Curbside Classic: 1968 Plymouth Barracuda Formula 340 – The Worst Selling But Best Pony Car Of 1968

CC 242 128 1200

(first posted 10/14/2015)    If I hadn’t looked it up, I wouldn’t have believed it: Even AMC’s Javelin outsold Plymouth’s 1968 Barracuda. Chrysler totally flubbed the pony car wars; they might as well have just sat it out. But then we would never have been able to savor the best one of them all.

CC 127 013

Why was the Barracuda such a sales bust? It’s all in the basic body proportions. The original Barracuda, which beat the Mustang to the market by a couple of weeks, was very little more than a Valiant Signet with a fastback grafted on. No one could accuse a Mustang of looking like a Falcon with some lipstick, even if it was essentially a Falcon under the well re-arranged skin. More importantly: no one knew there was a Falcon hiding inside.

Mustang 1964.5 -02-03

The Mustang had a completely new body, and most critically, had its passenger compartment lower to the ground and pushed back (at the expense of rear seat room), a lower cowl, and new proportions and styling all the way around. That was the essence of its success: an exclusive sporty personal coupe a secretary could afford. Being Falcon-based, its handling and other dynamic qualities were mostly still rather Falcon-like. But who cared? Certainly not when one pulled up in the driveway the first time and the neighbors looked on with envy.

Plymouth 1965 Barracuda-02-03

The Barracuda was a whole lot more practical, but a rear seat big enough for three homies just was not the way to sell a pony car. To make things worse, the 1964.5 barracuda was technically a Valiant, and the script on the rear trunk lid clearly said so (this one is a 1965).

From the spring of 1964 through the fall of 1966, the Mustang ruled with essentially no competition. The 1965 Barracuda managed 65k in sales, which would (pathetically) be its all-time best year. The ’65 Mustang racked up 681 k; even taking out the early “1964.5” models in that total, it was still 559k units, or almost 10:1 over the Barracuda.

Camaro 1967 Z28_Side_resize

The Mustang’s monopoly was set to expire in the fall of 1966, when both Chevrolet and Plymouth unveiled their new entries in the pony car market. Chevrolet’s ’67 Camaro was a clean sheet car from top to bottom, although its platform would be picked up by the ’68 Chevy II/Nova.

Chevrolet Nova 1968 ss350

That gave the ’68 Nova coupe a sporty stance, with a long hood and a somewhat set-back passenger compartment, which did no favors to its space utilization. The Nova SS coupe undoubtedly stole some sales from the Camaro, as it was the cheapest way to get either the new 350 or the 396 under a hood. It was a formula Plymouth would take to even greater heights of success in just a few years later with the Duster, the car that essentially killed the whole pony car era.

CC 164 002 1200

Despite the drubbing the gen1 Barracuda took, Chrysler once again took essentially the same course with the 1967 version. It was again very heavily based on their revised 1967 A-Body Valiant (’68 shown) and Dart. Yes, not quite as blatantly obvious, but the fundamental similarities could not be (and were not) ignored.

Plymouth Barracuda 1968 br 3

The external skin was smoothed out and plumped up some at the rear hips. But why did Plymouth think it was a good idea to give the Valiant a poor version of the Barracuda grille? Not that a different grille would have made that much of a difference. The ’67-’69 Barracuda had the same shortish hood, upright windshield, cowl height and almost certainly the same windshield as the Valiant.

The one big change was that there were now three body styles; a hardtop coupe and convertible to go along with the Sports Fastback. Looking at the convertible, it’s got “Valiant Signet” convertible written all over it, as there’s just none of the lower, longer hood, rakish windshield to say otherwise. And it’s important to note that there were no Valiant Signet convertibles or hardtop coupes for 1967, meaning that the Barracuda versions really were their direct successors.

Plymouth barracuda 1968 coupe br

The coupe was a handsome car, but again, it screamed “9/10 Satellite”, or just “Valiant coupe”. What it didn’t even whisper was “pony car”, never mind “Mustang”, devoid of the trademark long hood, short deck proportions. Yet despite the model line being tripled in body styles, the new ’67 Barracuda was a dud. Yes, sales picked up a bit from the dismal 38k sold in ’66, up to 62k, but that was still below the ’65. And for 1968, that dropped back to 46k.

AMC Javelin profile-vert

If someone had asked me which of the ’68 pony cars was the lowest selling, I would have said “Javelin”, and felt pretty comfortable with that guess. Not until I looked it up for this article did I realize how wrong that guess would have been. The ’68 Javelin outsold the Barracuda by 10k units (56k total), and it only had one body style.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the 1970 Hornet (lower) also shared a fair amount of basic body structure with the new 1968 Javelin. The Hornet’s wheelbase was one inch less, but their front and rear tracks are the same, and that likely also applies to key inner structures of their bodies/platforms. I saw it the day the Hornet came out, what with its obviously similar rear-set rear wheel, which gave the Javelin a very distinctive look as well as a roomy Barracuda-style rear seat. But in the front ends of these cars there is undoubtedly a relative greater difference, with the Javelin’s front wheel set a bit forward, and a lower hood line. Poor little AMC was able to give their pony car more differentiation from their compact sedan than Chrysler. And the results were in their sales.

And like the Camaro and Nova, the Hornet followed the Javelin, which made both the Camaro and Javelin unique for their intro year (or two). The Barracuda never had that.

CC 242 145 1200

The Barracuda is analogous to the Opel Manta, which also donned a more curvaceous skin and semi-fastback on the Opel Ascona’s  body structure, whereas the Ford Capri went the Mustang route, and cleaned up in sales. But in both cases, they’re certainly not without their visual charms (well get to the mechanical ones shortly). The Barracuda’s new fastback roof was of course an improvement over the fish bowl of its predecessor, and makes for tasty view from the rear.

Rambler Tarpon sketch

It’s not exactly an original, and I could probably spend half the night finding previous concept (and real) cars all over the globe that have used some variation of the theme. One very obvious one is this sketch by AMC’s design department (possibly by Dick Teague himself), from the 1961-1963 era, as one design direction considered for the 1965 Marlin. They should have gone that direction instead of the pathetic design they finally cobbled up. The similarities to the ’67 Barracuda are so strong, it makes me wonder if someone from AMC’s design department got a job at Chrysler in about 1964 or ’65. Two big sport fish.

Of course, that same roof did eventually re-appear on the 1970 AMC Matador and Ambassador coupes.

CC 242 142 1200

The interior of the Barracuda is a very attractive space, with the last hurrah of Chrysler’s golden age of interiors from the mid sixties. Lots of brightwork, and done in a way that exudes quality, considering its Valiant roots. But once again, it doesn’t quite exude “pony car”, as both the Mustang and Camaro had cockpits that accentuated a feeling of lowness and with a sports car flavor, unlike the continuous dash structure of the Barracuda, so obviously borrowed from the Valiant, save the different gauge cluster and a few other details.

CC 242 152 1200

The rear seat was as roomy as its predecessor’s and the combination of the fold down seat and removable partition to the “trunk” made for a very practical pony car, with a seven-foot long cargo area that could still accommodate two in a pinch. Ask me how I know. It essentially was a hatchback without the whole rear window opening up too. Or a station wagon with a sloping roof.

CC 242 149 1200

The sitting and driving position is of course more upright, and the visibility was generally better over the shorter hood and through the taller windows. Shall I say “Valiant like” for the last time, as it’s getting a bit old.

Since we’re behind the wheel, it’s time to start talking about the driving experience instead of the visual one. Needless to say, Chrysler products had a well established rep for being generally better handling than their competitors. But the compact A-Body platform’s lead over its competitors was even greater than the larger cars. And for 1967, the chassis received some further improvements. The A-Bodies understeered less, had more composure, and were just all-round better at coping with the challenges beyond what the typical Falcon or Chevy II owner was likely to ask of it.

CC 242 135 1200

And those capabilities were increased very substantially in the Formula S versions, which came with a heavy duty suspension, firmer shocks, and a stabilizer bar. Disc brakes were optional, although the standard 10″ drums were better than average.

CC 242 136 1200

Wheels were stronger and wider, and shod with the new Firestone “Wide Oval” tires; red line E 70 x 14s according to the brochure, although these are F70 x 14s, looking very original nevertheless.

Barracuda 1968 wheel covers

I’m also not sure whether these styled steel wheels are original, as the ’68 brochure only shows these four wheel covers available. But they might have been a mid-year intro; undoubtedly the Camaro’s styled steel Rally wheels forced Plymouth to make an effort to at least counter that design trend, even if there was nothing they could with the basic car.

CC 242 130 1200

Let’s not avoid this car’s best asset any longer: the new 340 CID (5.6 L) Commando V8. But before we indulge ourselves in that, we need to note that the Formula S also was available with the larger 383 Commando. But it was a mistake to order that heavier and poorer-breathing big block; not only did it adversely impact the Formula S’ class-leading handling, but it simply wasn’t any faster. And to add insult to injury, power steering was not available on the 383. This platform was never designed for the B-block V8s, and shoehorning the 383 into the Barracuda meant that there was no room for a power steering pump. The 383 was rated at 280 hp in 1967, and 300 in 1968.

Plymouth barracuda 1958 340 eng

The 340 actually appeared late in the 1967 model year, and it was a gem. An evolution of the 273/318 LA engine, the 340 was blessed with superbly breathing “X” heads, with large ports and 2.02″ intake valves and 1.60″ exhausts. It was crowned with a high-rise dual-plane intake manifold and a four-barrel Carter AVS carburetor. Motivating the valves were two different hydraulic cams, an aggressive 276/284-degrees duration version for the four speed, and a slightly milder version for the automatic. The fact that both versions were rated at 275 gross hp (@5000 rpm) is a tell-tale that this number is a tall tale.

CC 242 133 1200

NHRA upped that rating to 290 for stock drag race classification, and the insurance industry slapped a 325 hp number on it. The fact that it could outrun all matter of big-block cars made it clear that all of those numbers might still have been low. This engine is considered to be the finest small block V8 of the era; certainly the Z-28’s 302 (rated at 290 hp) made more power at its top end, but it had a radical mechanical cam that made little torque and power in the lower rev band, negating much of its prowess on the race track. The 340 was unquestionably the best all-round V8 of the pony car class of its time. It was tractable down low, yet would eagerly turn 6000 rpm at every shift without complaint.

CC 242 154 1200

I vividly remember reading the superlatives heaped upon it in the buff books. The combination of the excellent chassis with the 340 made it into a formidable giant killer with the ability to shut down not only the direct competition, but the best cars Europe had on tap too. A Formula 340 Barracuda four speed was right at the top of my wish list in 1968, along with the new BMW 2800. And they’re both still up there. Nothing has diminished the appeal of this exceptional car; without question the most capable American car of its time.

CC 242 146 1200

Which puts it in the same league as the 1965 Corvair, another dud in the marketplace. I called that “The Best European Car Ever Made In America“.  Which makes the Barracuda Formula 340 the best American Car Made in America; well, at least in its time, which was short.

Camaro 1970 _SS_350_Rear_1

The new 1970.5 Camaro’s design has many influences, but there’s undoubtedly more than a bit of the Barracuda’s fastback there. The Camaro, with its new LT-1 350 V8 and superb handling basically had the Barracuda Formula 340’s torch passed to it, as the best all-round American sporty car of its time. It quickly displaced the Barracuda on my wish list, although today I’d give the ‘Cuda the nod.

Plymouth Barracuda 1970 blue

Too bad that the new Camaro wasn’t the 1970 Barracuda; things might have turned out rather differently. Instead, Plymouth went with a bigger, heavier car that was basically a shortened mid-size Satellite, and aped the 1969 Camaro’s design. Ironic, isn’t it. The 1970 Camaro was a better 1968 Barracuda, and became an evergreen hit, and the new ‘Cuda was a bloated ’69 Camaro, and quickly died on the vine.

CC 12 116 800

But all was not lost. The Barracuda Formula 340 reincarnated in the form of the Duster 340. It too was just an adaptation of the Valiant, but it didn’t even pretend to have a different front end. Its interior was black and dreary, but it was dirt cheap; there was nothing that could touch it in its performance-per-dollar formula. And with it, Plymouth basically killed the performance pony car market. So Plymouth had the last laugh after all, sort of. Those that wanted a stylish coupe in the 70s moved into the mid-size sector, and those that wanted a ball looked no further than than the Duster 340.

CC 242 134 1200

Once again, Chrysler was bailed out by its Valiant/Dart A-Bodies. The 1967-1969 Barracuda may have missed the mark in the marketplace, but they will always be revered as the finest examples of that versatile and evergreen platform.