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Challenger for 2008: On time or too late? (Chrysler in the muscle car era)

Copyright © 2006, Curtis Redgap, Orlando, Florida

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Chrysler Corporation was the first on the market with a car that was later defined as the "Pony" car segment. The Barracuda was a first strike against Ford and their upcoming Mustang, which was hardly a secret. Ford had judged correctly that since no cars existed within that niche, why not let a few "secret" photos and spy shots slip out to the public? Rumors about the car had first come to the surface within Detroit circles as early as 1962. It was free publicity while it garnered a lot of anticipation from Ford fans everywhere. Speculation ran very high which made many salivate for the actual car.

Across town in Highland Park, Chrysler engineers were not as asleep as they may have seemed. Fresh off the triumph of putting together the big 1962 Dodge 880 to save that division's bacon, some of the borrowed staff at Plymouth Division, who had assisted Dodge, were examining ways to beat Ford to the punch and get a "pony" car out there first. The thought process was that whoever is first is usually the one that is remembered best. Gauging the hot flying rumor mill about Ford's car, Chrysler wanted a piece of the market that Ford was ginning up.

With its usual very limited budget available for a totally new model, Plymouth engineers and designers looked to an existing chassis from which they might build a sporty car of their own. From information that had been acquired from various sources, including a substantial budget for private investigators, Chrysler knew that the Ford had a wheelbase of about 108 inches. They were also aware that it would have a 6 cylinder engine with a small V-8 offered as an option. Transmission choices were assumed to be a standard fully synchronized 3 speed manual, a 4 speed manual and 2 automatic transmission choices of Ford-O-Matic or Cruise-O-Matic. Creature amenities were the usual with power steering, brakes, radio, and even air conditioning. Chrysler was aware that the Ford pony car was built off the lowly Falcon chassis, with Falcon drive train components, suspension, brakes and all the like.

It didn't take much searching for Chrysler to cast its eyes on the Valiant. Introduced in late 1959 as a 1960 model, the Valiant, in its first year, was cast as a standalone model. However, with the sagging sales of the 1960 Plymouth, with its oddly designed cars, marketing and sales realized that had Valiant's 194,292 sales been included in the total 1960 sales numbers for Plymouth it would have made its traditional number 3 slot in the industry.

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The first three years of Valiant styling had reflected Virgil Exner's desires to change the course of the entire Chrysler line. Based off a totally secret project that Exner had set up for himself, called the "XNR", the Valiant of 1960, 61, and 62, seemed a bit different than convention. Yet, the style has endured well, and is today seen as a milestone event, not only for Chrysler, but for the industry as a whole.

It didn't take very long for the model designation for Valiant to be tagged as the "Plymouth" Valiant, where it remained from then on.

The Valiant was Chrysler dead on. Terrific engineering went into the new model, and it wasn't without some innovations of its own that were soon adapted across the board. The Valiant was the first with an electrical system alternator instead of a direct current generator. The Torqueflite transmission had been adapted for small car use, with an aluminum case saving some 60 pounds of weight with no reduction in reliability. The Valiant also had the first internal transmission parking on the main shaft in a MoPar. Mechanical fingers engaged the shaft, preventing it from turning. They were actuated by the driver with a lever alongside the selector push buttons for the Torqueflite to the left side of the driver on the dash. It was unit bodied, new for 1960, and across all model lines, except Imperial. Otherwise, classic Chrysler. Torsion bar suspension in front, leaf springs in the rear. The brakes, while being drums, were the new Bendix design, replacing the duo-plane that Chrysler had utilized for many years.

A new engine also graced the Valiant in the form of a 170 cubic inch straight six, inclined to the right side of the car 30 degrees to assist in lowing hood lines. It came in two levels of power. The first was the standard 101 horsepower, while the optional, and only available to the Valiant was a Power-Pak that generated 148 horsepower. Garnering the Valiant some substantial small car NASCAR wins.

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In 1963, Chrysler redesigned the Valiant. Improving on the top of the line Signet, Valiant offered even more creature comforts in 1963. The standard transmission was now fully synchronized in all three speeds.

Otherwise, the new design was still the same chassis, reflecting typical Chrysler Corporation engineering at the time. Design and quality issues were starting to be put behind. New across the board, for all Chrysler built cars, was a 5 year, 50,000 mile warranty. Torsion bars, Torqueflite, Bendix brakes, and now two slant six engines. The 101 horsepower 170 ci model, and the bigger, 225 ci, 145 horsepower six cylinder, that had been introduced in 1960 across the Plymouth and Dodge "big" car lines. There were, however, changes ahead. Be that as it may, the 1963 Valiant sold in record numbers, garnering some 225,156 sales. Of that number 30,857 were Signet Hard top coupes and 9,154 Signet convertibles. It raised the eyebrows of a few in Highland Park. In light of the continued strong rumors of the Ford sporty car, more than a few at Plymouth looked at the 40,000 units sold as Signets. Without much preamble, it was decided to "sporty" the model up even more.

Of course, it may have had something to do with Chevrolet introducing the Monza in its small Corvair, and definitely with the 1963 ½ Ford cars, which had performance image all over them. The Falcon got a 164 horsepower V-8 and the new Sprint model, along with a sporty hard top, bucket seat rendition and a manual floor shifted 4 speed transmission.

For 1964, the Valiant style wasn't changed, except for minor face lifting details. Mechanically though there were some new items. Chrysler had a new a V-8 engine aimed at the small cars. Taking note of the 1962 introduction of Ford's line of small V-8 engines that were first to utilize "thin wall casting" techniques, Chrysler engineers followed with the "LA" V-8 with 273 cubic inches. With a 2 barrel carb it put out 180 horsepower. It was available in the Valiant as a mid year option. As well, along with last year's fully synchronized standard 3 speed, a new Chrysler designed floor shifted 4 speed was available across the board on any engine. Quietly introduced at the same time, was Chrysler's "sure grip" rear end with a 3.21 gear ratio. It was just a preamble for the introduction of the Barracuda.

Joe Strum was the product planner for Plymouth at the time. He realized that he needed a "sportier" image car. Without a doubt, the Valiant was an ideal car for everyone across America, appealing to all ages in all spectrums. He had not really targeted the "youth" market, however, most of the Barracuda sales ads featured decidedly very youthful people.

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Introduced on April 1, 1964, the Barracuda was an exciting addition to the Chrysler line up. At first look, it was obvious that the front was based upon the Valiant sheet metal and chassis. By utilizing a hybrid design approach, tooling costs were cut in half. Development issues were also set aside. What set the Barracuda apart was the fast back design. Almost entirely made up of glass at the rear roof line, the glass area encompassed 14.4 square feet! It was developed quickly through a collaborative effort between Plymouth engineers and Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Marketing labeled it a "fastback." Wags looked at it and called it a "fish tank."

Without a doubt, the Barracuda stood alone on styling. It wasn't a bad design, just sort of unexpected. Perhaps if the front end had been restyled so as to resemble its own kind of model, it may have come off slightly different. Unfortunately, it just said Valiant all over it. That didn't lead to where Plymouth had hoped it would go. Valiant stood for economical, family type transportation, which was not very exciting, nor youthfully appealing. In other words, the image didn't come off.

Further hurting the Barracuda was the lack of an open top model. The convertible style would have to wait until a restyle that was for the Barracuda in 1967.

While the sales season for 1964 was short, April to October, Barracuda garnered 23,443 units. The Ford Mustang was introduced on April 17, 1964. It saw 126,538 units sold in the same time frame.

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1965 proved to be more of the same. The Mustang was selling so fast, Ford could hardly keep up with demand. At the end of the 1965 model run, 559,451 Mustangs had hit the market. Barracuda garnered 64,596 1965 models. Even with increased power in the 4 barreled 273, Barracuda paled in comparison to the Mustang. Ford also surprised the Chrysler marketers with the inclusion of the 289 ci V-8 with up to 271 horsepower available in the Hi-Po range. It wasn't a rocket, but it was quick, sounded tough, and had good suspension bits and brakes to go along.

1966 was not a good time for the Barracuda either. It tried to soldier on nearly unchanged, though marketing tried to make some distinction from the Valiant by designing a separate dash board for the Barracuda. Meanwhile Ford partnered with Carroll Shelby to produce some awesome Mustang performance cars that were leagues above whatever MoPar had to offer. Mustang sales were 607,568 in 1966. Barracuda sold 38,029 units.

Over at Dodge, the engineers were happy that they didn't take the Barracuda, when management offered it. Chrysler thought perhaps Dodge might want its own version to compete against the Mercury Cougar. They didn't. Instead they chose to build a version of a sporty car on their 117 inch Coronet wheelbase. Introduced in 1966, it was the first version of the Charger. As well, Dodge chose to work up a new size Dart for 1963. Dodge stretched the 106 Lancer wheelbase out to 111 inches and dubbed it the Dart, killing the Lancer nameplate. Styling was a bit different, which probably didn't appeal to potential youth market buyers like the Mustang did. In itself, however, the Dart wasn't a bad performer, but it only took 34,227 sales in the GT model, which consisted of a hardtop coupe and the all important image car, the convertible. The 1964 GT models sold 49,830. A mid year introduction of the 273 ci V-8 helped performance, although it wasn't a powerhouse. In 1965, the GT garnered 45,118 sales.

The problem was the image. Dart wasn't exactly a "sporty" car in the sense that the Mustang was defining that market. 1966 saw Dart sell only 30,041 units. Off by some 35% from the previous year, even with the V-8 option. Charger sold 37,344 1966 models.

However, Chrysler was not totally asleep. Help was on the way for 1967. Plymouth took the Barracuda and restyled it with a focus on European styling trends. It was a real sharp looking car. Additionally, Plymouth added two other models to the fastback coupe. A convertible, and a two door hardtop coupe. While the three models had their distinct persona, they all reflected the common Barracuda design.

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The Barracuda now represented a totally separate line for Plymouth, sharing no sheet metal with the Valiant. Four engine options were offered in 1967. The 170 ci six was gone, replaced by the 225 ci 145 horsepower six. Two versions of the 273 V-8 were sold, with 180 and 235 horsepower. Available only in the Formula S model was a 280 horsepower 383. The three speed standard transmission was available across the board, but most performance enthusiasts would be ordering the 4 speed floor shifted manual or the Torqueflite. Even with its glamorous restyle, the Barracuda did not cause any rush to the dealers. The hardtop coupe sold 28,196 editions. The convertible only got 4,228 takers, while the fastback that started it all garnered 30,110 sales. 62,554 units paled in the face of Mustang sales that amounted to 472,121! 1967 Mustang convertible sales were 44,808, which amounted to 10 times what the Barracuda sold!

You also have to factor in the newly introduced 1967 Chevrolet Camaro, which began a hot selling streak right off with 220,917 in the first model year. Not to be outdone, Pontiac introduced the 1967 Firebird which got 82,558 first year models to owners. Presuming that these 300,000 or so Pony car enthusiasts did not have the two GM cars to choose from, safe bets would say that the Mustang would have garnered maybe 50% of those sales, while Barracuda might have made another 10% more.

Bleakly, Chrysler realized that the Barracuda, the Valiant, and the Dodge Dart were not the "pony" car images that the youth was seeking. Camaro, Firebird, and the Mustang were giving Chrysler a drubbing. Executives determined that they would have to totally redesign the Barracuda, and give Dodge a Pony image car. However, the long range planning for the corporation set this back to 1970 at the earliest. In the meantime, the Plymouth Barracuda and the Dodge Dart would have to soldier on, doing the best they could against the new Pony image cars from Ford and General Motors.

In was an unfortunate choice. Chrysler should have set out to create the new pony cars right away, and in fact, should have sought to rush them into production.

Life is in cycles, so is business. A whole lot of factors were coming together that the automotive market seemed not to take heed to. For Chrysler it would not bode well.

Emphasis was shifting from the sporty car image to pure muscle. Chrysler had brought out the 426 Hemi engine for 1964. It was a pure racing effort and not meant for street applications. More for NASCAR placations than savvy marketing efforts, the 426 Hemi had been slightly "detuned" for 1966, and was available as a production item for street applications. It was just awesome. However, in the pony car arena, Chrysler had nothing that would accept the Hemi without modifications, and as such it stuffed the engine bay so that things like power steering, air conditioning, power brakes, and other amenities sought by customers who were not going to race the smaller pony cars, would not fit. Something needed to be done.

The final rendition of the Barracuda for the 1969 model year yielded one of the best handling cars Detroit ever rendered, yet the 340 Formula S was quiet, and not in the forefront. Instead Plymouth pushed the 'Cuda 340 and the 'Cuda 383. These models were inspired by the sales success of the Plymouth Road Runner. In that they were aimed at street racing and stoplight Gran Prix contests. The 340 was virtually unchanged from 1968. The 383 however was bumped up to its regular rating at 330 horsepower.

The theme continued when in April 1969, Plymouth released the 440 'Cuda. Shoving that engine into the front of the 'Cuda turned it into a street rocket making a 0 to 60 mile an hour sprint a 5.6 second experience. If you kept your foot on the accelerator, you would run past the timing lights in the ¼ mile at 14 seconds and 104 miles an hour. You could not get power steering, brakes, (discs) and a four speed. Only the Torqueflite 3 speed automatic was offered. It made the 440 equipped 'Cuda a handling difficulty with plenty of understeer. The drum brakes were not the most powerful to stop with either.

On the other hand, the Formula S package caressed the road. It was completely refined, in tune with the total power of the engine and the chassis. It had recalibrated suspension pieces, along with larger tires, powerful disc brakes, a Hurst shifter for the 4-speed (unless you choose the automatic), as well as low key trim bits if you wanted them to turn it into a real sleeper. HOT ROD magazine took a 340 Formula S through the ¼ mile at 14.32 and 99.7 miles an hour. (Note this is essentially the same time recorded by the current Dodge Charger 5.7 Hemi.) It was a car for people that understood and appreciated sophisticated handling. It didn't sell that well however, with 325 hardtops and 1,431 fastbacks so equipped. Too bad, because that chassis could have underpinned a lot of other cars had it been noted and kept current, putting the allegations of ill handling smaller MoPars to rest once and for all.

Development for the new Barracuda actually began in 1967. The emphasis was from sporty to muscle car. Muscle was at its zenith then, with the 1970 models near the end of the line for most. So, then in 1970, the new "E" body models were introduced. Engineering had an absolute mandate that any and ALL engines built by Chrysler had to fit into the engine bay, and the usual amenities had to be fitted. Chrysler was determined that no one else would have a more potent line up of engines.

Once the Plymouth design group and engineering had finalized plans for the basic 1970 Barracuda platform, someone decided to give the same thing to Dodge. Initially, the reason was stated so that Dodge could give competition to the Mercury Cougar. Dodge had not been exactly silent over its lack of a pony car, realizing that they had essentially missed out on the pony car market profits. Once again, Plymouth built something that Dodge liked directly and it was handed over on a silver platter. Of course, Dodge costs were lower, because they got to share a lot of the chassis pieces with Plymouth, who had already developed it.

Design wise, while the two cars looked the same, they were not. In fact, just to show how the company operated then, none of the sheet metal matched either car. Of course, engineering claimed that it wasn't that much of a big deal. In fact, Chrysler used to make different floor pans for different exhaust systems on the same make of car!

With the two cars out in the paddock where the designers viewed the in clay proposals, Dodge decided that they wanted their design to "look" longer. They stretched the original 108 inch wheelbase of the Plymouth to 110 inches. The exterior dimensions were also marginally larger. Plymouth engineers were also working on getting rid of the shiny bright bumpers. They really wanted the urethane bumpers that General Motors had introduced. However, development money for totally urethane bumpers was out of the question. But, Plymouth at the time, had some pretty heads up folks in their engineering department. The Elastromeric bumper was available on the 1970 Barracuda as an option. By taking high density foam and molding it over unchromed bumpers, then painting it body color, it had all the appearance of the Endura bumper over at GM. It cost substantially less than the GM units, and was also available on the rear, while the GM cars were not.

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The new "E" bodies came in six different styles with 9 available engines, which covered the gamut from the 225 slant six to the tire melting 426 Hemi V-8. The problem came about with the large V-8 engines in the cars; they were nose heavy. They were not good handlers when so equipped. Most car enthusiast magazines heavily panned the cars for poor handling, and unfortunately, not strong braking either. The true performance car which also had superb handling was the 340 equipped cars. In many ways, the 340 equipped cars were the true "pony" cars of the "E" bodies.

Of note, Chrysler had been eyeing the Trans-Am racing series where Ford, GM and American Motors were competing with their pony cars. Acting quickly, Chrysler developed a 340 equipped 'Cuda and Challenger to go racing. Keith Black, long a Chrysler engine developer for racing circles, built a 340 that met the 305 cubic inch limit, making 460 horsepower, while turning 8,500 rpm. To meet the homologation requirements, Chrysler built 2,400 Challengers, and Plymouth built 2,724 Cuda models. Dubbed the AAR which stood for All American Racing, which was operated by Dan Gurney, the cars did not do well in racing; however, the street models were superior handlers, and represent the pony of the pony car within Chrysler.

Plymouth was beside itself with anticipation, expecting the Barracuda to skyrocket in sales, especially since it had knocked Pontiac out of third sales position, finally. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. Only 55,499 Barracudas were sold. Wrong car at the wrong time. Over at Dodge, 83,012 Challengers were sold in 1970. However, the strong sales of the Charger dropped from 89,000 in 1969 to 50,000 in 1970. Was there a correlation there that Challenger stole the Charger sales? Difficult to assess.

Overall, Chrysler realized that the era of the sporty muscle type car was at an end. They had gambled and lost. With the introduction of the 1971 models, some juggling was already taking place. The safely lobby, car insurance companies, and other public officials, including law enforcement officials, were heavily criticizing the high performance model cars. The cars themselves were not of great quality in their build. The doors were the largest in the entire industry. Trying to shave weight, the doors were made without thought to strength; they wanted them light. The long panel of metal inside and the plastic covering made the door "boom" like a metal drum. It also closed without that solid sounding "thunk" that people come to expect from a strong vehicle. They were also heavier than anticipated by the company, thereby lacking the sort of high level of performance that was expected of them. All this could have been corrected, had the corporation had a mind to do it. The low sales seemed to stigmatize the segment for Chrysler, and decontenting was the norm rather than cures.

By 1974, the era was at an end. Chrysler again made a marketing error. The lowest point for the Pontiac Firebird was 1973, when it made only 29,951 sales. GM held out though, and by 1979, resurgence was at hand, with over 211,000 units sold. Camaro, too, went to a low point in 1973 with 89,998 units in sales. However, in 1979, they made 282,571 sales. Mustang went to a low in 1973 of 134,867, but in 1974, the not so well executed Mustang II sold 385,993 units. In 1979, Mustang moved 369,936 units.

Chrysler was out of the picture completely, ending production of both "E" bodies in March 1974. Final figures were 11,734 Barracuda models and 11,354 Challengers. Could there have been more? Absolutely. A new design was already on the drawing board that was well executed, and could have carried the MoPar pony cars well into the future. However, again, Chrysler management failed to meet its own expectations, let alone those of its loyal customers.

The lack of commercial success has developed into somewhat of a cult for the "E" bodied cars. With only around 400,000 Barracuda models sold in total, and 200,000 Challengers, they have turned into a collector's dream. What amounted to a topped out sale price of $4,500 1971 dollars has turned into an investment worth close to $3,000,000 today for a pristine 1971 Barracuda Convertible with the 426 Hemi V-8. In a real way, it kept the car in the minds of those that had market influence. They were not in production, but they were not gone.

While it is difficult to fathom the mind of the corporate shakers and movers, somewhere within DaimlerChrysler AG, it came to mind to bring back the Challenger. Since Plymouth is now dead and gone, trying to bring a Barracuda/Cuda back would create more issues than it would be worth to try and solve. DCX had been toying with the concept for some time, teasing the faithful, and provoking the curiosity of the competition.

Finally, in January 2006, the concept car went on display at the Detroit Auto Show. Tom LaSorda, President of the Chrysler Group seemed stunned at the response to the car. He kept wandering around the crowd, drawing positive responses, even from those who would buy a Mustang or a Camaro. The styling is certainly well respective of the previous car, however, it is improved while not detracting from the curvy lines of the first Challenger.

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Are we ready for the new Challenger? Is it going to be too late for the muscle car resurgence that we have seen? Is the fat lady getting warmed up to sing again?

I, for one, don't believe so. General Motors is bringing back a Camaro. Slated for a 2008 introduction, the new Camaro promises to be everything and more than the previous model. Dodge seems ready to meet that challenge. I just think it should not wait for 2008. However, not to rush it either. Discounting the Mitsubishi based model Challenger, is the third time the charm? I think so. At least, I hope so, for Dodge and the Chrysler Group. Perhaps enough to influence further speculation of a divorce from Daimler.

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