Roots of the Dart Dynasty and ‘Cuda Kingdom – Part 1

6 years ago Heritage

A for Effort: The Beginning

Though the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda nameplates have appeared on several different sized vehicle platforms intermittently over the past six decades, between 1964 and 1969, the Dart and Barracuda were joined at the hip. That’s because they shared the Chrysler Corporation “A-body” platform.

First seen under the 1960 Plymouth Valiant, the A-body was Chrysler Corporation’s first compact-sized offering, born to grab a chunk of the booming economy car segment of the late 1950s. Like all full-size Chrysler Corporation passenger cars since 1957, the small Valiant used a down-sized copy of Chrysler’s revolutionary torsion bar front suspension. Unlike the vertical coil springs used by Valiant’s domestic competitors, torsion bar front suspension employed a pair of nearly inch-thick, four-foot-long, high-strength steel rods to support the nose of the vehicle.

With the rearmost ends anchored to an under-car cross member positioned under the front seat area and the leading ends attached to the pivoting front lower control arms, the steel rods’ resistance to twisting (a.k.a. torsion) provided the needed spring-like vehicle support. But it was also more compact, lighter and offered sure-footed handling thanks to reduced un-sprung weight.

At the rear, Chrysler’s unique leaf spring layout – with the rear axle located 1/3 of the way back instead of half way – complemented the front torsion bars. The shorter front segment added stiffness to the leading ends of the springs to tame axle hop, much like a set of bolt-on traction bars, but without the binding action.

For 1960, the Valiant was only sold at Plymouth dealers where it attracted 194,292 buyers and was a marketplace hit. Naturally, Dodge dealers wanted in, so a mildly reconfigured Valiant, named the Dodge Lancer, arrived at Dodge stores for 1961. The Lancer gave Dodge buyers their first A-body experience, and planted the seeds for many life-long customers.

The one controversial issue plaguing the early Valiant and Lancer was body styling. It was pretty wild and focused on asymmetrical themes, reverse curves, trapezoids and extreme slopes. So for 1963, Chrysler Corporation management asked the stylists to tone things down a bit. While the inherent goodness of the A-body chassis, suspension, brakes and driveline were retained, body styling took a much more conservative direction. At Plymouth, the Valiant’s “plucked chicken” curves were replaced with a more slab-sided look, while Dodge dropped the Lancer nameplate in favor of Dart. In both camps, sporty convertible body types were offered for the first time.

The 1963 re-skin worked magic. Plymouth dealers saw Valiant sales leap from 157,294 to 225,166, a mouth-watering 43% gain. Dodge dealers had even more reason to celebrate when sales of the new Dart surpassed 1962 Lancer sales by 139% (from 64,300 to 153,900). By 1964, the economy car boom of the late 1950s was evolving into something much more exciting thanks to children born during the post-WWII “baby boom”. These kids, born between 1945 and 1965 reshaped America in many positive ways.

As the first wave of “boomers” started turning 18 in 1963, many bought their first new car. It was once said, “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you’ll never sell an old man’s car to a young man.” The youth market had arrived and they sought cars with exciting performance, style and looks. With its compact size, superb handling and light weight, the A-body was an ideal patient for a high-performance transformation.

Dodge hit first with the Dart GT package of 1963. Similar to the Lancer GT of 1962, but with Dart’s more mainstream bodywork, the Dart GT included standard front bucket seats, full wheel covers, a padded dash and special GT badging. Under the hood, buyers were limited to a Slant Six since the 273 small block V8 wouldn’t be ready until 1964. But as an initial volley, the little GT was a solid offering. With the 145-horsepower 225 Slant Six, it was one of the quickest six-cylinder compacts on the market. Only the turbocharged Corvair Monza was a stop light threat.


1964 saw the youth market really begin to blossom. While the mighty 426 Race HEMI® stole race day headlines aboard mid-sized B-body passenger cars, Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant option sheets added the aforementioned 180-horsepower small block 273 V8 for just $131 and Chrysler’s all-new A833 four-speed manual transmission for $151. But the bigger news came from Plymouth, where the Valiant grew an attractive fastback roof and massive, curved glass rear window. The Barracuda had arrived.

Following closely on the hoof beats of a certain personal sporty car from Dearborn, Michigan, the Barracuda hit dealer showrooms in May of 1964, and was the only pony car alternative until 1967, when numerous contenders appeared on the scene. Though Barracuda sales never dominated, the spunky little fastback attracted 126,068 buyers during its first three years (23,443 in 1964, 64,596 in 1965 and 38,029 in 1966). Like the Dart, the Barracuda could be had with 170-cubic-inch or 225-cubic-inch Slant Six power or the two-barrel 273 V8.

1965 witnessed further Dart and Barracuda evolution, including optional front disc brakes and upsized 10-inch drums for V8s. And though drag racers like Richard Petty, Dick Landy, Billy Jacobs, Jack Sharkey and others were busy installing 426 HEMI engines for quarter-mile match race competition, showroom offerings embraced a new high-performance version of the 273. Fortified with 10.5:1 compression, a higher lift solid cam, single plane intake manifold, Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor and novel high-flow single-exhaust plumbing, the 235-horsepower A861 resulted and gave Darts and Barracudas true high-performance ability. Better yet, though most of these high-performance 273s went into Dart GTs and the new-for-’65 Barracuda Formula S, base models could also be had with the big 235-horse mill. With only a pair of small metal “273 Four Barrel” fender emblems and a single, fist-sized rectangular exhaust outlet to suggest potential, A861 Darts and Barracudas were true sleepers.

1966 saw subtle styling refinements to Dart and Barracuda grilles, front fenders and interiors and while sales remained strong, the mid-size muscle car marketplace was really heating up. To keep pace, the larger mid-sized Dodge Coronet and Plymouth Belvedere B-bodies were offered with the mighty 426 Street HEMI and rumors of muscle car nameplates like R/T and GTX began swirling for release in 1967. Also looming for 1967 were rumors of multiple pony car contenders from virtually every corner of Detroit.

Having evolved from the 1960 Valiant economy car, the A-body platform wasn’t physically suited for large V8 engines as it stood at the end of 1966. But sales figures were strong – Darts accounted for nearly 21% of total Dodge passenger car dollars and over at Plymouth, Valiant and Barracuda sales accounted for 25.31% of total volume. Clearly, the A-body platform warranted whatever investment was required to keep the Dart and Barracuda competitive. In the second installment of this Dart and Barracuda history review, we’ll examine just how Chrysler Corp. upgraded the A-body to stay competitive.









More Heritage Articles