By on November 11, 2010

Is time slowing down? Just fifteen years separate this 1960 Imperial and the Horizon’s birth. Or was it just that Detroit was terribly slow to embrace the inevitability of modern European design? Better late then never, because not only were the Horizon and Omni the first proper small cars ever built in Detroit, they also saved Chrysler from irrelevance and bankruptcy just in the nick of time.

Before we turn the clock back and rediscover the origins of Omnirizon twins, let’s briefly put that fifteen year span between the Imperial and Horizon in perspective:

Thirty five years separate the Horizon from this 2010 Golf. Has automotive evolution really slowed down that much? Unfair comparison, perhaps. Well, there is no 2010 Imperial to compare it, since that species long ago became extinct. And the Golf does loom large in the Horizon’s existence. Or is it the other way around?

Our timeless main story begins with the Simca 1100 (at the left on the top, and right on the bottom, mislabeled as an R12). This photo is here courtesy of allpar.com, which has an excellent article about the birth of the Horizon by its creators here. We see it in a comparison of the C2 Horizon’s proposal with the brand new Golf . The C2 was the intended replacement for the Simca, and it’s easy to see that they (Simca, C2) sat on the same platform and followed its general shape.

When the Simca 1100/1204 first appeared in 1967, it set the template for the modern hatchback small car. It was the true winner of our CC virtual 1971 Small Car Comparison, and one of the first cars to employ that template was the 1975 VW Golf. Some of the Chrysler fan-boys at allpar argue that the Golf imitated the Simca. Conceptually yes; stylistically, the  photo above is the damming evidence that once the Golf appeared, Chrysler’s fine tuning of their C2 proposal was deeply influenced by it, to put it politely.

The final of our comparison photos: the evidence is all too obvious, right down to the kink in the rear door. Well, if you’re going to imitate, the original Golf was certainly a good model, and it was a sight cheaper than hiring Guigiaro, like VW did.

The development of the Horizon has other compelling aspects beyond the cribbing. As the headline says, it was the first time one of the Big Three pulled its head out of its ass and decided that a modern FWD European design did actually make more sense for a small car than the crap it came up with by itself: the Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin. In case you’ve forgotten, click the links, but in a nutshell, Detroit was obsessed with the idea that small cars needed to look like a shrunken Mustang or Camaro. Combined with RWD meant that they were atrociously cramped, especially in the rear. Perhaps they were punishing their buyers for being so stupid to want a small car instead of a real car.

It didn’t have to be that way, and cars like the Simca 1100 and the Golf showed the way. Certainly, by today’s standards they are quite small indeed, perhaps like a Fiesta or less. But at the time, when even cars like the over sized Nova were none too roomy, this was a revelation. And the Horizon was bigger than the Golf, by far the roomiest of any small car at the time.

Chrysler, fortunately lacking the funds to join the Vega-Pinto debacle, looked to its European subsidiary for a life-line, having already been convinced of the Simca 1100′s capabilities, despite its poor sales in the US and reliability issues. In a very closely coordinated effort, Chrysler undertook a three-way development effort with its French and British units. That presented huge challenges, given the substantially different priorities and the metric-inch divide. But the body was fine tuned on both sides of the continent, and for the fist time ever, digital scans of the clays were exchanged via satellite. A first, and not bad for 1975.

It became clear early on that the US version would be a very different car except for the basic body. Well, at least that was shared. The Simca’s supple but more expensive long-stroke torsion bar suspension was jettisoned for more pragmatic MacPherson struts in the front. Americans just didn’t deserve or wouldn’t appreciate that famous French ride. On the other hand, the Americans wisely stayed clear of the Simca engine, which was generally fragile and usually developed terrible valve clatter within 20k miles or so. In another nod to the Golf, Chrysler instead bought engines from VW, a 1,7 L version of the Golf’s 827 engine. Chrysler added its own manifold and cantankerous carb, foolishly eschewing fuel injection for several more years.

The Americans also developed the front automatic transaxle, a miniaturized TorqueFlite, which turned out to be pleasantly similar to its big brother reliability wise (whew!). And it brought its electronic prowess to both versions, with the first popular priced trip computer. Of course, the domestic version got an interior more in keeping with the um…slower to develop taste of Americans at the time. Still, it was a refreshing place to sit in the late seventies era of bordello interiors, with excellent visibility and decent ergonomics for the times.

Either way, the Horizons on both sides of the Atlantic were well received by the press, both winning respective COTY awards. That may have meant more in Europe, where it’s voted on by hundreds of auto journalists. Still, the American press and public reception was pretty universally positive, even though it was clear that the Horizon was not a Golf in certain key respects, mainly in the handling department. The Omnirizon’s suspension was Americanized in more ways than one. Its handling was decent for the times, but just neither actually fun nor inspiring.

Maybe that was a worthwhile trade off for the American versions’ much better rustproofing; the Euro Horizons were some of the worst rusters ever, and there may likely be less than 200 examples left on the whole continent. I’m sure I could find that many in Oregon. Our city water and electric utility had a fleet of them until just a couple of years ago.

Of course, those were undoubtedly from the latter years of the Omnirizon’s long US run from 1978 through 1990. And typical for American small cars, they slowly got better and better, later adopting the Chrysler 2.2 L four, fuel injection, and a 1.6 liter Peugeot engine as the base mill. Meanwhile though, cars like the Civic, Corolla and Mazda GLC/323 were evolving at a much quicker pace.

So even though the Omnirizons were pretty progressive when they arrived, time in the eighties was not standing still. The Japanese upsurge kept Omnirizon sales in check, although in its first three years it averaged over 200k units and some 1.8 million were sold during the whole run. Those first couple of years were critical, because Chrysler was in the depth of its brush with bankruptcy, largely in part because its big cars were obsolete or stinkers.

But it wasn’t just the sales numbers alone. Without the Horizon and Omni, it’s highly doubtful Chrysler would have been able to develop their K-Cars in time and on budget, or at all. Chrysler had a huge head start with the Horizon and its fwd transaxle, and Lee Ioacocca could prove to his Washington DC bankers that he really did have that leading edge fwd technology, the equivalent of GM and its Volt today.

Of course, the legendary hi-po versions of the Omni developed with Carroll Shelby can’t be ignored here, although the odds of finding one on the street are slim indeed. But starting with the 1984 GLH (“Goes Like Hell”), the VW GTI had a wild and woolly competitor. The first version was actually the most GTI-like, with the 110 hp tweaked 2.2. The optional 146 turbo version was already something different altogether. But then the GLHS appeared with an uprated 175 hp turbo. A crude and rude little beast it was; the wildest combination of torque steer and turbo lag bang for the buck.

The Omnirizon twins did nothing to stave of the Japanese invasion of the coasts or dissuade VW lovers from their Rabbits, but they did finally expose heartland Americans to what a proper small car could be, including a fitting hot-rod version of it. For that, it deserves a special place in my history book. And if Chrysler had kept developing it properly, my last combination picture could be comparing an original Horizon with a 2010 Horizon. Oops; make that a 2010 Omni.

No such luck; Chrysler decided small cars should look like a trucky SUV. Well, the Caliber’s replacement will be based on a European Fiat. So maybe automotive time hasn’t slowed down; it’s just running in circles.

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47 Comments on “Curbside Classics: Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni – Detroit Finally Builds A Proper Small Car...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Cool.  My high school guidance counselor (I’m a 1995 graduate) had an Omni GLH when I was a freshman. By the time I graduated the man was driving a Spirit R/T.  Stupid me at the time I thought my Chemistry teacher was cooler for having a Miata.  Now I see them as equally cool and different automotive evolutionary branches.
     
    FWIW I’d love any of those cars right now but I’d rather drive the Omni or the Spirit on a daily basis.  (Just watch that timing belt and those head gaskets.  On the Spirit I mean.)

    • 0 avatar
      JimC

      It sounds like I’m barely a few years older than you.  As a teenager I envied the Spirit R/T (turbo 4-cylinder please) as it seemed like a factory sleeper car to me and as such could be a lot of fun.  I don’t remember any of my high school teachers driving anything particularly exciting though.

  • avatar
    oboylepr

    …it was the first time one of the Big Three pulled its head out of its ass and decided that a modern FWD European design did actually make more sense for a small car than the crap it came up with by itself: the Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin.
    Right up to recently at least one of the D3 still had not figured out how to provide rear seat room in even a mid size car. Ever sit with 2 adults next to either door in the back seat of a Grand Prix or Grand am? Unless you are of short stature, you will bang your head on the roof as it meets the top of the door frame every time the car goes over a pebble. A short trip of a few Km is likely to leave you with a brain injury. An absolutely pathetic attempt at interior design. Small wonder that Pontiac has been resigned to the trashcan of history. So the crap kept pouring out until recently. Lets hope the Cruze at least gets that right.

  • avatar
    obbop

    The model/version with the 8-speed tranny was nifty.

    Or was it a different model? That was long ago.

    Had a couple in the wrecking yard. Those 8-speeds sold quickly for a decent price for us.

  • avatar
    car_guy2010

    The Horizon was my mother’s first ever car and she had an ’84 model, white with a tan interior I believe (or was it red?). When that model bit the dust (head gasket), she searched out and found an ’89 model, red on red interior with very nice seats. When my brother got his license, it was handed down to him and he proceeded to custom-install a sunroof. He claims that the car is still on the road (well, technically, on the side of a road) not far from where we grew up and he would like to probably buy it back. Anyway, the Horizon was a fun car to ride in and I wish that I had inherited it instead. I did get an ’85 Golf for my first car and it did kind of remind me of the Horizon in the fact that it was small, old and fun to hoon (and hoon it, I did, getting into quite a few near-accidents before I damaged the right front fender from falling asleep and hitting a road sign).

  • avatar
    JimC

    Last weekend I saw one of these- driving!  (Of all places in the “Deep South” of the U.S.)  With the 2.2 carburetted “shake and bake” engine these could accelerate out of their own way quite nicely compared to most contemporary cars of any size.  My Mom almost bought one of these but changed her mind for a more modern ’85 Reliant as the lease payments on the K-car were only a few bucks more than the purchase payments of an Omnirizon and a family friend was already a happy K-car owner.  A few friends’ parents had them though.
     
    I recall the Shelby GLHs; not too many of those were built let alone still survive, but a really neat historic footnote of a special edition car.  I also remember an early-mid 1980s Popular Science article about a Smokey Yunick version that was even faster still… something about a special carburettor and something he called a “homogenizer” that probably polluted more than several Omnirizons combined :)

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    I only got these as rentals, but I remember that they were actually quite pleasant – especially compared to the oversized an underengineered junk that was being produced by the Pig…er big…three.

  • avatar
    Ron

    It was also a poorly-built car, at least at the beginning. After disparaging the car on Wall Street Week, Chrysler pressured me into buying one. My windshield fractured after I hit the first bump in the road. Two weeks later, my dealer called to tell me not to drive the car — he would tow it to the shop — after it was discovered that a fuel line had been placed on top of the engine. Recalls in the first year included 1) the aforementioned fuel line; 2) another misrouted fuel line, this time against the air conditioning suction hose; 3) a rivet attachment between the front suspension control arm and the ball joint; 4) cracking in the lower control arms; 5) wheel hub nuts were inadequately staked to the wheel spindle; 6) rear floor carpet fasteners penetrated the top of the fuel tank; 7) lower steering shaft coupling; 8) alternator wiring.

    • 0 avatar
      tonycd

      Chrysler seemed to have a talent for driving fasteners through fuel tanks. My brother worked in a plant that was producing Plymouth Satellites in the ’60s whose rear-seat staples did likewise.
      Supposedly, the Belvidere plant itself (which I think built these cars) had been allowed to sink into a deplorable state of disrepair — cold wind blowing through broken windows, etc. Though they obviously never rose to Japanese standards, by the mid-80s they really did shape up a lot.

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      It was also a poorly-built car

      Agreed!  Doubly agreed!

      My mother bought an ’86 Dodge Omni in the summer of ’86 when I was off on one of my summer midshipman cruises in NROTC.  I begged and pleaded with her over the pay phone from the barracks at Little Creek, VA not to buy a Dodge Omni, but to get a Toyota or Honda instead.  “But the Omni is such a better deal”, she said.  She was feeling especially patriotic, with me on one of my NROTC cruises, and Lee Iococca hosting the Statue of Liberty reopening after the remodeling/rebuild, and with Ronald Reagan in office.  Fair enough.

      24 hours after she bought the Omni, she had to get it towed back to the dealer.  The battery was dead – turns out the alternator was bad.  It was hard to start, either hot or cold.  After owning the car for 2 weeks, it developed a misfire.  The dealer said a plug was fouled and it needed new plugs.  And on it went.  After 2 years of frustration, dealer indifference, Chrysler Corporation indifference, break downs, getting stranded, stalling out several times in Atlanta rush hour traffic, etc., she had had enough.  I tried convincing her to get Chrysler to buy it back under the lemon law, but she was just sick of the whole project and didn’t want to deal with that POS anymore. She traded in the 2 year old Omni with only 17k miles for a new ’88 Toyota Corolla.  ‘Nough said.

    • 0 avatar
      tech98

      Misguided ‘patriotism’, and local/state/fed government agencies who were compelled to buy American for their fleets, were a big factor in allowing the Pig 3 to get by producing corner-cutting crapmobiles for so long.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    The real revelation occurs when sitting in one of the Omnirizon variants: among the small cars of that era, they were the big ones. While its competitors offered superior fit and finish for their interiors, it was absolutely necessary for them as even small framed individuals were rubbing up against every panel and divider in the cabin. The Omnis were comfortable even for large drivers with decent side clearance for shoulders and arms and the rear seat head and legroom were excellent.

    Having experienced all of the various flavors of available engine types in that chassis, I will say if you’re not driving one of the 2.2 equipped models of any stripe, get rid of it and find one with the only powerplant it ever needed. And what a wonderful engine it was: I believe the regular and turbocharged Omnis were first placed in Showroom Stock C class, but the howls of protest from every other driver (“what’s that? 5 turbos entered? Well, it’s a battle for 6th place, boys”) forced a bump for the turbocharged cars up to SSB, where the waiting Daytonas taught the 800 lbs lighter L-bodies nothing about lap times. I laughed at all the articles in car mags clamoring for a “superlight Daytona” chassis: it already existed in the Omni.
    My favorite moment in an Omni occurred as a passenger; while traveling with a friend’s wife along the treacherous snow covered Utah highway switchbacks in her ’89 Omni America, she ended up sailing past an Audi A4, its driver white-knuckling his way over what to us was a wide open express lane. I recall looking out the side window and being greeted with a look of astonished outrage as what was clearly a horrible little $#!+box of a car was making the other driver’s whiz-bang all wheel drive wonder look bad. Once we were down out of the mountain road areas and only had to deal with the brutal valley crosswinds, we assumed a more sedate pace, which resulted in said A4 driver catching up to us and giving us the big stink-eye look as he performed the European version of the “ricer flyby”.
    And now for the disclaimer. You’ll find no L-body objectivity here; my GLHS is number 053.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the memories, Paul. I was fortunate to have a 1984 Plymouth Turismo — the two-door Horizon — as my first car. A one-owner, “schoolteacher-driven” 68,000 mile example. Dad bought it for me in November 1992 (it was in the running with an ’84 T-Bird Elan… but the Plymouth was cheaper off the wholesale lot at Quality Lincoln-Mercury in Omaha, NE.)

    Performance was non-existent from the 2.2/3-sp auto combo, but that was fine for a newbie driver (of course, I didn’t think so at the time.) With its still-shiny silver paint over charcoal accents, 14″ alloy wheels (shared with several K-Chryslers) and garish “TURISMO 2.2″ tape graphics, it looked sporty as hell sitting in the parking lot at Gross High School. And it had a sunroof!

    Alas, even with fairly low mileage for an 8-year old car, the engine was damn near worn out by the time it came into my possession. I could never keep the carb in tune, and it was tough keeping the car running at warm idle at stoplights. Our family mechanic did all he knew how to keep it running consistently, but failed each time.

    One of those trips to the mechanic came just ahead of a massive December snowstorm. My first experience driving in winter conditions was a true trial-by-ice — inching along in rush hour from the shop at 144th Street, to my home on 42nd Street. I’d had my license two months. For 2 1/2 hours the Turismo taught me all it could about driving on snow and ice, as other cars slid into the median. It got me home safely.

    After eight months and the move to New Mexico, the Turismo was replaced by a new 1992 Geo Storm, that was in every way a lesser vehicle except for one big factor — the engine purred fine, even at the 5,000-ft higher altitude of my new home. The Turismo went to a garage mechanic who was also an L-body enthusiast, and didn’t mind constant tinkering.

    And yes, I would drop the cash in a heartbeat if I found a well-maintained example of that exact car today.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    A friend of mine and I bought an Omni to race in SCCA back in 1988. We got the 2.2/5 speed combo and bought a lot of Direct Connection parts to help the little beast handle well. We took it to a few events in the Pittsburgh region in 1989. IIRC, it wasn’t too bad of a car to work on, but we were new to preparing a car for this kind of racing (dirt track rules in Northeast Ohio), and we spent the majority of 1989 sorting it out and testing. I think I drove the thing like 25 miles or so. We eventually got it to work OK.
     
    But shortly after we started this venture, my wife became pregnant and he got divorced. And to make matters worse, my buddy was diagnosed with cancer the same year. By the summer of 1990, we’d sold the car (at a loss) and my time in SCCA was over. It was fun while it lasted.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    The real revelation occurs when sitting in one of the Omnirizon variants: among the small cars of that era, they were the big ones. While its competitors offered superior fit and finish for their interiors, it was absolutely necessary for them as even small framed individuals were rubbing up against every panel and divider in the cabin. The Omnis were comfortable even for large drivers with decent side clearance for shoulders and arms and the rear seat head and legroom were excellent.

    Having experienced all of the various flavors of available engine types in that chassis, I will say if you’re not driving one of the 2.2 equipped models of any stripe, get rid of it and find one with the only powerplant it ever needed. And what a wonderful engine it was: I believe the regular and turbocharged Omnis were first placed in Showroom Stock C class, but the howls of protest from every other driver (“what’s that? 5 turbos entered? Well, it’s a battle for 6th place, boys”) forced a bump for the turbocharged cars up to SSB, where the waiting Daytonas taught the 800 lbs lighter L-bodies nothing about lap times. I laughed at all the articles in car mags clamoring for a “superlight Daytona” chassis: it already existed in the Omni.

    My favorite moment in an Omni occurred as a passenger; while traveling with a friend’s wife along the treacherous snow covered Utah highway switchbacks in her ’89 Omni America, she ended up sailing past an Audi A4, its driver white-knuckling his way over what to us was a wide open express lane. I recall looking out the side window and being greeted with a look of astonished outrage as what was clearly a horrible little crapbox of a car was making the other driver’s whiz-bang all wheel drive wonder look bad. Once we were down out of the mountain road areas and only had to deal with the brutal valley crosswinds, we assumed a more sedate pace, which resulted in said A4 driver catching up to us and giving us the big stink-eye look as he performed the European version of the “ricer flyby”.

    And now for the disclaimer. You’ll find no L-body objectivity here; my GLHS is number 053.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “Detroit was obsessed with the idea that small cars needed to look like a shrunken Mustang or Camaro. Combined with RWD meant that they were atrociously cramped, especially in the rear. Perhaps they were punishing their buyers for being so stupid to want a small car instead of a real car.”
    As someone who learned to drive stick in a Pinto wagon, I can attest to the truth of that statement.  Just sitting in those penalty boxes you could almost taste Detroit’s contempt for their customers.  If there was any doubt, the exploding Pinto fiasco sealed the deal.

  • avatar
    tonycd


    I owned a ’79 Horizon. My first new car.

    I bought it just before I went away to grad school, to control my car costs. An absolute stripper, no options whatsoever, taxicab vinyl seats and Caucasian-beige paint, priced at exactly $5100 if I recall correctly.

    I was impressed by the technical advancement of FWD and two-box design, I was glad the thing had a VW (still thought reliable at the time) rather than Chrysler engine, and I figured its American origin would make parts and service easier and cheaper.

    I had a friend who knew a German-car mechanic. He quoted the guy as saying he’d put a Rabbit and an Omni/Horizon up on a lift next to each other, and they matched up bolt for bolt. The quality of those bolts, and what they held together (sometimes), turned out to be another matter.

    The car drove decently, although the American-issue carb always meant the car needed cold restarts, and the nonpower but low-effort steering had no self-centering tendency whatsoever (hence the infamous “hands-off” test that led Consumer Reports to declare it a death trap).

    But it popped all kinds of stupid little problems. The door latch would freeze in the winter, forcing me one morning in desperation to tie the door shut with clothesline in order to drive to work. Another time, I shifted into gear only to find the shifter flopping around loosely like a spoon in mashed potatoes. My colorful gas-station guy cheerfully described the problem: “A pin broke at the base of the shifter. Bleepin’ piece o’ pot metal.” Then, his voice rising for emphasis: “It’ll break again.” Another time, the paint on the lip of the wheelwell began to peel off as a sheet – no primer.

    The piece de resistance, though, came at 30,000 miles. I’d just driven a couple hours at 70 on the Interstate through construction zones, separated by oncoming semis by nothing but a barricade. That evening, I was idling at a secluded stop sign when the shifter abruptly became stuck in place. Wouldn’t, couldn’t, move it. The engine continued to idle, undisturbed. Finally my buddy and I pushed it over to the roadside.

    The next day, my gas station guy gives me a call. He can hardly contain his amusement. “Come on over. You got BAD TROUBLES.” I come over. The car is sitting there with the hood open, looking normal enough. “See anything?” Oh goody, he’s turning this into a quiz. I’m just adept enough to change my own plugs and filters. I’m scouring the scene. I see nothing. He exclaims triumphantly, “The bleepin’ engine is layin’ against the firewall!” I’d broken a motor mount. More accurately, you could see by the rust spot on the engine compartment wall that they’d almost entirely missed the weld when they built the car. It took 2-1/2 years for the fragmentary weld to rust through, and then, boom.

    My faith irrevocably broken, I got the thing fixed and immedlately traded it in on a stripped but real Rabbit. This was one of the Pennsylvania “little Oldsmobiles,” but it was still palpably better than its US knockoff in every way, especially its road behavior. Meanwhile, I was writing letters trying to get reimbursement for the fix. Chrysler’s reply was a curt notice that since my 12/12 new car warranty had expired, “naturally you can understand we are not in a position to offer an indefinite warranty.” A follow-up letter brought the empathetic reply, “We consider our file on this matter closed.”

    It was nearly 20 years before I bought American again.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC

      “…carb always meant the car needed cold restarts…”
       
      Ah, I not-so-fondly remember these on practically all carburetted cars of the era.  Start, drive away, stall, pump the gas pedal once or twice, restart, drive, stall, restart… repeat several times.
       
      The usual cause was a mis-adjusted heated automatic choke, a bizarre and fiendish Rube Goldberg-like invention intended to reduce pollution.  There should be a special torture for the idiot(s) who invented the heated automatic choke.
       
      Manual chokes went away because they polluted too much because people wouldn’t adjust them properly and they were inconvenient for most drivers (a bit like manual transmissions).  A thermostatic bimetallic spring could do almost as good a job, every time, by controlling the choke setting when the engine was cold, hot, or in between.  But then some boy-genius green do-gooders figured that automatic chokes didn’t pull off quickly enough once the engine started, resulting in too rich a fuel/air mixture as they warmed up… but an electric heating element run by a timer relay ought to make the choke pull off sooner, reduce CO and HC emissions, and voilà, the heated automatic choke was born!  So much for the old KISS principle…
       
      From about the early seventies until well into the nineties, millions of drivers in cold climates found out that their chokes pulled off WAY too soon, the still-cold engines would lean out and stall- usually at the first stop sign or red light a block from your driveway, and the next stop sign a block later, and the one after that…  Or you could let the car warm up on fast idle for five or ten minutes in the driveway.  Neither of these choices did much for reducing pollution.  Adjusting the automatic choke was usually procedure that involved bending the rod (looked like a piece of coat hanger) between the bimetallic spring and the choke butterfly to change its length.  Shorter or longer would result in coarse fuel/air mixture adjustments on a cold engine.
       
      And we haven’t even got into idle adjustments, Lean Burn…
       
      Just thinking about it makes me want to go get a stiff drink! :)

  • avatar
    fastback

    This is quite funny Tony. 

    My condolences —I’m surprised you went back to American at all. Back in the late 80′s, I used to rent one at a ‘el cheapo’ agency to get myself back from school in Syracuse to N. NJ.  I recall their fleet consisted of solely these Omizons— all from the late 70′s– totally stripped, including the radio in just about every case. 

    The plus was unlimited miles & the 15/day fee.

    Horrible little cars, but they definitely handled Rt. 81 and all the surprised that road thru at us.   good times.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I remember these well.  I can believe the stories posted above, because please recall that this car was one of the final products of the pre-Iacocca Chrysler Corporation.  As badly run as the company was in those final years before the loan guarantees, its amazing that this car turned out as well as it did.
    In the summer of 1980, gasoline was sky high, and my mother decided that she was ready to dump her gas hog 74 LeMans sedan.  She would take a small car “if it was plush” as she said.  She had never owned a Chrysler product, but I took her to show her an Omni.  She really liked the car and tried to buy one.  Not an easy task.  In 1980, this was the only hot vehicle that Chrysler had, and it could not keep up with demand.
    You mention that the engine blocks came from VW, but the problem was a 300k unit maximum under the contract.  VW could sell every Rabbit it could make, and refused to make additional engine blocks available to Chrysler when demand took off.  Anyway, Mom had to order one, then waited.  Recall also that 1980 was a time of double-digit inflation, and prices kept increasing.  So after about 2 months she still had no car and the dealer’s stories were getting harder and harder to believe.  I always suspected that they sold her car off the transport, but never knew.  She finally got her deposit back and went around the corner to the Chry-Ply dealer and found a 2 tone blue Horizon equipped mostly the way she wanted it, and bought it off the lot.
    By 1980, they had fixed the worst problems with these, and it was a decent little car.  It was never as trouble-free as her rear wheel drive cars, though, but not bad for a Mopar of this era.  I too remember the frozen door handles that would break off if you pulled too hard.  Chrysler painted the light blue parts under warranty around 1982 or 3.  In 1985 it had a persistent fuel odor that the shop had trouble finding, and she traded it for a new Crown Victoria.  Her first and last Chrysler product.  But she recalls today that she really liked the car.  It had a rich looking interior and a much better sound system than any of her GM cars had ever had.
    I can agree that these were significant cars.  My biggest memory of these as a Mopar fanboy in the dark days of 1980 was that Chrysler had finally led the industry for the first time in my life, and it felt good.  But by any objective measure, I would rather have the Imperial.  These cars always placated the gods of moderninity, but they were frankly never as good as anything with a slant 6 or torsion bars, at least from a mechanical standpoint.  Sure, they were better than Citations, but this was not really saying much.  I would suspect that a higher proportion of Imperials than Omnirizons exists today, but this would be hard to really prove.  But you are right, Paul, that this was the car that saved Chrysler.

    • 0 avatar
      tonycd

      The top-line version of the car was plush. The seats were done in a well-padded and quite decadent baby-blue velour, worthy of at least a middle manager in the sex industry.
      The car was plagiari…, er, developed before Iacocca, but he took over shortly after its release. He was actually one of the Chrysler execs I futilely wrote to. In The Reckoning, David Halberstam later reported that Iacocca re-institued the 5/50 warranty partly because he recognized that Finance, seeing the liability it created, would be the only entity in the company capabie of applying the necessary pressure on Production to improve their execrable build quality.

  • avatar
    Wagen

    This brings back such memories of the first car I remember as a kid, my mother’s 1980 Horizon, complete with woodgrain contact paper on the dash, an analog clock in the IP that never worked, single idiot light in the IP for anything that could possibly have gone wrong, and mono AM/FM radio. 

    Though the body and interior held up fairly well over 13+ years, its memory for my family was marred by a long line of carburetor and fuel problems which seemed to render it in the shop more than on the road.  What still stands out to me about this car was how large it seemed on the inside (even though it seemed a bit smaller as a teenager in the early ’90s when we got rid of it versus when I was much younger and smaller).  The legroom, headroom, and, to a lesser extent, hip/shoulder room, plus a general feeling of spaciousness, for four people, IMHO, surpassed many cars of today.  Even my MkIV GTI seemed small in comparison.  The next Mopar product we had was one of the first Plymouth Neons in a very basic trim which did evoke a lot of the spirit of the Horizon despite its lack of a hatchback (I guess it could be considered the Horizon’s grandchild, since we skipped the Sundance generation).

    If I had a large enough garage and could find one of the later model years in great condition for the right price, I might just might buy one.  There’s something about it that has value to me for the nostalgia and memories of it all.

    Thanks for the great article, Paul.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    Someone a couple towns over from me here in Connecticut has both a Omni GLH and a Shelby Charger from the same era, both in really good condition and probably not stock. I fondly remember these cars. More than a couple teachers had these when I was in high school so they found their way into our Auto Shop class for cheap oil changes and other maintenance. If I could find a clean example, particularly a GLH, it would be in my driveway.

  • avatar
    lawmonkey

    I love how detailed the posts get on these cars – it’s amazing that we all have fond memories of our first cars, no matter how stripped out they were.  Reading the memories, and remembering what I used to put up with (I mean, who really needs a mirror on the right side, person who designed 1991 Sentra) is always a blast from the past, whereas now I get bothered by a rattle.

    • 0 avatar

      I was always indifferent to these cars, but also Not at all interested, Except to wonder why Shelby Used Them… EESSSSSSSSShelby… they looked like generic cheaper versions of die cast cars trying to compete with Hot Wheels or Matchbox… Majorette… But as a car I remember a freind traded his Montego MX 1975, for a 79 Horizon as I was like WTF? Why this death trap. It felt like a Montego would kill you if it hit the side of the Horizon.  IThis is one of the few cars I have never wanted. Its just generic to me.

  • avatar

    The best comparison would be the Omni vs. the Laser/Daytona k body sports car.  The Omni was solid-way less chassis flex than the Laser.  The Laser had more legroom.
    Much like the Porsche 911/Cayenne problem, the cheaper smaller car was faster.  My 85 GLH Turbo (in Gold Rush) had the same engine, brakes and running gear as the Laser.
    It was crude and had a lot of torque steer but in tight conditions I beat up more than one 944.  There was one day on the infamous Long Island “expressway” where a 911 could not lose me through all of Nassau County. When traffic finally opened up and he pulled away over 80 I’d already made my point.

    The reason you don’t see them is they started cheap, were rode hard and put away wet.  Mine included.
    At the time, it was the fastest car for the $ by a long start.  The 0-60 of 7.5 seconds and the 16.1 quarter I ran at a track were quite respectable times back then.  Today, a minivan can run that, but in the great days of the smogger 80′s, this was ripping fast.

    The GLH-S solved the one problem the GLH had. The base car had no intercooler, so you had great ripping from 0-60 but if you were trying to run hard up a mountain road, the boost dropped back…way back. The GLH S had better seats and the intercooler.

    The car handled surprisingly well, save the torque steer issue. The car came with a set of fat low profile Eagle GT tires, and stuck like glue without being harsh-unusually good tuning at the time. While pre ABS, the big discs would save you from most of yourself.

    I’m still amazed that someone paid Shelby to suggest the lightest and stiffest body on the shelf be gifted the heavy duty running gear. Still, I had a blast.

  • avatar
    majo8

    “Not Acceptable”
     
    Anyone remember the hatchet job Consumer Reports did on these cars back in 1980?  They gave the Omni/Horizon a rating of Not Acceptable for “failing” one of their handling tests.  One of the tests involved yanking the steering wheel hard to one side, while accelerating, and then letting go of the wheel.  In theory, the wheel is supposed to re-center itself rather quickly, but on the Omni, the wheel didn’t and the car would swing from side-to-side a few times before coming under control.  Of course the car is still accelerating while all this side-to-side action is happening.
     
    I don’t understand what they were trying to accomplish with this test.  I know when I try to swerve to avoid danger I usually let up on the accelerator, and do I do my best to keep my hands on the wheel……

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Love the links and the photo comparisons, Paul. It really gets things in perspective. Looking at that C2 prototype, I can’t believe how small and insubstantial it looks. It has a tinny, almost fragile appearance.

    I remember when the Renault 19 was out in the late 80′s, a journalist described the cars from a marketing standpoint. Apparently, the Germans had a thing for cars with wide C-pillars, and the 19 was designed with the Germans in mind to let the French have a foothold on the traditionally nationalistic German market. I don’t know why, but I always think of that when I see the Horizon, it also has that kind of substantially wide C-pillar.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renault_19

  • avatar
    DMala

    I learned to drive in one of these.  It was admittedly a heavily used and abused example, but mostly what I remember was the registrar yelling at the driving instructor when I parked at the end of the test, cut the engine, and it dieseled for about 2 minutes.  That and the fact that I was completely unable to parallel park a larger car for years afterward.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    My first and last ever new car. 1989 Dodge Omni America. They were long on the tooth by then, and the out-the-door price was $6k. Lots of cash on the hood.
     
    The 2.2 was almost too much engine, and the gearing was silly. First was almost useless, but 5th was incredibly tall, because all that motor let it loaf on the highway. I got well over 40mpg on the highway.
     
    The big downside was depreciation. 4 years and 60k miles later, it was worth $600. But, it served me well.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    My parents bought an Omni America, 1988.  It was sky blue with sky blue velour, dark blue dash and door panels.  I ridiculed them and it.  At the time, and due entirely to my parents’ generosity, I drove an 88 Mercury Tracer, also blue, but dark.  Yes, it was the superior car, though my stepdad would point out the Omni had more torque.  My Tracer had more of everything.  It would also have lasted longer than 115K had my then girlfriend (now ex-wife) not driven it into the back of a truck while checking her make-up and changing the radio at the same time…But I digress.

    Fast forward six years, I’m out of college and working a real job.  I have a red MR-2 (second generation) that’s not quite up to the Columbus, Ohio winters.  So my parents bestow upon me their sky blue Omni.  And I gladly accept.

    The Omni had a presence about it that is hard to describe.  It had charm.  The climate control buttons to the left of the steering wheel were a bit odd.  But again, the car had character.  The steering was light, but the position of the non-tilt wheel was perfect.  The gauges were complete.  The three-speed auto, while certainly short a gear, never left me wishing for more.  The engine had a smooth whir to it.  Yes, it was gutless off idle.  But I never minded.  The suspension was big american car soft.  Fit for autocrossing?  Nope.  But I made more than a few road trips in it, and again, it was fine.  Maybe better.  Also, that soft suspension made traversing big speed bumps at laughable speeds — EASY.  The A/C was ice cold and the heater was fantastic.

    The Omni was my first and only real car I didn’t care about.  That made it a lot of fun.  I parked it anywhere, did anything with it.  And I rarely locked it.  The Omni became the friend I could take anywhere, it would handle itself, and I never had to worry about it.

    You could say the Omni was less troublesome than it’s owner, as I was even arrested in it.

    Not for DUI, no. 

    A few weeks prior to my “arrest,” I had gone out with some old Ohio State buddies.  I had parked the Omni and forgotten where  I left it.  When I went back to the spot where I thought it was…the car was “gone.”  Never mind asking who would steal the thing.  It was off-campus Ohio State, where bums will break your windows for the change in your ashtray.  That the Omni was stolen was not that far fetched.

    So I called the police, filed the report, and began a long walk back to my friend’s…when low and behold…I stumbled upon my “stolen” car.  I slapped my head as the previous evening’s fun came rushing back and I remembered that I had moved it to a “safer spot.” 

    I looked both ways for the cops who took my report, then got in and drove home. The nice policeman’s last words to me were:  “Now remember, if you find your car, make sure you call it in, so we can take you off the list…”

    Fast forward two weeks, I’m headed to the south of Columbus to work.  I’m late, and I’m flying down I-71, 80+ in a 65.  Yes, I know, 80+ in an Omni seems as impossible as a stolen Omni.  But it can happen. 

    At any rate, I get pulled over by Columbus’ finest.  I tell the policeman that yes, I know I was speeding, I’m late, please write the ticket so I can get to work.

    Ten minutes pass.  Then twenty.  Then thirty. 

    From above, a large halo of light envelopes my car.  Then a gun enters my passenger window and I’m told “don’t move.”  The next thing I know, I’m spread eagle on the hood of my car.  My employees, who are headed to work, see me getting handcuffed on the side of the freeway, cops all around, and scream “VETO!  They finally got you!!!”

    When the cop ran the plates, the car came back stolen.  I didn’t have my wallet or anything that would provide any proof of ownership.  So my brand new wife had to be called down (I worked midnights) to where I was with my title, registration, etc.  She and the cop had a good laugh at my expense.  I deserved it.  I’ll never forget the look she shot me as she handed the cop my stuff and walked away.  I knew I’d survived the traffic stop, but would never survive her.

    Due to cheap Chrysler steel (and questionable dealer “maintenance”), the sky blue Omni didn’t survive much longer either.  It was a great little car that simply wasn’t built to last much longer than 6-7 years, at least not in any area that saw snow.  The rust around the windshield got to the point that any rain would produce puddles of water on the passenger floor board.  Then the corrosion just spread.

    When my parents bought the Omni, I never thought I’d like that little blue car, but as it turns out I’ll always miss it, and it ranks up there with my favorites

  • avatar
    18726543

    A few years ago, a guy I worked with at a dealership picked up an ’88 (I think) Omni.  It was red on red, 88k miles, absolutely perfect shape, and he got it for free from his friend’s father.  It was to be his new DD since his 89 F350 was getting very expensive to pilot every day.  I remember really admiring how utilitarian and functional the car was.  Simple, no-nonesense, quite large inside, excellent economy…I was sad because I knew this guy was going to murder the thing.  It was in his nature.
     About 5 months later, at a July 4th party and no doubt 3 sheets to the wind, he and his friend decided it would be fun to install (in a VERY makeshift fashion) a 75-shot nitrous kit on the car.  The first pass went surprisingly well.  On the second pass, however, the engine backfired through the intake folding the throttle plate back on itself like a tuna can lid and detonating the plastic air filter housing.  It was a month or two before the Omni saw road use again but it did eventually make it back to regular duty.  Where it is today one can only guess.

  • avatar

    In 1979 my parents bought a new Horizon. It had the 1.7 liter VW engine with the four speed manual transmission and was painted metalic gray with a black, vinyl interior. This is one of the vehicles in which I learned to drive. In 1986 I inhertied this car and drove it for about two years.

    I recall this car being cheap and flimsy. The headliner was made of perforated cardboard. The shifter always had a loose, spongy feel, and the clutch cable broke on regular basis. The car had a little over 100,000 miles when I traded it and by this time it was having carburetor trouble.

    My parents bought this car at a time when a lot of people were downsizing their vehicles. This was shortly after the 1979 energy crisis and the gas shortages that summer. My parents traded a huge, Ford station wagon for the Horizon. At the time they had three teenagers. The Horizon got better gas mileage than the Ford wagon, but it wasn’t as nice as a family car. They later bought a larger car for use on long trips.

  • avatar
    mazder3

    Paul, you’re really outdoing yourself here. Two instant classic curbside classics back to back!

  • avatar
    Mark_Miata

    I had the privilege (if you can call it that) of doing a Rabbit/Horizon long-term comparison test back in the early 1980s.  I owned a Rabbit when I married my first wife – she had an Omni.
     
    As far as reliability goes, it was a tossup – both cars drove us crazy with niggling repairs.  The Rabbit needed constant carb rebuilds (until I put a Pinto carb conversion on it), snapped a timing belt (no big deal as it was a non-interference design), and had an engine mount weld come apart for no apparent reason.  I finally sold it when the clutch went and bought a 1962 Bug and felt like I had moved up in the world.
     
    The Omni also had constant carb problems, had failed brakes several times (different parts), and finally gave up the ghost when the automatic trans blew up (must have been an exception to the rule).  We tried to buy a new 1985 Honda Civic, but could not afford the payments plus insurance, so we got another new Omni with her parents’ help.  She was still driving it when we divorced, so I have no idea what happened to that one.
     
    The Rabbit handled better and was more fun to drive, but was inferior to the Omni in cruising on long freeway trips.  The Omni was more plush and felt less tinny, but the Rabbit had a more useful interior – the folding rear seats made for a huge load capacity when combined with the hatchback.
     
    I just happened to buy a 1985 Honda Civic as a used car in the mid-1990s after marrying my second wife – much like her, it was far superior to it’s predecessor in every way.  It’s no wonder the Japanese took over the American market – that Honda, even with 140.000 miles on it, was better than either the Omni or the Rabbit.

  • avatar
    denvertsxer

    Yep, my dad ordered one of these sight-unseen to replace our ill-fated Volaré, which had replaced the ’73 Imperial (hmmm… bit of a trend there). The Omni was the base model, but had a rockin’ AC (like most Mopars) and the three-speed auto. I don’t remember any powertrain problems, but the build quality was less than stellar. As somebody mentioned, the outside door handles were crap; and I remember the rubber bumper ends being a continual issue. In fact, my Mom drove the car on her rural mail route and dogs used to bite the bumper ends off.

    The Omni put in a lot of very punishing miles on that mail route on some of the worst roads in the county. It was a tough lil’sumbich. Also used to blast across the pasture in it chasing cattle if dad wasn’t home with the pickup. And this was when it was still in its prime — only a year or two old. Oh, I just remembered! We drove it on a 2,000 mile round trip to the Grand Canyon with — get this — four adults (one of whom was pregnant), myself at age 15 or so, and my little brother age 10. Plus all our luggage! To this day I don’t know how we did it, but we did. Drove it up the hill at Snowbowl in Arizona too with all of us in it — except when some of us got out to help push other cars up the icy hill.

    It was also the first car I ever dented. Ah, good times.

    Damn, these CCs really bring back the memories for all of us. Thanks Paul!
     

  • avatar
    packard

    Omni was reverse engineered from the Fiat Ritmo (Fiat Strada in USA).  In 1979 Strada  had the highest NHTSB safety rating -head on crash testing.  Might have something to do with location of spare tire in the engine compartment.  My father purchased a Strada in 1979 and was driven until 1995.  Overall car ran very well- we did replace the carb with an Italian aftermarket unit.  The 1980 and 1981 Stradas got Bosch fuel injection resulting in much better performance.
     
     

  • avatar
    JMII

    Alot of similar stories here… add me to the list of kids that learned to drive via mom’s Omni back in the early 80s. And yes mom’s previous car was (you guessed it) a black VW Rabbit. The thing I remembered about the Rabbit was the door panels were so thin it was like they were vinyl stickers. Dad complained that anything that broke on it cost 10X too much and took 2 weeks to get since it came via boat from German so it had to go, replaced by a silver Omni. However I remember the Rabbit seemed very solid, were as the Omni creaked and squeaked all the time. The Omni had a nice interior in comparison to the spartan Rabbit. However the shifter in the Omni was like a wet stick in soft mud – total mush, it was only after owning my 2nd car (an ’85 Civic S 1500) that I realized how wonderful Honda’s transmission were. I took my driver’s test in the Omni as it was small and easy to park. I never it got out of 3rd gear and the instructor with me asked if I knew the car had an addition gear, I told him yes but shifting into 4th and I’d be “speeding” since the entire driving test took place in a parking lot. I still reserve a special place in my heart for that little Omni, and just knowing that Dodge was crazy enough to put a turbo and side skirts on one shows this car was a true America original.

  • avatar
    catbert430

    My girlfriend in 1978 started nursing school and her father offered to buy her a car as long as it was not more than $5,000.
    It was her first car and she wanted a brand-new one.

    She fell in love with the new Plymouth Horizon and bought a base model with A/C, Automatic, and an AM/FM radio as the only options.

    She was very happy with it until the first big rainstorm.  She was parked on the roof of the hospital garage and, when she opened the door, a foot and a half of water rushed out.

    I advised her to demand a new car but, things didn’t work that way in 1979.  The C/P dealer repaired the faulty weather seals and the car was, surprisingly, trouble-free after that.

    She relocated to Arizona in 1982 and we packed the trusty little Horizon for the trip from Pittsburgh to San Diego and Ensenada for a vacation before driving back to Scottsdale to meet up with the moving van.

    This was, as i mentioned, the base model and had seats that looked like they belonged in a Tijuana taxi.  The bottom cushions were so flat and flaccid that we were in utter butt-agony 2 hours into the long trip.  We stopped at one of those surgical supply drugstores in Columbus and bought some thick eggcrate foam to sit on and that cured the problem.

    The little car made the trip all the way cross-country and even to Mexico without problem.

    The last time I visited her in Scottsdale was in 1984 and she still had that Horizon.  The desert air had been kind to it and it was doing fine.  I must have had at least 5 different cars during that time.

    There is a couple in my parents’ neighborhood in Pittsburgh that still have 2 early Omnis in their driveway.  I see them every time I go back there for a visit.

    It seems like most of the Omnirizons died young but, a proud few are surviving indefinitely.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    A little late to the party, but I had experience with a ’79 white Horizon (the word Horizon was scripted, not the block letters of the later years).  My father bought an employee a new company car, and this was it.  He purchased it in the end of July, and as I was off to college in one month, he let me use it until I went away.  Regarding the structural stiffness, it was lacking a bit.  I recall driving it over a fairly radical driveway apron and I could hear the structure creak.  The 4 speed had the accuracy of an oar handle in a bucket of bolts, but it did work.  That shifter cable would be replaced three times in the life of the car.  This was my introduction to a manual transmission car.  My dad had dealer-installed A/C added; the controls were two little knobs to the right of the wheel.  The little black bezel actually had a pentastar on it!
    Fast forward to ’89:  The car was being retired from Company service.  I took it from my dad and said I would sell it.  Whatever I got for it would be mine.  I pounded the crap out of it for a week or so.  It was pretty easy to light up those tiny 13 inch wheels.  Despite 140K it was still in decent condition.  No rust at all.  I remember from those college years in upstate NY, most cars were Swiss cheese after 5 years in the Syracuse salt (early 80s).  These cars resisted rust better than most did.  I fixed the creases in the doors with bondo – white paint really hides a multitude of sins – and proceeded to try to sell it.  Most were turned off by the mileage, but finally a guy came to buy an extra car for his family.  This guy stunk from beer but he bought it, especially impressed that it came with a full tank of gas!  I went home with $600  for my troubles.  So I got to see the beginning and end of one of these.

  • avatar
    ltcmgm78

    The first new car I purchased was a light metallic green 1978 Plymouth Horizon.  I learned a lot from my ownership experience.
    I bought the car new from Preston Chrysler-Plymouth in Dallas from an older salesman named Ted Solis.  It was the cheapest car on the lot.  No A/C, no tinted windows.  All black interior.  AM=only radio.  He said they would add A/C for me and it would be just like factory!
    The day I was to pick up the car, Ted called me to tell me they had hooked the car up to a diagnostic machine (one of the first Chryslers to have a diagnostic connector) and discover the alternator was faulty.  I had to wait a day to drive it off the lot.
    Other problems followed.  The synchronizer between third and fourth gear broke, so there was only neutral if you selected that gear.  The three non-driver’s door outside door latches broke so those doors would only open from the inside.  The “factory” A/C didn’t drain condensation effectively because they didn’t make an angle cut in the drain hose.  The A/C only drained if the car was stopped.  Later one of the transaxle seals failed.  The mechanic at the Plymouth dealer suggested I look at one of the new K-cars but I had had enough MoPar bad experiences by then.
    Put about 60,000 on it and traded it on a 1981 Ford Fairmont coupe with a five-speed manual and the 2.3L engine.  Much better car, but not as quick as the Horizon.

  • avatar

    I purchased a 1980 Dodge Omni this last year with only 66k on the odometer for $700, It’s the cleanest example that I, and most other I’ve shown it to, have ever seen(minus paintwork). I only drive it around town, and it may have some carb problems now and then… but on a good day when it starts fine, and I take it through the canyon… its the most enjoyable little car I have ever driven and I wouldn’t give it up for $1million

  • avatar
    Stingray

    Chrysler decided small cars should look like a trucky SUV
     
    Before that, they decided they should look like a futuristic rocket, and made the Neon. Which was also high in interior space, good on gas, nice handlers.
     
    I think you should make a CC on the 1st gen one, also the 2nd gen, even when those 2 are still too new.


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