When we last saw the Plymouth Barracuda, its second generation had floundered (if you’ll excuse the expression) in its efforts to challenge the popular Ford Mustang, ranking near the bottom of the “pony car” sales race despite more attractive styling and stronger engines. Troubled but undaunted, Plymouth took a third swing, with results that surprised even them. Here’s the story of Plymouth’s 1970-1974 E-body Barracuda and Plymouth Duster.
THE BIG BANG THEORY: THE E-BODY BARRACUDA
Whatever else you may say about the third-generation Plymouth Barracuda and its E-body sibling, the Dodge Challenger, you can’t call them half-hearted. After six years of being frustratingly out of step with buyer tastes in the pony car market, the Chrysler Corporation was in a mood to overcompensate, giving its latest-generation pony more of everything, from horsepower to sheer size.
The earlier A-body Barracudas had eschewed — to their cost — the long-hood, short-deck proportions that had given the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird their aggressive image. Some (including your author) found the vaguely European-looking 1967-1969 Barracuda sleek and graceful, but it looked far less muscular than its rivals and performance-minded young buyers shied away.
John Herlitz, principal designer of the third-generation car, applied the long-hood/short-deck theme to the E-body Barracuda with a will. The fastback roof, which had been the Barracuda’s signature since its 1964 introduction, was abandoned in favor of a notchback hardtop roofline. The new Barracuda was long, low, and wide in the best Harley Earl tradition, giving even the simplest six-cylinder Barracudas a decidedly carnivorous air. If the Barracuda looked more than a little bit like a ’67-69 Camaro or Firebird on steroids (an observation made by several contemporary reviewers), that was fine with Plymouth managers — GM’s F-bodies had outsold the Barracuda by a large margin.
The E-body Barracuda was actually about 6 inches shorter than the 1969 Barracuda, riding the same 108-inch (2,743mm) wheelbase, but its hood was more than a foot (30 cm) longer and overall width was several inches greater. The extra width was important because it facilitated the second part of Plymouth’s more-is-better strategy: bigger engines. The A-body Plymouth Barracuda, based on the compact Valiant, had never been designed for the big-block engines that the marketing people had started to demand. Chrysler’s 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) and 440 in. (7,206 cc) B and RB engines had been made to fit with some difficulty, but the resulting cars were not very satisfactory except on the dragstrip. Worse, Plymouth’s meanest (and most famous) engine was simply too big. Plymouth had squeezed the 426 Hemi into a few 1968 Barracudas, but those cars required considerable modification and weren’t suitable for street driving.
The “E-body” designation might suggest that the Barracuda and Challenger were entirely new cars, but that was only partly true. One of the basic tenets of the pony car genre had always been low production costs; by Detroit standards, none of them (even the Mustang) sold in large enough volumes to justify a lot of unique hardware. The second-generation A-body Barracuda had had its own sheet metal, but floorpan, much of its inner body structure, and its running gear were shared with the Valiant and the Dodge Dart. When the Valiant and Dart’s “A” platform proved to be too narrow for the third-generation car, Chrysler engineers turned instead to the intermediate “B” platform, used by the Dodge Coronet, Plymouth Satellite, and Dodge Charger. With its wheelbase trimmed from 117 to 108 inches (2,972 to 2,743 mm), or 111 inches (2,819 mm) for the Challenger, the B platform became the basis for the E-body Barracuda and Challenger.
The consequence of that engineering sleight of hand was appalling space utilization and an unseemly amount of avoirdupois. With a big-block engine, Chrysler’s B-body intermediates hovered around two tons; the E-body Barracuda was lighter, but not by much, weighing about 200 pounds (90 kg) more than a comparable 1969 Barracuda.
For all their bulk, the E-bodies had less interior room than many compact sedans weighing half a ton less. The inches extracted from the B-bodies’ wheelbase had come mostly from the rear seat and the short-deck styling reduced the trunk to little more than a shallow bin. It was a far cry from the station wagon utility Plymouth had promoted in the original Barracuda. Of course, sacrificing practicality for style was the other great pony-car commandment; the Mustang’s sales had never suffered measurably from its scant rear legroom or modest trunk. Besides, the first-generation Barracuda’s fold-down rear seat and load-carrying flexibility had never impressed anyone but a handful of campers and surfers.
MORE AND LESS
Plymouth tried to cover a broad range of buyer tastes with the E-body Barracuda by offering three different models: the basic Barracuda; the plusher, luxury-oriented Gran Coupe; and the performance ‘Cuda. If the Barracuda’s size and shape weren’t extroverted enough for you, you could order yours in a host of vivid, absurdly named “High-Impact” paint colors, including TorRed, In Violet, Lemon Twist, Vitamin C, and (if you were very secure in your identity) Moulin Rouge (known to Dodge buyers as “Panther Pink”). A three-speed manual transmission was standard on most models, but most buyers opted for either the optional four-speed or the three-speed TorqueFlite.
A vast array of engines was offered, ranging from a 225 cu. in. (3,682 cc) Slant Six to the monstrous 440 cu. in. (7,206 cc) Six Pack with three two-throat carburetors and a claimed 390 horsepower (291 kW). At the top of the heap was the 426 cu. in. (6,974 cc) Hemi, which claimed 425 gross horsepower (317 kW). You could round out your purchase with front disc brakes, a wide array of axle ratios, and a choice of different hood scoops.
Despite the extra weight, the E-body Barracuda’s performance left little to be desired. The Slant Six and base 318 (5,204 cc) V8 were adequate for less demanding drivers, but seemed a little pointless in the bulky E-body; even a six-cylinder Barracuda was in no danger of being mistaken for an economy car. At the other end of the scale, the 440 and Hemi were capable of running the standing quarter mile (402 meters) in less than 14 seconds; the 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) and 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) engines weren’t far behind.
Handling was another matter. Earlier Barracudas with the optional Formula S suspension had a reputation for competent handling, at least by American standards, but even with the stiffest suspension options and fattest tires, the E-body Barracuda was a clumsy beast. It plowed heavily in turns and the massive torque of the big engines could send the tail skittering sideways even in straight-line acceleration. The heavy-duty suspension options were reasonably adept at keeping the rear wheels on the ground in hard acceleration, but weren’t much help with cornering or braking.
The other problem with the new body was depressing assembly quality. Earlier Barracudas had a reputation for rattles, but the E-body Barracuda was worse, compounded by some alarming design flaws. According to designer Carl Cameron, the doors could actually be unlocked with a well-placed whack on the outer door panel — an unwelcome quirk for cars that were already hard to insure.
Design weaknesses aside, the E-body Barracuda also had the misfortune to arrive just as the entire performance car market was collapsing. New federal emissions and safety rules, which tended to make the cars heavier and slower, didn’t help, but the bigger problems were price and insurance. In 1965, you would have been hard-pressed to spend more than $3,500 for a well-equipped Plymouth Barracuda Formula S. In 1970, a six-cylinder base model with radio, power steering, and automatic would cost you around $3,100 and a fully loaded Hemi ‘Cuda could top $5,000, well beyond the mens most of the buyers who would’ve wanted one. The pony cars, like their intermediate Supercar brethren, were rapidly pricing themselves out of the market.
Sticker price was only part of the problem; insurance companies, alarmed at the proliferation of big-engined cars aimed at young buyers, were starting to impose punitive surcharges on Supercars. A driver under 25 with a high-performance car might face premiums of $1,200 or more a year, more than 25% of the car’s original sticker price.
Chrysler had invested a lot of money in the development of the E-body Barracuda and Challenger and expected great things of them. To the corporation’s dismay, sales of the new Barracuda were disappointing. Only 55,499 were sold in 1970 — better than 1969, but lackluster for a heavily promoted new model. Mustang sales were down for 1970 as well, but the Mustang still outsold the Barracuda by more than 3 to 1. The Dodge Challenger did somewhat better, selling 76,935 cars, but many of those sales came mostly at the expense of Dodge’s bigger, more expensive Charger, whose sales dropped a commensurate amount.
The E-body Barracuda’s fortunes were not helped by Plymouth’s ill-fated Trans Am efforts. Plymouth hired Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers to run the Barracuda in the 1970 SCCA Trans Am series, with the cars driven by Gurney and Swede Savage. A limited-edition street car was offered to the public to homologate the racers’ cylinder heads, lightweight hood, and spoilers; it was dubbed AAR ‘Cuda, which Gurney later claimed was done without his permission. Unfortunately, the competition cars fared poorly in competition, suffering a series of embarrassing mechanical failures and never winning a single race. The Dodge Challenger, driven by Sam Posey and Tony Adamowicz of Posey’s Autodynamics, did no better, hampered by gearbox problems and a succession of blown engines.
In 1971, Chrysler followed the lead of General Motors by reducing the compression ratios of many of its engines in preparation for the use of unleaded gasoline. The optional performance engines were little changed, but it would be their last hurrah. E-body Barracuda sales plummeted to 18,690. In 1972, the Hemi was dropped, the convertible was discontinued, and the big 383 and 440 engines were no longer offered in the E-body line. The 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) V8, now the most powerful available engine, had its claws clipped, losing its big valves and free-breathing heads along with two full points of compression. The loss of the 383, 440, and Hemi had little effect on sales, evidence of how difficult the big engines had become to sell.
By the time the 1973 models debuted, Plymouth had already decided to pull the plug on the E-body Barracuda. The Camaro and Firebird seemed to be on death’s door and even Mustang sales were falling rapidly. Design studies for a fourth-generation Barracuda had faired poorly in marketing tests, so Chrysler concluded that the pony car’s day was done. Sales for 1973 did little to change that judgement, totaling only 22,213 units. The 1974 tally, impacted by the OPEC oil embargo that lasted through much of the model year, was only 11,734. Production of both the Barracuda and Challenger ended in March 1974.
BARRACUDA REDUX: THE PLYMOUTH DUSTER
The sad fate of the E-body is not quite the end of the Barracuda story. We mentioned in our previous installment that Plymouth took a two-pronged approach to the Barracuda concept in the early seventies. The Barracuda itself was one; the other was the Plymouth Duster.
The A-body Barracuda’s workaday sibling, the Plymouth Valiant, was redesigned (along with the related Dodge Dart) in 1967. It sold well in 1968 and 1969, but by the 1970 model year, the Valiant was losing out to the new Chevrolet Nova and Ford Maverick. The Valiant’s basic dilemma was that while it was a decent car, it was boxy and rather stodgy-looking even in hardtop form, which was a turn-off for younger buyers. Chrysler-Plymouth could have followed Dodge’s example by creating a sportier hardtop like the Dodge Dart Swinger 340 (a new name for the previous Dart GTS), but what the Valiant really needed was a sexier body — which, as you may recall, was the original motivation for the Barracuda.
The A-body compacts were still considered a relatively low corporate priority, so Plymouth’s budget for the 1970 Valiant was only $15 million, not normally enough (at least by Detroit standards) to do anything particularly new or exciting. However, Gene Weiss, Chrysler-Plymouth’s A-body product planner, very much wanted to give the staid Valiant a little more pizazz. They didn’t have the budget for substantial body changes, but Weiss thought they might be able to manage a new roofline — again recalling the original Barracuda.
Exterior design supervisor Milt Antonick, who had been the principal designer of the first- and second-generation Barracuda, assigned the project to Neil Walling, who came up with a new semi-fastback roof for the two-door Valiant, featuring with the sail panels flowing into a reshaped decklid and raised rear fenders. For cost reasons, the standard Valiant door panels were retained, but more radically curved side glass provided a degree of tumblehome approaching that of the E-bodies. In front, a new grille helped to distinguish the fastback from its Valiant siblings.
The results were a bit of a stylistic kludge and had some awkward spots, but the new roof made the Valiant look much sportier, making it a clear rival for the two-door Nova rather than a schoolteacher’s special. More importantly, the changes could be achieved within the limited development budget, although Weiss was obliged to spend almost all of it on the new body style. He also had to trick engineer John Worthy of the Advanced Car Engineering group into helping the designers figure out how to integrate the new side glass with the existing doors, initially telling Worthy it was for a design study rather than an actual production car.
Thanks to such subterfuge — and a surprising lack of management oversight — the project was completed in only six weeks. Chrysler-Plymouth management was not exactly thrilled with Weiss’ initiative (nor was Worthy, once he figured out what Weiss was really up to), but they reluctantly approved it.
Since Plymouth had had good luck with the Road Runner, Weiss suggested a similar cartoon licensing tie-in for the Valiant fastback. Since he wanted to offer a performance version of the fastback with the hot 340 cu. in. (5,567 cc) V8, Weiss suggested calling it “C.K.” (for Clark Kent), with a licensed Superman “S” logo on the air cleaner. Division management vetoed that, but gave more serious consideration to a tie-in with another Looney Tunes character, the Tasmanian Devil. However, Warner Brothers licensing now wanted considerably more money than the division was willing to spend, so the fastback instead ended up with a more generic dust devil mascot and a non-licensed name suggested by the ad agency Young & Rubicam: Duster. The performance version became simply Duster 340.
Although Plymouth never described it as such, the Plymouth Duster was essentially a revival — in concept, if not in name — of the old A-body Barracuda. The difference was that the Duster was considerably cheaper. With a starting price of only $2,172, a six-cylinder Duster was within $18 of the upright two-door Valiant sedan it replaced and almost $200 cheaper than the original Valiant Barracuda introduced back in April 1964. The Duster 340, which had a base price of $2,547, was a bargain-priced screamer, lighter, faster, and more than $500 cheaper (not to mention easier to insure) than a ‘Cuda 340 with the same engine. The Duster’s stock suspension left much to be desired from a performance standpoint, but sufficiently motivated buyers could substitute the pieces from the old Barracuda Formula S.
SUCCESS AT LAST
The Plymouth Duster bowed for the 1970 model year and, to the very great surprise of Chrysler-Plymouth management, proved to be a smash hit. The irony was considerable: Plymouth could hardly give away the old A-body Barracuda, but the conceptually similar Duster sold 217,192 copies for 1970, 24,817 of which were Duster 340s. To put that in perspective, in 1970 alone, the Duster had managed to sell better than all 1964–1967 Barracudas combined.
The Duster also beat the 1970 Mustang by almost 20,000 units and the new E-body Barracuda by almost 4 to 1. Despite the Barracuda’s more aggressive styling and bigger optional engines, the Duster simply made more sense for many buyers. Consequently, the Duster survived well after the Barracuda had expired. Chrysler-Plymouth hedged its bets by reintroducing notchback hardtop, the Valiant Scamp (essentially a Valiant version of the Dart Swinger), for 1971, but the Duster survived with only minor changes through the end of the A-body line in 1976. Total sales were a highly satisfactory 1,328,377. From 1971 on, there was also a Dodge version, the Dodge Demon (called Dart Sport from 1973), although it didn’t sell as well as the Duster.
The Duster name was subsequently applied to a sporty option package for the two-door Plymouth Volare and survived in that form until 1980. Even in its final year, 5,586 were sold. The Plymouth Duster name was briefly revived from 1992 to 1994 for a sporty version of the P-body Plymouth Sundance powered by Mitsubishi’s 181 cu. in. (2,972 cc) SOHC V6.
While Dodge reused the Challenger name several times over the years, there was never another Barracuda. With the demise of the Plymouth division in 2001, there probably never will be.
REINVENTING THE WHEEL
What is the moral of this story? The success of the Plymouth Duster suggests that the original plan for the Barracuda back in 1964 — to spice up the Valiant line with a sexier fastback coupe — was a perfectly viable one, doomed more by awkward styling and clumsy marketing than any conceptual flaw. If Plymouth had introduced the Duster in 1967, it probably would have worked. For that matter, if Plymouth had introduced the E-body Barracuda in 1967, it probably would have sold a lot better than it did in 1970-1971. Moreover, if Chrysler had stuck it out in the pony car market for a few more years, sales of the E-body might have picked up markedly, just as they did for the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, which rose from their early-seventies doldrums to some of their best-ever sales years towards the end of the decade.
We think the Barracuda’s basic problem was that it was a fundamentally reactionary product, the result of myopic long-term planning. At every turn, Chrysler was reacting to what its competitors had already done rather than anticipating where the market was going, which left the Barracuda perpetually out of step.
That is admittedly an easy mistake to make in the auto industry; the costs of doing business are so high that it’s always tempting to follow the crowd or pursue what seems like easy money. Decades later, Detroit did the same thing with trucks and SUVs, focusing on those high-profit models to the expense of everything else only to find themselves caught short a few years ago when high oil prices sent consumers scurrying in other directions. That sort of thing has happened repeatedly in the past and will undoubtedly happen again each time there’s an unexpected shift in the economy, but it illustrates the difficulty of long-term planning in a business world that prioritize quarterly profits.
Still, even recognizing the obvious errors Chrysler-Plymouth made with the Barracuda, it’s hard not to sympathize. They had most of the right pieces and the right ideas — just never quite at the right time or in the right order.
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), and “1970-1976 Plymouth Duster,” HowStuffWorks.com, 10 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1970-1976-plymouth-duster.htm, accessed 1 October 2008; 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; Eric Dahlquist, “Motor Trend Interview: Dan Gurney,” Motor Trend January 1970, pp. 90-94; Curtis Redgap, “Duster: The Plymouth That Almost Wasn’t,” Valiant.org, 2004, www.valiant. org/ duster.html, accessed 2 October 2008; Ray Thursby, “Horse Power: The Ponycars of 1970,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 20, No. 2 (August 2003), pp. 8–23; and Paul Zazarine, Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, International, 1991).
Road tests we consulted for this story included Mal Bracken, “Plymouth’s Honking Hemi Cuda,” Motorcade March 1970; “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, England: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 1995), and “How to Buy Your New Barracuda,” Motor Trend December 1970, pp. 30-31; “Plymouth Performance Surprises for ’70,” Motor Trend August 1969, pp. 50-52; and “Plymouth’s Beat Goes On!” Motor Trend September 1969, pp. 42-47, which are not; “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, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003). Another contemporary impression of the Barracuda’s styling came from “70½ GM Sports Spectacular: Firebird/Camaro,” Motor Trend January 1970, pp. 28-30.