The Plymouth Barracuda was the first pony car, debuting two weeks before the Ford Mustang. It was quickly eclipsed by the Mustang and the Camaro/Firebird due, but would make a name for itself in 1970 when it was available with an engine its competition could only dream of, the Hemi.
The Plymouth Barracuda was launched in early 1964, two weeks before the Ford Mustang. Officially called the Valiant Barracuda, the car was based on the compact Valiant and kept its lower body but used a fastback super-structure with a massive wraparound backlight (the largest single piece of glass ever put on a production car) and stubby trunklid.
The interior featured the Signet’s bucket-seats, plus a flip-down rear seatback and security panel for carrying long items. Original marketing for the vehicle stressed its convenience features and design more than sporty performance, which would hurt its performance image for the next several years. Engine offerings were the same as the Valiant, with a 170 cid Slant Six at launch, with the 225 Slant Six or 273 V8 as options.
The 1965 model year saw the introduction of two important options; the 273 in³ (4.5 L) Commando, a 235 hp (175 kW) four-barrel carbureted V8, and the Formula ’S’ package, a performance package that included the Commando V8, upgraded suspension, wheels, and tires, and a standard tachometer.
In 1966 the Barracuda would receive slightly new taillight designs and a facelift, making it easily distinguishable from the 1964 and 1965 versions. As a move to further the car’s image from that of the Valiant , the blue and red "V" shaped Valiant emblem below the rear glass on the center of the vehicle was replaced mid-year by a Barracuda fish emblem.
By 1967, Plymouth redesigned the Barracuda and added a coupe and convertible to the model line-up. To accommodate larger engines, the engine bay was enlarged. There were multiple engine offerings that ranged in configuration and horsepower ratings. The 225 cubic-inch six-cylinder was the base engine while the 383 cubic-inch 8-cylinder was the top-of-the-line producing 280 horsepower. That was impressive, especially considering the horsepower to weight ratio. Many chose the 340 cubic-inch eight-cylinder because the 383 and Hemi were reported to make the Barracuda nose-heavy while the 340 offered optimal handling.
The Barracuda received minor styling changes and a greater availability of engines for 1968 with the reintroduction of the 225 Slant Six engine. The top of the line 383 also received a power boost. The 273 cid engines were retired. To give the Barracuda more of a performance image, Plymouth quietly built a small number of Hemi powered Barracudas to give to professional drag racers,.These ’Cudas had a Super Stock 426 Hemi package. The lightweight body and race-tuned Hemi were perfect for the drag racing circuit. Glass was replaced with lexan, non-essential items were removed, and lightweight seats with aluminum brackets replaced the factory bench, and were given a sticker that indicated the car was not to be driven on public highways but for supervised acceleration trials. The result was a car that could run the quarter mile in the ten-second range.
For many years, dropping the Hemi engine into the Barracuda was a popular way to gain dominance at the dragstip. Chrysler, with the help of Hurst, sought to duplicate the efforts from the factory. Chrysler would built the Barracudas and ship them to Hurst for the final conversion.
The race prepped Hemi was highly underrated and actually produced well over 600 horsepower. The hood and fenders were fiberglass. The front bumper and doors were light-gauge steel. Getting the 426 Hemi into the engine back took some modifications. The battery was moved to the trunk. Both the right shift linkages for the four speeds, and special rear-axle assemblies from Hurst had to be specially made.
The cars came with street tires and a shallow oil pan off the trailer. The only modifications most racers did were the installation of slicks and a deeper oil pan. The SS Hemi Barracudas were delivered in early May so they would be ready to qualify for the NHRA Spring Nationals.
1969 was the year that Plymouth finally got serious about performance. They boosted the output of the 383 cid engine to 330 bhp and found room to fit power steering. Plymouth also introduced a cosmetic package built around the Formula S option, which they called the ’Cuda. The ’Cuda could be had with either the 275 bhp 340 V8 or the 383, but it still wasn’t fast enough. Plymouth responded by stuffing in the triple carb 440 V8 under the hood, the largest engine available in a pony car. Unfortunately, the larger engine required the elimination of power steering again and was only available with an automatic transmission, as the rear axle needed to be cushioned against the immense torque of the 440. With 57% of the car’s weight over the front wheels and the use of drum brakes all around, handling and braking suffered.
Plymouth finally got the performance angle right for 1970, and they went full force into it. The Barracuda was moved over to the E-body platform, which it shared with the new Dodge Challenger. The Barracuda rode on a two inch shorter wheelbase than the similar Dodge Challenger, even though its overall body dimensions were the same. The performance models were called ’Cudas and featured five different V8s, the 340, 383, 440, 440+6, and the almighty 426 Hemi.
The 440s and the Hemi cars received a special high performance suspension to put all that power to the road. Standard Barracudas came with a flat hood, while ’Cudas came with standard dual non-functional hood scoops. Optional on all ’Cudas (and standard on Hemi’s) was a very functional shaker scoop, so named because it attached directly to the engine, and poked up through a hole in the hood and thus "shaked" whenever the engine did. The Hemi cost $871 and was installed on just 652 hardtops (out of 17,242) and 14 convertibles (out of 550) copies. It sported hydraulic lifters and was easier to tune than in previous years. The 440+6 was a bargin at just $250 and could keep up with the Hemi till about 70 mph. Both engines were tricky to drive: the 440+6 vacuum-actuated front and rear carbs came on with little warning, while the Hemi’s stiff throttle linkage sometimes snapped all eight barrels open at once.
Plymouth also built a special model for 1970: the Plymouth AAR ’Cuda. AAR was taken from Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers, which raced ’Cudas in he Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am racing series. But whereas Ford and Chevrolet built special models (Boss 302 Mustang and Camaro Z28) meant to mimic the race cars, Plymouth built a street rod. Along with the similar Dodge Challenger T/A, the AAR ’Cuda sported a unique 340 cid V8 with 3x2 carbs that pumped out 290 bhp. The exterior was definitely unique with a matte-black lift-off fiberglass hood, through body-side strobe stripes, tri-colored AAR shield, and standard black ducktail spoiler. The AAR ’Cuda also had special shocks and recambered rear springs which raised the rear end 1 3/4 inches over the regular ’Cuda which allowed clearance for exhaust pipes that exited in front of the rear wheelwell (after routing through the standard muffler beneath the trunk). It also permitted the use of larger tires in the rear, one of the first uses of wider rear tires on a production automobile.
The Plymouth Barracuda continued into 1971 with minor styling changes, including a segmented grille with twin headlamps, dummy front fender vents, and segmented tail lamps. A full range of engines were available and the top performance models were once again called ’Cudas. The AAR ’Cuda was no longer available. To deal with increasingly strict emission laws, Plymouth was forced to detune some of their engines, resulting in a drop in the power ratings. Only 115 Hemi ’Cudas were sold and Plymouth decided to retire the Hemi engine before it had to be detuned to meet the new emission standards. Therefore, the Hemi would end its reign as the most feared and possibly most influential engine of the muscle car era.
1972 was a sad year for performance fans as the mighty Hemi and the 383 engines were retired because they couldn’t meet the new emission standards. The remaining engines had to be detuned and were now rated in net horsepower numbers, which on the surface seemed like a huge drop in power. Unfortunately, the top engine choice for the Barracuda was the 340 cid V8 and the convertible was no longer available.
New safety regulations forced the vehicle to have large front and rear bumper guards in 1973 and 1974. The Barracuda hung on through 1974, after which it was discontinued in the midst of the 1973 oil crisis. Production ended ten years (to the day) after it had begun. Although today they are considered one of the most sought-after muscle cars of all time, the third generation was a marketplace failure and never successfully competed with rival offerings from Ford and General Motors. The rarity of specific models and combinations today is primarily the result of low buyer interest and production at the time.