two-door, stripping it down, making it cheap and light, and stuffing in the biggest engine you got,” as Smith paraphrased.

“Kids back then wanted big brakes, a harder suspension, and a four on the floor, and my objective was to have something that could do the quarter in under 15 and over 100 with a sticker under $3,000,” Smith said. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to strip it completely down — we still wanted something marketable.”

As Aaron Severson wrote, Cherry came up with the Road Runner idea while watching Saturday morning cartoons with his kids and had to explain the schtick to Smith. From there, Smith “almost overnight” pulled the Road Runner concept together, aided largely by the work he’d already done on his own Belvedere.

“We tinkertoyed that car together from parts we already had,” he said. “We loaded the Belvedere with police components — suspension, steering, brakes, wheels, the 383 — and added the louvered hood from the GTX. Our total tooling for parts unique to the Road Runner was under $500. The big tooling item on the whole car was the horn — I found one made by Spartonfor military vehicles.”

Full story here

Photo by Jeff Koch

Jack Smith Creator of The Roadrunner

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