• Jason Chandler

History of the Mopar E-Body; Challenger / 'Cuda, Barracuda

The pony-car market had moved quickly —almost too quickly—in the second half of the 1960s. The success of Ford’s Mustang sucked all of the air out of the room, leaving little for Chrysler, which had just launched its Valiant-based Barracuda mere weeks before the Ford’s public debut. They were built to the same formula: A chassis borrowed from the compact line, long hood, sporty looks, and the ability to build it how you liked, from mayonnaise-mild to ghost pepper-hot. While the Mustang bolted from the gate, the Barracuda suffered the fate of being considered a pretty Valiant—tarted-up compact.

As Mustang grew in both sales and size over time, with ever-larger engine options under the hood, Chrysler engineers felt restricted by their A-body. It was tough enough getting a big-block 383 in there, and slightly more challenging to follow up with the 440, but dropping a Hemi would require major fabrication work, as the Hurst-built ’68 Hemi Darts and Barracudas demonstrated. And poor Dodge had nothing sporty at all—the Dart was so formal, so starchy, that despite sizing similarities, few could see it competing with the Mustang directly. No amount of hood scoops, sticker stripes, and mag wheels were going to make the Dart feel like a genuine alternative to a Mustang.

For 1970, Chrysler debuted the E-body siblings: the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda, as coupes and convertibles. They were launched into the pony-car wars of the late 1960s, at a time when one in eight new American cars were of the sporty coupe variety—a crowded field that included Mustang/ Cougar, Camaro/Firebird, and Javelin. The “E” platform was really Chrysler’s long-standing B-body platform with a few inches taken out of the middle to tighten things up: The 117-inch-wheelbase Charger begat the 110-inch-wheelbase Challenger, and the 116-inch-wheelbase Road Runner laid claim to the 108-inch-wheelbase Barracuda. (Dodges were considered slightly more premium than Plymouth in those days, and slightly different wheelbases were one way to differentiate between what were functionally identical cars.) Width was not reduced, which not only meant greater parts commonality, but also the entire range of Chrysler engines, from the unkillable Slant Six to the legendary Hemi, would be available under the E-bodies’ long hoods. It also meant that, as the E-body would be larger than other comparable pony cars, it could be considered more comfortable as well.

New shapes, endless option sheets, nine engine choices, and bold colors (thanks to Chrysler’s psychedelic Hi- Impact paint palette) meant that the E-body siblings could be anything you wanted. Looking for a quiet commuter car to get you to the office and back? Order a Slant Six and automatic. Prefer a little luxury with your sporting coupe? Check into the Challenger SE, with its lush vinyl roof, unique backlight, leather seat facings, and more. Like hugging corners? Look at the limited-run Challenger T/A and AAR ‘Cuda, modeled after the cars seen in SCCA Trans Am competition: rev-happy 340s with aluminum Edelbrock intakes and six hungry carb mouths sucking in sweet cool air and firm Rallye suspension, front and rear anti-roll bars, fast-ratio steering, big-n-little white-letter rubber on 15- inch wheels. There was even side-exiting exhaust that let out just ahead of the rear wheel openings and blacked-out cold-air hoods made of fiberglass. Of course, if you were a hardcore quarter-mile fan, check off the Hemi and a four-speed with Super Track Pak and its 4.10 gears for your ‘Cuda or Challenger R/T, then cover it in the Hi-Impact color of your choice. And you could mix-and-match to your pleasure: a Hi-Impact-painted Slant Six with Magnum 500 wheels, or a Hemi in a deadly dull shade of green and full hubcaps. Whichever way you happened to make your way through the order form.

Such choices meant that Challenger bolted out of the gate hard—83,032 built for 1970 for the new model. Barracuda, meanwhile, saw a 73-percent year-to-year increase over the old A-body models, with 55,499 sold. But this was to change rapidly: Muscle cars in general were breathing their last hurrah, and, despite being just a year old, the Chrysler siblings felt the fall of the market— just 29,883 Challengers (a 64-percent drop from 1970) and 18,690 Barracudas (a 66-percent drop) were built for the ’71 model year. Convertibles ended after the 1971 model year, despite the ’72 ‘Cuda convertibles you saw on Mannix and The Brady Bunch. So did big-block engines: Hemis, 440s, and even 383s were removed from the option list, and, by 1972, the biggest engine you could get in an E-body from the factory was a 340. Production had stabilized: 26,658 Challengers (a near-11-percent drop) and 18,450 Barracudas (just a 1.28-percent drop) were built and sold in 1972. For 1973, the first year that the E-bodies didn’t receive a facelift (beyond rubber bumperettes), sales numbers actually jumped: 32,596 Challengers, and 22,213 Barracudas. Unsurprisingly, 1974 sales numbers were weakest: 16,437 Challengers and 11,734 Barracudas— numbers half of the previous season’s still-tepid sales—spelled the E-body’s death-knell. Smogging the engines were one thing, but engineering the chassis to receive full-fl edged 5-mph bumpers was clearly not going to be worth the investment, at least from the bean-counters’ point of view. A total of 188,606 Challengers and 126,586 Barracudas were made from 1970-’74.

But sometimes, yesterday’s sales slump means today’s sought-after rarity, and that certainly applies to the E-body models. Spotting even a “common” (note quotes) version of either car, say one with a 318 and a vinyl top, is hardly an everyday event. Pony-car sales were slumping hard in the wake of the first OPEC crisis, not least because they were no longer the compact cars that they once were. Other nameplates survived: Camaro soldiered on with the traditional formula, while Mustang gained a “II” and Pinto-based underpinnings. Cougar went running upmarket and reemerged as a Thunderbird twin; Firebird had a shocking second act toward the end of the ’70s. Javelin disappeared altogether at the end of 1974, remembered and embraced by a dedicated few.

This is the route that the E-body went: extinction. But its fans and cult have been built by decades of lore, and untold millions of dollars spent at auction. Consider: In its first 18-month year, Mustang production topped 416,000 units. Over their five-year life, the E-body twins saw just 315,192 units built. In other words, more ’65 Mustangs were sold than E-body Mopars built over the entire five-year run of two models. Winnow that down by year, brand, body, drivetrain, and color, and soon you’re looking at only a few hundred of any given desirable model—and often far fewer. Remember that next time you wonder how E-bodies continue to sniff around the six-figure threshold at the classic-car auctions.


By Jeff Koch from the June 2018 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines

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