As much as we love sharing new exciting news in the Mopar world with our readers, sometimes we are tasked with the job of unfortunately sharing some very sad news with you all as well. This is one of those times. Unfortunately on Friday, September 15th, the Mopar community lost a very important person; a design icon. John L. Smith or better known as “Jack”, the man behind or “Father of the Plymouth Road Runner,” sadly passed away at the age of 94, according to his wife Laverne.
Burton Bouwkamp, retired product planner for Chrysler, told Allpar that “he died suddenly at home which, his wife Laverne said, was the way he wanted it to happen. At Jack’s request there will not be a funeral service.” Burton also went on to say, “Jack worked for me in Engineering from 1962 to 1964 and then again in Product Planning from 1968 to 1975. We also were personal friends. Jack was a very talented person – and he was a “one man band.”
He was personable and could get things done in or out of the Chrysler system, and he had the knack of getting it done without offending anyone. The Plymouth Roadrunner wasn’t Jack’s idea but he made it happen. He was responsible for planning and executing the model including getting Warner Brothers approval to use the Road Runner cartoon decal. In addition, he personally pushed, pulled and carried paperwork through the system to get the model launched in production in a short time. In my book he was the father of the Plymouth Road Runner.”
Jack started his career as a mechanical engineer training at Studebaker. Over time, he moved up the ladder through the company where he eventually managed Studebaker’s Mobil Economy Runs. After a number of successful years with Studebaker, Jack then joined Chrysler Corporation in 1957 and that’s when the true magic started. Jack had many accomplishments during his long career in the automotive world but the Plymouth Road Runner was his true masterpiece.
The Road Runner story began around 1966, when Jack led the Plymouth’s mid-sized car planning program. The 1967 Plymouth GTX was the result of the team’s first major effort together however, the luxury muscle car just didn’t sell as well as they wanted with only just over 12,000 units moving off dealership lots that year. With that, they decided to turn their efforts away from luxury muscle cars to something that was more bare bones but packed a punch; something the average Joe could afford to buy. From there, the Plymouth Road Runner was born in 1968.
Jack never took full credit for the Road Runner. Instead, he always maintained some credit for the idea be given to Brock Yates and his assistant Gordon Cherry. According to Jack, Gordon is the one who came up with the famous name and the cartoon association after watching Saturday morning cartoons with his kids. When talking about that moment, Jack said, “When I saw the cartoon on my television set, I fell in love with the thing. I’ll be frank, I didn’t know what the Road Runner was before Gordon mentioned it. I looked. The Road Runner was perfect!”
What many don’t know is the entire car took only two months to create from start to finish. When the Plymouth Road Runner made its debut for the 1968 model year, it blew the 1967 GTX sales out of the water. Buyers loved it so much that dealerships couldn’t keep them on the lots and the Road Runner proved to be one of the best bang for your buck muscle cars out there. Sales numbers for 1968 reached over 44,000 and then sky rocketed to over 80,000 in 1969! In fact, the Road Runner was so much of a success that it lasted in various forms right up to 1977!
When Jack finally retired from Chrysler in 1980, he held the title of ‘Chief Engineer of Vehicle Emissions and Fuel Economy Planning’. However, retirement didn’t mean Jack was done with Chrysler. In the mid-1980s, he was a part of the development team for the famous Chrysler Technology Center that opened its doors in 1991.
Jack will forever be missed and we here at Mopar Connection wish to extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends for the loss. He will forever live on in our hearts and every time a Road Runner horn goes “Beep Beep”.