Rediscovering the Buried Treasure of a 1969 Plymouth Road Runner

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This classic Hemi Road Runner is the stuff of legends. It was bought new by an 18-year-old and lived a life of high-performance running in the gold-lined streets of Santa Barbara, California, a quarter-mile at a time. But with only 25,185 miles of hard driving, the owner had encountered enough problems with the local law to drive up his insurance rates to $150 per month, a huge figure in 1978 dollars. So the Hemi’s original owner parked the car behind his garage after removing the engine for a redo and upgrade. He had every intention of rebuilding the rare engine, but unfortunately, this is where the Road Runner’s life took a hard turn for the worst

In 2017, some 39 years after the Road Runner was pulled apart and sent to pasture, the original owner came to Troy Martin, owner of Full Scale Hot Rods, to see if he was interested in his Road Runner. The owner told Martin the wild tale of his 1969 Hemi Road Runner and how Full Scale Hot Rods was the right place to restore the car to its original glory.

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“My mechanic and me went out to Santa Barbara on a Saturday and met with the owner,” Martin said. “We went down to the field where the car had been sitting since 1990. We were a bit stunned by it and took some photos to verify the car’s originality. After significant investigation, it became clear that this was a very rare piece of hemi muscle-car history.”

Rare Is Rare

Between 1966 and 1971, just under 11,000 426 Street Hemi production cars were sold to the public. The Hemi engine design became the template for the top levels of competition, and even today, the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes run, with virtually no exceptions, an engine derived from the 426 Hemi engine design.

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Martin’s 1969 Road Runner is a rare piece of performance history. Only 234 four-speed-shifted Hardtop Road Runners rolled from the St. Louis factory, and this particular example reached the end of the assembly line on April 24, 1969. That model year, 84,510 Road Runners were produced, of which 48,549 were Hardtops like Martin’s. Doing a quick bit of math, that means only 0.4819 percent of the Hardtops featured the Hemi engine. We’d define that as rare.

The Rebuild Begins

“In 1990, Southern California’s Painted Cave fire destroyed the neighborhood where the car was stored,” Martin said, “and the owner lost his house and the garage where the engine was stored. Just before the fire reached his home, the owner and his friends pushed the car away from the garage and down the hill to the bottom of the property [and away from the flames] where it sat until we literally dug it out of the ground in 2017.”

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With the car finally in the shop and most of the larger debris out of the interior, they popped open the trunk and found a treasure trove of original parts, including the original transmission, bellhousing, flywheel and clutch, valve covers, complete air cleaner, aftermarket headers, and original exhaust manifolds that were taken off the car when it was only two weeks old. In addition, they found the original starter, alternator, radiator fan and clutch, water pump, water-pump housing, oil pan, windage tray, motor mounts, and even an old AM radio from the 1970s.

Continued Martin, “After pressure-washing the entire vehicle, I began taking pictures of the original but well-worn Plymouth. We made a supreme effort to authenticate original undercoating patterns and how the factory put the car together so we could replicate these things in the final restoration.

“We located an engine builder in Burbank, California, who specialized in vintage race motors and asked him to look at it,” Martin said. “Kenny Deeds. Deeds felt he could save the block and retain the numbers-matching status of the block. I gave him the engine with the hope he could perform a magical transformation.”

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The car was then chemically stripped, neutralized, and finally hit with a phosphate rinse. After an assessment of the sheetmetal condition, it was deemed that the flooring, inner and outer wheelhouse, full quarters, package tray, Dutchman (metal section below the rear window), roof, and tail section would need to be replaced. In all, it took about three months and 500 hours of labor to reconstruct the body. While the body was taking shape, Martin spent time rebuilding the rear suspension and axle along with a full rebuild of the numbers-matching transmission, the latter left to the skills of “Bad Brad” from Sunland, California.

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“My original intent was to build the car back to factory original-style condition, especially after verifying that it was an original Hemi car, heightened in value by the Vitamin C Orange paint. I installed aftermarket American Racing five-spoke wheels to pay homage to the original owner, just the way he set the car up for cruising Santa Barbara back in the 1970s. My current plan is to call up the owner now that it’s done and hand him the keys so he can relive his youth and days of driving a very rare and very cool original Hemi Road Runner.

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The attention to detail required to restore the engine block that sat in a field for 40 years and survived the Painted Cave Fire in the Santa Barbara area in 1990 to factory condition is amazing. Engine-restoration expert Kenny Deeds brought the engine back to factory-correct condition.
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The instrument panel was lovingly reworked and features all of the correct coloring on the gauges and indicator needles.
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The bodywork took a huge amount of time to achieve this level of quality. A large number of original sheetmetal components had to be replaced with parts from Auto Metal Direct after the damage it incurred “in the field.” Credit for the exquisite final fitting goes to Neal Leslie and Martin.
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And here’s why: This elaborate ducting system takes fresh air from the outside and pulls it into the air-cleaner system that sits atop the engine. Martin’s part suppliers had only one of these in stock—the last one! What luck!
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Don’t Armor All the seats prior to going for a ride in Martin’s Hemi or you’ll be hanging on for life. With yards of vinyl covering the factory bench seat, there’s plenty of room for three-across seating—just make room for the shifter.
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The crowning touch for this Hemi build was how it sounds in person. Using original replacement factory Hemi mufflers and enlisting the artisans at Accurate Exhaust for the tubing execution, Martin was able to replicate the car’s original exhaust system in look and tone.

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