Vintage Review: 1981 Plymouth TC3 Versus 1968 Barracuda – Which One Was More Right For Its Time?

 In the past week or so, we’ve looked in-depth at the 1968 Barracuda, as well as reminiscing on the Back To The Future movies, getting us all thinking about how right, wrong or mistimed products can be. So was the 1968 Barracuda just misunderstood and ahead of its time? Or was the Malaise Era such a terrible period for cars that only the most mundane features could make a sale? In their March 1981 issue, Motor Trend took a look at two very different generations of Mopar sporty coupes–a ’68 Barracuda 340 and an ’81 TC3–in a rather unusual comparison test. “They don’t build ‘em like they used to” was the lead in, but what did that mean in 1981?

Initial impressions of “what were they thinking” aside, the comparison actually made some sense. Beginning in 1964, Barracuda was derived from Plymouth’s most basic compact offering, enhanced with 2-door fastback style and load carrying versatility. Ditto the Plymouth TC3 starting in 1979. Why not look at how Plymouth’s approach to transforming a basic economy car into a sporty car had evolved through the years?


Hindsight being 20/20, Motor Trend notes that the Barracuda missed the mark as a Pony Car. Simply put, practicality combined with credible performance capabilities were not valued as much as the high style look of performance offered by the competition. Motor Trend went on to comment that, in contrast to the Barracuda’s conversion from the functional Valiant, Plymouth addressed those style shortcomings with the TC3’s aerodynamic looks and more extensive modifications to the Horizon platform. For the priorities of the time, I’d actually agree that the TC3 was in fact pretty stylish.

Motor Trend was also correct in their assertion that the 2nd Generation Barracuda couldn’t really be considered a success. Total sales for its 3 models years from ’67 through ’69 amounted to 139,983 units, weak for the then-booming segment. Looking at sales for the TC3 from its launch in ’79 through ’81 show that 150,088 cars were sold, fairly decent for a sporty/economy coupe at that time.  Even more impressive is the fact that those sales came during the depths of Chrysler’s financial crisis, government bailout and market share collapse of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Add in the units from the TC3’s twin, the 024, sold at Dodge dealers, and these hatchbacks pulled in a non-too-shabby combined sales volume of 284,583 over the first three years of production.


Left basically unsaid in the text of the article, however, were the most severe—and depressing—differences between the cars. Thanks to government regulations, soaring insurance rates and two oil shocks, the automotive landscape had changed dramatically from the glory days of the late 1960s to the Malaise days of the early 1980s.

Performance took the biggest hit. The TC3 clocked 0 – 60 acceleration times of 12.19 seconds, basically twice as slow as the 340-equipped Barracuda (6.3 seconds).   Sure, mileage was significantly better with the 2.2 liter 4-cylinder in the TC3 compared to the 340 cubic inch V8, and that really mattered to buyers in 1981.   But that efficiency came with a tremendous cost in acceleration. Even the lighter weight of the TC3 couldn’t help, as the Barracuda trounced the newer car in the power-to-weight ratio.

Pricing of the TC3 also came up for criticism when compared to the 1968 Barracuda–though Motor Trend simply looked at sticker price comparisons without taking into account the inflationary impact of the intervening years.  Today of course a few quick keystrokes will bring up an online CPI calculator to view inflation-adjusted prices, a benefit unavailable to the Motor Trend editors in 1981.  So adjusting for inflation, in actuality that ’68 Barracuda would have cost $9,507 in 1981, a full $1,097 more than the $8,410 sticker price for the loaded TC3 that was blasted as being shockingly high.

While there is no question as to which car I’d rather have today (or which one is worth far more), I must grudgingly admit that the TC3 did indeed accomplish its mission. The little FWD Plymouth was unquestionably a better fit for the reduced expectations of its time than the fish-out-of-water Barracuda was for the Pony Car Wars of 1968.