The car that pulled Plymouth through its early-'60s troubles was Valiant, one of the Big Three's original 1960 compacts. The first design generation ran through 1962: ruggedly built Unibody cars with Exner styling marked by square grilles, pronounced "blade" fenderlines, and short decks adorned by dummy spare tires, all on a 106.5-inch wheelbase.
A four-door sedan and wagon were initially offered in V100 and V200 trim for $2000-$2500 -- cheaper than Chevy's Corvair but quite a bit upstream of Ford's runaway-hit Falcon. A V100 two-door sedan and V200 hardtop coupe arrived for '61. With bucket seats and spiffy trim, the hardtop became 1962's Signet 200, perhaps the most-collectible early Valiant.
A strong point of most every Valiant ever built was its robust Slant Six, so named because the block canted right to permit lower hoodlines, though engineers also claimed certain manufacturing and operational benefits. The initial 170-cid version produced 101 bhp; a 1960-61 four-barrel option called "Hyper-Pack" raised that to 148 bhp. The larger 225 unit from the big Plymouths became optional from 1962.
Exner's departure left Elwood Engel to shape the '63 Valiant, which emerged as clean, rounded, and conventional, if a bit stodgy. Bolstered by appealing new Signet and V200 convertibles, Valiant picked up sales, rising from about 157,000 for '62 to over 225,000. The '64s sold even better, thanks in part to optional availability of the new 273 small-block V-8, which made these sprightly cars indeed.
After two facelift years, Valiant was completely redesigned for 1967, adopting a 108-inch wheelbase and four-square lines reminiscent of some midsize European sedans. Wagons were dropped -- they hadn't been huge sellers anyway -- as were hardtops and convertibles, leaving two- and four-door sedans in "100" and Signet trim.
Yet despite this, and aggressive new Ford and Chevy competition, Valiant remained one of Detroit's most-popular compacts. Except for some interesting interim developments, the basic '67 design would persist through the final Valiants of 1976.
The reason Valiant lost its sporty models was the success of Chevy's Corvair Monza, which prompted Plymouth to refocus its sights on the sporty-compact market. The result was Barracuda, launched in mid-1964 as a '65 model. This was not a direct reply to Ford's Mustang "ponycar," though some observers thought otherwise, as the two models appeared almost simultaneously.
Actually, Barracuda was the existing Valiant with a new superstructure: a cleverly conceived fastback hardtop coupe with a huge compound-curve backlight and stubby trunklid. A fold-down back seat, then a novelty for Detroit, could be used to create a seven-foot-long cargo deck for hauling things like surfboards and hero sandwiches.
Despite its obvious workaday origins, Barracuda offered a pleasing combination of sporty looks, good handling, utility, and room for four. Close to 65,000 were sold for model-year '65 -- far adrift of Mustang's near 681,000, but welcome added business all the same. And unlike Mustang, Barracuda didn't "cannibalize" sales from sister models.
Predictably, the 225 slant six was standard for the 1964-65 Barracuda, with the 180-bhp 273 V-8 optional. However, a high-performance 235-bhp 273 was also offered with a high-lift, high-overlap camshaft, domed pistons, solid lifters, dual-contact breaker points, unsilenced air cleaner, and a sweet-sounding, low-restriction exhaust system. With "Rallye Suspension" (heavy-duty front torsion bars and antisway bars, stiff rear leaf springs), "Firm-Ride" shocks, and a four-speed gearbox, the 235-bhp job could do 0-60 mph in eight seconds flat.
After a debatable '66 facelift featuring a squarish front (shared with Valiant) and two-piece eggcrate grille, Barracuda was handsomely redesigned for '67. Wheelbase was stretched two inches, overall length five inches, and a shapelier fastback (without the "glassback") was joined by a new convertible and notchback hardtop coupe (the latter with a rather odd, "kinked" rear roofline).
A newly available four-barrel 383 with 280 bhp provided better straightline performance, but hurt handling by adding up to 300 extra pounds at the front. The 273 remained the best choice for all-around roadability. As for '66, a Formula S package was offered; it included heavy-duty suspension, tachometer, wide-oval tires, and special stripes and badges.
Happily, the '67 Barracudas continued without drastic change through 1969 -- except, of course, for the feds' new safety and emissions equipment then appearing on all Detroit cars. A vertical-bar grille insert and small round side-market lights identified the '68s; the '69s gained a checked insert, revamped taillights, and square side-markers.
In both years, Plymouth fielded muscle-market "'Cuda" versions offering a choice of Chrysler's new 340 small-block with 275 bhp or the big-block 383 with 300 bhp for '68 and 330 bhp for '69.