1964-1966 Plymouth Barracuda Guide: Specs, Performance, & More
You cannot start a history of the 1970-1974 first-generation Dodge Challenger without first going back to the early 1960s and understand why the Plymouth Barracuda and the Ford Mustang were built. It was the development of these two cars that eventually forced Dodge to produce the Challenger.
I have used as my main reference the Motorbooks International Muscle Car Color History book “Barracuda & Challenger” by Paul Zazarine.
The Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger
The futuristic turbine powered XY2, drawn by Dave Cummins in 1960. Many of the design ideas here made their way to the Valiant Fastback and then on to the Barracuda.
Part one: Barracuda 1964-66
Most people, including some magazines for American Classic cars, seem to think the Challenger and Barracuda were just hurried copies of the very successful Ford Mustang. I hope I can change your mind about that and show you how Ford and Chrysler both responded to market forces and produced the best handling American cars of the time.
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.