29 April 2014

Overlooked Pony: The First-Gen Plymouth Barracuda Arrived 50 Years Ago

In case you missed the public relations and marketing onslaught from Ford, April marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Mustang’s introduction. Meanwhile, rumors continue to point to the next Dodge Challenger morphing into a model called the SVT ’Cuda.

That last item will give Mopar fans cause to celebrate, even if it misses the 50th anniversary of the “first” sporty car in the segment, the 1964 Plymouth Barracuda.

On April 1, 1964, two weeks before America went crazy for the Mustang, Plymouth snuck a sporty compact coupe, called the Valiant Barracuda, into showrooms. In essence, the new car was really just a fastback roofline on the Valiant coupe, with an enormous wraparound rear window. The Barracuda did have quite a sporty interior, including standard bucket seats. The car’s bulbous back window covered a carpeted trunk area, which could be expanded by folding down the rear seat. But the car had a conventional trunk lid; it was not a hatchback.

The Barracuda was a clever, attractive and low-budget way to field a model in what would soon become one of the hottest segments in the industry. The Mustang easily overshadowed the sporty Plymouth, though, mainly because it looked nothing like the Falcon on which it was based. The Barracuda was clearly a variant of its economy-car parent and was even identified as such by exterior badges.

The Mustang debuted with notchback and convertible body styles and added the fastback in fall 1964. So, if you want to get picky, Plymouth’s fastback beat the Mustang fastback to showrooms.

The Mustang sprang from the gate with a much wider array of options than the Barracuda, and customers embraced the ability to personalize their cars. Mustang offered a standard six-cylinder engine and three V-8 options, with up to 271 hp. The Barracuda offered two versions of the Slant Six and the 273 cu. in. V-8 with 180 hp.

Here’s a bit of trivia that Mopar fans can use to prod their Ford friends: The first Barracuda was officially a 1964 model. Despite the label “1964½” that’s been used for the early Mustangs for so long, all were officially 1965 models. The extended model year helped give the Mustang its huge production figure for 1965.

Here’s another: Two of the early design concepts for the sporty Ford coupe, called the Allegro and Avventura, very closely resembled the production Barracuda, including a huge wraparound rear window.

Plymouth built just over 23,000 1964 Barracudas for its short debut year, but that zoomed up to 65,000 for its first full season in 1965. It’s reasonable to assume that Mustang waiting lists at Ford dealers sent some customers to Plymouth dealers, but the optional Barracuda Formula S performance package also deserves some credit. In typical Chrysler fashion, the comprehensive package combined a new 235 hp version of the 273 V-8 with a suspension upgrade, wider wheels and appearance items. Road testers praised the handling. Oddly, the package did not come with the dual exhaust system seen on most of Detroit’s performance cars.

The Formula S Barracuda proved quick and agile. Motor Trend coaxed its 4-speed test car from zero-to-60 mph in 8.0 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds at 87 mph, which was similar to a Mustang with its middle V-8 upgrade.

The Valiant badges were gone for ’65, and new fish badges appeared, giving the Barracuda a stronger identity. And the automatic transmission’s pushbuttons were replaced by a floor shifter.

For ’66, the sporty Plymouth got the Valiant’s boxy restyled front end. Production fell to about 38,000 in a year when Mustang exceeded 600,000. The public had spoken. A redesigned Barracuda with no Valiant body panels was in the wings for 1967.

A first-gen Barracuda is a distinctive and fun collectible, sure to start conversations at shows and cruise nights. But they can be hard to find and are perhaps not as affordable as one might think. Hagerty’s average valuation for a 1965 Formula S is about $18,000, with top values cresting $30,000.

And the Mustang? Average value for a 1965 fastback coupe with the 200 hp V-8 is $23,700 with top values hitting $40,000.

27 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Vic Los Gatos ca April 30, 2014 at 13:02
    Love them , they were oddballs in High School, I've had about 10, I own an Original Formula S, 65. 273 Commando...Great Car.
  • 2
    Ed Wolfe Doylestown, PA April 30, 2014 at 14:19
    Good thing that the Mustang took roots a lot quicker, or we would be referring to the genera of small sporty cars as "fish cars". I prefer the Mustang being named for the P-51 Mustang and wish that stuck.
  • 3
    Jay Kosoff Ventura, California April 30, 2014 at 15:17
    The pictures are from the 1964 Barracuda Sales brochure. My second car was a 1964 1/2 White Barracuda with a V-8 and 4 speed. I bought it not knowing how to drive a stick--that was fun. Mine had the rear wheel wells cut out for larger tires and wheels, and it had a dual quad on the little 273. It ran poorly--and most of my high school friends would walk past the rear window with bricks in their hands for fun. I kept it for about a year--but always loved that car.
  • 4
    Dennis SF Bay Area April 30, 2014 at 15:45
    My Dad got one of the first '65 Barracudas, a 180HP automatic. The day before it was going in for it's first oil change, it was totaled by a drunk driver while it was parked. I convinced him to upgrade to one of the first Formula S models (an automatic in spite of my pleading for a manual). A couple of years later, I got one of the last '67 Formulas S fastbacks. It is a 4 speed manual, quick ratio manual steering and the big brake option (non-powered discs). It is stock, except for the roll bar, 4 point competition harnesses, modified exhaust system and Konis. I still have it, though it has been parked in my garage since the mid-1980s.
  • 5
    Rodger Canada April 30, 2014 at 16:32
    thought the Avanti beat them all by a couple of years
  • 6
    Phil Denver April 30, 2014 at 18:12
    Got to love these automotive history stories. The GTO, the Mustang, the Barracuda, 1964 must have been a heck of good year if you were old enough to drive. Can't wait to read about that other auto maker whose 1964 new model became their # 2 seller in 3 months. Then would go onto become the King of Muscle Cars.
  • 7
    HOWARD GERBER Baltimore, Maryland 21224 April 30, 2014 at 18:39
    When I was young, I had both the 1964 Mustang and the 1964 Barracuda. The Mustang was faster, but to me, the Barracuda, which I understand was a continuation of the Raymond Loewy-Virgil Exner designs, was more stylish to me, (They also designed the early '53 Studebaker Champion which was the first car I owned and from which the 64 Barracuda took some of its lines).Also, the Barracuda I had came with one of the best and smoothest gear shifts, a 4 speed floor mounted Hurst Shift, which made the car more fun to drive than the Mustang, which came with a floor mounted automatic. Also, with the Barracuda, when the rear seat was folded down you had as much room as a station wagon without looking like one. The rear was long enough inside (well over 6 foot), that you could lay down back there, and that big rear window made it great for watching drive in movies with your girlfriend, but of course that big window allowed others to see in, but only if they walked right next to the car, and there was a hump that made lying down uncomfortable for long periods unless you brought along an air mattress. There were numerous times when I slept back there, but that's another set of stories. I never quite understood the reason for the 273 cu in size of the engine, but I had friends who raced boats in the Pennsylvania rivers and Maryland waters, and they told me that there was an engine size limit in the 1960's, which I believe was 275 cu. in., that prohibited the use of the 283 Chevy and the 289 Ford but because the 273 Plymouth engine was only slightly smaller than the largest size that could be used, they were popular with boat racers. I'll leave it up to your technical people to look into that and to see if that was anything more than a coincidence. I kept the Barracuda for about 10 years and the only reason I sold it was to get a newer car. However, the 64 Barracuda, with the exception of the earlier Valiant front end, is a car, very much like the 53 Studebaker, that was ahead of its time.
  • 8
    David Michigan April 30, 2014 at 21:18
    So how is having a car badged as a SVT 'Cuda supposed to make us Mopar guys happy. I have 2 Plymouth Barracudas, but I will not buy one badged SVT.
  • 9
    Larry Albany, NY April 30, 2014 at 10:39
    I've owned well over 20 different vehicles - new and used - and by far the worst one was the 1964 Barracuda I bought new. It rattled like crazy; had a lousy shifter, handled poorly, was a rough rider, and was impossible to keep cool in the summer. The black rug under the rear window went grey after the first summer due the sun beating down on it. AND, the slant six was SLOW and quite noisy. I was one of the idiots that didn't want to wait for a Mustang.
  • 10
    Bob Waters Connecticut April 30, 2014 at 11:14
    Thanks for being bold enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a great car. My '64 Barracuda, totally original with 31000 miles thanks you. So do I. By the way, it's insured by Hagerty!
  • 11
    Steve Burbank April 30, 2014 at 11:22
    It sure would be nice if the Cuda can be resurrected just like the Challenger. I notice that the Firebird is being released this year, as in the camero was a few years go.
  • 12
    Marc Gottlieb Levittown,NY April 30, 2014 at 12:27
    I bought my first 65 Barracuda this Fall. It's the most refined early Mopar I've ever owned and I get more attention with this car than my Hemi Charger. Smooth quiet ride and the perfect size to do everything. The 273 V8 3 on the tree is a blast to drive. It helps that it only has 35,000 miles on it. I love the car and one of my all time favorites.
  • 13
    Tom Durham, NC April 30, 2014 at 12:29
    When I was in high school and college in the early '70s I had one of the first ones built. It had the date of 4/8/64 stamped inside the door panels. 273 V-8, 2bbl, 4 speed with standard Hurst shifter was a great car for a high schooler. The fold down rear seat and trunk panel also made for some really "fun" dates.
  • 14
    P Johnson Rochester Hills Mi. April 30, 2014 at 12:31
    Hemi under glass , still remember the wheelee's
  • 15
    Terrance Evans clarkston, Mi April 30, 2014 at 12:41
    As I remember, Jerry Thorley was the designer of the first Barracuda and Gene Weiss was the Product Planner
  • 16
    terry rideout Embree.NFLD May 1, 2014 at 17:44
    Great info:keep it comming
  • 17
    Bill Young Fayetteville, NC May 1, 2014 at 07:10
    My dad who was quite conservative bought a 1964 Baracuda 273 pushbutton auto The next year he added the baracudas to the body tastefully he thought gently careesing the valiant name badge. I learned to drive in that car.
  • 18
    Don Workman United States May 1, 2014 at 10:08
    As a former owner of a 1964 Plymouth Valiant convertible, I've always been interested in the first gen Barracudas. My Valiant had a 273 with a push button auto. A friend had the same ragtop with a factory four speed with a standard Hurst shifter. Another friend had the 64 Barracuda in a beige color, that sounds blah, but it was really sharp. I'm glad to see some interest in these, they are really solid fun to drive cars.
  • 19
    Kervyn Mach Huber Heights OH May 1, 2014 at 10:24
    I am editor and publisher of the newsletter of the Plymouth Barracuda/Cuda Owners Club. Would it be possible to reprint this article in a forthcoming issue? We would give full credit, of course.
  • 20
    Jack West Bloomfield, MI May 2, 2014 at 14:44
    Great stuff on all the "50 year olds"! Barracuda,GTO, Mustang!! Hey Hagerty - lets not forget the Olds 442!
  • 21
    danb grosse pointe, mi May 3, 2014 at 07:46
    I remember the first cuda I saw at Raynal Brothers dealership in Detroit. My family own a frame shop and we did the frame work on cars for many auto repair shops all over the city, I was 16 traveling with my father to learn the business. My father was talking to one of the brother about the cuda and as we walk around the car the brother opened decklid and grabbed it and twisted it like a peice of cardboard so it would not close, then twisted it back ----both said the car business was in trouble
  • 22
    Bruce Gridley Rock Hill,SC. May 5, 2014 at 13:11
    Boy ,do I remember this car! I worked at Skinner's Pharmacy in Plymouth,IN. and this was our Rx delivery car. It was fast with the V8 and Hurst shifter. It also was the inspiration for the black 1966 Olds Cutlass coupe my Dad bought. Another fast car,My brother Barry first wrecked it while I was in my first year at Purdue. Fixed up , I later totaled it on the way to Culver Lake in 1967. I also drove around that summer with Denny Wescott in his '62 Pontiac Bonnivelle convertible hitting all the beaches we could find. Good memories and great cars!
  • 23
    Bruce Butler Wichita KS May 5, 2014 at 19:56
    My first Cuda experience was while working for Bob Montana Chrysler Plymouth on Phoenix Arizona in 1965. I was a new car mechanic and was responsible for taking the cars off the delivery trucks and getting them ready for the showroom. Sometimes they needed an upgraded radio or different seat covers or any number of add-ons. When I was done, I would drive the car around the block for a test drive and then park it in the new car lot. All went well with this job until mid-65 when the HEMI-Cuda rolled up on the truck. I got to prepare all of the hemis originally sold in Phoenix until December 66 when I left the dealership for the Army. And I do remember the very first time I fired one up to back it off the truck. Oh my goodness. It just came to life. Needless to say, that was the longest new car test drive ever. One problem with the original cars was the read axle seals. I had to replace both of them right off the truck. Then I got to test drive it. Fond memories all.
  • 24
    NEIL JOHNSON MERCED, CA May 8, 2014 at 19:00
    Proud owner of two "65" formula "s" 273 commando, 4 speeds. First one, after about a year in body work is about to go into paint. What a car !!! Handling, out of the hole and top end....a real joy
  • 25
    Curt Redding Ga. January 12, 2016 at 19:08
    I have a 64 barracud 318, 30 over, can high rise, stall, shift kit . Still not finished. Already spanked cherries out 66 (2+2) muskrat. When thru u mustang drivers better come with the big blocks. They are the only ones with Neuf power to live up to the name. I started with a 69 mustang and got tired of being spanked by GM and Mopar !!
  • 26
    Milo Barden Belen,NM August 6, 2016 at 15:58
    I have a 1964 Barracuda. My Dad gave it to me as a first car. We lived in Barstow CA and I drove the crap out of that car on the 273. It had the floor shift with an automatic. I have to say, that car was worn out. I parked it out at my parents' house in Hinkley, CA where it sat for about twenty years. I eventually brought it here and started working on it. My Barracuda now has a pro-street 360 with all the trimmings. (Braided lines, billet pillows, Mopar Performance everything, etc) I am running an 850 cfm thermoquad( found at flea mkt), headers for the A body, 727 torque flight trans, kept original shifter in the car, front disc/dual master, posi rear w/disc brakes. All of the old 5 on 4 1/4 equipment just had to go. I am running the old Mopar steel cop wheels(15x9) with the covers and beauty rings. My car should be really fun to drive this time around.
  • 27
    Guy Hutchins Mooresboro, NC September 11, 2016 at 06:25
    I don't go to many car shows, but when I do I usually take my 65 Cuda. I've got several classic cars but the little 65 formula S has never failed to bring back a trophy. Probably 20 by now. It's original 67,000 miles and perfect paint always tips the judges score. The only upgrades are disk brakes and AC. Last week I entered two cars, the Cuda and my 69 RS SS (hide-away headlights) off-chassis restored Camaro. The Camaro did well but Cuda got "Best of Show." :-)

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