If you ask the average person to name an American sporty car of the late sixties, you probably won’t hear “Plymouth Barracuda” unless the person is a dedicated Mopar fan. In a way, that’s curious, because the Barracuda was the first of the so-called pony cars to hit the market (even before the Ford Mustang) and in some areas it was arguably superior to its Ford rival. So, why was the Barracuda doomed to be a perennial also-ran? This is the sad story of the 1964-1969 Plymouth Barracuda.
PLYMOUTH VALIANT BARRACUDA
The early sixties were not an auspicious time for Chrysler’s Plymouth brand. Only a few years earlier, Virgil Exner’s handsome “Forward Look” Plymouths had stolen styling leadership from General Motors, while their buttoned-down “Torsionaire” suspension had set new standards for big-car handling. A ’57 Plymouth with the right engine was one of the fastest, most roadworthy cars in America. Sadly, it was all downhill from there, as quality-control problems, a propensity for early corrosion, and a succession of questionable styling decisions savaged its image and reputation. To make matters worse, in 1962, a serious intelligence failure led Plymouth’s big cars to be hastily downsized to what were then intermediate proportions, accompanied by styling that seemed to have come straight from the Bizarro World.
Plymouth’s only saving grace was the compact Valiant, its rival to Chevrolet’s Corvair and the Ford Falcon. The Valiant never sold as well as its Ford or Chevy rivals, but it kept many a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer afloat during a very lean time.
In better days, Plymouth was supposed to be a rival for Chevrolet and Ford, the third of the traditional “Low-Priced Three.” In basic hardware, it gave away little to its competitors, but its image was moribund. As the economy improved during the Kennedy era, buyers were again looking for sporty, exciting cars, not just basic transportation. At the time, Ford and Chevy each had a glamorous halo car — the Thunderbird and the Corvette — and Chevrolet had also reinvented its Corvair as a sporty compact. Plymouth, meanwhile, had nothing. Its big 413 cu. in. (6,771 cc) “Max Wedge” engine was a fearsome dragstrip and NASCAR competitor, but it wasn’t the sort of thing anyone but an amateur hot rodder would want to drive on the street and it did little to boost Plymouth’s image.
In 1963, Chrysler-Plymouth introduced the second-generation Valiant, which now included a sporty hardtop and convertible line called Plymouth Valiant Signet. Its sales, a shade over 40,000, weren’t a patch on Chevrolet’s Corvair Monza, but it was promising. Plymouth product planner Joe Strum ventured that there would probably be a market for something a little sportier than the Signet, which was still a fairly dowdy piece. A sleeker body would go particularly well with the small V8 engine planned for the 1964 Valiant. If they got it ready quickly enough, it could also beat out Ford’s Mustang, a new sporty car that was set to bow in the spring of 1964.
FISHBOWL: THE FIRST PLYMOUTH BARRACUDA
Designers Irv Ritchie and Dave Cummins had developed a study for a fastback Valiant back in 1959, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. Their concept was dusted off and refined by stylist Milt Antonick to fit the new Valiant body. For time and cost reasons, the fastback was largely identical to the Valiant hardtop from the beltline down, but it added a massive, wraparound back window — a distinctive but distinctly polarizing styling feature.
After some internal argument, the new model was dubbed Plymouth Valiant Barracuda. Its floorpan, suspension, brakes, and most other components were off-the-shelf Valiant parts, including the new lightweight, 273 cu. in. (4,482 cc) V8. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but a four-speed was optional, as was Chrysler’s excellent TorqueFlite automatic.
Nobody was particularly happy with the Barracuda’s obvious resemblance to the workaday Valiant, but there was no money for anything more novel. Even if there had been more money, Plymouth management wanted the Barracuda to be ready as quickly as possible so they could beat the Mustang to market.
The Barracuda did indeed beat the Mustang, albeit only by 16 days — bowing, perversely enough, on April Fool’s Day 1964. To no one’s great surprise, it performed much like a Valiant. That wasn’t bad, but it was hardly very sporting. Nor was it all that quick. With the base six-cylinder engine, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took around 14 seconds, with a top speed of around 95 mph (153 km/h). The V8 cut the 0-60 mph times to around 11 seconds and lifted top speed to just over 100 (162 km/h). The V8 put the Barracuda on a par with Chevrolet’s turbocharged Corvair Monza Spyder, but it was still inferior to either of the two optional 289 (4,728 cc) V8s available on the Ford Mustang.
Chrysler-Plymouth seemed unsure exactly how to market the Plymouth Barracuda. Was it a sporty car like the Mustang or was it a handy utility car for campers and sportsmen?
The May 1964 issue of Car and Driver featured the transcript of a conversation between the magazine’s editor and an unnamed Plymouth spokesman, who explained that the Barracuda was intended to have “broad appeal.” It would appeal to station wagon customers, he said, but also appeal to Corvette buyers, an assertion that left the Car and Driver correspondent scratching his head.
Such ambiguity might not have been a problem if the Mustang didn’t exist, but Ford had so clearly delineated the Mustang’s marketing mission that it left Plymouth seeming confused and unfocused. Station wagon utility is no bad thing, but it’s hardly a quality calculated to arouse lust in buyers longing for a sports car. The haziness of the Barracuda’s image quickly became its most crippling problem.
With awkward looks, average performance, and confused marketing, the Plymouth Barracuda caused no anxiety for Ford salesmen. The fastback Plymouth sold 23,443 units in its short 1964 season, worse than the previous year’s Valiant Signet; the Mustang outsold it by more than five to one. Being first, it turns out, is no great advantage if nobody notices.
BARRACUDA FORMULA S
The Plymouth Barracuda’s performance got a much-needed boost in 1965. Chrysler engineer Scott Harvey, who moonlighted as an SCCA rally champion, developed a new Formula S option package based on the modifications previously made to the Valiant and Dodge Dart rally cars. The package included a hotter version of the 273 engine, rated at 235 gross horsepower (175 kW), and beefed up the Barracuda’s handling with stiffer springs, firmer shocks, faster steering, and wider tires.
With the Formula S engine and the optional four-speed manual transmission, the Barracuda could run from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around eight seconds and reach a top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h). Its handling was also much improved. The Formula S still lost its cool on rough pavement, but on smooth roads it was a rival for some contemporary European sports cars. The main handicap was the steering; the non-power setup was much too slow, while the power steering was fast but utterly numb. Still, all in all, it was now a good performance match for the Mustang, although it was still slower than a Mustang “Hi-Po” or Shelby’s GT-350.
Sadly, the Formula S package did nothing for the Barracuda’s gawky appearance. In June 1965, Car Life remarked dryly that their test car’s (mercifully optional) racing stripes made it look “not unlike a giant Easter egg.” No reviewer had kind words for the Formula S package’s peculiar-looking wheelcovers.
While Barracuda sales for 1965 were up to a more respectable 64,596, the Mustang now outsold it by almost nine to one. In 1966, the swan song for the original design, sales were even worse — only 38,029 Plymouth Barracudas went out the door that year, compared to 607,568 Mustangs.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
With such uninspiring sales, Plymouth might ordinarily have considered killing the Barracuda entirely, but the division managers were not about to relinquish their one toehold into the lucrative compact specialty car market. In the fall of 1964, stylists got to work on the second-generation car, which finally debuted in late November 1966 as a 1967 model. Booming Mustang sales convinced the corporation that it was worth investing the money to give the Plymouth Barracuda its own identity, separate from the Valiant — which is what Strum and Antonick had wanted in the first place.
Although the new Plymouth Barracuda still shared the basic A-body platform of the Valiant, all sheet metal was now unique. The new Barracuda was a few inches longer and wider than before: 192.8 inches (4,897 mm) long and 71.6 inches (1,819 mm) wide on a 108-inch (2,743mm) wheelbase. Again styled by Milt Antonick, it was far less clumsy-looking than its predecessor and it offered a choice of three different body styles, rather than just one. There was still a fastback, now with a smaller, more conventional rear window, but there was also a convertible and a sleek, notchback hardtop.
You could still order the Formula S package in 1967, although the 235 hp (175 kW) engine was starting to feel a little over-matched by the new body, which was more than 100 pounds (45 kg) heavier than before. Originally, Plymouth planned to offer the bigger 318 cu. in. (5,204 cc) V8, but then they learned that Ford was going to offer its 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) big-block engine as an option in the redesigned 1967 Mustang. That was a challenge Plymouth didn’t want to ignore, so engineers shoehorned Chrysler’s big-block 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) engine under the Barracuda’s hood.
Putting big blocks into pony cars was a bit of marketing one-upsmanship, but it was never a particularly good idea. Even with the optional heavy-duty components, the suspensions of these cars were never that well balanced to begin with and adding an extra 200-300 (90-135 kg) pounds over the front wheels did ugly things to weight distribution. The big engine was a tight squeeze for the Barracuda’s engine bay, leaving no room for a power steering pump. With 280 gross horsepower (209 kW), the 383 was naturally faster than the 273, but was also a good deal clumsier, and the manual steering made it tiresome to maneuver or park.
Fortunately, help was in store for 1968. The Slant Six was still standard, but the 273 was dropped completely in favor of a new 318 cu. in. (5,204 cc) V8 with 230 gross horsepower (172 kW). A new alternative was the 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) LA-series V8 with a conservative 275 gross horsepower (205 kW). The 340 was as almost strong as (if not stronger than) the 383, but was about the same size and weight as the 318, making it a much better fit for the Barracuda’s engine bay.
The 340 and 383 were still far from the most powerful engines Plymouth built. A few 1968 Barracudas — perhaps as many as 75 — had the monstrous 426 Hemi (6,974 cc) engine crammed under their hoods. The Hemi-powered cars were sold without warranties, bound solely for the dragstrip. It was just as well, since a Barracuda with 760 pounds (345 kg) of Hemi stuffed into the nose would not have been a pleasant prospect for street driving.
With better styling, more powerful engines, and higher performance, you’d think the second-generation Plymouth Barracuda would’ve sold much better, but Plymouth continued to eat the Mustang’s dust. It was also outpaced by the new Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, and Mercury Cougar.
Plymouth gamely tried a few more tricks for 1969, including making power steering available for the 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) engine, offering an optional 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) engine (which proved even more unwieldy than the 383), and adding a new budget-muscle model called ‘Cuda, which included the Formula S suspension and 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) V8 engine as standard equipment. It was to little avail — the Barracuda barely managed to edge out AMC’s Javelin, let along its Ford and Chevy competitors. The best year of this generation, 1967, was actually a little lower than the peak sales of the first-generation Barracuda.
In some ways, that failure was unfair. The 1967-1969 Plymouth Barracuda might not have been the best-looking pony car, but it was hardly an eyesore and it no longer looked like a Valiant. The 340-S and ‘Cuda offered handling and performance to match most rivals. The Barracuda had its foibles, but so did every other car in its class.
The real problem was that later Barracudas were undone by the confused marketing and ambiguous image of the original car. Thanks to Lee Iacocca’s all-fronts media assault, everyone knew what a Mustang was supposed to be from day one. That push gave it a momentum that Ford rode through every subsequent generation, even as the car itself drifted further and further from the original concept. Chrysler-Plymouth’s marketing department, however, had never seemed to decide quite what it was selling, an ambivalence that compounded handicaps like the oddball styling.
In retrospect, Plymouth might have been better off abandoning the Barracuda name and coming up with a different moniker for the second-generation car. In that case, the Mustang’s head start would probably still have limited Plymouth’s market penetration (just as it did GM’s late-to-the-party Camaro and Firebird), but the car wouldn’t have had as much baggage to overcome.
As we’ll see in our second installment, Plymouth took the Barracuda concept in two different directions for 1970, each with quite different results.
Our sources for the development of the Barracuda and Duster included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1965 Plymouth Barracuda,” Special Interest Autos #82 (July-August 1984), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 102-109, and “1970 ‘Cuda Six-Pack: Plymouth’s Prancing Pony,” Special Interest Autos #98 (March-April 1987), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 108-115; Curtis Redgap, “Duster: The Plymouth That Almost Wasn’t,” Valiant.org, 2004, www.valiant. org/ duster.html, accessed 2 October 2008; and Paul Zazarine, Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, International, 1991).
Road tests we consulted for this story included “Plymouth ‘Cuda 383: True High-Performance at a Reasonable Price,” Road Test, June 1970; Don Matthews, “AAR ‘Cuda: The All-American Impulse Car,” Sports Car Graphic June 1970; Allan Girdler, “Swede Was My Copilot,” Car Life October 1970; “The Handler!” Hi-Performance Cars June 1971; Steve Kelly, “Beware the Quiet Fish,” Hot Rod June 1971; “Plymouth Barracuda: The end of the road is in sight and no one, it seems, is looking for the detour,” Car and Driver January 1972, all of which are reprinted in Barracuda Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 1995); and “Valiant Duster,” Car and Driver, September 1969; Steve Kelly, “A new entry: DUSTER,” Hot Rod, March 1970; A.B. Shuman, “Road testing the 340, 440-6 and Hemi ‘Cudas: ‘Isn’t there an easier way to earn my Canadian Club?'” Motor Trend, May 1970; “AAR Cuda,” Car and Driver July 1970; and Rich Taylor, “Retrospect: ’70 Plymouth AAR Cuda: Street-Rod in Trans-Am Clothing,” Motor Trend February 1993, all of which are reprinted in Plymouth Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2003).