Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers all rule the pony car landscape, but one legend reigns supreme. Let’s look at the rise to the top and the untimely demise of the Plymouth Barracuda.
America loves muscle cars. Rear-wheel coupes packed with a ton of horsepower and made right here in the US-of-A. The muscle car segment has long been a battle field between Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge, each giving their own spin on coupes and huge engines. But one muscle car defined a generation, the first pony car, the legendary Plymouth Barracuda.
Prior to the 1960’s, American car companies pandered to the American family man. Sedans and wagons were the norm, with the main selling points being cargo space and affordability. Eventually, the market grew tired of bland vehicles and drastic changes were afoot. A rumor soon circulated that Ford was re-imagining the Falcon as a sporty coupe. Chrysler jumped at the opportunity to get a jump on the market.
Chrysler designer Irv Ritchie quickly sketched a Plymouth Valiant as a coupe fastback to present as the competitive model. The company moved on the design working with Plymouth executives to get the model out into the market before Ford could release their own. Plymouth wanted to name it the Panda (worst muscle car name ever), thankfully product designer John Samsen stepped in with the Barracuda moniker. On April 1st, 1964, the Plymouth Barracuda hit the American Market just two weeks before the Ford Mustang, laying the foundations of competitive muscle car world as we know it.
When the new Plymouth Barracuda hit the markets, it was pretty clearly a fastbacked Plymouth Valiant. It still retrained some of the Valiant badging in the first year with “Barracuda” tacked on. The race to beat Ford to market can be blamed for the slapdash appearance of the first-year Barracuda. Sure, Ford’s optioning model mirrored that of Plymouths, with both offering a basic coupe that could be upgraded in power and luxury options, but Ford hit the mark when it came to marketing and the extra design time.
While Plymouth marketed the Barracuda as a “car for all ages and interests,” Ford’s more stylized Mustang was advertised as “The Unexpected”, targeted directly toward younger generations as the new, more fun, sports car. Their car was far from a generic fastbacked Falcon, it was a completely new idea with a new eye-catching design. In the first sales season of both vehicles, the Plymouth Barracuda only sold a little over 23,000, in comparison to the breakout Ford Mustang selling 126,500.
1964 Plymouth Barracuda – carsforsale.com | Shop 1964 Plymouth Barracudas on Carsforsale.com
The Plymouth Barracuda may have had some short comings, but what was their first build actually like? The car was built on Chrysler’s A-body platform. It shared many components with the Valiant including the wheelbase, bumpers, hood, headlight setup, windshield, quarter panels, and doors. Basically, the only significant distinction between the two were two fewer doors and a newly developed rear window. Let’s not criticize the design too much and see what Plymouth offered under the hood in the new Valian…err Barracuda.
Plymouth won the race to market, but Ford won the market. Other manufacturers took notice of the Mustang’s success and joined the fight. In 1966, the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Charger emerged as new contenders, with more options, new better designs, and more horses shoved into their engines. The Barracuda, to this point, had only added a few extra design improvements, including finally dropping any and all Valiant badging. Plymouth had introduced the Commando 4-barrel carb engines as an option, providing a little more horsepower to the platform. They also added a Formula S package with some performance upgrades.
1966 Plymouth Barracuda Formula S – carsforsale.com | Shop 1966 Plymouth Barracudas on Carsforsale.com
It was obvious Plymouth needed to rework the Barracuda from the ground up and bring the model into its own. Designers John Samsen and John E. Herlitz updated the Barracuda to differentiate it from the Valiant. Changes included contoured paneling, new front and rear designs, wider wheel openings, and changes to the rear portion of the fastback. The original fastback design was joined by convertible and hardtop options.
1967 Plymouth Barracuda – carsforsale.com | Shop 1967 Plymouth Barracudas on Carsforsale.com
Now, with the design updated, the performance had to match and the engines had to get bigger.
The Plymouth Barracuda was slowly coming into its own. Additional engine options with more power and a distinct design from the Valiant helped improve sales. In 1969, Plymouth unveiled a new trim package simply called ‘Cuda. The ‘Cuda was based off of the current Formula S package with all their V8 options, including the new 440 cu. in. 7.2L Super Commando V8 putting out 425 bhp. The ‘Cuda trim line would be the driving force behind the next generation redesign leading into the 1970s.
The 1970’s was where the sentiment “Mopar or no car” really flexed its muscles. Chrysler was building their reputation on performance parts and being the best tuning cars on the market. This was a turning point in the design of Chrysler models like the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Barracudas. The A-body was finally scrapped, replaced by the Chrysler’s E-body. The E-Body was shorter in length, but provided a wider engine bay and wheelbase. John E. Herlitz took to redesigning the Barracuda again, moving away from any kind of economy car connotations attached to it.
The Barracuda came out with four versions – the base Barracuda, the cheaper Barracuda Coupe, the luxurious Barracuda Gran Coupe, and the sportier ‘Cuda. Every Barracuda variant also had added design options along with the extensive performance options:
With all these great performance and design improvements, the Barracuda started to make its name at the drag strip. The famous Sox & Martin was the winningest team in the “four-speed era” with their modified Barracudas. In 1970, Plymouth created a single factory Pro Stock ‘Cuda that later won the 1970 AHRA World Championship. The team would go on to win six of the eight final rounds of NHRA Pro Stock series in 1971.
There’s also the famous Motown Missile ‘Cuda, one of three cars to share the Missile name. The Motown Missile, later named Mopar Missile, was a Chrysler sponsored drag racing team full of engineering legends like Tom Hoover, Dick Oldfield, Joe Pappas, and drag racing legend Don Carlton. The Motown Missile Hemi ‘Cuda was named the ultimate Pro Stock car of the time by Hot Rod Magazine. Unfortunately, the NHRA changed its rules in 1972, giving cars with Hemis large weight penalties. The Motown Missile would be the only Chrysler car to win an NHRA event that year while dominating in the IHRA and the USRT.
Plymouth had finally made the Barracuda a strong contender in the muscle car race. That was until 1973. Increasing US emission regulations made it harder for Chrysler to produce huge performance engines. This led to the detuning of engine options, reductions in horsepower, and led to big-block engine options being discontinued. Then, safety standards required larger heavy front bumpers, which compared to earlier models made the power to weight ratio abysmal in conjunction with the detuned engines. To top it off, the 1973 oil crisis led to higher fuel prices. Car shoppers shifted from high performance sports cars and to more fuel-efficient options. Plymouth had been retooling the Barracuda for a 1975 release, but halted production of the model on its 10-year anniversary – April 1st, 1974.
The untimely demise of the ‘Cuda was the beginning of the end for Plymouth. Thanks to the oil crisis, a focus on family vehicles and economical designs were in vogue. The birth of the Gran Fury, Voyager, and Acclaim all screamed “boring” and performed accordingly. Chrysler had transformed Plymouth from an esteemed performance brand and to an entry level value brand. By June 28th, 2001, Plymouth went out with a whimper, rolling their last car, a Neon, off its assembly line and shuttering its doors for good.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Barracuda is gone for good just because Plymouth is. Chrysler still owns the rights to the Barracuda model and has teased its return since 2007. Rumor has it, we could see the Barracuda reborn as a Dodge and replacing the Challenger. That’s right, Chrysler is mulling the idea of ending the Challenger to bring back the ‘Cuda as their high-performance coupe. Might we finally see the ‘Cuda rise from the ashes of Plymouth? As sad as it’d be to lose the Challenger, I sure hope so.