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 “Torsion-Aire” 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 Plymouth’s 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 thoroughly bizarre styling.
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 did respectable business and helped to offset the sharp decline in sales of the larger Plymouth models.
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 it fell well behind in image. 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.
In late 1962, Chrysler-Plymouth introduced the second-generation 1963 Plymouth Valiant, now sporting squared-off and considerably soberer styling that eschewed most of its predecessor’s peculiar curves. At launch, there were three series and five body styles: two- and four-door sedans, a four-door wagon, a two-door hardtop, and a new convertible. The mechanical specifications were little changed, which meant unit construction, torsion bar front suspension, and a choice of 170 cu. in. (2,790 cc) or 225 cu. in. (3,862 cc) sixes with up to 145 gross horsepower (108 kW).
Even before the new Valiant launched, Chrysler-Plymouth product planner Joe Strum wondered if it was a little too conservative for its own good. Compact car buyers were already gravitating toward sportier models like the Chevrolet Corvair Monza or the dressed-up Ford Falcon Futura; by comparison, even the top-of-the-line Valiant Signet hardtop looked a little frumpy. (Buyers may have thought so too, since 1963 Signet sales amounted to only about 40,000 units, less than one-fifth the sales of the 1963 Corvair Monza.) The convertible, available in either Signet or V-200 trim, was a step in the right direction, but its addition just served to bring Plymouth even with Chevrolet and Ford, which already had convertible compacts. Strum ventured that the Valiant line needed something a little more distinctive.
FISHBOWL: THE FIRST PLYMOUTH BARRACUDA
Back in 1959, designer Tom Ferris had come up with a sporty fastback body style for the full-style Plymouths, featuring an enormous curved rear window. Designers Dave Cummins and Irv Ritchie developed a similar fastback roof for the Valiant, but the full-size fastback became one of the various casualties of the ill-fated scramble to downsize the ’62 Plymouths and development of the Valiant version didn’t go forward until mid-1962. Even then, it was opposed by product planning chief Frank Walter, Joe Strum’s boss.
The final design, refined by stylist Milt Antonick, was largely identical to the standard second-generation Valiant hardtop below the beltline. The roof and reverse-slant sail panels were new, as were the upward-sloping decklid and the pièce de resistance, the massive wraparound backlight. The latter, made for Plymouth by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, was a production challenge and undoubtedly expensive (which was presumably why the full-size fastback had been axed), but it added a distinctive if polarizing stylistic touch. There was also a new grille treatment with inset parking lamps.
Nobody was particularly satisfied with the Barracuda’s obvious resemblance to the workaday Valiant, but money was still tight and making extensive changes to the Valiant’s unitized body would have been prohibitively expensive. Beyond that, Plymouth management wanted the Barracuda to be ready as quickly as possible so they could beat the Ford’s Mustang to market.
After some internal argument, the new model was dubbed Plymouth Valiant Barracuda, the latter designation suggested by designer John Samsen. The Barracuda was initially considered part of the Signet series and shared the Signet’s running gear and much of its trim. However, the fastback got a unique fold-down rear seat and removable package shelf that allowed a flat load floor from the front seat backs to the trunk. (Using this space for cargo required some care, however, because of the exposed fuel-filler, an awkward reminder of the Barracuda’s budget-conscious engineering.)
The Barracuda came standard with the Valiant’s 170 cu. in. (2,790 cc) Slant Six, making 101 gross horsepower (75 kW), but most cars had either the 225 cu. in. (3,681 cc) six or the new lightweight LA-series 273 cu. in. (4,482 cc) V8, which had become optional on the Valiant and Dart earlier in the year. The V8 was only about 55 lb (25 kg) heavier than the larger Slant Six, but provided 180 gross hp (134 kW). All three engines came standard with the Valiant’s three-speed manual transmission, but a Warner T-10 four-speed was optional, as was Chrysler’s excellent three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.
As it finally emerged, the first Plymouth Barracuda was an eye-catching but curiously ambivalent product, as if Plymouth had set out to make something really distinct from the Valiant only to lose interest or enthusiasm halfway through. The marketing campaign left a similar impression, suggesting that Chrysler-Plymouth wasn’t sure exactly how to market the car. The early ads made much of the cargo-carrying versatility offered by the folding rear seat (which was admittedly handy), but an unnamed Chrysler-Plymouth executive also told an understandably perplexed Car and Driver editor that the division also expected the Barracuda to snare a few Corvette buyers.
It should be said that product planning and marketing executives make whole careers of attempting to have their cake and eat it too, but the whole point of specialty cars is to offer a level of conceptual focus that mainstream family cars necessarily lack. Had the Barracuda been a compact sport-utility vehicle, there would have been nothing wrong with emphasizing its utility and versatility — in a later era, appeals to young buyers with “active lifestyles” would become an automotive marketing cliché — but it was an odd choice for what was supposed to be a sporty fastback.
Those mixed messages might not have been so much of a problem had the Ford Mustang had never existed, but the Mustang did exist and Ford had so clearly delineated its marketing mission that the Plymouth seemed hapless and confused in comparison. Indeed, the haziness of the Barracuda’s image quickly became perhaps its most crippling problem.
The Barracuda did indeed beat the Mustang to showrooms, albeit only by 16 days — bowing, perversely enough, on April Fool’s Day 1964. To no one’s great surprise, the Barracuda performed much like the Valiant it so clearly was, which wasn’t bad, but was hardly sporting. In fairness, the Valiant was considered one of the better-handling Detroit cars of its time, but the extra mass of the Barracuda’s backlight (and its effects on the center of gravity) didn’t do its balance any favors.
As for straight-line performance, it was again much like that of the Valiant or Dart. With the 225 cu. in. (3,682 cc) six, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took around 14 seconds and top speed was perhaps 95 mph (153 km/h). The V8 trimmed about 3 seconds from the 0-60 (0-97 km/h) times and allowed the Barracuda to break the 100 mph (161 km/h) mark. That was competitive with the Corvair Monza and Monza Spider, but the Barracuda didn’t have anything to match the more powerful 225 hp (168 kW) and 271 hp (202 kW) 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8s optional on the Mustang.
The Barracuda was competitively priced — starting at $2,365, it was actually $3 cheaper than a six-cylinder Mustang — but with awkward looks, average performance, and unfocused marketing, the Barracuda caused no anxiety for Ford salesmen. The fastback Valiant sold 23,443 units in its short 1964 season, about one-fifth the number of Mustangs sold during the same period. 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 with a new Formula S option package, developed with input from Chrysler engineer and rally champion Scott Harvey and based on the modifications previously made to the Valiants and Darts that had competed in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally. The package included a hotter version of the 273 cu. in. (4,482 cc) V8 with a higher-lift, longer-duration camshaft, freer-flowing exhaust, and a four-barrel Carter AFB carburetor, making 235 gross horsepower (175 kW). This was accompanied by stiffer springs, heavy-duty shocks, faster steering, and wider tires. Front disc brakes were newly optional.
With the Formula S engine and the optional four-speed manual transmission (now Chrysler’s own A-833 rather than the Warner T-10), a 1965 Barracuda could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 8 seconds and reach a top speed of perhaps 115 mph (185 km/h). Handling was also much improved. Although the suspension could still lose its cool over broken pavement, on smooth roads the Barracuda Formula S was a rival for some contemporary European sports cars. The faster steering ratio also provided a useful compromise between the frustratingly slow standard setup and the optional power steering, which was quicker, but utterly numb. In all, the Formula S was a credible effort, if still not as fast as a K-code Mustang.
The Formula S package’s efforts to dress up the Barracuda’s gawky appearance were less successful. Contemporary reviewers had few kind words for the cop-baiting (though mercifully optional) racing stripes or the over-styled wheel covers.
The standard Barracuda was much the same as before, but it no longer wore Valiant identification (it was now classed as a separate model), the 225 cu. in. (3,682 cc) six was newly standard, and front discs were optional across the line. Sales for the Barracuda’s first full model year rose to 64,596, which was much better than the slow-selling Valiant Signet, but no match for the restyled Chevrolet Corvair, much less the Mustang, which outsold the Barracuda by almost 9 to 1.
The original body returned for a swan song in 1966, discarding its inset running lights for eggcrate grille inserts that made the nose look even busier than before. There was also a new dashboard with full instrumentation (including a tachometer on Formula S car). Sales slumped to 38,029, 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. By mid-1964, designers were working on the second-generation car, which finally debuted in late November 1966 as a 1967 model, alongside the restyled Valiant and Dart. Booming Mustang sales finally convinced Chrysler management that it was worth investing the money to further differentiate the Barracuda from the Valiant, which they probably should have done in the first place.
Although the new Plymouth Barracuda still shared the basic A-body platform of the Valiant and Dart, 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, with contributions from Dave Cummins, Irv Ritchie, John Samsen, and John Herlitz, et al, it was far less clumsy-looking than its predecessor and 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 news that Ford was about to offer its 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) big block in the redesigned 1967 Mustang prompted Chrysler-Plymouth engineers to shoehorn Chrysler’s big 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) B engine under the Barracuda’s hood.
For the most part, putting big block V8s into pony cars represented a triumph of marketing over engineering common sense. None of these cars was especially well-balanced to begin with and adding an additional 200 lb (90 kg), most of it over the front wheels, definitely didn’t help. As with the 390 in the Mustang, the big Chrysler B engine was a tight squeeze for the Barracuda’s engine bay, leaving no room for a power steering pump (or air conditioning, although that wasn’t necessarily a common option on pony cars anyway). With 280 gross horsepower (209 kW) and 400 lb-ft (540 N-m) of torque, the Barracuda 383 was fast in a straight line, but it felt far more cumbersome than the 273 cu. in. (4,482 cc) Formula S and was a chore to park.
Fortunately, help was in store for 1968. The Slant Six was still standard, but the 273 was dropped in favor of the bigger 318 cu. in. (5,204 cc) V8, offering 230 gross horsepower (172 kW) with a two-throat carburetor. A new alternative was the 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) LA-series V8, which claimed 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) 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, belatedly 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, we suspect, was that the Barracuda was still hampered by its association with its oddball predecessor. In retrospect, Plymouth might have been better off abandoning the Barracuda name after 1966 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 Plymouth pony car wouldn’t have had as much baggage to overcome. The second-generation Barracuda was not the most conceptually original product, but there was no doubt about what it was supposed to be, something that couldn’t be said about the original Valiant-based fastback.
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; Jeffrey I. Godshall, “In with the New: The 1963-66 Plymouth Valiant Story,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 26, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 50–63; Bob McMay, “Barracuda! Fleet fastback on Valiant chassis,” Motor Trend May 1964, pp. 26-27; David Newhardt, Dodge Challenger & Plymouth Barracuda (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 2000); Curtis Redgap, “Challenger for 2008: On time or two late? (Chrysler in the muscle car era),” Allpar.com, 2006, www.allpar. com, accessed 28 September 2008; “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 “Dodge Dart GT V-8,” Car Life April 1964, reprinted in Dodge Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003); Bob McVay, “Valiant Barracuda Road Test,” Motor Trend August 1964, pp. 40-43, and “Rally Packed Barracuda,” Motor Trend January 1965, pp. 38-43; John Etheridge, “Sporty Specialties: Mustang, Camaro & Barracuda,” and “Sporty Cars: Special Packages,” Motor Trend May 1967, pp. 28-33 and 41-42; and Julian Schmidt, “The Barracuda 383,” Motor Trend September 1967, pp. 52-53; “Plymouth Barracuda,” Car and Driver May 1964; Eric Dahlquist, “Formula S,” Hot Rod February 1965; “Barracuda S,” Car Life June 1965; “1966 Plymouth Barracuda,” Road & Track March 1966; “Barracuda Formula S,” Car and Driver June 1966; “One that gets away,” CAR September 1966; “Barracuda Formula S,” Auto Topics February 1967; Jean Calvin, “Rally Driver’s Report: 1967 Plymouth Baracuda ‘Formula S,'” Sports Car Graphic February 1967; “A Pair of Barracuda,” Car Life March 1967; “Mustang, Barracuda & Camaro,” Road & Track March 1967; “Plymouth Barracuda 383,” Car and Driver April 1967; “Autocar Road Test Number 2147: Plymouth Barracuda 4,473 c.c.,” Autocar 31 August 1967; “1968 Plymouth Barracuda 340-S,” Car Life December 1967; “1968 Barracudas: The International Viewpoint,” and Scott Harvey, “Tame & Wild 1968 Barracudas,” Sports Car Graphic December 1967; “1969 ‘Cuda 340,” Car Life November 1967; Eric Dahlquist, “‘Cuda 340,” Motor Trend October 1968; Steve Kelly, “Barracuda on the Line,” Hot Rod December 1968; and “Biggest Engine Yet in a Ponycar— 440 ‘Cuda,” Car Life June 1969, all of which are reprinted in Plymouth Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003); and Ray Broc, “Barracuda,” Hot Rod July 1964; Jerry Titus, “Driver’s Report: Barracuda ‘Formula S,'” Sports Car Graphic March 1966; and “Barracuda,” Road Test February 1969, all of which are reprinted in Plymouth Muscle Portfolio 1964-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003); and “The Sporty Cars: Javelin SST vs. Camaro SS396 vs. Firebird 400 HO vs. Mustang 2+2 GT vs. Barracuda Formula S vs. Cougar XR-7,” Car and Driver March 1968, reprinted in The Great Classic Muscle Cars Compared (Muscle Portfolio), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999).