Plymouth has been dead since 2001, which means in most parts of the country, there isn’t a trace of the brand left to be seen. It spent its last decade or so becoming increasingly irrelevant, and was the first in a wave of iconic brands that was swept into the dustbin of history in the 2000s. There aren’t many late-model Plymouths left, and in a few years, there won’t be many Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Mercurys, or Saabs left either. But Plymouth’s demise would’ve been inconceivable half a century ago, when it was one of the best-selling automakers in America. What’s more, it could’ve changed the course of history, if Ford hadn’t had the same idea.
The Plymouth Barracuda was released on April 1, 1964, as a sporty coupe designed to capture the growing youth market. Sixteen days later, Ford introduced the Mustang, capturing (and defining) the segment. The Barracuda would languish throughout the decade before going out in a brief, brilliant blaze of glory in the 1970s. Plymouth’s final Barracudas would go on to define the peak of the muscle car era, and leave such a mark that the modern day Fiat Chrysler may even be bringing the nameplate back.
In the early 1960s, a growing youth market began to demand smaller, sportier cars with long options lists to help them personalize their cars. By 1963, Plymouth felt its compact Valiant would provide a perfect platform for such a car, and set to work designing a sporty body for its otherwise pedestrian offering. From the windows down, the Barracuda looked like a two-door Valiant, but it had a massive wraparound rear window, at the time the largest piece of glass ever used on a production car.
Unfortunately, the Mustang just captured the public’s imagination better, with its more elegant styling, longer options list, and range of powerful engines. The Barracuda’s base engine was the venerable Chrysler Slant Six engine, and its range-topper was a 180-horsepower 273-cubic-inch V8. It was an interesting car, but it wasn’t enough to make a splash in the opening days of the muscle car wars.
For 1965 and ’66 the Barracuda began to differentiate itself from the Valiant, adding the Formula S package, which included a hotter 273 (now making 235 horsepower), racing stripes, and unique wheel covers. Still, it was no match for the Mustang, selling fewer than 40,000 cars a year at a time when the Mustang was topping half a million. Plymouth had already begun a crash program to design the second-generation car as early as mid-1964, and Americans seemingly insatiable for pony cars convinced them that they could make their car a winner.
The next Barracuda came in 1967, and while it was now completely different from the Valiant (at least on the surface), it was still too little, too late. Aside from the Mustang, Plymouth was now competing with the Chevy Camaro and Chevelle SS396, Pontiac Firebird and GTO, and even the Dodge Charger and Dart. Even though it was now available as a notchback and convertible, the Barracuda would continue to languish at the bottom of the ponycar pack.
But there were signs of life. For ’68, the 273 was replaced with the larger (and long-lasting) 230-horsepower 318 V8, the new 340-cubic-inch V8 was available (putting out a respectable 275 horsepower), and the range-topper was the massive 383, which gave the Barracuda a conservatively rated 380 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. Plymouth even made the bonkers 426 Hemi available, though it made the car unruly in anything other than a straight line, and only seriously dedicated drag racers went for it. For 1970, however, Plymouth would go all-in on its ponycar, and the results would be spectacular.
At the dawn of the new decade, the Barracuda was longer, lower, wider, and meaner than it had ever been before — and most importantly, it was engineered to handle the biggest engines the Chrysler Corporation had to offer. Sharing its mechanicals with the new Dodge Challenger, the Barracuda lineup became stronger, better defined, and better equipped to fend off its rivals. The base car was the Barracuda itself, a Slant-Six-powered affordable coupe. Then came the Gran Coupe, a more luxurious model, and finally the ‘Cuda, the high-performance variant, and the one everyone wanted.
The ‘Cuda could be had with a host of V8s, from a pair of 340s to the 383 and 440, but the one to get was the 426 Hemi. The ‘Cuda was at long last able to handle all that power, and the results were nothing short of terrific. With its trademark air cleaner poking out from under its “Shaker” hood, the Hemi ‘Cuda cranked out an impressive 425 horsepower and 490 pound-feet of torque, made the zero to 60 sprint in under six seconds (not bad for a 2-ton car), and ran the quarter-mile in 14 seconds at 102 miles per hour. It was big, it was fast, and it represented the zenith of the muscle car world before it all came crashing down.
With all the options checked, a Hemi ‘Cuda could set owners back over $5,000 dollars, a fortune for a ponycar in 1970. What’s more, the insurance industry began cracking down on young drivers in fast cars, raising premiums on some cars — like Hemi-powered Mopars — to over $1,000 per year. The 426 was available for ’71, but after that it was history. After 1974, the Barracuda was too.
Unfortunately, the sexy looking E-Body Barracudas couldn’t save the nameplate. Looks and power aside, the cars were savaged in the automotive press for ponderous handling and atrocious build quality. Add to it the insurance premiums and shockingly high sticker price, and the major redesign seemed to be for naught. The high point for the Barracuda came in 1970, when Plymouth sold nearly 60,000 of the new model. By 1974, it would sell just over 10,000 of them.
But history has been incredibly kind to the Barracuda, especially the ’70-’71 cars. Because of their timeless good looks and relative rarity, they command slightly more than most comparable Mustangs, Camaros, and Firebirds, and Hemi ‘Cudas became some of the first muscle cars to begin trading hands for over $1 million. The rarest of the rare are the convertibles; just over 5,000 were built in the E-Body’s first two years, and of those, just 26 (15 ’70s, 11 ’71s) came with the Hemi. Today, immaculately restored examples are worth more than $3 million.
Ironically enough, Fiat Chrysler has chosen to reunite the Barracuda and Challenger for 2019, and the Barracuda is likely to come as a ragtop only. Since its reintroduction in 2008, Dodge has been criticized for its lack of a Challenger convertible. The 21st century Barracuda is likely to wear unique sheet metal, be sold as a Dodge, and solve that problem once and for all. The Barracuda may not have sold well the first time around, but 42 years after the last one rolled off the line, it’s grown to become one of the greatest legends of American performance car history. Don’t be surprised if this time around, the Barracuda becomes the success it deserved to be.