COAL- 1968 Plymouth Barracuda to Volvo 122 to Bass Guitar

I owned my 1968 Barracuda for less than a year, and it was somewhat by chance that I bought it, but it also led to me briefly owning a Volvo 122 which I received in part-trade.

The car in the photo below isn’t my Barracuda, but a very similar one, albeit in somewhat nicer shape. As with several cars earlier in my life, I don’t have any photos, so all images in this article were sourced online.

It is, however, the same color, and also in the same wheelcover-free state that mine was when I found it. I still owned my Celica, subject of my last Cars of a Lifetime, and driving through Capitola, California I saw a ’68 Plymouth Barracuda fastback with a for sale sign in the parking lot of an auto parts store. The asking price was $400.00, which even at the time seemed an astoundingly good price. As I was looking it over in the lot, the parts store employee who was selling it came out and asked if I was interested. He told me he was eager to sell as he needed cash to make some upcoming bills. The car looked good other than a dented and poorly repaired fender on the driver’s side – the car was a light yellow (checking a color chart, I believe it was Sunfire Yellow), and had a dented fender that had been partially fixed with body filler and primer, carelessly topped with yellow spray paint that wasn’t really a match for the rest of the car.

The 68 Falcon I had owned not long before made me favorably inclined toward V8 American compacts, and it struck me that the Barracuda would make an interesting project, and should that not pan out, I thought I could potentially flip it for more than the purchase price. The seller and I made arrangements to meet after he got off of work. After a test drive and a careful inspection, I agreed to buy it that evening. I was out of school, working full time, and had a bit of disposable income, and between the cash in my wallet and my daily ATM limit, I was able to come up with the asking price that day. He had brought the paperwork with him and, unusually for a car in this price range, the title was in his name and the tags were current.

It was a nice-looking car, stylish, and other than the dented fender, in pretty good shape, and there wasn’t any evidence of rust. The interior was clean and well-preserved and being a Barracuda fastback, it had a carpeted hatch that folded back into the trunk and a back seat that folded forward, giving an immense cargo area in the back – although getting anything in or out of the back required that they go through the trunk or either of the front doors. While generally less practical than the hatchback on my Celica, the Barracuda’s cargo area did have one distinct advantage over my Toyota in that I could leave items locked in the trunk in relative safety.

Writing this now, I realize my Celica and Barracuda, though very different cars, were both instances of a manufacturer taking economy car underpinnings and upgrading them with a sporty body and a stylish interior.

I’ll also take a moment to clarify a few terms. Mopar is the name for the parts division of the Chrysler Corporation and came to be used as a generic term for Chrysler Corporation products. My Barracuda was based on the A-body platform, which was also used on the Valiant, Dart, Duster, and a number of other submodels.

My 1968 was a second-generation Barracuda. The first-generation 1964-66 model shared much of the bodywork with the compact Plymouth Valiant upon which it was based, and was essentially a fastback Valiant. In 1967, the second-generation body style was introduced, and although based on Valiant/A-body mechanicals, it had its own unique sheetmetal, and was sold in convertible and hardtop versions in addition to the fastback.

It was equipped with the base V8 offered that year – a 318, with a 2-barrel carb and single exhaust. Hotter 340 and 383 V8s were also available, as well as the durable and thrifty slant-6, but despite being the base V8, the 318 moved the car fairly quickly. It turned and stopped, however, about like the Valiant it was based on.

At the time I was living in Santa Cruz and commuting for work to Scotts Valley. This involved a drive over Highway 17, a curving highway that wound through the Santa Cruz Mountains, which tended to point out any chassis shortcomings in a car. Handling on my Barracuda was OK but not great, and replacing the worn, cheap tires that were on it with a better set of radials improved the road manners somewhat.

The brakes, however, were a definite issue for me. They had seemed fine on my test drive and were OK around town or on relaxed freeway drives, but I found them a bit overmatched on my work commute. The 68 Falcon I’d sold earlier had come with the rare option of factory discs, and it had stopped with far more confidence and had perhaps set my expectations a bit high. In hindsight, the Barracuda’s brakes were probably no worse than many other 1960s American cars but to me at the time, it felt like the accelerator pedal could write checks that the brake pedal couldn’t cash.

A-body drum brakes

I investigated options for upgrading the brakes by thumbing through various Peterson books and having a few conversations at various parts counters — this was back when most part stores were independent and parts guys generally had some automotive knowledge. From these, I gained the mistaken impression that swapping in the commonly available spindles and disc brakes off of a ’73 or later A-body or midsize Mopar wasn’t an option for my car, the issue being that the wheels on my ’68 had a smaller bolt pattern that wouldn’t work with the later discs. While small-bolt-pattern disc brakes had been installed on a minuscule number of earlier A-bodies, I was told that finding the parts for these was an almost impossible quest.

This was one of the many times in my life where I wish I knew then what I know now, as looking back, the obvious solution would have been to do the later-model disc brake swap and run large bolt pattern wheels from a later car on the front. Seeing this done on another car years later was a moment of epiphany for me. I believe I could have even switched to a large bolt pattern on all 4 wheels by swapping in the rear axles from a later A-body to avoid mismatched front and rear wheels (If I’m wrong on any of this, I assume someone will correct me in the comments). At the time, though, it seemed as if I was stuck with the factory drum brakes, which were marginal at best and didn’t inspire confidence when taxed.

This also points out how much easier it is to find information these days than in the pre-internet era. At the time, my Mopar-specific mechanical knowledge pretty much started and ended with an awareness that the driver’s side lug nuts were reverse threaded. While there was a fairly straightforward way to upgrade the brakes, I didn’t know anyone who knew the answer, shop manuals were limited to repairing the car as it came from the factory, and most of the “tech” articles in car magazines of the time focused on installing parts advertised in their pages, generally for Chevrolet or Fords.

And touching on reverse-threaded lug nuts, I once mentioned this bit of info to a tire shop employee who seemed quite surprised to learn it. He was, at the time, about to undo the lug nuts on a friend’s ’65 Dart with an impact wrench so thankfully I pointed it out before he sheared off the wheel studs.

The “L” on these wheel studs means “Lefty Tighty”

I also came to realize that the body damage was a  bit more involved than I had thought. When I bought the car, I could see it had a dented fender and a bent front header panel (the header panel is the sheetmetal panel between the hood and the front grilles). I had assumed I could chase down a junkyard fender, maybe do a little Bondo and primer work, and get the car looking fairly straight. Upon a closer examination, it was evident that the fender edge had been pushed into the driver’s door due to an accident, and then been pried outward out to allow the driver’s door to open.

The inner fender apron was also visibly bent, so bolting on a new fender wouldn’t likely fix things as the mounting points for the fender had been pushed back toward the door. It seemed like getting the car straight would require some professional, and expensive, bodywork – or at least work beyond my skills at the time. It did, thankfully, drive straight and had no apparent alignment issues, so for the time at least, I resigned myself to drive it as it was.

It turned out my Barracuda needed more than just a new fender

I drove the car for a while but my intended project had reached a stalemate. Both of the issues with the car that I thought I could tackle myself looked to be more problematic. My Celica remained my daily driver and commute car, and the Barracuda fell into a weekend and occasional driver. Although the Barracuda was running and driving, and actually drove pretty well, it always felt a bit like an uncompleted project.

Other than replacing the tires as mentioned earlier and repairing an exhaust leak, I didn’t do much work on the car while I owned it. It was missing hubcaps when I bought it, and I picked up a set of cheap baby moons at an auto parts store. Had I been able to easily find a set of dog dish hubcaps, I probably would have gone for those.

One strong memory I have of my Barracuda was when it was warm and the car had been sitting out, there was a distinct and not unpleasant smell that old Mopars often have and that I’ve since recognized in several other old Chrysler Corporation cars of the same vintage.

Given the locking trunk, I used my Barracuda to transport musical equipment, and someone I knew from playing music asked if I’d be interested in selling it. He made me an offer for close to what I had into it, which was still only a few hundred dollars. After some thought, I agreed to sell it to him. He had been driving a very beat Volvo 122, which he offered in part trade. I wasn’t really interested in his Volvo, but he kept adjusting his offer until he reached the point where he’d let it go for $100.00 off of the price of the Barracuda. I didn’t need another car but figured I could flip the Volvo fairly easily and make back the $100 and then some. We exchanged cars, signed the paperwork and I now owned a Volvo.

Not my Volvo 122, but one in far better shape.

I had given his Volvo a quick looking over, but knowing that he drove it regularly, and assuming I’d quickly sell it, I didn’t really check it over that closely. After driving it, and seeing the shape it was in, it became clear that the Barracuda, just by dint of being a running, drivable car with no major issues and current tags (which stay with the car in California), was a substantial upgrade for my friend.

The Volvo badly needed front-end work, and may have had some damage to the front suspension, making it pretty squirrely at speeds above 45 MPH. Though there was a working key for the doors, the ignition cylinder was missing and a twist of a screwdriver was needed to start it.  It was a light yellow-green color (similar to the car in the photo above, though in far worse shape) but the trunk lid had been replaced with a black one. It would slowly lose brake fluid and the brake lights didn’t work.

My friend had advised me that if it had been sitting for a while, I’d need to check the brake fluid and pump the brakes until they felt firm, though I’m not sure he was aware of the nonfunctioning brake lights. Both of the brake issues were due to a faulty brake light switch – which on this car was hydraulically actuated and threaded into the brake junction block. Replacing this switch and then bleeding the brakes was the first, and pretty much the only, repair I made on the car. While I topped up various other fluids, I don’t recall ever even bothering to change the oil on it.

The problematic brake switch on my Volvo

The tags on the Volvo were several years out of date, and the paperwork was a signed off pink slip from a previous owner with several bills of sale creating a paper trail from them to my friend to me. While it sounds sketchy, in years past I’ve registered several vehicles by presenting a similar stack of paperwork to the DMV. The main problem is that you’re on the hook for all past-due registration and any parking tickets accrued – which can be substantial. I decided not to re-register the car, as I intended to sell it soon and planned to just pass on the stack of paperwork to the next owner.

My house had a large off-street parking lot at the time, so keeping an old car with expired tags wasn’t much of a problem for me. The lack of tags and general rough shape of the car meant I didn’t drive it much, and to be honest, I can’t recall the year of manufacture.

I probably owned the Volvo for less than two months before I traded it for a metallic blue Hondo II electric bass guitar, adding another bill of sale to the Volvo’s growing stack of paperwork. Hondo II was a line of lower-priced electric instruments sold in the 70s and 80s, generally patterned after more expensive guitars. Musical instruments, like cars and motorcycles, frequently came in and out of my life at the time, and  I don’t recall what happened to this bass, but it passed out of my ownership not much later.

Comparing relative historic prices is always tricky, but if we translate late 1980s dollars into 2021 dollars, a $400 Barracuda would be about $972 in today’s money and a $100.00 Volvo would be about $243. Even taking into account the condition of both cars (especially the Volvo), I think it’s safe to say that each would be worth somewhat more than that today. Back then, though, they were just older, if somewhat interesting, used cars.

If we give the Hondo II bass I ended up with an initial value of $100 (given that it was swapped for the $100 Volvo) which would translate to about $243 in today’s dollars. A quick search of eBay shows similar instruments selling in the mid-$200 dollar range, so of all the items in this series of trades, only the bass guitar is worth the same now as what it was then.