It's 50 years ago, on April Fools' Day, that Chrysler in the USA gathered the media to see its new sporty, compact two door hardtop, the 1964 Plymouth Valiant Barracuda. Based on the plain, simple Valiant, the Barracuda featured the largest rear window ever used on a production vehicle at the time and a fold-down rear seat, which added immensely to the car's versatility.
Two weeks later Ford released the Mustang and for a long time the Barracuda lived in the shadow of its rival. The reason is as simple as it was visible. Chrysler cut costs in the styling area and did not differentiate the Barracuda too greatly from the Valiant. Ford however, took a bigger risk and radically reshaped the Falcon into the Mustang. They reaped the reward with 400,000 sales in the first 12 months. The Barracuda managed 90,000.
The Barracuda name came from John "Dick" Samsen, one of the principal stylists of the car. Chrysler executives originally wanted to call it the Panda, but Samsen and his mates believed a stronger name was needed and kicked up a fuss.
The rear window glass was a technological triumph for it suppler Pittsburgh Plate and Glass (PPG). It was the largest piece of glass used on a car at the time, and Samsen says they had a lot of trouble with it. PPG was not able to hold the shape in production and it had more of a bubble shape than was originally intended, according to Samsen. The glass in the advertisements and brochures were photoshopped to look smoother.
Chrysler learnt its lesson with the 1964 Barracuda. The second generation version looked very little like the Valiant and the third generation, made from 1970 to 1974, was a standalone model. Production ended on 1st April, exactly a decade since the start.
These days the 1964 Barracuda has a strong following among collectors and the fabulous one-piece wrap-over rear glass, which defines the aggressive fast-back roofline, attracts loads of lookers at car shows. No longer is it in the shadow of the Mustang. The first generation Barracuda's are relatively rare in Australia. Good ones fetch up to $25,000.
The 1971 Barracuda's, with the massive 7 litre Hemi V8, have now become one of the world's most collectible cars. Only 108 coupes and 11 convertibles left the factory with the big Hemi engine that year. A restored convertible recently fetched $1,300,000 at auction and an unrestored coupe went for $600,000. That's a big shadow to cast!
David Burrell is the editor of www.retroautos.com.au