The 1970-1974 Plymouth Barracuda (also known by its high performance ‘Cuda edition moniker) is one of the cars that helped cement Chrysler’s reputation at the apex of the original muscle car era. Revered alongside its Dodge Challenger sibling, the third-generation Barracuda was an extreme attitude adjustment that elevated Plymouth’s original pony car to the next level and closed out the golden age of horsepower as America rode into mid-’70s malaise.
Today, the car is one of the most sought-after Chryslers on the collector car market, a combination of both its cultural cachet and the scarcity of models powered by the 426 Hemi V8 engine, which has pushed up prices for early cars outfitted with the most desirable engine ever produced by Mopar. The final version of the Barracuda was a conceptual leap for Plymouth that coincided with the company’s final years as a thriving, independent brand prior to being absorbed into the Chrysler mothership.
The original Plymouth Barracuda appeared in 1964 as a spin-off of the economy-minded Valiant sedan. In many ways, the Barracuda’s development paralleled that of the original Ford Mustang pony car, which had its roots deep in the four-door Falcon (which was a direct competitor to the Valiant).
Plymouth went with a fastback body style right out of the gate as opposed to Ford’s notchback coupe, and stuck closer to its Valiant roots as compared to the distance the Mustang put between itself and the stodgy Falcon. Although the Barracuda offered a decent package, the public voted with its dollars and the winner was clear: the Mustang’s unique looks made it a winner, with most buyers completely unaware of how much of the Falcon’s mojo it had borrowed.
Chrysler continued to develop the Barracuda’s A-body platform over the course of the next few years, introducing big block V8 engines, adding a coupe of its own, and doing its best to erase its Valiant heritage, but by the end of the 1960s it was clear that a clean sheet redesign was needed if there was any hope of catching up to the rest of the muscle car pack’s popularity.
Big Bad Bruiser
The answer came in 1970 with the completely redesigned Plymouth Barracuda, which now rode on the E-body platform. In typical Chrysler ingenuity, the E-body was based on the B-body that underpinned notables like the Plymouth GTX and Road Runner, as well as the Dodge Charger.
Rather than match the wheelbase of these longer cars, however, it was truncated and fattened up to give the Barracuda (and the same-size Dodge Challenger) a beefier, more imposing look, making it now properly sized to go after rivals like the Chevrolet Chevelle SS in addition to its original Mustang bogey.
The new Barracuda was larger than the model it replaced and looked absolutely nothing like it, which were two major points in its favor among muscle car shoppers. While the car could be ordered with a milquetoast six-cylinder engine under the hood (a version of the unkillable Chrysler ‘slant six’), it was the ‘Cuda edition’s available V8 engines that pushed the coupe and convertible models to the front of the pack.
In addition to the entry-level 318 cubic inch unit, the ‘Cuda benefited from the mightiest tune for Mopar’s 383 cubic inch ‘Magnum’ big block V8, which was good for 335 hp, as well as the 375 hp, 440 cubic inch ‘ Super Commando’ big block. The latter was also offered with a ‘six-pack’ carburetor option that used three two-barrel units to boost output to 390 horses. While these engines were the bread and butter of the ‘Cuda’s high performance aspirations (and had been available, in varying states of tune, with the older version of the Barracuda), it was a pair of less common choices that gained the Plymouth respect on both the drag strip and the race track.
The legendary 426 cubic inch Hemi big block, with its 425 horsepower, was the ultimate Mopar street engine, and when matched with either the ‘Cuda’s three-speed automatic or four-speed manual gearbox it made for a fearsome straight-line competitor. For those more interested in turning a corner than turning in a time slip, Plymouth offered the AAR, or ‘All American Racers’ edition of the car that featured a 290 horsepower six-pack small block V8 displacing 340 cubic inches with a side-exit exhaust, a fiberglass hood, and a suspension package that reflected the company’s efforts in Trans-Am racing. The AAR-specific 340 also featured forged internals and an aluminum intake manifold.
The first two years of third-gen Barracuda production were largely identical, with a serrated grille, fender vents, and dual headlights making an appearance in 1971, alongside a revised list of engine choices that dropped the small block 340 in favor of the most robust big block options. As with most Chryslers, the expensive Hemi engine was an uncommon choice in its final year of production, which makes 426-equipped ‘Cudas some of the rarest on the market. A mere 13 Hemi ‘Cuda convertibles left the factory in 1971, of which only a handful have survived.
Running out the clock
By 1972 it was clear that the muscle car party was winding down, with encroaching government restrictions on emissions, rising fuel costs, and spiraling insurance premiums all contributing to engine downsizing and slower sales. That being said, Plymouth was determined to get its money’s worth from the E-body, which meant that the Barracuda forged forward in an attempt to balance style, performance, and price.
1972 saw return to single headlights for the Barracuda, along with a revised grille that split the difference between the simpler 1970 look and the aggressive ’71 slats. Now available exclusively as a coupe, Plymouth erased big blocks entirely from the order sheet, throwing in a pair of small block V8s (displacing 318 and 340 cubic inches) alongside the never-left slant six. Neither of the eight-cylinders were particularly mighty, as the six-pack was history and the 340 was now good for a modest 240 hp with a four-barrel carburetor (with the 318 dropping to 150 hp). The ‘Cuda was still in the mix, but it was a shadow of its former self and relied largely on styling tweaks to differentiate it from the base model.
Plymouth largely stayed the course in 1973, and by the time 1974 arrived it added a 360 cubic inch V8 good for 245 hp to replace the now-departed 340. By then, the writing was on the wall, and at the end of the model year the Barracuda was eliminated by Chrysler corporate honchos unwilling to flirt with performance in the face of a market that had swung over to fuel misers and compacts.
Still, over its brief four year run the Plymouth ‘Cuda managed to establish an enduring legend as one of the most exciting original muscle cars. Although original big block cars have seen their skyrocket values, later editions of the Barracuda are just as capable of delivering high horsepower thrills with the right engine swapped under the hood, making them just as appealing as projects or restoration candidates for dedicated Mopar fans.
The ‘Cuda was also the high water mark for Plymouth as a brand. After its departure, in short order the company would see its name hijacked for use on captive imports like the Sapporo as well as the in-house, low-buck Volaré, before grinding out the ’80s as just another identical face in the Chrysler crowd of badge-engineered clones. It wouldn’t be until the also short-lived Prowler appeared 20 years later Plymouth would field another equally-exciting vehicle in its line-up.