Story and photos by Brian Earnest
For reasons unknown, Paul Stewart’s stellar 1971 Plymouth Road Runner has always been sort of “the car that nobody wanted.”
Maybe it’s the car’s checkered past — it was abandoned by both the man who first ordered it and the woman who wound up buying it, and stolen twice from the dealership where it was originally sold. Later, it languished for years as a project car that never got finished until it changed hands several more times.
Even after it was completely restored and in shape for the showfield, its owner was still more of a “’Cuda guy” than a “Road Runner guy,” and the Plymouth was still a bit of a black sheep.
Finally, it seems to have a permanent home in Stewart’s garage. The Greendale, Wis., resident and longtime MoPar and muscle car fanatic is still pinching himself after swapping cars with a friend recently and getting what he viewed as the ideal car in return — a mint condition, low-production, low-mileage Road Runner 440 Six-Pack in purple. Stewart has owned and restored a laundry list of great muscle cars over the years, but it’s clear from the way he fawns over the Road Runner that his current ride might be his all-time favorite.
“I just feel so fortunate to have this car,” says Stewart, who traded the 1970 Cuda 440 Six-Pack he was restoring even-up for his purple Road Runner. “I love E bodies – Cudas and Challengers. But they rattle and they don’t drive very well. They make lots of noises. They don’t handle as well. Road Runners are B body cars. They are a little bigger, longer wheelbase. They are more stable, they drive nicer, they sound nicer. It’s just a more enjoyable experience to drive these cars… And purple and white and black is the best color combination in my eyes. Purple is my favorite color.”
Stewart said he had grown tired of resurrecting his Cuda this past summer and had told friend and fellow MoPar lover Dan Hodorowski that he planned to sell the Plymouth. Stewart said Hodorowski started to give him some static about selling the Cuda, so Stewart jokingly replied that he’d trade him the Cuda for the purple Road Runner. He was stunned when Hodorowski, who had sold him the Cuda as a project car nine years ago, took him up on the offer. Shortly thereafter, the pair swapped titles.
“It was kind of a joke and he took me seriously,” laughs Stewart. “After 9 years of restoring the Cuda, I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to have any disposable income for a few years to even get started back on the project. I know, this story has been told a million times before by a lot of people. But I figured my 10-year-old would be graduating high school by the time I got that car to the point of driving. I’d have no memories with my kids … So I just traded cars with Dan — who I had originally gotten the car from — for this done car and I’ve been happy ever since. And I’ll still get to see my old car when it’s finished. I’ll still get a chance to drive it. He can still see this car … He’s only 40 minutes away, and we still connect a lot.
“I think everybody is happy because Dan is a Cuda guy. He loves Cudas. He bought [the Road Runner] because it was a Six-Pack car and kind of a no-brainer at the time, but he’s a die-hard Cuda guy, not a Road Runner guy. And he’s really happy because he got the car he loves, and I’m happy because I got a car that’s really unique and rare, and it’s fun to drive and look at, and my kids and my wife can get it and we can go and have some memories together. “
Runaway Road Runner
The trade between friends was just the latest strange turn for the purple Plymouth, which has led a star-crossed life since the beginning. It started when a North Carolina man ordered the car from his local dealer in the summer of 1971. He apparently had straight line speed in mind because he chose the optional 440 Six-Pack engine option with FC7 In-Violet paint with a white interior, bucket seats, no console, four-speed, Dana 60 rear end with 4.10 gears, power brakes, manual steering, a rear wing spoiler, dual painted mirrors, hood pins, 15-inch rims, no chrome exhaust tips and no radio. The car showed up at the dealership, but the man’s financing fell through and the car went out on the lot.
From there, the story gets pretty colorful. Apparently a woman named Sarah Sweeley Stutts, who had become a Challenger fan after seeing the movie "Vanishing Point, showed up at the car lot looking for her own fast MoPar. She wanted a white car, but took a liking to the purple Road Runner and allegedly wrote "MINE" on the dust-covered deck lid before marching inside and securing financing for the car and taking it home.
The odometer showed 121 miles, but Sarah never questioned it. She soon moved to Florida, but returned home a few months later after she put blew a rod in her new Plymouth and put a hole in the block. The dealership gave her a new engine and sent her on her way, but when she returned a while later for service, she found out some previously unknown information about the car.
“She brought the car in for service because it needed an oil change and just wasn't running right,” Stewart recounted. “The service tech said ‘I remember this car!' Sarah asked, why do you say that? The service tech told her a story that the salespeople conveniently left out. He said a young man came into test drive the car right after they put it out on the lot. [During] the test drive, he had a run-n with the law and led them on a high-speed chase of 100 to 120 mph. The car was recovered and put back on the lot and she bought it without knowing anything about it. She really didn’t want the car anymore and she he walked into the finance office, dropped the keys and all her finance paperwork on the desk and said, 'You can have your car back. You lied to me and sold the car as new under false pretenses and I don’t owe you a dime.'"
The car went back on the lot and a week or so later it was suspiciously "stolen" a second time and recovered later without the engine and transmission. Those who know the car’s story question if the dealership staged the second theft to help recoup its losses.
The Road Runner was eventually sold as a body and chassis only. A South Carolina man bought it with the intention of turning it into a race car, but the car wound up sitting and collecting dust for several years. The Road Runner was then sold again to a Wisconsin enthusiast, who in turn dealt it to Hodorowski, who gave it a full rotisserie restoration that included body and paint work by MoPar restoration expert “Resto Rick” Kreuzinger of Wisconsin.
A Rare Bird
One of the big reasons Stewart was so thrilled to acquire the Road Runner was the car’s scarcity. By 1971, sales of the muscular Plymouths were beginning to cool and only 14,218 of the hardtop coupes were built for the model year. Of those, only 246 came with a 440 Six-Pack and only 137 of the 440 cars had a four-speed transmission. The 383 engine was the most popular choice with 7,952 assemblies. Only a scant 55 were built with the soon-to-be-discontinued 426 Hemi.
Youth of all ages took a fancy to the Road Runner’s budget muscle car concept in the late ‘60s and they had been beep-beeping at each other ever since. By 1971, the Coyote tormentor had bred its own cult of Road Runner owners. “When the performance-minded think Plymouth they think Road Runner,” said Road Test magazine, which selected the ’71 Road Runner as its “U.S. Car of the Year.”
High-performance cars of all sizes continued to be available in many models and with a long list of factory options during the 1971 model year. However, high insurance rates were keeping the buyers at bay. The low sales numbers put several models on the endangered species list.
The only body style returning for 1971 in Plymouth’s Road Runner line was the two-door hardtop version. Its new grille looked like a big loop around the front of the car. The Road Runner’s totally revised sheet metal was shared with the Sebring and Sebring Plus coupes. The sedan and convertible did not get translated onto the newly designed MoPar mid-size body shell.
With the more expensive GTX still around, the Road Runner again filled its low-priced muscle car niche with its trick “beep-beep” horn, hot graphics and other solid performance. Standard in the Road Runner model was a 300-hp version of the trusty 383-cid V-8. It had a 4.25 x 3.38-inch bore and stroke and a single four-barrel carburetor and developed 400 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2400 rpm. The Road Runner listed for $3,120 early in the year. Around May 31, the price increased to $3,147.
Motor Trend tested the 383 and 440 Road Runners in March 1971. The 383 version used a 3.91.1 rear, while the 440 version used the 4.10:1 axle. The cars turned out to be evenly matched. Both did 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds. Quarter-mile comparisons were 14.84 seconds at 94.5 mph for the 383 and 15.02 seconds at 96 mph for the 440.
Stewart isn’t planning to collect many pink slips with his new acquisition, but he swears he will drive the Road Runner more than any of the its previous owners have, and more than he has driven most of his other collector cars. He admits he has been more of a restorer and “preserver” of cars than a road warrior in the past, but he plans to take a different approach in the future.
“I have restored a lot of cars and they’ve been show ponies and they sit in the garage and they only go out when it’s sunny,” he says. “One thing won’t change, and that’s if it’s crummy weather I won’t take it out, but this car I will be driving. I have acquired this car to drive it, have fun with it, throw my wife and kids in and go to the drive-in, go out and see other cars and maybe get my kids involved.
“And one other thing about this car: All of the other cars I’ve restored, the bottom was painted as nice as the top. And when you are driving a car like that and you kick up rocks and stuff, you just feel a little guilty driving it. This car is a full undercoat car, so it doesn’t bother me at all when I hear a little rock jump up. So it’s a little more fun for me to drive – other than the lack of power steering.”
Other than swapping on some authentic rims, Stewart says he has no plans to change a thing on the Road Runner. He figures it’s just about perfect the way it is. Fate delivered him the right car at just the right time, and he’s going to enjoy every happy mile.
“I’ll never do another nut and bolt restoration again. Never, never, ever!” he chuckles. “Mark my words!
“I just feel so lucky to have this car. I love Road Runners, it’s a great car, it’s done, and I can just jump in and go.”
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