Of all the classic muscle cars, none have become more collectible or more valuable than the Dodge Challengers and Plymouth Barracudas produced during the 1970 and 1971 model years. That's despite the fact that these twins were hardly innovative in their specification nor particularly popular in sales. But they were the quintessential muscle cars: handsome and brazen in their styling and overstuffed with iconic features and, yes, gimmicks. But most of all their reputation was part and parcel of the V8 engines under their hoods: 340, 340 Six-Pack, 383 Magnum, 440 Magnum, 440 Six-Pack and, most of all, the legendary 426 Hemi.
Both the Barracuda and Challenger were in production for more than those two years, but neither of them was around for very long. These were two stars that burned bright but quickly burned out.
While Ford's Mustang is generally credited as being the first "pony car" (there is, after all, a reason why they're called pony cars), Plymouth's Barracuda came first. The Barracuda made it into dealers' showrooms on April 1, 1964 — a full 16 days before the Mustang.
The first Barracuda wasn't much more than Plymouth's "A-Body" Valiant compact two-door coupe with a new fastback roof, a huge wraparound glass rear window, bucket seats and some sporty decoration. In fact during its inaugural year the car was known as the Plymouth Valiant Barracuda. And while Dodge had various performance versions of the Dart compact (basically identical to the Valiant) it didn't get the fastback body in any form.
As a Valiant, the first Barracuda was an extremely simple car with the Chrysler Corporation's signature torsion bar sprung independent front suspension and a solid rear axle on leaf springs in the back. Like other Valiant coupes and sedans, the Barracuda rode on a 106-inch wheelbase and stretched out 188.2 inches long overall. The basic structure was a unibody and from the doors forward the sheet metal was carried over from other Valiant models. Other than the roof and badges, the only other significant alteration differentiating the Barracuda from other Valiants was a bar splitting the front grille into two halves.
The fastback roof paid off in added interior space for the Barracuda that was made useful by the presence of a fold-down rear seat. The rear window was fixed in place so the Barracuda didn't qualify as a hatchback, but the trunk lid did rise up to meet that rear window and when it was opened access to the interior was outstanding for the time.
Standard power for the Barracuda came from Chrysler's famously indestructible Slant Six overhead valve engine. In this case the Slant Six displaced 225 cubic inches, breathed in through a Carter one-barrel carburetor and was rated at 145 horsepower. The standard transmission was a three-speed manual with a three-speed automatic optional.
The only optional engine in the Barracuda was a 273-cubic-inch version of Chrysler's small-block family of overhead valve V8s that sucked in the atmosphere through a two-barrel Carter carburetor and was rated at 180 hp. It made for a quicker Barracuda, but that didn't mean it was quick in any general sense of the word.
"Plymouth's new Barracuda is surely a winner if public interest is any indication," wrote Motor Trend. "Everywhere we stopped our Barracuda test car, people bombarded us with questions. It got so bad that we finally started parking at the deserted ends of streets and lots just so we could slip away before a crowd gathered. A more positive indication of the car's future lies in the fact that the Barracuda's production quota has been increased three times since this model's introduction." According to the magazine's first test, the Barracuda took 11 seconds to reach 60 mph and completed the quarter-mile in 18.2 seconds at 79 mph.
Plymouth sold a total of 23,443 Barracudas this first year. Not bad, but nothing compared to the vast number of Mustangs Ford was building.
"Valiant" was banished from its position on the Barracuda's deck lid for 1965, but the car otherwise looked the same. The most exciting addition to the line was a new "Formula S" package that added a heavy-duty suspension, rally stripes and a new four-barrel, 235-hp version of the 273 V8. In Formula S trim, the Barracuda was dang near interesting to drive.
"Fitted with Barracuda's top engine option," wrote Motor Trend in its test of a Formula S, "our test car had Chrysler's excellent four-speed transmission topped off with a Hurst shifter. A 3.55 axle plus a limited-slip differential made our Barracuda able to leap from rest to 60 mph in 8 seconds flat and sail through the quarter-mile traps in a shade over 16 seconds. Its biggest problem was wheel spin. Keeping it at a minimum took some doing, because the willing V8 would climb right to 6,000 rpm and more in what seemed like no time at all."
Barracuda production rose to a solid 64,596 units during its sophomore year.
The 1966 Barracuda got a new grille with an egg-crate pattern, but was otherwise virtually a carryover from '65. Another 38,029 examples were built this model year, which concluded production of the first generation.
The first Barracuda put Plymouth in the pony car game for a relatively small investment. But it never had the glamour of a Mustang and nowhere near the sales success of the Ford. But the pony car wars were heating up with Chevrolet, Pontiac and Mercury all preparing to enter the fray. There was no way Plymouth was going to walk away from the Barracuda.
The second Barracuda wasn't just a Valiant with a weird roof, but a whole line of cars in its own right. For 1967 the Barracuda fastback returned with all-new styling and a rear window that covered far less acreage. There was also a new notchback coupe with an elegantly swoopy roofline all its own, and a new convertible. The three Barracuda bodies directly paralleled the three Ford offered in the Mustang line.
Dodge would continue to make do with performance versions of the boxy Dart, such as the GT. Yawn.
While the all-new styling was an attractive mix of square-cut fenders, a blunt split-grille nose and a sweeping tail, the basic engineering of the Barracuda didn't change. The chassis elements were still shared with the Valiant and there were still torsion bars up front and a solid axle on leaf springs in the rear. In fact the 108-inch wheelbase, unibody structure and most of the engines were all shared with the Valiants, too.
Once again the base power plant for the Barracuda was a 225-cubic-inch Slant Six making 145 hp, which it pushed through a three- or four-speed manual gearbox or a three-speed automatic transmission. The 273-cubic-inch V8 was back as an option and was rated at 180 hp when equipped with a two-barrel carburetor or, in the Formula S model, at 235 hp with a four-barrel.
While the second-generation Barracuda was undeniably attractive, it didn't scorch the sales chart, with Plymouth selling 28,196 coupes, 30,110 fastbacks and 4,228 convertibles during its first model year.
Cosmetically, the 1968 Barracudas were practically a rerun of the previous year with the changes limited to a new front grille texture using vertical slats, slightly tweaked taillights and modified badges. The big news was under the hood.
While the 225 Slant Six still anchored the Barracuda line, the 273 V8 was gone in favor of 318- and 340-cubic-inch small-block V8s and the 383-cubic-inch big-block V8. Inhaling through a two-barrel carb, the 318 was rated at 230 hp, the four-barrel 340 carried a 275-hp rating and the four-barrel 383 produced a full 300 hp. Both the 340 and 383 were available in special "Formula" versions of the Barracuda on any of the three body styles.
"But," wrote Motor Trend in its test of a 383-powered Barracuda, "here's what's important. The 383 engine eliminates air conditioning and, more importantly, power steering — and that additional 106 pounds of engine weight up front and 242 more pounds of car without mechanical assistance make it a two-fisted stormer meant for the slab-shouldered he-man who wants to know what's going on down there." But it was decently quick, with the automatic-equipped Barracuda blasting to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and running down the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 92 mph.
During '68 Plymouth also produced 75 Barracudas (and 75 Dodge Darts) powered by the legendary 426-cubic-inch "Race Hemi" V8. Because radical surgery was necessary to fit this massive engine into the A-body cars (including relocating the front suspension's shock towers) Chrysler never gave any serious consideration to making this generation available with the Hemi as a regular production item. Instead, all these cars were built specifically for racing and were illegal for street use. They were shipped to their owners wearing only primer on their sheet metal and no paint at all on their fiberglass noses. These were the last Hemi-powered racecars ever built by the Chrysler Corporation.
Plymouth produced a total of 45,412 Barracudas during the 1968 model year. That's 19,997 hardtop coupes, 22,575 fastbacks and 2,840 convertibles.
The grille texture was tweaked again for 1969 and the side-marker lamps were now rectangular, but otherwise this year's edition was practically indistinguishable from the previous year and featured all the same engines. But there were changes and evolutions that would set the stage for the big change yet to come.
Plymouth offered two new performance models using the contraction 'Cuda as the trim level's name. The 'Cuda 383 and 'Cuda 340 were powered by the V8s of those respective displacements and were available as coupes or fastbacks. The 'Cudas all featured simulated hood scoops, black body stripes and chrome exhaust tips. The Formula S package carried the same 340 or 383 V8s as the 'Cuda, but came in a slightly less garish trim and still wearing the full name "Barracuda."
It took some tweaking and tuning, but Motor Trend managed to get a 'Cuda 340 to run the quarter-mile in a rapid 14.2 seconds and blitz from zero to 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds. Stunning performance for the time.
Sales sagged, however, with Plymouth building just 31,987 examples. That's 12,757 hardtops, 17,788 fastbacks and 1,442 convertibles. That was the end for the second Barracuda and the start of the legend.
If there's one thing the Chrysler Corporation specialized in during the '70s, it was poor timing — it always seemed to have exactly the product the market didn't want. And that was first apparent with the all-new 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger.
The new Challenger and Barracuda had very little to do with the A-body cars from which previous Barracudas sprang and were based on a new architecture known within Chrysler as the "E-body." Using components swiped from both the compact A-body and midsize B-body cars, the E-body was built to compete against cars like the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang and to do it while offering virtually every engine in Chrysler's inventory. That included the beefy 440-cubic-inch big-block and the near race 426-cubic-inch Hemi V8s. In the muscle-mad late '60s, as the E-bodies were being designed, all this seemed like a very logical and savvy thing to do.
Both the Barracuda and the Challenger were beautiful cars. Their oversize engine bays meant they were wider than the previous Barracuda by 5 inches and wider than the Mustang and Camaro, too. Their long hoods and short rear decks were almost an exaggeration of the pony car style, but still somehow within the bounds of taste. In fact, the styling of both cars was very similar to that of the first-generation (1967-1969) Camaro and Pontiac Firebird with an almost formal roof and drooping deck. There were only two body styles offered: coupe and convertible.
Besides such superficial elements as headlight and grille arrangements (the Barracuda had two headlights, the Challenger four), there was one significant difference between Plymouth and Dodge versions of the E-body: The Dodge was bigger. The Barracuda had a 108-inch wheelbase and stretched out 186.7 inches. The Challenger had a 110-inch wheelbase and stretched out 192 inches.
Both the Challenger and Barracuda were available in a staggering number of trim and option levels. The Barracuda could be had as a base Barracuda, a luxury-oriented Gran Coupe or the performance-skewed 'Cuda. Those trim levels were paralleled on the Dodge side by the base Challenger, Challenger SE and Challenger R/T models. Within all those levels were various stripe and option packages so that the cars could be either brassy or demure according to the buyer's wishes. And both cars were available in a dizzying rainbow of colors including bright green ("Lime Light" at Plymouth) and bright yellow ("Lemon Twist").
Upon their introduction there were nine different engines available, ranging from the base Challenger's and Barracuda's weak 145-hp, 225-cubic-inch Slant Six to the mighty Hemi which was underrated at 425 hp. In between were the 318-cubic-inch V8 with a two-barrel carburetor at 230 hp, a 340-cubic-inch V8 with a four-barrel at 275 hp, three versions of the 383-cubic-inch V8 at 290, 330 and 335 hp, a 440-cubic-inch four-barrel at 375 hp and a 440 wearing three two-barrel carburetors (a "Six-Pack") rated at 390 hp. At midyear a 10th engine, a 340 topped by Six-Pack induction (making 290 hp) debuted in the limited-edition 'Cuda AAR and Challenger T/A models.
Motor Trend tested the '70 'Cuda in 340, 440 Six-Pack and Hemi versions. The acceleration results had the 340 car getting to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, the 440 car scooting there in 5.9 seconds and the Hemi making it in 5.8 seconds. The quarter-mile flew by in 14.5 seconds at 95 mph for the 340, 14.4 seconds at 100 mph for the 440 and 14 seconds flat at 102 mph for the Hemi.
Built for competition in the SCCA's Trans-Am series, the 'Cuda AAR and Challenger T/A both had the high-performance 340, a stiffer suspension, a flat black painted hood with functional scoop, unique rear deck spoilers and side exhausts. While much of the E-body legend surrounds the huge V8s that were available, many argue that the best of the species were the AAR and T/A. Incidentally, the AAR and T/A were both miserable failures as racecars.
With such options as "Shaker" hood scoops, pistol-grip shifters and "Panther Pink" paint, the Barracuda and Challenger are still considered by many to be the ultimate expression of the muscle-car aesthetic. In fact the rarest of these cars — the Hemi-powered coupes and particularly the Hemi-powered convertibles — now change hands for anywhere from $200,000 to well over $1 million in excellent condition.
Plymouth sold a total of 55,499 Barracudas and 'Cudas during this year while Dodge had 84,032 Challengers hit the road.
But by 1971 it was already apparent that the muscle-car movement was fading, a fact that was reflected in the mildly restyled Challenger and Barracuda (the Challenger got a new split grille, the Barracuda a segmented grille and four headlights).
Emissions regulations brought with them drops in compression ratios, which began to strangle engine outputs (the engine's output drop was also exaggerated by the move from SAE gross to net ratings). There were now eight engines offered, starting with the 198-cubic-inch version of the Slant Six at 105 net horsepower and ranging back up to the unchanged 426 Hemi V8 that was still rated at 425 gross hp (but only about 350 net). The 225-cubic-inch six was now rated at 110 hp (net), the two-barrel 318 V8 at 155 hp, the four-barrel 340 at 235 hp, the two-barrel 383 at 190 hp, the 383 four-barrel at 250 hp, and the 440 Six-Pack at 330 hp. The 440 with a four-barrel carb was gone from the lineup as was the 340 Six-Pack since both the AAR 'Cuda and Challenger T/A didn't return for a second year.
Production of E-bodies with the Hemi power plant wasn't great during the '70 model year and it fell even more during '71. This has made them even rarer than the '70 models and consequently that much more valuable to collectors. In fact as this is written, the world's most valuable muscle cars are generally considered to be the 11 Hemi 'Cuda convertibles built during the '71 model year (while there were Hemi Challenger coupes built that year, no Hemi Challenger convertibles were). The last Hemi 'Cuda convertible built, a white one originally exported to France, was bought by Bill Wiemann of South Dakota for $2 million in 2004. He immediately turned around and sold a blue example he owned for $3 million and now claims to have turned down serious offers of $5 million for the white car he bought less than a year before.
A total of 29,883 Challengers were built during the '71 model year and just 17,690 Barracudas and 'Cudas. That didn't bode well for the cars' futures.
The muscle-car era was in full collapse by the introduction of the 1972 models. The convertible body style was gone from both the Barracuda and Challenger lineups, as was the Hemi engine. The Challenger's grille was redesigned once again and now resembled a horse collar that extended beneath the front bumper. The Barracuda grille reverted back to two headlights with the center splitter now looking like a piece of the '71 'Cuda's grille. The tails were also redesigned, with the Challenger getting four rectangular taillights and the Barracuda four round ones.
Sadly, the engine choices had now dwindled down to a mere three. Base cars got the 225 six while a 150-hp, two-barrel 318 and 240-hp, four-barrel 340 V8s were optional. There were two models available in each line. At Plymouth there was a Barracuda coupe and a 'Cuda coupe. At Dodge there was a Challenger and a Challenger Rallye hardtop. That was it.
Sales continued to slide, with Plymouth knocking out 18,450 Barracudas and 'Cudas and Dodge selling 26,658 Challengers.
The six-cylinder engine disappeared from both E-body cars for 1973, but the cars were otherwise very much carryovers from '72. The only immediately apparent difference was the adoption of rubber bumperettes to meet new government regulations. Sales actually increased compared to 1972, with Dodge making 32,596 Challengers and Plymouth 22,213 Barracudas and 'Cudas.
By the time the 1974 models arrived, the muscle era was a receding memory and both the Barracuda and Challenger were marginal products neglected by the company. Practically indistinguishable from the '73 editions, the major change was the substitution of a 245-hp, 360-cubic-inch four-barrel V8 in place of the 340.
Sales collapsed during the '74 model year with just 11,734 Barracudas and 'Cudas produced and 16,437 Challengers. That was it for the E-body platform.
When the Barracuda and Challenger died, few mourned their passing. They had one great year (1970), one good one (1971) and three progressively lousier ones (1972-1974). But with the passage of time their unique personalities and legends would grow. No one could have predicted just how popular they would become decades after their demise.
Dodge revived the Challenger name for the 1978 model year, using it on a four-cylinder coupe produced by Mitsubishi that it imported (it was known as the Mitsubishi Galant Lambda GSR in Japan). Was it a good substitute for the old Challenger? Not really. But it was a solid competitor in its segment. A nearly identical version of the coupe was sold through Plymouth dealers as the Sapporo.
The rear-drive Challenger was a direct competitor to cars like the Honda Prelude, Toyota Celica and Nissan 200SX and comparable in size, with a 99.6-inch wheelbase and a 180.0-inch overall length. The unibody structure mounted a MacPherson strut suspension up front and a solid axle on coil springs in the back. The standard engine was a 2.0-liter, SOHC four making 77 hp. The optional engine was a relatively huge 2.6-liter, SOHC four making 105 hp with vibration tamed by Mitsubishi's then innovative twin counterrotating balance shafts. A five-speed manual transmission was standard with a three-speed automatic optional.
The Challenger was heavy on electronic gimmickry, according to Car and Driver's test. "The minute you get in and turn the key," the magazine wrote, "you're lulled into a relaxed state where small car hardships don't prevail. Instead of an irritating swarm of buzzers, you're greeted by the tinkle of chimes. A console switch whirrs the windows up. Another toggle buzzes the outside mirror into position. The overhead clock silently ticks off the time of day. Cool air and stereo FM pour forth at the touch of a button. As you settle into the Dodge Challenger, you've got more environment conditioners, electronic readouts and servo motors at your disposal than R2-D2. Twisting the ignition key does little to interrupt this electronic peace. More indicators flash on the control panel, but the four-cylinder engine is subdued. It is huge for an inline four at 2,555cc and much longer in stroke than bore. In another age, this combination would automatically bring on the classic hardships for shake, rattle and roughness."
Carried over for 1979, the 2.6-liter engine became the standard power plant for the 1980 model year. A restyling for 1981 brought with it a new, more formal roofline that was enough to carry the car through 1982 and 1983. Then the car disappeared. Few are left on the road today.
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a Dodge Challenger styled like the original 1970-'74 generation appeared for 2008. At a glance, it may seem as if Dodge reused the body shell from "the old days," as the grille, beltline, roof line and character line running along the profile all echo the first Challenger. It even has four round headlights and a full-width horizontal taillight strip.
If you're a serious Mopar enthusiast, however, you'd notice upon closer inspection that the new Challenger is taller and quite a bit bulkier. And indeed with a curb weight of 4,152 pounds (some 500 or so pounds greater than the first one), it is. The wheelbase and overall length are also both up by around 6 inches.
To be fair, the current and more portly Challenger has a lot more in it than the old car — various airbags, stability control, more luxury features and bigger wheels. In fact, the latter measure 20 inches in diameter, compared to the relatively puny 14- and 15-inchers of the old Challenger.
As it essentially uses a shortened version of the Dodge Charger's platform, the Challenger is once again rear-wheel drive, just as a muscle car should be. Initially, only the top-dog SRT8 version was offered, and it just happens to pack a 425-hp Hemi V8. At 370 cubic inches (6.1 liters) the newer big Hemi is some 55 cubes down compared to its burly forebear, yet actually makes more power. (Before 1972, gross — not net — output was given.) A manual transmission wasn't at first available, just a well-sorted five-speed automatic.
With a rapid 5.1-second 0-60 time and a storming 13.2-second quarter-mile, the Challenger SRT8 beats the performance of the legendary 426 Hemi Challenger of the early '70s. Unlike the old brute, the new one actually stops and turns quite well, too. The new Challenger has the impressive quality of feeling smaller and lighter than it is when being pushed on a twisty road. A stopping distance of just 115 feet is likewise impressive, full-on sports car territory.
For 2009, Dodge expanded the Challenger line to include a base SE version and a midlevel but still potent R/T. The SE, riding on 17-inch wheels has a 3.5-liter, 250-hp V6 matched to a four-speed automatic. Moving up to the iconic "R/T" means 18-inch alloys, a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with 370 hp and a choice of five-speed automatic or six-speed manual gearchangers. The latter is fittingly topped with a leather pistol-grip-style shift knob. The muscle-bound SRT8 entered its sophomore year unchanged, with the exception of the newly available six-speed manual gearbox.