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.

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Overlooked Pony: 1968-1974 AMC Javelin

Part 1: Ask the Man Who Owned One

The enthusiasm you see in AMC Javelin owners belies the relatively low production of this unique take on the pony car. Introduced for 1968, the Javelin may have been late to the party, but it made a memorable entrance and left a lasting impression.

Peter Patrone can attest to that. Formerly the head of product planning for Mercedes-Benz USA, and today an auto industry consultant, Patrone put thousands of miles on a 1971 Javelin AMX when he was an engineering student at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in the mid-1970s. The school’s cooperative work-study program meant students spent six weeks in school, and then six weeks working at a General Motors facility or office. Living in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the time, Patrone would drive to work at the GM assembly plant in Linden, N.J., and then every six weeks drive back to school in Flint, Mich.

He’d bought the Javelin in 1974 from a seller in Manhattan. The car wore the big, ugly aftermarket bumper guards that Patrone called “obligatory” for New York driving. The 1971 Javelin AMX was pretty rare, with just 2,054 made.

Patrone’s AMX was blue with the white T-stripe on the fiberglass hood. Under the hood was the 360 4-barrel engine, hooked to a 4-speed. The engine was part of the optional Go Package, a performance upgrade that also included dual exhausts, handling suspension, Twin Grip differential, styled wheels, white-letter tires and other tweaks.

“It was a unique design,” Patrone said. “It had cool details, like the exaggerated forms over the front and rear wheels and the wire mesh grille.”

Among Patrone’s favorite features was the cowl induction hood. It was similar to what Chevrolet offered on its muscle cars, but the Javelin’s functional air flap spanned nearly the entire hood.

“As soon as you nailed it, the vacuum dropped and the flap opened up,” said Patrone. “It was right in front of the fresh air ducts at the base of the windshield, so the induction roar came through the car’s ventilation ductwork.”

Hard launches had a downside: “It had axle hop like you wouldn’t believe,” Patrone said, citing a problem that contemporary road tests also called out.

Aside a voracious thirst for fuel on 12-hour drives to Michigan, Patrone said the Javelin was otherwise fairly practical.

“It rode comfortably. And it had a more spacious interior and bigger trunk than Mustang and Camaro,” he said. “I had a footlocker at school that fit right into the trunk.”

Patrone’s Javelin suffered a hit from a red-light runner, and eventually he began taking a plane between New York and Michigan. He sold the AMX to his brother.

“He left it at his house on Long Island. With the salt, heat and humidity, the car deteriorated,” Patrone said. “I still have the AMX badge from the grille.”

Today, Patrone takes a break from his daily driver Mercedes to enjoy a ’91 Mustang 5.0 convertible and a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am with the W72 and WS6 packages.

Part 2: No Mustang Wannabe

Introduced for 1968, the AMC Javelin followed the pony car general formula set by the Mustang, but projected its own identity through a unique and fairly aggressive-looking design, respectable performance options and a roomy interior.

Richard Teague, head of AMC design who seemed to work miracles with low budgets, developed a semi-fastback body design for the Javelin. There was no convertible, but there was a short-wheelbase, two-seat offshoot, the AMX, aimed at the Corvette.

AMC showed the value of its innovation with one small-block engine family that covered displacements from 290 to 401 cubic inches over the Javelin’s seven-year production run. Instead of a specific performance model, the Javelin offered the Go Package upgrade, at first with a 343 cu. in. four-barrel V-8 and also offering the 390- and later 360- or 401-cube versions. The package included dual exhausts, upgraded suspension and brakes, Twin Grip differential, styled wheels, white-letter tires and other features.

Imagination loomed large in Javelin design sessions. In tune with the times, AMC offered a “Mod” package and intense “Big Bad” colors. The 1972 and 1973 Pierre Cardin designer edition had a multi-color striped interior.

The Alabama Highway Patrol used a fleet of 401-powered Javelins in the 1970s. AMC put the Javelin into the SCCA Trans-Am series and did quite well. In 1970, the company built a run of 2,501 Mark Donohue signature editions equipped with the Go Package and a distinctive ducktail spoiler used on the Trans Am racecars. Separate from those, a limited run of 100 commemorative Trans Am Javelins had the Go Package and a can’t-miss-it, red-white-and-blue paint scheme.

Constrained by budgets, Teague’s team pulled off a remarkable redesign on the original Javelin body for 1971. The two-seat AMX was dropped, and AMX became the specific performance version of the Javelin, available with the 360 or 401 V-8 through 1974. The 401 was rare.

The Javelin won back-to-back Trans Am championships in 1971 and 1972. But race wins didn’t seem to help sales, which hovered at about 25,000 per year in the 1970s.

Javelin’s best year was its first, with about 56,000 built. The total made from 1968-1974 came to just about 233,000 — plus some 19,000 of the two-seat 1968-1970 AMX.  Today, sadly, good ones are not easy to find.

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