Like other muscle- and ponycars in the early-'70s, sales of the Chrysler E-body Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger were mortally wounded by a coalition of forces working against high-performance automobiles. By levying premium surcharges against these cars, the insurance industry made it almost impossible for young drivers to afford them. Further compounding the problem were voices in and out of the federal government criticizing Detroit for selling what they considered "lethal weapons." The final blow to musclecars was the industry's shift in emphasis from performance to research, as Detroit struggled to meet an onslaught of upcoming government mandates for cleaner engine emissions.
These three factors severely impacted the market, and by 1974, the Barracuda and Challenger were doomed, as ponycar sales plummeted. And while proposals were made for a new generation of E-bodies, Chrysler management was not interested in perpetuating a product line that didn't fit into its plans for a future consisting of Aspens, Horizons, Omnis, Valiants, and Volares. There was simply no place for sporty, high-performance cars.
Ironically, Chrysler management pulled the plug on the Barracuda and Challenger just as the ponycar market was showing an upward trend that would reach its zenith at the end of the '70s. "We got out of the only part of the market that grew," Carl Cameron reflects. Cameron was a designer in the Dodge Studio, responsible for the '70 Challenger. "We abandoned it, and I always thought that was a mistake."
A significant part of the problem, according to former Chrysler employees, was that management was made of financial executives with little or no understanding of the marketplace or the product. And, because the finance people now made meaningful decisions regarding product, the "car guys" and buyers no longer had the clout to push product through the system. Other critics pointed to 1968, when Chrysler had a record-breaking sales year but chose not to invest the money in product development. "Our primary business was designing, building, and selling cars," one former employee says. "The money wasn't put back into product. Instead, it was used to diversify into other areas, some of which were losers that cost Chrysler dearly."
There was also internal controversy about product engineering decisions. Many inside Chrysler questioned management's choice to make the '70 Challenger longer and wider than the Barracuda. Sharing body shells would have saved the corporation millions of dollars that eventually could have gone into future development.
The postmortems would come later, because in the spring of 1969, the Plymouth Advanced Design Studio was working on the next-generation Barracuda. Chrysler had a four-year lead time from design to production, and no one expected the E-body to be cancelled-so it was business as usual in the styling studio.
Two Designs, One GoalTwo advanced designs for the '75 Barracuda were slowly evolving. Designer Shunsuke "Matty" Matsurra created one version, influenced by fellow designer Don Hood's renderings. The other concept was by the team of John Herlitz and John Sampson. Both teams worked separately; however, they studied each other's concepts and shared ideas. "We struggled to define the Fourth Gen Barracuda," recalls designer Milt Antonick. "We wanted the car to look more fluid, and yet retain the Barracuda's muscular and aggressive look." Each team thought it was important to preserve the ramps found in the shape of the '70 to '74 E-body's front fenders and rear quarters, and to be sensitive to retaining a certain amount of product image.
Herlitz and Sampson advanced the fluid look, while Matsurra's clays carried a more muscular motif. "We started somewhat conservatively, with variations on the current Barracuda theme," Antonick says. "We then deliberately pushed the design theme as far toward a fluid, muscular look as possible." The teams discovered that doing so only exaggerated the idea.
After numerous cycles of sketches and clays, the teams narrowed it down from four designs to two. Both the Plymouth and Dodge studios viewed the proposals. "I saw them," Cameron says, "and they were beautiful. Matty Matsurra did beautiful body sides. They were neat, and I liked them."
The final proposal for the '75 Barracuda was actually a blend of both designs. "Because we had two models," Antonick says, "we retained a variation of the Barracuda's fender forms on one clay, and tried to enhance it in the other." The vestiges of the '70 to '74 'Cuda fender forms were still intact, while the fluid look was evident in the rolling quarter-panels and hood.
The End Cometh-In Cincinnati, OHIOIn the fall of 1969, the final '75 designs were approved, and the clays were transferred to a fiberglass body, which was then trimmed to look like a completed car. This prototype was then taken to Cincinnati, Ohio, for viewing by a consumer survey group. The results were not good. "That wild body went to Cincinnati of all places, and it was a disaster," remembers Antonick. "I came back from Cincinnati and realized it was all over; management didn't want musclecars anymore. It was the saddest day of my career at Chrysler." As if an omen, the "Cincinnati car" unfortunately fell off a forklift during transport and was damaged.
It was obvious that management had stacked the deck against the Barracuda by using the conservative Cincinnati survey group. If the car had gone to Los Angeles, for example, it would have received a positive rating, which was not what Chrysler wanted. Although the studio was instructed to prepare some "nose jobs" for the current car to extend its life beyond 1974, it was clear to many in the Plymouth Design Studio that the Barracuda's fate was cursed.
Cancelling their ponycar program would prove to be a colossal mistake. The ponycar market enjoyed a tremendous resurgence from the mid-'70s to the early-'80s, and the fact that Dodge and Plymouth were not there to share in the bounty proves just how out of touch Chrysler was. "Unfortunately," observes Cameron, "back then we always went after the basic transportation guys, and left the specialty market and high-level, high-profit items to General Motors and Ford."
Would the radically redesigned '75 Barracuda and Challenger have shared in the revitalized ponycar market? The clays indicate an aggressive, exciting car that would have dated the Firebird and Camaro, making them obsolete. "I think our cars would have been competitive," Cameron says. "We would have kept the market share we had."
A Missed OpportunityBut would the hypothetical success of Chrysler's ponycars have prevented the corporation's bankruptcy? While the question will never be answered, enough factors exist to make a valid argument that Chrysler certainly would have been financially healthier. GM's decision to retain its ponycars proved to be profitable. At it's lowest point in 1973, Pontiac's Firebird sold just 29,951 units. By 1979, sales exploded to more than 211,000 (accounting for two out of every five Pontiacs sold). What makes this all the more amazing is that Pontiac's marketing group recommended killing the Firebird when it was on the ropes in 1972, in favor of smaller, more conservative models. The decision to keep the Firebird ultimately played a major role in Pontiac's survival.
The same could be said for Chevrolet and Ford. The Camaro tallied 89,988 units in 1973, climbing to 282,571 by 1979. Whereas Ford's '73 Mustang sold 134,867 units in the last year of its styling cycle. Even the star-crossed '74 Mustang II sold 385,993 copies in 1974, and the new '79 Mustang registered 369,936. Just how much of this volume could have been captured by the Barracuda and Challenger can't be known, but it's a sure bet that sales for both cars would have been more than enough to justify their existence.
The decline and fall of Chrysler Corporation reads like a classic case of managerial incompetence by an undercapitalized, aging company erring at a critical and unforgiving time. "Chrysler doesn't do anything first," notes Car & Driver. "Instead, it carefully watches what everybody else in Detroit is doing, and when it sees an area of abnormal market activity it leaps exactly on that spot. Because it always leaps late-which is inevitable if it doesn't begin to prepare its entry into the market until someone else already has one-it tries to make up for being late by jumping onto said spot harder than everybody else." In the mid- to late-'70s, Chrysler failed to hit the right spots, and the only salvation was a government bailout.
When the '70s were over, the ponycar had survived, but two important nameplates-Barracuda and Challenger-were gone. If Chrysler had produced a new generation of E-bodies, the corporation's fate might have been kinder. The Barracuda and Challenger would not have saved Chrysler, but it's possible their sales could have softened the blows the corporation suffered in their darkest days of the late-'70s.