Curbside Classic: 1965 Plymouth Barracuda – Better Than A Mustang In Horse Country

Pity the poor Barracuda. It beat the Mustang to market in 1964 by 16 days, but was utterly trounced by that seminal (and genre name-giving) pony car. In their first full year (1965), the Mustang outsold the ‘Cuda by nine to one. Well, despite that huge glassy fastback, it was hard to fool anyone that the Barracuda was anything other than a Valiant Signet with a fishbowl grafted on. Especially from the inside out.

That hardly made it an inferior car per se, and the fold down rear seat and resulting flat floor made it highly practical for certain uses. But the distinctive long-hood short-deck proportions of the Mustang instantly became iconic and a must-have; a glass-back Valiant just wasn’t going to do the trick, unless of course you found yourself in the right position to fully appreciate the Barracuda’s unique qualities.

The idea for what became the Barracuda had been tossed around in various forms at Chrysler for years. But when word of the Mustang’s development was out, a project to compete was put into overdrive. And contrary to what might be assumed, the rear glass idea didn’t originate with the 1963 Corvette, but with some styling concepts for a proposed Super Sports Fury Coupe for the still-born 1962 models, that were never built due to the disastrous last-minute downsizing. I can’t find a picture of the fastback clays, but one can see a hint of the the direction even in the production 1960 Valiant rear window.

The Barracuda’s rear window was the biggest piece of automotive glass  (14.4 sq.ft.) produced to date. Combined with the fold down seat and the opening hatch into the “trunk”, a seven foot long cargo area was available. And since the Barracuda had the same upright seating dimensions as the Valiant, it was a (semi) legitimate five seater; certainly much more so than the Mustang.That led to the Barracuda being marketed as much for its practical purposes as its sporty pretensions.

To start with, its sporty aspirations were fairly modest: a choice of slant sixes or the new 273 cubic inch LA V8 that put out 180 hp. That already was less than the Mustang’s 200 hp 289 base V8, never mind the 225 and 271 hp versions.  For 1965, that was partly rectified with the Formula S package that included a 235 hp four-barrel version of the 273, along with suspension and steering ratio upgrades. A substantial improvement, and the ultimate A body setup for that generation, but still not exactly what it would take to get someone’s eyes off a Mustang GT.

The 1966 Barracuda had a new squared-off front end, which was mostly shared with the Valiant again. Other than that, there wasn’t too much new, except that sales slumped even further: now the ‘Stang outsold the ‘Cuda 16 to 1! A new Barracuda arrived in 1967, still sharing the new-for ’67 Valiant architecture and high cowl, but with at least its own unique sheet metal. It also came in two distinct hardtop styles, a (less glassy) but handsome fastback, and a rather unusual coupe with a roof line that evoked more than a bit of a gen1 Corvair coupe.

The ’67 Barracuda, in Formula S form, finally came into its own as a renowned performance machine thanks to its handling, now considered the best of the pony cars. That is, if one could put up with the little 273, and resist the optional and heavy 383 that was being shoehorned in as an option. The fit was so tight, power steering wasn’t even available. Big blocks in pony cars were great for the strip, but the heavy metal on their compact front ends created inevitable results in handling.

In 1968, that was resolved in a most satisfactory manner: the superb new 340 LA V8, which was no heavier than the 273. With its excellent breathing, it was underrated at an insurance -friendly 275 hp. The 1968 -1969 340 Barracuda S was the most balanced all-round  performing car in its class. Of course, a cheaper Dart Swinger 340 was essentially the same thing.

Well, that’s all in the future, As this ’65 makes very clear indeed, it really was just a Valiant with a glass back. There’s nothing in this front passenger compartment to let anyone know that’s its anything other than that, except a “Barracuda” emblem on the inside of the front door. And no, folks weren’t buying it…

The spacious rear compartment made for lots of creative possibilities. One of them was to put a blown hemi under it, creating one of the seminal wheelie-mobiles, the aptly named Hemi Under Glass (“A Rolling Research Laboratory”).  Well, I never got to experience that stand-up creation, but I do have a very vivid and sweet Barracuda memory. And it has nothing to do with its handling or performance prowess. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have ever happened in a Mustang or Camaro, thanks to the Barracuda’s rugged and practical Valiant origins and that seven foot cargo area.

Feel free to jump a couple of paragraphs ahead ahead if you’re sick of my hitch-hiking stories. It was 1972, I was nineteen, and returning to Iowa after a several months-long thumbing trip up the West Coast. I got picked up in Cheyenne by three college kids in a red ’65 Barracuda late in the day, and rather than see me trying to hitch a ride in the dark, they offered to put me up. I hit it off with the sweet young driver of the plain hand-me-down slant six automatic ‘Cuda — anything but a sporty car — and spent a few days with them. She suggested a camping trip (for the two of us) into the rugged high country.

She had a dog, a brown medium sized mutt of particularly calm demeanor. I soon found out why: it demanded to be “run” for miles on end, following the Barracuda down the rugged gravel and dirt roads. I vividly remember looking back through that window, seeing it running along behind for miles on end, while we bounced along the rocky rough roads. We’d stop and opened the door, but it wasn’t ready to get in yet for another few more miles.

The purring slant six instilled the highest degree of confidence as we headed up into the rugged high country. And the tough suspension was up to anything Wyoming could dish out, even way back in Marlboro Country. This was no place for a Mustang, despite being horse country.

It was already well into May, but the weather was getting colder and cloudier by the mile. We didn’t see another car all day. By the time we got to our destination, some rugged cliffs and outcroppings, it was drizzling and close to freezing. I have a vague memory of heating something in a can over a fire (Chef BOYARDEE, most likely).

We quickly cleared out that seven foot long cargo area and kept each other warm back there, as well as watching the rain turn into snow as the flakes swirled down and collected on that big glass pane. Wyoming in May! I was doubting the wisdom of my decision to leave sunny California.

And by the next morning, that window was solid white, under a couple of inches of fresh snowfall. Love under glass beats hemi under glass any day in my book, especially in that setting.

Back to the present: this ’65 Barracuda is typical of so many CCs I find and talk to the owners about. It’s a family hand-me down, from his uncle, if I remember right. And it’s been a regular driver much of its life. Exactly like the one in Wyoming, with the 225 cubic inch (3.7 L) slant six, except with a three-on-the-tree manual. Perfect car for the long haul, and impromptu camping trips.

The Barracuda may not have been a sales success, but I’m thankful Chrysler decided to make it nevertheless. The back seat of a Mustang would have been a bitch on that long, cold night in the mountains of Wyoming.