Story and photo by Bill Vance

1965 Plymouth Barracuda
1965 Plymouth Barracuda. Click image to enlarge

Toward the end of the 1950s North America’s Big Three automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler) noticed that a considerable number of motorists preferred less bulky cars. Rather than sheer size and weight, many valued the nimble handling, easier parking and better fuel economy provided by the smaller imports.

When the import market penetration approached 10 per cent, the Big Three finally responded with their 1960 “compacts”: the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Chrysler (soon to be Plymouth) Valiant. The independents, particularly Nash, had reacted earlier.

It wasn’t long before Ford and Chevrolet began developing sportier versions of their compacts. The Corvair Monza was first, and while just a dressed up Deluxe 700 coupe, it gave the Corvair a new image.

Ford brought forth the sporty Falcon Futura and Sprint, and then the even more dramatic Falcon-based Mustang, the car that would start the whole pony car movement.

Chrysler wanted to be in the game, but it couldn’t afford an all-new body, a la the Mustang, so it followed Chevrolet’s recipe and used what it had. Work began in 1962 on developing the Valiant-based Barracuda to compete with the Monza and upcoming Mustang.

The Valiant got a modified grille and rear-end, but the most distinctive features were the unusual roof line and the huge “wrap-over” rear window. Four rectangular vents at its trailing edge kept the big window from popping out at high speeds, and provided flow-through cabin ventilation.

At 14.4 square feet, it was the largest backlight ever used in a standard car, and it gave the Barracuda an entirely different character than the regular Valiant. Its fastback styling had been anticipated in modern domestic cars like the Studebaker Avanti and Chevrolet Corvette.

The trunk lid was very narrow, but the rear seat folded down to allow objects up to seven feet (2,134 mm) long to be carried.

The Plymouth Valiant Barracuda (the Valiant part of the name would be dropped for 1965) was introduced in May, 1964. Unfortunately for Chrysler it arrived at about the same time as the Mustang.

In spite of being overshadowed by the sensational new Mustang, the Barracuda gained enough public acceptance to sell 23,443 of those 1964-1/2 models.

Standard Barracuda power was the corporate 2.8 litre, 101 horsepower, overhead-valve, slant six. Options were a 145 horsepower, a 3.7 litre version of the six, or a 4.5 litre, 180 horsepower overhead valve V-8. Transmissions were a three-speed manual (standard), or optional four speed manual or three-speed pushbutton automatic.

With the Mustang and the Barracuda aiming at the same market, a performance comparison was inevitable. They were not far apart, although the Mustang generally held the edge.

Car Life magazine tested three versions of the Mustang, and an automatic equipped Barracuda with a 4.5 litre V-8. In zero to 96 km/h acceleration tests the Mustang with a 4.3 litre V-8 recorded 11.2 seconds and a top speed of 163 km/h, whereas the Barracuda took 12.9 seconds and reached a slightly higher 169 km/h. When the Mustang was fitted with the 4.7 litre however, it ran away on the Barracuda with a zero to 96 time of 8.9 seconds and a top speed of 179.

The Barracuda continued in its original form through the 1966 model year, although in 1965 its optional 4.5 litre V-8 got a power boost from 180 to 235 horsepower.

The more conventional second generation 1967 Barracuda lost the distinctive rear window treatment, although it did retain its fastback profile, and was joined by two-door hardtop coupe and convertible models.

By this time Detroit was into its big-horsepower-in-light-cars muscle car orgy, spawned by the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO. Thus the small 2.8 litre six was discontinued in the Barracuda in 1967, and the corporation kept fitting larger and larger V-8s to its erstwhile economy car.

By 1969 this had evolved to a 7.2 litre, 375 horsepower monster, the largest fitted to a pony car. It provided tremendous acceleration in the hands of a skilled driver, but little else.

Car Life (6/69) tested a 440 ‘Cuda (a special package option), reporting a zero to 96 time of 5.6 seconds, but panning the car on almost everything else, including braking, handling and steering (the huge engine left no room for power assist).

1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda
1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda. Photo: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge

The 1970 Barracuda was again restyled, now in the more pony car-like long hood, short deck fashion. It was 152 mm shorter, 51 mm lower, but 127 mm wider for a much chunkier appearance.

Engine options were up to nine, from the 3.7 litre six to the mighty 7.2 litre V-8, and even included the resurrected Hemi V-8. Alas, this third-generation Barracuda arrived as the muscle car and high-powered pony car era was coming to a close. Almost as quickly as they had appeared, these big-engined compacts disappeared.

Production of the Barracuda steadily declined and it was discontinued on April 1, 1974, 10 years after its introduction.

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