Part one: Barracuda 1964-66
In the late ’50s and early ’60s the American motor manufacturers started to produce smaller compact cars with a European feel to them offering sport styling and handling in order to appeal to the young single men and women that had been buying the European imports.
These young people were able to buy cars because for the first time they had good money in their pockets and every manufacturer wanted to help them spend it.
G.M. had the unconventional rear engine Corvair. Ford had its 3/4-sized Falcon, which competed in some forms of European motor sport. Chrysler had the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Lancer. All of these cars were conceived with economy in mind but as America moved into the ’60s, the market shifted and performance started to become a major factor.
Chrysler had always had its performance cars like the 300 letter series with its Hemi engine. Young people liked the smaller cars but wanted the performance of a Hot Rod or Sports Car. The manufacturers saw this trend beginning and made plans to develop existing models with larger engines and sport styling.
Chevrolet were first with the Corvair Monza. By 1962 more than 64% of all Corvairs had bucket seats and 38% had 4-speed boxes. By 1963 the Monza and the turbocharged Monza Spyder were outselling the base Corvair by seven to one.
Plymouth and Ford both added a V8 to their cars but sales of the Falcon dropped down 30% in ’63 prompting Ford to take action.
Ford decided that instead of just putting a bigger engine in the Falcon, it would design a new more exciting body for it too. This new model was to become the Mustang. The Ford bosses knew that they had to try and jump the gun on the other manufacturers who were also wondering how to corner this section of the market. So the designers were given just 18 months to re-body the Falcon chassis. This was less than half the time that a new car usually took to develop. News of this mad rush fell on the ears of Chrysler management and the go-ahead was given to a fastback Valiant idea that had been sitting on the shelf at Plymouth for some time.
In 1959 a mid-size Plymouth Super Sport fastback had been designed by Tom Ferris for introduction in 1962 and had got as far as the clay model before it was scrapped.
The designer of the Valiant, Dave Cummins, loved this shape and eventually transferred it to the Valiant in a large airbrushed drawing. This drawing formed the basis of a new car, based on the Valiant but called “Barracuda”, which was to be launched before Fords new Mustang.
They launched the Barracuda on April 2nd 1964 beating Ford by 15 days. Unfortunately Chryslers good financial but bad marketing management insisted on only conservative changes to the main part of the car so that even with its fastback shape it did not look as “new” as the Mustang. The Fastback was definitely the main feature of the Barracuda. It had the largest single piece of glass ever fitted to an American passenger car. The car came with bucket seats as standard and a 180hp 273ci V8 was optional.
The Mustang though was grabbing all of the Headlines and sales went through the roof. It just looked so good. The 1964 Mustang would outsell the 1964 Barracuda by almost six to one as Ford broke all records and expanded production to meet demand.
For 1965 the Barracuda could be had with the optional Formula S package. This was a superb combination of improved suspension and power. At the heart of it was the new Commando 273 V8. This engine was rated at 235hp and came with a 4bbl carb, lightweight dome-top pistons with 10.5:1 compression, solid lifter cam, and dual point distributor. The Formula S not only performed well on the street but also won the 1965 SCCA rally championship.
Meanwhile, Pontiac had started something back in ’64 when they decided not to make a European type car but instead just put an engine from their largest car into their smallest. The Pontiac GTO and the Muscle Car were born at the same time. Drag racing was becoming a major motor sport. The idea of a car that accelerated quickly was a bigger selling point to young people than handling. Ford and Chrysler decided to move toward this trend for a larger car with more horsepower.
Dodge was offered its own version of the Barracuda for ’66. They declined as they wanted to concentrate on selling cars that were big enough to take the new Hemi Engine that was starting to dominate Drag racing and NASCAR. Instead they decided that this fastback idea could be applied to their mid-size Coronet model. This car was launched in 1966 as the Dodge Charger.
Plymouth, though, made little change to their car in ’66. The styling now looked dated and people still associated the car with the Valiant.
Ford was re-styling the Mustang in order to fit a big 390 cubic inch engine. Plymouth would have to move fast in order to keep up in ’67.
I hope I have convinced you that far from being a copy, the Barracuda evolved WITH the Mustang because of market trends that had first appeared in the sales figures of Chevrolet cars. Ford, being more adventurous, had been rewarded with record sales. But it was G.M., again, that had set the trend with the muscle car as street cred dictated that the bigger your engine the cooler you were. Ford and Chrysler both responded in ’67 with their versions but I will continue with that story in Part Two.
Part two: Barracuda 1967-69
Having invented the muscle car in 1964, GM decided to build bigger and more powerful versions of the “Pony Cars” that Ford and Plymouth had developed.
In 1967 it planned to release the Camaro and Firebird, both which would have a large engine range available up to 396 and 400 cubic inches.
Ford and Plymouth needed to make room in their engine bays to accommodate engines of this size. Both companies redesigned their cars, making them larger in the process. Ford was also releasing the Mercury Cougar, which was bigger, more up-market, than the Mustang and could be had with a 390ci engine. In order to challenge this competition in 1967 Plymouth completely revamped the Barracuda, making it longer and wider. The car no longer shared the Valiant’s platform and now came in three body styles, fastback, coupe and convertible.
Milt Antonick was responsible for a great part of the design.
This October ’64 clay proposal of his was turned down but became very influential to both Plymouth and Dodge designers and you can see elements of the design in the Dodge Charger as well as the ’67 Barracuda.
This second design was mostly the work of John Herlitz, who had just joined Plymouth from GM. There is a lot of GM type styling in this one and it led to a strong phone call from GM to the Plymouth design studio. The split grille however was very Plymouth and was used in the design of the production model.
The final design was as you see here.
The fastback now had a more simple shape to the rear glass, which was flatter. On the coupe models the roofline was different, with a backlight that swept down gracefully to a long deck area. A convertible with a power top rounded off the model line up.
To keep up in the horsepower wars, Plymouth now had four engines on offer. Two of these were high performance Commando V8s. The first was the 273ci engine which was much the same as the previous year. The other was the 383ci big block rated at 280hp. This power level was down compared to the 325hp levels in other Chrysler models mainly because of the restrictive exhaust needed in the engine bay, which was still too tight despite being two inches wider than in the old model.
The 383 powered the Barracuda to mid 14s at 97mph on the drag strip.
Despite the intense competition from Ford, and now GM, the Barracuda held on to an important share of the market, and at 62,534 units, accounted for 10% of all Plymouth sales in 1967.
The engine line up was changed yet again for ’68. The 383, now rated at 300hp thanks to better heads, was still offered but the new 340ci small block made a better handling package. Chrysler rated the 340 at 275hp but NHRA officials factored it at 290hp! This lightweight but powerful engine turned the Barracuda into a real little screamer with a broad torque range and high rpm capability. The 273ci engine was replaced with a 318.
On the drag strip, the racers had been stripping down Barracudas for years and fitting huge 392 and 426ci Chrysler Hemi engines. Race cars like these had been very successful so Chrysler, with the help of Hurst
Performance, decided to build factory Hemi Barracudas to fight in the highly competitive Super Stock class.
The 1968 Hemi Barracuda is an awesome machine.
To get the 426 Hemi into the car, the right shock tower and the brake master cylinder were moved and the battery relocated to the trunk. The cars had fibreglass hoods and fenders and lightweight steel doors and front bumper. The interiors were stripped almost bare and the cars were sold through dealers with a “sold as seen” understanding and for “drag race use only” with almost no warranty whatsoever. Ronnie Sox was one of the first to get one. He fitted a deep oil pan and a pair of slicks and ran 10s at 130mph right off the trailer! There were just 70 Hemi Barracudas built.
Ford had not been napping in the horsepower department and had released the 428ci Mustang onto the streets in ’68. This made Plymouths 340 and 383 Formula S cars seem inadequate. So for 1969 the ‘Cuda model was released. This was to be a Road Runner type of car for the drag racing types. The shortened ‘Cuda name had been hip slang for the Barracuda for years amongst young men. For the ‘Cuda, the 340 was virtually unchanged but the 383 was given a more aggressive camshaft which generated 330hp at 5,500rpm and 410 lbs.-ft of torque at 3,600rpm.
It was felt though that this was not enough so in April 1969 the 375hp 440 ‘Cuda was released which (although handling like a cow) could hit 60mph in 5.5 secs and run 14.10 at 104mph in the quarter mile.
There was just no room under the hood of this car for things like power steering or power brakes and all that weight, that far forward, made the car understeer badly.
The ’69 340 Formula S however was even more refined than the past models and was a dream to drive on winding roads. It could still pull its weight on the strip too, Hot Rod Magazine clocked 14.32 at 99.7mph in one road test. It remains one of, if not THE best handling American cars of the 1960s. However, sales for Plymouth were down across the board and they sold only 17,788 fastbacks, 12,757 coupes and 1,442 convertibles in 1969. A total redesign was needed to remain competitive.
As the ’60s drew to a close, pressure was being brought against high powered cars by the insurance companies and the safety zealots they sponsored. When legislators in Washington started looking into the matter, the car companies quickly decided to drop the high performance cars. However a new generation of cars had already been designed and were ready for introduction in late ’69 so the muscle car still had one last moment of glory to come in the beginning of the new decade. 1970 was to be the year all the stops were pulled as the big blocks became the Kings of the Streets. Find out about the birth of the Challenger and the third generation ‘Cuda in the next instalment.
Part three: Barracuda & Challenger 1970-74
In the sixties the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda had been changed from small sporty cars into larger “muscle” cars and the emphasis had changed from good handling to straight line performance.
The Barracuda was still too small for the big block engines and so a third generation car was planned that would be able to handle any engine Plymouth managers wanted, from the smallest straight six, to the big 440 wedge and 426 hemi V8s. To achieve this, the cowl from larger B-body cars like the Road Runner was worked into the design. Advanced styling at Plymouth were responsible for the basic platform which was to be called the E-body. Once the layout of the car had been approved by management it was passed on to Plymouth Styling to design the outer skin.
Plymouth had wanted a full urethane front end on the car like GM had developed. However neither the budget or the technology were available to Chrysler so a more conventional design was chosen with body coloured urethane bumpers as an option.
It was at this point that Chrysler management decided to offer the platform to Dodge. Chrysler wanted an up-market version of the Barracuda, in the same way that the Mercury Cougar was an up-market Mustang, and so Dodge started work on a longer wheelbase E-body that would become the Challenger.
This early drawing by Carl Cameron (who had designed the Charger) is dated 4th Feb. 1967.
These clay models show how the car was to compete with the Cougar. In fact you can see a Cougar parked behind the model as it takes shape.
Some people at Dodge felt they had missed out on the “ponycar” market so, even though the end was in sight for this type of car, they decided to market it as a performance model. Dodge realized that by using the Plymouth platform they could reduce their own development costs enabling them to recover their investment with fewer cars sold.
As the deadline approached for the outer skin proposal Chief Designer Bill Brownlie contributed his own concept. In the end it was his design that was chosen. The body was given a more pronounced “coke bottle” effect in the rear quarter and it flared out into a character line that ran the length of the body reflecting the upper beltline.
Originally the wheelbase was to be 3 inches longer than the Barracudas at 111 inches. This made it the same as the Dodge Dart. Remembering that Plymouth had been criticized for using the Valiant platform in 1964, Carl Cameron suggested that the Challenger wheelbase be reduced, by one inch to 110 inches, just to make it different. Bill Brownlie liked the idea and got it changed.
At first glance the new Barracuda and Dodge Challenger look very similar. However no body parts on the cars interchange. Under the skin everything was traditional Chrysler unibody, with torsion bar front suspension and semi-elliptical leaf live rear axle. The driver and passenger doors featured side impact beams and the steering column was collapsible in the event of a crash. Nine different engines were available in the two cars and all could accommodate things like air con., power brakes and steering – even with the biggest engines (although some multi-carb. engines could not have air con.).
The Challenger used more chrome and brightwork than the Barracuda for a more up-market look and used dual headlights instead of the Plymouths larger single units.
The Plymouth Formula S model was gone but Plymouth and Dodge had entered the SCCA Trans-Am Racing Series so, in order to homologate the E-Body race cars, a certain number of street versions had to be built. This worked out to be 2,800 cars for Plymouth and 2,500 for Dodge.
These cars were called the AAR ‘Cuda and the Challenger T/A.
Both had side exit exhausts, fibreglass hoods with air scoops and were powered by special 340 blocks, heads and triple carbs (called the six-pack). The racing cars used de-stroked versions of the same block and heads but with a single 4bbl carb.
It was the big block R/T and ‘Cuda models that got the attention of the motoring press though. The 390hp 440ci six-pack and 426hp 426ci Hemi cars could run the quarter mile in the mid 13 second range which gave them a very powerful reputation on the street.
However the expected large increase in Barracuda sales never happened. They only sold 22,877 units more than in 1969. This was very disappointing for Plymouth. Dodge, on the other hand, had good news and bad news. For their small investment they had sold 80,000 cars. Unfortunately their Charger sales were down by 40,000 units, which makes one suspect that a large number of people traded their Chargers for the newer looking Challenger. On top of this, the development of the next generation of cars was not going well.
The decision was made by management at this point to kill off the two cars within a few years. Pressure was now being brought to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. This process started with the 1971 line up where the 383 received a drop in compression and the 440 4bbl engine was dropped completely. Although the 440 six-pack and Hemi engines remained untouched, this was to be their last year in an E-body.
For 1972 the largest engine you could order was a 340. Dodge renamed the R/T model “Challenger Rallye”.
In 1973 the 340 was replaced with the new 360ci engine. The “Rallye” was no longer a separate beefed-up model but just a dress-up package on the base model. Sales actually picked up slightly this year but the ’74 model was short lived. The last Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracudas were made in April 1974 as the Arab oil embargo hit the final nail in the coffin.
There were just 250,000 Barracudas (’64-’74) and 165,500 (’70-’74) Challengers built in total. Only a fraction of these have survived to this day.
New 1975 models had been designed when work on the 1970 had finished. Dodge took a Hemi Challenger convertible and turned it into the Diamante show car. It displays some of the design elements that they wanted to pursue in the next generation Challenger.
The other car companies carried on with their “muscle cars” although the muscle had now long gone out of them. The late ’70s and early ’80s produced some of the worst cars ever in the US.