In Part 1 of Mopar®’s Mad Men, we met Jim Ramsey, one of the creative brains that had a major role in creating some of the most iconic Plymouth print ads and marketing materials during the height of the muscle car era. Jim was more than a guy who wrote engaging words, he was an enthusiast himself who “got it” when it came to connecting with young gearheads. Hired into Chrysler’s ad agency Young & Rubicam (Y&R) on the eve of Plymouth introducing their GTX in late 1966, his first assignment was on the new Belvedere GTX, a street fighter created by Plymouth to do battle with Pontiac’s GTO on the drag strips and in the minds of performance fans all over the country.
By the time Plymouth introduced the Road Runner in 1968, Jim had proven to the Chrysler marketing execs that he knew his stuff and was really good at writing and creating ads. Despite being an “agency guy”, Jim had a major hand in working with the product planners to give this groundbreaking muscle car even more buzz among dealers, consumers and the media. The guys calling the shots at Highland Park trusted Jim when it came to how the new Road Runner should be advertised and marketed to the car-buying public.
Since Jim was the enthusiast/performance specialist at Y&R, he was handed the keys to the Road Runner project, ensuring this new car would get off the ground properly. “The agency (Y&R) really got behind the idea because we loved the notion of this car,” said Jim. “The agency (Y&R) had been asked to come up with names for the car, but no one at the agency came up with ‘Road Runner’, that was all Gordon Cherry and Jack Smith (Plymouth Product Planners).” With encouragement from Y&R, the team headed to California to meet with the Warner Bros. people to see if they’d like to do a deal with Chrysler. Not knowing what the reaction from Warner Bros. would be, the Plymouth marketing team, along with Jim and his folks as Y&R, would still call the car “Road Runner” as it was a generic name. Warner Bros. owned the cartoon character Road Runner that sped across the desert being chased by Wile E. Coyote to the delight of millions of kids watching on TV every Saturday morning. “Because Plymouth came out of the gate fast and hot, they were dead set on calling their new muscle car ‘Road Runner’. The Chrysler execs hopped on a flight from Detroit to LAX and went to the Warner Bros. offices. In a very confident way, they let the studio know they we’re calling this car Road Runner with or without their blessing,” mentions Jim. An epiphany must have gone off with the Warner Bros. execs. As the studio agreed to let Plymouth use the cartoon character’s likeness for a very nominal fee. The contract was signed, and muscle car history was made.
With that hurdle cleared, Jim and his team went to work on creating ads, but there was discussion internally at Plymouth as some of the designers were dead set against pasting a cartoon character on their new automotive creation. A compromise was reached, and the Road Runner decal would be black and white, not color like the TV cartoon. But there was the problem of having the decals installed at the plant. “It was an issue internally and some of the marketing folks suggested having the Road Runner decals placed in the glovebox for the dealers to install. This was to appease the design studio’s hardline stance, but almost immediately the decals were installed on the cars at the plants,” stated Jim. The product planners’ original first year forecast was 2,500 units, but soon they realized how wrong they were as dealer orders exceeded 40,000 units.
The car was an instant success for many reasons, but Jim and his fellow creative team members at Y&R really captured the true essence of the car in a series of print ads they ran in all the major enthusiast publications such as Hot Rod, Car Craft, Super Stock, Car and Driver and many others. “We did the illustrations for Road Runner ads with the bird in its natural environment like the desert or even the Bonneville Salt Flats,” noted Jim. “We wanted to steer clear of any street racing references, as Plymouth didn’t want to encourage that, but if you look closely at the ad, there’s a sign that says ‘SALT FLATS’ to show the car’s performance intentions.
Jim and Y&R worked on a number of ads for the car’s debut in 1968, and they ranged from being straightforward to tongue-in-cheek while poking fun at the establishment. Jim, with the blessing from his Chrysler client, pushed the boundaries in creating some fantastic work with ads that enthusiasts have loved for decades.
One of his favorites from the 1968 Plymouth Road Runner campaign was a two-page spread titled “The M.V.S.C.G.C. will never be the same”, Jim practically writes a humorous and fictitious vignette on how owners of British sports car in the “Mipswich Valley Sports Car & Goodfellows Club” (a fantasy organization Jim dreamt up for the ad) looked down on big V8-powered American muscle cars. The funny, well-crafted detailed copy mentions the Road Runner’s 426 HEMI® V8 engine, unique leaf springs, torsion bars and four-speed transmission with Hurst linkage. The line “Preposterous! Shades of drag racing!” is a nod to the car’s main purpose but it lets you know the Road Runner can also hold its own against expensive, foreign sporty cars like Jaguars, MG, Triumphs, Morgans, Maseratis, Porsches and other brands while being fast and comfortable.
The creative copy also tells of the Road Runner outperforming and outhandling these traditional sport cars in gymkhana competition and rallying. Among the “sporty car set”, they felt muscle cars were just single-purpose machines only capable of accelerating fast in a straight line and not braking or handling very well. Being a sports enthusiast himself, but also an owner of a HEMI engine-powered Road Runner, Jim nailed the copy perfectly in describing the somewhat snobbish culture of sport car owners while explaining the great attributes of his Plymouth.
“The idea was to place a Road Runner ad in traditional sports car magazines like Car and Driver, Road and Track, Sports Car Graphic and a few other publications. We knew many of their readers had quite the disdain for American performance sedans,” laughed Jim. “We also understood many of these readers bought regular automobiles and might consider a Road Runner as a practical daily car but with a lot of Moxy.” Once the concept was approved, and with the blessing of Peter Dow, the young Plymouth ad manager who understood performance-minded consumers, Jim and his team went into action. “It was late fall of 1967, so we couldn’t shoot the ad locally due to weather. We enlisted the services of Dick James Photography to scout locations for shoot,” recalled Jim. “We determined Stone Mountain State Park in Georgia would provide a great backdrop. It was a one-day photoshoot, and we used a combination of agency people and actors to stand in for the shot. We also used my personal 1968 Road Runner that was modified by Petty Enterprises with competition hood pins, side exit exhaust and even a roll bar. I flew into Greensboro (North Carolina) to pick up my car at Petty’s shop then headed to Georgia that night for an early morning photoshoot.” Along with Jim’s HEMI engine-powered Road Runner taking center stage in the ad, he was also a stand-in (that’s him sporting the English driving cap and wearing a fake handlebar mustache).
With sales of the new Road Runner exploding, Jim and his associates still had to focus on the other performance nameplates that Plymouth was marketing and selling. That included the GTX, the brand’s first muscle car that was launched a year earlier. The creative strategy for the GTX, along with the Barracuda, would have the same approach as the Road Runner. Once again, Y&R did not disappoint and with Jim’s creative direction, the print ads were in-your-face and spoke the language of gearheads everywhere. This look and feel would be Plymouth’s marketing trademark for the next couple of years and we’ll dive into more details in part 3 of Mopar’s Mad Men.