It's hard to keep a secret in the car business. That is as true today as it was 40 years ago when Ford Motor Company was toying with the idea of building a 2+2 sporty car that would eventually be dubbed Mustang. And that's why the first "ponycar" introduced to the American market wasn't the Mustang, but instead was a Mustang wannabe, the Plymouth Barracuda.
Yes, introduction day of the Barracuda was April 1, 1964, some two weeks before the Mustang's debut, and when some auto writers saw the new Barracuda, they might well have regarded it as an April Fool's Day prank. Unlike the Mustang, whose exterior design had been drawn up on the proverbial clean sheet of paper, the Barracuda was little more than a Plymouth Valiant two-door with a huge glass fastback grafted onto its hindquarters. In fact, during its first year in production the Barracuda was a sub-model of the Valiant line, and it carried Valiant as well as Barracuda badging.
To be fair to the Barracuda, though, it should be noted that the Mustang was based on an even more mundane foundation. While both cars had live rear axles hung on semi-elliptic springs and a horse-and-buggy arrangement, the Barracuda drivers could legitimately say their cars handled better than those of their Mustang-owning brethren. A representation of Chrysler engineering, the Valiant offered a torsion bar front suspension that was far superior to the Falcon's (and Mustang's) totally prosaic layout.
The Mustang did, however, own a bit of an edge in the engine compartment. Though many Mustangs were equipped with the mundane Ford in-line six-cylinder, the top-of-the-line engine - the 289 cubic inch overhead valve V-8 - was a stronger performer than the Barracuda's 273 cubic inch V-8. In 1965 the Mustang 289 offered 200 horsepower and 282 pound-feet of torque, while the Barracuda's 273, lifted intact from the Valiant line, produced 180 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Plymouth also offered Barracuda buyers the choice of two six-cylinder powerplants, the anemic 170 cubic inch version and the 225 cubic inch engine, which had a reputation for absolute reliability. Most of the Barracuda buyers, though, opted for the V-8, which was derived from the stalwart 318 cubic inch block that was Plymouth's answer to the Chevy small block.
A large measure of a sporty car's appeal is its styling, and while the Mustang was an unqualified home run with the public, the Barracuda was more like a sharp double down the line. From some angles the Plymouth is handsome. Looking at the car head-on, its wide-spaced round headlights flanking smaller "driving lights" and a narrow grille present a well-integrated look that is evocative of late-'50s, early '60s Italian design. Both A and B pillars are artfully drawn, and the rear quarter windows make an appealing side window opening. But, oh, that huge glass fastback! Certainly it is the most distinctive feature of the design, the only element that cries out, "I'm sporty!," but sticking 2,000 square inches of glass out back is positively ungainly. While the Mustang reiterated the long hood/short deck look of classic American roadsters, the Barracuda's hood was shorter than the length from its B pillar to the rear bumper. The Barracuda was more than six inches longer than the Mustang, and much of that was in rear overhang. The proportions are clean, but not nearly as aggressive as the first Mustang.
Inside, the Barracuda lifted liberally from its sistership, the Valiant. The car did offer vinyl-covered semi-bucket seats and a rudimentary floorshifter/console, but the instrumentation was sparse as seen through the thin-rim deep-dish steering wheel. With the car's 188-inch overall length, one might have assumed the rear seating would be reasonably ample, but due to the car's 106-inch wheelbase -- two inches shorter than that of the Mustang -- it wasn't much better than in the Ford. One area where the Barracuda did shine, though, was versatility. Its rear seatback folded down to provide station wagon-like cargo space.
Most Barracuda buyers, of course, weren't looking for a station wagon replacement. They wanted stylish, sporty fun, and Plymouth provided that with its Formula S package. Designed for competition, it ended up on many cars whose only racing experience occurred getting to parking spots in the drive-in, but it was reasonably potent. It began with the "Commando 273" version of the V-8 engine, which used a four-barrel carburetor, revised cams, dome-topped pistons and high-compression heads to produce 230 horsepower. To compensate for the additional power and torque, the Formula S was also equipped with wider wheels, Goodyear Blue Streak tires, heavy-duty front torsion bars, higher-rate rear springs and an anti-roll bar. The result was a car that could vault from zero to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds flat, a respectable performance.
Of course, the Barracuda wasn't the runaway success that the Mustang was in 1964. If one combines the 1964 and 1965 sales total for each model, the Barracuda garnered about 88,000 sales versus 680,000 for the Mustang. But in Chrysler Corporation's eyes, the Barracuda was a success that was worth following up, and that follow-up came with an extremely attractive re-styling that occurred in time for the 1967 model year.
This time around, Plymouth offered three separate body styles bearing the Barracuda name: a much better integrated fastback, a sleek convertible, and an arresting hardtop. While each of these sub-models has its proponents, I'm personally very partial to the hardtop, which I think is an under-appreciated gem. Meanwhile, Chrysler, wrapped up in the muscle car war with Ford and General Motors, continued to up the horsepower ante. The newly revised Barracudas could be purchased with a 340 cubic-inch version of the Chrysler small block V-8 boasting 275 horsepower, a 383 cubic-inch big block offering a conservative 300 horsepower, or even the 426 "hemi." Those in the know said the hot all-around pick was the 340, because it offered better handling than the nose-heavy 383 or hemi versions.
In 1970, the fickle sporty car market demanded and received a completely new Barracuda. The re-style was attractive though lacking a bit of the distinctiveness of the '67-'69 models. No fastback version was offered, but the convertible and hardtops caught on to the tune of a 73 percent sales increase for the line. But emission regulations and fuel economy concerns were slowly strangling the sporty car market. After 1970 Barracuda sales fell precipitously, and the model vanished from the Plymouth line after 1974. Now, of course, the Plymouth line has vanished as well.