1971 Plymouth Road Runner

This 1971 Plymouth Road Runner was one of only  with a Hemi engine. See more pictures of Plymouths.

Long-time Elvis fans and 1971 Road Runner hardtop coupe admirers share one important experience: Both groups have had to witness the object of their veneration grow from spare and hunky to showy and chunky.

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Plymouth introduced the Road Runner for 1968 as a stripped-down, low-price alternative to its fancier but weaker-selling GTX. The scrappy new model's performance and $2,896 base price lured 44,599 buyers that year, far exceeding the initial 2,500-unit sales projections.

The burly 426-cid "Hemi" V-8 in this 1971 Road Runner was rated at a nominal 425 bhp.

Its standard powerplant was a 383-cid V-8 engine that produced 335 bhp with help from the 440 V-8's freer-flowing cylinder heads, valvetrain, and manifolds. For even more punch, the stout 426-cid "Hemi" V-8 was available. Rated at a nominal 425 bhp, its actual output was well over 500 bhp. But the Hemi added roughly 30 percent to a Road Runner's base price and was barely streetable. Thus, it typically garnered only a few hundred orders a year. A more popular upgrade was the 390-bhp 440 introduced for 1969.

As the 1970s began, steadily rising insurance premiums and changing tastes were cooling demand for performance cars. Amid this less-giddy climate, Plymouth introduced a redesigned mid-size line for 1971.

The rear view of the 1971 Plymouth Road Runner shows off its sporty lines.

The new car rode a one-inch shorter wheelbase, but overall width increased by about three inches and curb weight went up some 170 pounds. The increased bulk signaled a departure from Road Runner's raw performance approach, a fact underscored by new options such as a color-keyed "elastomeric" front bumper, a rear spoiler, and backlight louvers.

At the same time, the standard 383 dropped 35 bhp to 300, and a smaller 275-bhp 340-cid V-8 was offered at mid-year. The Hemi was still an option and it was as strong as ever, but this would be its last season.

Along with the Warner Brothers Road Runner image, the horn made a "beep beep" sound like the cartoon.

Overall sales were by this time in a free fall. Following 1970's tally of 43,404, the 1971 Road Runner found just 14,218 buyers. Demand continued at similar levels for a few more years before Plymouth's famous bird was for 1976 reduced to being a warmed-over Volare compact slathered with stick-on stripes.

Interior gauges were stylish for the time period.

Indeed, like Elvis, the Hemi had already "left the building." But at least one of the rumored sightings is true; Phil Newcomb's Sassy Grass Green 1971, shown here, aptly preserves the turning point from Road Runner's all-out performance days.

It's one of 55 1971s equipped with the Hemi, of which only 28 had a four-speed transmission, as this one does. The low-mileage California car has been meticulously restored, with contemporary radial tires being the only deviation from date-code-matching correctness.

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