What if Ford had held off the Mustang’s introduction for a year? What if the Mustang’s styling had been closer to the Falcon it was based on? What if the Barracuda had been marketed more aggressively? Who knows? If things had turned out differently, we could be talking about the whole genre of Barracudas, Mustangs, Camaros, etc. as “Fish Cars” rather than “Pony Cars”!
Expanding the Compact. Plymouth, like their colleagues over at Ford and Chevrolet, had brought out a new “compact” model for the 1960 model year to fight the growing number of imported small cars on the US market. Ford’s Falcon was the most conventional and Chevrolet’s Corvair the most radical (at least to American tastes), while Plymouth’s Valiant was somewhere in between.
Chevrolet soon found they were enjoying particular success with a sporty ‘Monza’ version of the Corvair. Cheap, but powerful, the Monza appealed to a youth market that was only just starting to be recognised in the US; not just in automotive circles, but in other consumer goods’ areas, too.
Noting this success, Ford started development of a Falcon-based sports-style model that would become the Mustang, while automotive lore has it that when Chrysler got wind of this, they fast-tracked the development of a similar car off their Valiant platform.
However, Chrysler’s resources weren’t anywhere near that of Ford’s. The corporation had suffered a rough few years at the start of the 1960s, with their percentage of the American new car market almost dipping into single figures. Plymouth was part of this malaise, too. What had been America’s third most popular car brand – behind Chevrolet and Ford – for most of the 1950s dropped as low as eighth on the industry league table in 1962. Something needed to be done and the introduction of the Barracuda was seen as a small, but potentially significant part of that.
April Arrival. With a limited budget, it was necessary for Plymouth to base much of the Barracuda on the Valiant. That meant the engines, transmissions and other running gear, with further savings achieved by also using many of the Valiant’s body panels.
While most consider the first-year Barracuda from 1964 to be identical to a Valiant below the waistline, there are some differences. For starters, the Barracuda’s front guards feature a sharper ‘V’ crease than the regular Valiant, but with that cost-cutting in mind, those same guards would be applied to all Valiants for 1965.
The grille was also different, while the Barracuda’s signature fastback treatment meant the bootlid was unique, too. Of course, it was that fastback look that set the Barracuda apart from other Valiants, with the huge rear window leading some to refer to the early Barracudas as “glassbacks”. It’s been widely repeated that the 14.4 sq.ft. (1.33sq.m.) rear window was the largest single piece of glass ever fitted to an American series production car. Given the size of some of the wraparound windscreens used on full-size American cars in the late 1950s, that claim seems dubious, but the Barracuda’s rear glass is undeniably big.
After a rapid development and testing program, the Barracuda made its debut on 1 April, 1964; 16 days before the Mustang. From launch, the Barracuda was offered with the Plymouth 225ci Slant 6 engine and three-speed manual transmission as standard, with a push-button automatic and the new 273 V8 amongst the extra-cost options. Based on the 318 V8, the 273 had only been introduced the previous December as an option for all Valiants.
It showed a correct read of the emerging youth market that this engine had been added, along with other performance-oriented accessories, like a 4-speed floor-shift manual transmission, Sure-Grip positive traction differential, heavy-duty suspension and power-assisted brakes. Cosmetic accessories aimed at the sporty driver included custom wheel covers, racing stripes, three-spoke steering wheel and a Hurst sports gear shifter.
Pairing the sporty Barracuda with a more powerful V8 engine seemed a natural fit and customers responded accordingly. Of the 23,443 Barracudas built for the introductory 1964 model year, just over 90 per cent came with the V8 from the factory. The four-speed manual was a much rarer option, however, with only 6.7 per cent of ’64 Barracudas fitted with one. The car pictured is one of that small percentage.
Fish Down Under. The feature Barracuda was purchased by Peter Buckingham last November, but has a much longer history in Australia. Peter believes it was one of the first Barracudas to come to Australia and JUST CARS’ research backs up that claim, but the Queensland-based car buff is keen to actually confirm details of this car’s early life in Australia.
“I’ve had a soft spot for early Barracudas for many years,” Peter explained. “I was looking to import one from the USA when this car was mentioned to me by friends of the people I eventually purchased it from. “The fact that this car has an interesting history, I really couldn’t pass it up as it was not even on the market at that point.”
That interesting history includes Australian ownership history stretching back to 1965 (Peter being only the third registered owner), an Australian RHD conversion and speculation that the car was shown at the 1964 Sydney Motor Show. It’s this part of the Barracuda’s history in particular that Peter is hoping to confirm, so he’s calling on JUST CARS readers to help.
A Sydney Pye? There’s speculation that Chrysler Australia considered importing the Barracuda shortly after its US introduction. The similarity to our AP5 Valiant would have made RHD conversion and mechanical alterations relatively easy, but it’s believed a high sticker price, combined with slow sales for the two-door XM/XP Falcon, convinced Chrysler that the cost of bringing the Barracuda to market locally couldn’t be recouped.
JUST CARS’ research into these early Barracudas points to a handful being privately imported soon after their introduction. Australian Motor Sports & Automobiles magazine featured a freshly-imported and RHD-converted unit in their November, 1964 issue, stating that Barracudas only started reaching our shores in Q3 of 1964.
Broadly similar to Peter’s car, except for having the push-button auto, the Barracuda in that magazine was described as having its RHD conversion done by Sydney-based Bill Buckle – of Buckle coupe and Goggomobil Dart fame. As part of the conversion, Buckle also sharpened the steering ratio, but the tight engine bay clearance meant an older S-Series Valiant steering box needed to be fitted.
The magazine described the car as being offered for sale through Pye Motors in Five Dock, a car yard that specialised in American imports through the 1960s and ‘70s and still exists today, but no longer under that name. AMS&A went on to declare that the car may be the first Barracuda to come to Australia. So, given the usual production and editorial schedules with monthly magazines, that means it would have arrived here no later than September, 1964, but more likely a month or even two earlier.
Given our feature car is also a ’64 model and came from Sydney originally, it’s likely it was also converted by Buckle and may even be the first itself. Its Sydney origins also make the appearance at that year’s motor show in the harbour city a possibility. “A fella up here on the Gold Coast remembers the Barracuda, as he had an RHD-converted Thunderbird at the same show, but it’s a bit hearsay,” Peter says.
This hearsay and speculation may – hopefully – be put to bed by JUST CARS readers who remember both this car and the 1964 Sydney Motor Show. It should be noted that while the car was originally privately owned in Sydney, it spent almost three decades in Victoria from around 1990 prior to Peter’s purchase.
Can You Help? Peter is trying to confirm the early history of his Barracuda and is hoping you can help. If you recall seeing this car at the 1964 Sydney Motor Show, or can recall other details, like when the RHD conversion was done and who did it, contact Peter on 0416 891 373 or get in touch with us at JUST CARS. Email: [email protected], write to JUST CARS, Locked Bag 34, Geelong, VIC, 3220, or call (03) 5225 1333.
Credits: Words: Mike Ryan, Photos: Peter Buckingham