The Car Time Forgot: 1980 Plymouth Road Runner

WRITTEN BY JOHNNY HUNKINS ON OCT 3RD, 2022 FOR HOT ROD NETWORK

The last Road Runner hit the bricks in 1980 as an afterthought, but its torch still burns bright with Harold Schutz.

On paper at least, the specs of the 1980 Plymouth Road Runner—a badge-engineered version of the Plymouth Volare coupe—won't arouse the horsepower lust of the typical gearhead; with a curb weight of 3,260 pounds, the top-of-the-line two-barrel 318ci F-Body made 120 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque, enough sauce to barely muster a 0-60 time of 12.6 seconds. Despite the Volare being named MotorTrend's Car of the Year in 1976, the bloom fell off the rose rapidly as Americans turned to the burgeoning import segment for better fuel economy in the post-OPEC oil-embargo era. By 1980, Plymouth was only able to sell 17,781 Volare coupes in all forms, including just 496 cars with the A57 option code, better known as Road Runners.

By 1980, the Volare's (and sibling car Dodge Aspen's) 360ci four-barrel option with 195 horsepower had been discontinued. With the Road Runner's base engine reduced to a mere 90-hp 225ci slant-six, the days of the entry-level engine being a fire-breathing 335-horse big-block Wedge were long gone. Adding insult to injury, most fans of the original Road Runner fairly disowned it, driving the memory of its final examples into oblivion. And yet, to a small and dedicated audience, the latter-day Road Runner still has plenty of appeal. That audience includes 62-year-old Harold Schutz, a retired industrial plastics technician from Mount Vernon, Indiana.

"I just want to let everybody know how underrated these F-Bodies really are," says Schutz, specifically citing the F-Body's forward-thinking transverse torsion bar front suspension. "Everybody always says, 'oh, that's an F-Body, those are junk.' Well, no, they're not. They're good-running and driving cars. They had some problems; they rushed them to the market the first year or two, had a lot of rust issues with the fenders and everything simply because they didn't put in enough engineering time to get the water to come out—you know, it puddled and stood in places, and they rotted out. But they fixed all that by the 1980 model. This is a rust-free car."

Plymouth Volare/Road Runner: The Other F-Body

You may recall that by 1976 the Chrysler Corporation had decided to sunset its compact A-Body (Plymouth Valiant/Scamp/Duster and Dodge Dart), replacing it with the demonstrably larger F-Body that hosted the Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen (which should not be confused with the more commonly known GM F-body Camaro/Firebird platform). Though initially classified as a compact, the F-Body twins were eventually reclassified as intermediates to reflect Detroit's down-sized fleet more accurately.

Meanwhile, full-sized C-Bodies like the Dodge Monaco and Plymouth Gran Fury departed, leaving the previously midsize B-Body platform to fill the role of large-car platform. All this platform shuffling left the new F-Body as Chrysler's most lightweight rear-drive V-8-powered vehicle—a fact that is overshadowed by the anemic horsepower of the day.

These days, when F-Bodies survive, they are most often used as inexpensive drag machines for Mopar fans who have actively avoided the cannibalization of more prized classics like Chargers and 'Cudas. Schutz's 1980 Plymouth Road Runner, seen here, barely escaped the same fate in 2004, when he picked it up for $2,500. Says Harold Schutz, "The car was originally bought in Princeton, Kentucky. The original owner kept it for 10 years and traded it back to the same dealership he bought it at, and the salesman who sold him the car took it home and put it in his garage, where it stayed until he passed away. Then it was sold at an estate sale, and a gentleman who does Nostalgia Super Stock racing bought it to make a race car."

Fortunately for this Road Runner, its new owner thought it was a shame to gut it out in an irreversible move. "Whenever he got it home he realized how nice a condition it was in; it would have been a mistake to cut it up and make a race car," says Schutz. So, he bought it. "When I got it, the paint was thin, the edges were all rubbed out down to the primer where it had been waxed and rubbed-on a whole lot. You could tell that it had a lot of love given to it."

As a bonus, Schutz later discovered he would be only the car's second official owner. "It's still listed with me being the second owner because neither the salesman nor the racer titled the vehicle in their name, so when I transferred the title, it was from the original owner's title and paperwork." As the previous owner of a 1976 Plymouth Volare Road Runner, Schutz was already familiar with the merits of the F-Body's ride quality and suspension attributes. But becoming the owner of one of Plymouth's final 496 Road Runners had its responsibilities.

In 2004, the Road Runner was a solid rust-free machine, but it still needed attention, and with the goal of giving it to his son, most of the effort was lavished on the F-Body at home by its new owner. "It was a nice-running car and had roughly 90,000 miles on it," says Harold. But the biggest surprise to come wasn't from the car, but his son. "I bought the car with the intention of restoring it and giving it to my oldest son, Matthew, on his 16th birthday. I did the restoration on it, painted it, put stripes on it, did the mechanical restoration, got everything up to snuff, gave him the keys to it on his 16th birthday, and he said, 'Dad, I love you, but I can't drive that car. I've seen how much time and money you put into it. If I tear it up, you'll hold it against me the rest of my life.' So we just set the car over in the corner of the barn and it sat there for the next 10 years." But more on that hitch in a moment.

Harold figures he's got another $10K invested in the car, mostly from the new paintjob, which he says was repainted at Dausmann Motors, coincidentally the same Plymouth dealership in Mount Vernon, Indiana, where the car was originally sold. "They have since gone out of business, and this car was actually the last they ever painted there at the dealership," says Schutz. Some of those additional funds went toward having the original Road Runner graphics reproduced by Phoenix Graphics, which boasts the ability to reproduce any decal for any car and any year. If there ever was a litmus test for that claim, it's Schutz's 1980 Road Runner. To reproduce the "Road Runner" graphics on the trunk and sides, Phoenix had to use tracing paper on the originals, using old photos to match the colors.

Harold likes to tinker, and spent months freshening the mechanicals, which included rebuilding the brakes, new brake lines, shocks, exhaust, and converting the original R12 air conditioning to R134. "It blows good and cold," says Schutz, adding, "they usually had the two-piston compressors—this one was the first year for the Sanden compressor, and it adapts very well for converting to 134."

When you've finished marveling at the Road Runner's pristine paint and bodywork, you realize that the interior is amazingly fresh, as if the car just rolled off the assembly line. Open the driver-side door, and a plush interior beckons. "Actually, the interior is all-original, it just needed a deep cleaning," says Harold. Here, Detroit's expertise in designing luxury coupe interiors is evident, with sumptuous pillow-pad seats, plush carpeting, console-mounted shifter, thick "Tuff" steering wheel, and expansive instrument binnacle coddling its driver in sybaritic comfort. Here's a place where the lack of performance under the hood can be somewhat forgiven—this is a cabin you'll be reluctant to leave upon your arrival.

As for the drivetrain, Harold admits it's all stock, just like he wants it. "It's the original drivetrain, haven't really done anything to it. It's still got the original air pump on it, you know, for the smog control. It's still in place and operational." With that, Schutz twists the key and the two-barrel 318 small-block fires right up, settling into a burble that's barely audible even from outside the car. With 11,000 miles showing on the odometer and the car looking brand-new, you'd swear that number is right, but this F-Body has already clicked over the 100K mark, and there's no end in sight. The only telltale of a life spent being well-loved is soft wear on touchpoints like the steering wheel, armrests, and center console lid.

As we first approached Harold Schutz's 1980 Road Runner in the car show area of the 2022 Holley Moparty event in Bowling Green, Kentucky, this past September, it was clear that the Volare was an important member of the Schutz clan. But its original remit of being passed down to son Matthew seems for the time being to have been placed on hold in lieu of use by the entire family. Harold told HOT ROD: "He got married in 2015, and two weeks before his wedding day he said, 'Dad, can I drive my Road Runner on my wedding day?' I said, 'Your Road Runner? Is that right?! I thought you didn't want that!'"

In a mad dash, Harold got the car out of storage, serviced everything, got it running again, and son Matthew was able to drive it in his wedding. Says Harold, "He kind of redeemed himself a little bit in my graces. Ever since then, my wife and I just get it out and drive it, take trips in it, we just enjoy it. It's a good-running and driving car. We get it out on the interstate and run up to 70, 80 miles per hour with the rest of the cars on the interstate in air-conditioned comfort. We enjoy driving the wheels off of it."

1980 Plymouth Road Runner

  • Engine: 318ci two-barrel; 120 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque
  • Transmission: three-speed TorqueFlite automatic
  • Drivetrain layout: longitudinal; front engine, rear drive
  • Front suspension: transverse torsion bar, independent
  • Rear suspension: leaf-sprung solid-axle
  • Brakes: power front-wheel disc, rear-wheel drum
  • Wheelbase: 108.7 inches
  • Curb weight: 3,260 lbs
  • Performance: 0-60 in 12.6 seconds
  • Observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
  • Production total: 496 Road Runner units for 1980
  • Total investment: $12,500

 

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