The Ford Mustang is widely credited with launching the “pony car” segment, appropriately named for this trend-setting steed. But two weeks prior to the Mustang’s April 17, 1964 launch, the Chrysler Corporation introduced the Plymouth Barracuda, which quickly became one of the Mustang’s top competitors. While some insist the Barracuda was America’s first pony car, on closer inspection a compelling argument can be made that it was not.
A new segment for young drivers
Sport coupes weren’t anything new when the Ford Mustang made an early debut for the 1965 model year. What was different with the Mustang and similar models was its relatively compact size, featuring a long hood, a short rear deck, and available small V8 engines.
The youth-oriented look and affordability of these models targeted first-time car buyers, who eventually purchased millions of them before the segment eased in the 1970s. Moreover, of all the pony models introduced since the segment rolled out more than a half-century ago, only the Mustang boasts an unbroken manufacturing history.
From Plymouth Valiant to Barracuda
Seventeen days before the Mustang rolled out, the Plymouth Barracuda made its debut. Based on the Plymouth Valiant A-body platform, the Barracuda featured a two-door fastback body. That sporty profile was one of the distinguishing features in a segment that later gave us such models as the Chevrolet Camaro, AMC Javelin, Pontiac Firebird, and the Dodge Challenger.
The original Barracuda shared many components with the Valiant economy car, including its wheelbase, hood, windshield, front roof pillars, quarter panels, doors, bumpers, and headlamp design. The major difference between the two Plymouth models was the oversized wraparound rear window, which gave the Barracuda its sporty appearance.
Even the original engine lineup was identical, supporting the contention of some that the Barracuda was little more than a new Valiant body style. Plymouth also validates that point, as the 1964 model had “Valiant” and “Barracuda” badges fixed to the body, before eliminating Valiant in subsequent years.
From Ford Falcon to Mustang
The similarities between the Valiant and Barracuda are what some sport coupe purists point to when insisting the original Barracuda isn’t a true pony car. But on closer inspection, the original Mustang also shares much with another model, notably the Ford Falcon.
Indeed, when the Mustang was designed, it was derived from the Falcon’s platform, although there are distinct differences in sheet metal, wheelbase size, width and height, along with standard front bucket seats. Further, the Mustang offered a three-on-the-floor manual transmission to the Falcon’s three-speed automatic. Similarities included the Mustang’s standard 200 cubic foot inline-six engine with a one-barrel carburetor (optional in the Falcon), steering, rear suspension, and differential.
The Mustang’s options list was what set this model further apart from the Falcon (as well as the Barracuda), including items which define the original steed best in most people’s eyes – a 271-horsepower V8, four-speed manual transmission, special handling package, limited-slip differential, and front disc brakes. These features, along with unique exterior styling and interior layout differences, underscore that Ford took greater care to separate the Mustang from the Falcon than did Plymouth with the Barracuda and Valiant.
Plymouth Barracuda vs. Ford Mustang
While the Ford Mustang offered incremental changes during its nine-year, first-generation run, Plymouth made big changes to the Barracuda in 1967 and again in 1970.
Indeed, it’s that third-generation model, affectionately known as the ‘Cuda, which codifies Plymouth’s pony car or muscle car credentials. No longer derived from the Valiant, the 1970-1974 Barracuda shared its new E-body platform with the muscular Dodge Challenger. It also brought forward the powerful engines introduced with the second-generation Barracuda, offering further evidence that Plymouth had morphed into a credible Mustang competitor.
The pony car era
Perhaps you weren’t aware the Barracuda arrived at the market ahead of the Mustang. Or maybe you didn’t even know about the controversy surrounding the original’s questionable pony car status. Regardless, cars like the Plymouth Barracuda and Ford Mustang provide us with a snapshot of an emerging segment, one fondly recalled by enthusiasts and collectors alike.