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The Chrysler Road Rockets - Part 1

When roadholding and brakes were of secondary importance!

By Dusko Mackoski

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The decade of the '60s is remembered for many things, but of the greatest interest to us is the birth of the famous muscle car era. Big horsepower and flash looks were the only design briefs of the time. Australian V8 enthusiasts will have heard of the Aussie horsepower wars of the early '70's. Cars such as the Falcon GT HO, Monaro GTS - and even the six-cylinder Charger - were forged in the octane-fuelled fires of that decade of big cubes and burning rubber. These street legal racers set a legendary performance benchmark. The famous Ford Falcon GTHO Phase 3 could reel off quarter mile times that are considered ultra-quick even some 30 years later...

But this story is about ultimate muscle, and for this we surely must look to our cube-crazy friends across the Pacific - the home of the muscle car, the USA. The scene of the greatest battle for supremacy; the ultimate horsepower war to end all horsepower wars.

Starting in the early '60's and spanning a 10-year period that has been dubbed the "Decade of Power", this era came about in a similar manner to the Australian scene - heavy involvement by the auto manufactures in motor sport and the "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" mentality. One particular type of muscle machine that was forged in these fires was the pony car. Not as big as a fully-fledged muscle car but light and nimble enough to tackle the twisty bits, these included the Ford Mustang, followed by the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, and the Chrysler Challenger and Barracuda twins, to name just a few.

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The first out of the blocks was the Plymouth Barracuda, with the more popular Ford Mustang being released two weeks later. Initially what started out as small-engined sports cars were slowly transformed into a new breed of performance car. The combining of the pony car and muscle car concepts began in the late '60's and reached a climax in 1971. At this point, cars the size of a 1960's Ford Mustang could be optioned up with 429 cubic inch (7 litre) engines. This move resulted in extremely quick machines that could annihilate today's performance cars on the quarter mile while laying down strips of rubber 'til half track! Mid 13 seconds was the norm for the Chrysler Hemi-powered monsters - and that's on street rubber. During this era it was not unheard of to walk into a car dealership, give up your five or so grand and drive out in a race ready machine producing a claimed 500 brake horsepower.

One particular US icon of that era is the legendary MOPAR (the acronym being for MOtor PARts), a designation that became synonymous with automobiles made by Chrysler (the parent company), followed by Dodge and Plymouth.

The Beginning of an Era, 1964

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In order to trace the lineage of the MOPAR pony car, we have to look back to the late '50s and early '60s. Then the American motor manufacturers started to produce smaller compact cars with a European flavour to them. They offered sport styling and handling in order to appeal to the young single men and women that had been buying the European imports. Chrysler had the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Lancer. GM had the rear-engined Corvair while Ford had its 3/4-sized Falcon. These cars were designed and built with economy in mind, but as America moved well into the '60s, the market shifted and performance started to become a major factor.

Chrysler - and indeed all the manufacturers - had always had large high performance cars which were fitted out with huge capacity engines (up to 7.2 litres). But young people liked the smaller cars but wanted the performance of the muscle cars. The manufacturers saw this trend and made plans to develop existing models with larger engines and sports styling. The Ford bosses knew that they had to try to jump the gun, and so the designers were given just 18 months to re-body the Falcon into what was to become the Mustang. News of this mad rush fell on the ears of Chrysler management and in 1962 the go-ahead was given to a fastback Valiant idea that had been sitting on the shelf at Plymouth for some time. But as a result of management's conservative nature, the Valiant redesign was limited to the roof and grille. Thus the Plymouth Barracuda was born.

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The Fastback was definitely the main feature of the Barracuda when released in 1964. It had the largest single piece of glass ever fitted to an American passenger car. The car came equipped with a standard fitment of bucket seats and a 170ci Slant Six producing 101hp at 4400 rpm. The Barracuda's interior was adorned with door-to-door carpeting and an instrument cluster with ample features for its day. Optional extras were widely varied and included power steering, two speed wipers with washer, air conditioning and LSD. The options list was especially long when it came to interior, engine and transmission choice. On offer was a 225 ci Slant Six and a 273 ci V8 producing 145hp and 180hp respectively. No less than three transmissions were on offer depending on the engine choice. And to top it all off, there were drum brakes on all four corners with 13-inch wheels!

Clearly the first incarnation of the Chrysler Pony Car was far less than a galloping stallion. The Barracuda failed to make a significant dent in Mustang sales which by 1966 had reached 1.2 million cars, compared to just 120,000 Plymouths. The Ford pony car just looked so good.

For 1965, Chrysler decided to add some muscle to the Barracuda. The optional Formula S package was introduced with a new V8 at its heart. The previous 273 ci V8 had been reworked with a 4-barrel carb, lightweight dome-top pistons with 10.5:1 compression, solid lifter cam, and dual point distributor to produce a hefty 235hp. The name Commando was given to this much improved power plant that could send the car across the quarter mile in 16.5 seconds at 85 mph.

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But straight-line performance wasn't exactly the car's strong point. It received considerable attention in its suspension, including heavy-duty front torsion bars, stiffer rear springs and anti sway bars. It rode on 14 x 5.5 inch wheels and had the option of front disc brakes. The handling improvements resulted in the car netting the 1965 SCCA rally championship and contributed to its sporty image.

By 1966, the Barracuda was in the third year of its lifecycle and its Valiant-derived looks were becoming outdated. Its popularity was heading downwards and this wasn't helped by the newly restyled Mustang. The muscle car class was back into vogue and cars such as the Pontiac GTO and SS Chevelle were becoming more popular because of their large engines. The trend was also going away from the Euro-inspired styles of 1964-65 and was heading towards an amalgamation of the pony car and muscle car.

The trend was set - the bigger your engine, the cooler you were.

The Battle Heats Up

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As the decade drew to a close and the pony car wars heated up, Plymouth completely redesigned the Barracuda to bring it in line with the other manufacturers. The styling was no longer linked to the Valiant and the chassis was capable of handling a more potent driveline package. The wraparound rear glass was gone and the grill and rear were changed. In addition, there was a slight increase in overall dimensions. The big news for this model year was the inclusion of three different body styles. The new additions were the convertible and coupe, which gave Plymouth a similar product range to Ford and GM.

The stakes were raised again by Ford's fitment of its new 390 ci V8 into the Mustang: the Plymouth engineers had to respond. In typical American fashion, they fitted a bigger engine to their Barracuda. The 'Cuda's still comparatively tight engine bay allowed the fitment of the grand daddy 383 ci Commando rated at 280hp (later increased to 300hp). The 383 ci engine was topped of with a Carter 4-barrel carburettor, 10.25:1 compression and dual exhausts with low restriction mufflers to produce 400 lb-ft of torque at a low 2400 rpm.

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For the redesigned car, transmission choices were again plentiful, ranging from the top shelf floor-mounted 4-speed manual to a 3-speed TorqueFlite column shift auto. These could be mated to a myriad of diff ratios, from 2.93:1 all the way to 3.23:1 with the option of a SureGrip LSD in 3.23 and 3.55 ratios.

Braking is always going to be an adventure when 4-wheel drums are used. For this reason the front discs were standard on Barracudas that had the optional 383 ci V8. This improved fade resistance and made it a little safer to drive the car hard. The car weighed only 1300kg and the 383's weight over the front wheels affected the handling - the lighter 273 Commando was the preferred weapon for attacking hairpins and long sweeping corners. Specifically the coupe equipped with the Formula S package was the lightest and most nimble. For the most part the car received good reviews from the motoring press.

But it seemed that Americans were more concerned with bigger cubes and smaller ET numbers at the drags.

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The 1968 model saw Chrysler introduce the new 340 small block. This engine was a perfect partner for the compact sized Barracuda, and unlike the 383 engine, it could accommodate the fitment of air conditioning. The 340 was a high revving engine for its day, thanks to a dropforged crank, a windage tray and flat top alloy pistons. The compression ratio was 10.75:1 and large sized valves were used, (2.02 inch intake and 1.6 inch exhaust). A dual plane manifold fed by a Carter AVS carburettor and an unsilenced air cleaner topped off the package to produce respectable power figures. The output was 275hp at 5000 rpm and 340 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm - enough to mix it with the Chevy Camaros and Ford Mustangs of the day.

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The next development of the Barracuda story came from Chrysler's need to capitalise on the success they had been enjoying on the dragstrips in the hugely popular Super Stock competition since 1963. Drag racers and enthusiasts had for a long time shoe-horned big block 'Elephant Engines' into the Barracuda. Most famous of all was the Hemi 426 V8 that is almost synonymous with the MOPAR muscle cars. Chrysler decided to produce their own version of these highly modified racers, to be sold to the public - and fitted with the 426 Hemi.

The 'Hemi' name tag is derived from the hemispherical combustion chamber design of the 426's cylinder heads, facilitating angled valves that resulted in better fuel/air charge mixing and hence a more efficient combustion process. The heads also featured top-mounted spark plugs, where most V8's had them side mounted. The engine was developed for racing purposes and was a high compression (12.5:1), high revving, high power monster. The most powerful engine in the MOPAR range with 425hp (318 kW) at 5000 rpm and a tarmac-destroying 490 lb-ft (665 Nm) of torque at 4000 rpm. Keep in mind this is completely in street trim... (Although it must also be understood that the old SAE methods of power rating were much more optimistic than current standards - Ed)

The S/S Hemi Barracuda was built by Chrysler with the assistance of Hurst. A very limited number were produced. The car was stripped of most of its interior trim and the bonnet and fenders were fibreglass. The car featured a huge forward-facing air scoop that may have been copied by Subaru designers some 30 years later. (Note the humour in the last statement...) In reality, the scoop fed a pair of 4-barrel carburettors on top of a Chrysler-designed race manifold. It was then elementary to fit a set of high quality racing slicks and reel of a sub 11-second pass!

The year was 1969 and the line between the muscle car and pony car had been lost. Ford had released a 428 ci V8 powered Mustang for the streets. The key to success was in producing the most gut-wrenching car of all - and to hell with the handling. The limited numbers of the Hemi Barracuda and the fact it was illegal for the streets meant that it was not enough to challenge the opposition on the newly laid 'Big Block' playing field.

The response from Plymouth was to release two new Barracuda models, the 'Cuda 340 and 'Cuda 383. Hence the birth of the 'Cuda name which for years had been hip slang for the Barracuda amongst young men. The new models were based on the Formula S package but had the street racer in mind, as opposed to the grand tourer feel of the S. Packing some serious hardware, such as a Hurst shifter for the 4-speed manual, heavy duty suspension and a 383 V8 that now developed 330hp.

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But surely with the streets filled with big block, 400+ cubic inch pony muscle cars from other manufacturers, there had to be more from Plymouth? And there was, with the release of the big cubed 440 'Cuda. The large engine was borrowed from Chrysler's large muscle cars and shoehorned inside the cramped engine bay. No power steering, power brakes or air conditioning could be had with this monster engine. There was one simple idea behind this car, and that was to pound the boulevards in search of street drags. With 375hp on tap, the 440 'Cuda was able to produce 14.1 second quarter mile times... but by no means should you try to brake and corner at anything but slow cruising speeds! The car was a bit of a pig to drive, as it suffered from bad understeer and was a little too quick for its own braking system, both characteristics due to the 440 big block's large weight being concentrated rather forward in the car.

The decade was coming to a close and a clean slate was about to be used at Chrysler for the '70s incarnation of the pony car. This would be a necessary step, to completely lose the Barracuda's Valiant origins and enable the fitment of the most outlandish - without compromise - powerplants. A fresh new design was coming that would hopefully lure the young buyers away from the other big two manufacturers, Ford and GM. Meanwhile, pressure was being brought against high-powered cars by the insurance companies and safety-preaching lobbyists. When legislators in Washington started looking into the matter, the car companies became worried and began planning the demise of the high performance car.

However the new generation of cars had already been designed and were ready for introduction in late '69. The muscle car had been granted a stay of execution and had a final chance for its moment of glory. 1970 was to be the year all the stops were pulled and the big block became King of the Street.

Next week: The New Generation Barracuda and Challenger are born.

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