Muscle Cars You Should Know: ’69 1/2 Plymouth Road Runner 440-6 #1

Everybody wants to know what the fastest production muscle car was. And appropriately, everybody has their own opinion of what that car is. History will attest that that title belongs to Carrol Shelby’s 427-powered Cobra roadster, a virtually hand-built rocket ship that – when observed closely – reveals how haphazardly these machines were hurriedly assembled. But sketchy fit-and-finish doesn’t negate the fact that the Shelby Cobra was the fastest thing on wheels.

But each Cobra was an individually-assembled race car for the street. How about something available off of a showroom floor? How about something that didn’t require having to know somebody in an unmarked office in Michigan to order? Sure, COPO Camaros and Chevelles were quick, but they were nearly as exclusive as the Cobra. Some “everyman” couldn’t walk into their local Bowtie dealer and order up a Hugger Orange 427-equipped ’69 Camaro.

We’re talking factory-equipped, dealer-available muscle here. No Baldwin Motions. No Yenkos. No Mr. Norms Specials. Apples to apples. When you whittle down the perimeters, you get some tight competition.

Many would argue that the honor belongs to the 427 Tri-Power Corvettes as others would claim HEMI superiority. We would like to throw in our submission: this ’69 Plymouth Road Runner.

Equipped with the then new-for-mid-year-1969 optional A12-code performance package, which restricted bells-and-whistles as much as it boosted the aerodynamics-of-a-Frigidaire Plymouth B-Body. Standard for the A12 was a spartan interior, no A/C, power windows or other frills. A12 ‘Runners came with 15×6 black steel rims with Redline Polyglas tires, chrome lug nuts, and minimal exterior dressing…that is, except for a flat-black lift-off hood with a barn door-wide functional scoop.

Beneath the hingeless hood was Ma Mopar’s 440cui Wedge motor. Crammed with tighter springs, a custom-grind cam, chrome-stem valves, and a unique Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold with a trio of two-barrel carburetors, totaling far more CFMs of airflow than its hungrier HEMI sibling. Again, standard to the A12 was the 18-spline A833 4-speed transmission and grenade-proof Dana 60 rear with 4.10 gears.

Rated from the factory as 390 horsepower and the same torque as the HEMI, the NHRA conversely rated the 440 Six-Barrel at a closer-to-reality 410 ponies.

This particular ’69 1/2 Road Runner A12, or 440 Six-Barrel, as it was marketed, is the very first A12 ‘Runner to have ever been produced. But much more than valuable than its numerical sequence is the role it played in muscle car history.

On March 11th, 1969, the ‘Runner was delivered from the Lynch Road assembly plant to the nearby Chrysler Performance Product Planning garage, where it was tuned and evaluated before heading off to New York City on March 20, 1969 by the Chrysler East Side dealership’s service garage on 44th Street in Manhattan. There, Kerry Smith, public relations manager for Chrysler made arrangements to have the A12 Road Runner delivered to the Sox & Martin test facility in North Carolina.

The sponsored Plymouth race team, composed of Ronnie “Mr. 4-Speed” Sox and Buddy Martin, were tapped to oversee the proposed “Professional vs. Journalist” drag test of the new ‘Runner, with Sox being the professional “hot shoe” against Super Stock Magazine’s Ro McGonegal, who had picked up the R4 Red A12 for its first public test drive.

The night before the shootout, the Road Runner’s factory intake manifold and carburetor setup mysteriously vanished. Panicked, and somewhat begrudgingly given the circumstances, Chrysler execs rushed a replacement setup down to North Carolina. The conspicuousness of the disappearance encouraged Chrysler’s Dick Maxwell, John Bauman, and Al Adams to be onsite for the day’s testing.

Here's the original SS&DI feature article in its entirety. It's a bit of history that the old school guys still chat about over beers and leaning on fenders.

With the Cecil County Dragway to themselves, Super Stock went about removing the spare tire, floor jack and other unnecessary weight from the car before letting Sox climb behind the wheel. Rowing through the gears at 6,000rpm, Sox clicked off a reasonable 13.42 at 109mph. Although impressive, Sox – and most everyone present – knew that the ‘Bird had much more to prove.

Sox continued flogging the ‘Runner, never letting the Plymouth take a cool down break between passes. Changing up his driving style, Sox would punch the 440-6 hard, short-shifting the 4-speed at 5,500rpm. This payed off in spades, cutting the Plymouth’s time down to 13.13 at 110mph. A subsequent pass brought it into the 13.0’s at 13.09 at the same mph.

After some carburetor tuning, Sox cut his shifts even more, clanging through gears at 5,200rpm, bringing the time down to 13.02. With a 12-second pass just over the next hill, Sox and the Chrysler team were on a mission. McGonegal traded places with the professional wheelman and tripped the lights at 13.24 at 110mph, proving the ‘Runner had plenty on the big end, and that a driver with finesse could shave off the seconds.

The Chrysler bigwigs went about removing the air cleaner and gave Sox the keys once again. With temperatures on the rise that Spring afternoon, Ronnie Sox turned in an amazing sequence of 12.98, 12.92 and 12.91 all at 111mph. These speeds were simply unheard of, especially for a full-sized two-door “post” sedan weighing in at 3765 pounds. Even the dimensionally smaller (but slightly heavier) HEMI ‘Cudas struggled to reach those speeds.

The HEMIs, which were exorbitantly expensive and grossly overweight, weren’t really all that great on the street, and the 440 Six-Barrel-equipped Road Runners and Super Bees did only but help prove that. Some $600 over the base 383-equipped ‘Runners and ‘Bees, the A12 cars were still considered exotic, and wildly desirable.

“How did I do it? Easy. I never used the clutch.”

The story sent all sorts of ripples through the industry. Were the numbers legit? What happened with that missing intake setup? Was the replacement setup a “ringer?” Was the car itself not stock? Before the days of the Internet, people were simply let to wonder. It would be nearly a decade later, during an interview with the venerable Mr. 4-Speed himself, Ronnie Sox that the truth came out:

“How did I do it? Easy. I never used the clutch.”

The history of the infamous ’69 1/2 Road Runner 440 6BBL went a little fuzzy after that. Undoubtedly, the car’s reputation remained firmly attached to it. Collectors clamored for the rare ‘Bird until the R4 Road Runner was entreated to a complete ground-up restoration in 2007, using nearly all of its original sheet metal and a mishmash of restored original and reproduction aftermarket parts.

Still with the car are its original fiberglass lift-off hood, Six-Barrel air cleaner and original (well, second original) Edelbrock aluminum intake and Holley carburetors. Backing this are the Road Runner’s original A12-specific Dana 60 axle with 4.10 gears. The ‘Bird was later authenticated by the A12 Registry and verified using the car’s original window sticker and broadcast sheet as the first A12 produced and as one of the most famous Mopar street machines in history, thanks to Ronnie Sox.

The restored Road Runner was one of the most anticipated sales at the Scottsdale, Arizona Barrett-Jackson auction event in 2010, where it fetched an incredible price of $93,500, nearly twenty four times more than its original estimated $3,800 asking price. While nowhere near the extortionate winning bid of HEMI-equipped E-Bodies, this single Road Runner did more to upset the balance of performance muscle than any other production machine, and that makes it more valuable than anything else.

CHECK OUT OTHER MUSCLE CARS YOU SHOULD KNOW

About the author

Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a self-proclaimed "muscle car purist," preferring solid-lifter camshafts and mechanical double-pumpers over computer-controlled fuel injection and force-feeding power-adders. If you like dirt-under-your-fingernails tech and real street driven content, this is your guy.
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