By on January 2, 2010

three vintage japenese mobiles in front of a vintage spanish-immobile

On Sunday, we hit the road back home to Eugene. I’ve shot more cars than I’ve had time to post, and we’ll come back to some of them soon, like on a coming President’s birthday (hint). I’m going to keep throwing up a few posts from my hangout at Peet’s in Half Moon Bay, until Stephanie is finished doing her thing. So let’s start (or end, depending) with this 1981 Dodge Challenger. And don’t overlook this triple CC: the Toyota van and a Mitsubishi/Dodge pickup in the driveway.

the un-challenger

Obviously, when folks think “Dodge Challenger”, they tend to think of the original and the current one. But in between was the gen2 Challenger, a rebadged Mitsubishi Galant Lancer sold as the Plymouth Sapporo and this Dodge Challenger from 1978 through 1983. And there were two versions of this car; the pre-’81, and the ’81 and on, like this one. I’ve got a cherry early version Sapporo in the can, but when I found this second series Challenger, it was show-and-tell time.

CC SM74 105 800

These Mitsu coupes were pretty garish in their first incarnations: padded half-vinyl roofs; bright landau bands, carriage lights, garish colors and over-stuffed interiors; they were trying way too hard to be down-sized Chrysler Cordobas or Dodge Miradas. But the second series, like this ’81, took a decidedly sportier turn: cleaner flanks, a “normal” roof, and lots of graphics to suggest a sporty demeanor. Did it work?

CC SM74 106 800

Now here’s an interesting thought: all three generations of Challengers came with “hemi” engines, although only the first two were true hemis. We all know about the legendary 426 hemi available in the ’70 and ’71 Challengers; in reality very few were actually built that way. And the current Chrysler “hemi” isn’t really a true hemi; its combustion chamber is best described as a modified pent roof, since a true hemispherical chamber runs too dirty for smog regs. But the Mitsu 2.6 four, like so many fours back then, had hemispherical heads; not that it resulted in anything too dramatic in terms of actual performance. But why didn’t they put big HEMI badges on this little puppy?

CC SM74 107 800

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18 Comments on “Curbside Classic CA Vacation Sunday’s Posts On Saturday Edition: 1981 Dodge Challenger...”

  • avatar

    The bigger deal with these engines wasn’t the hemi head but the balance shafts Mitsu used to keep vibrations in check in this large-displacement four (“Silent Shaft”). It worked so well that Porsche cribbed it for their 2.5-liter 944 engine and paid royalties to Mitsubishi.

  • avatar

    The interior is terrifically 80s-tastic.  Love the ribbed fabric.
    Does anyone know what the joy-stick/switch thing in the center console is for?  I see roll-down windows and manual seat levers, so its unlikely that its a power mirror operator (or early ’80s iDrive, for that matter).

    • 0 avatar

      I think it is a mirror control.  The Japanese could come up with odd combinations of equipment back then.

    • 0 avatar

      On Datsuns, a joystick was used to control the stereo balance/fader.

    • 0 avatar

      Must be mirror control, as I don’t think it’s a suspension switch between Comfort, Normal anf Sport.

    • 0 avatar

      It is a mirror control.  My mom had an ’81 just like this one when I was little, red and everything.  I remember her always getting mad at me for playing with the controller and ruining her side view as we went down the highway.  Definitely odd given the manual everything else.  I also remember wondering why it looked so much like the Mustang, even in the 80’s when I was tiny.  
      She had it for a good, long time, and it was a very reliable car.  For it’s day it was a pretty sharp design too… nice pillarless windows. It’s a perfect example of an 80’s car that will go down in the books as an abomination to its heritage, but was actually pretty good for its day.

  • avatar

    One of the few really good looking Japanese cars of that era – I always thought they were underrated.

  • avatar

    Shoot I thought it was an Escort EXP from about 1982 when I saw it!  Why do all small car designs back then look so derivative of each other?

    • 0 avatar

      It’s because back then they had only so many designs in their bag of tricks. 25 years on, the subtle differences fade and all you see is the basic shape and framework. The same thing happens with pop music, which is why all ’50s doo-wop music sounds the same to me although my father says it isn’t.

  • avatar

    We had our share of these in our driveway in the early 80’s, they were much fun to a 16 year old especially with a 5-spd. Dad had a solid red 82 as a demo back then. Good times!

  • avatar

    But why didn’t they put big HEMI badges on this little puppy?
    Some of the early K based Chrysler cars that used this engine did have a fender tag that said in small letters “HEMI 2.6.”  The concept of the counter rotating balance shafts worked well to quell vibration but if remember correctly the oil pump was driven off the balance shaft and breakage of the chain drive, which resulted in oil pressure loss, was common in high mileage engines.  Were any 2.6 engines ever fuel injected?  My mothers 2.6 had a Mikuni carb which, like many early feedback carbs of the day, was really unreliable and expensive.
    Keep the offbeat cars coming!  I appreciate a typical classic car as much – maybe more – than most but I really like seeing this stuff!!  Keep it up!!

  • avatar

    If you cover up everything from the front wheels back that front end could pass for an ’82 Mustang. Same quad lamps, same blackout treatment, same number of rows in the egg-crate grille.
    Somebody call Oliver Stone!

    • 0 avatar

      When I was a teenager (15+ years ago now) a couple of friends that weren’t really auto enthusiasts went to the drag races with me.  Every time a Mustang went down the strip, they’d tell me that was the kind of car their grandmother drove.  I said I didn’t believe their grandmother drove a Mustang.  Sure enough, when I finally saw it, it was one of these Mitsubishi-based Challengers.  That was the first time I took a close look at one of these rebadged imports.  Even now, I’m just as disgusted that they’d put the Challenger name on this car as I was then.  I’m almost glad that Chrysler canned Plymouth so they can’t deface the Barracuda and Fury names.

  • avatar

    I believe that is an ’82 or ’83.  My first car was a 1981 Challenger, and it had a louver covering half of the rear quarter windows, similar to the pre-’81 style.

    Speaking of the windows, I remember loving the true “hard top” nature of this car– rolling both the front and rear windows down and it was a pretty retro, cool look (not to mention breezy!)  Very few cars offered that, perhaps because the window-to-window seal left much to be desired, especially at higher speeds.

    I always held a special place in my car-loving heart for that car.   It was a nice handling, good looking, rwd, quality built car.  It turned a few heads back in the 80’s, too.  What more could a 17 year old want?

  • avatar

    A truly ‘reactive’ vehicle to the oil embargo – but it served to carry the “Challenger” badge for a while. My buddy had a Colt pickup (that I believe had the same engine) – It served him well enough.
    Love the matching stereo…

  • avatar

    Fantastic find. There was one around here going for cheap that I desperately wanted to buy but had too many beaters at the time.

  • avatar

    Wh, Wh, Wh, What, what,


    If I didnt know better…
    Ida thought it was a early Fox body Mustang with some awful badge work.. and a early messed up rear clip.

  • avatar

    Couldn’t they have called it something other than Challenger? This should have been a Chrysler deadly name sin if there ever was one for this under performing pony dog show of a car that was anything but a Challenger. The oil burning 2.6 POS was capable of strolling to 60 in 11-12 seconds which any good Mustang or Camaro Z-28 could out perform, even the low point 1982 edition with it’s weak carbed 145 HP 305 V8! And that was assuming it would accelrate at all for the light weight and RWD configuration made it all but impossible to take off on any surface that was snow covered or slippery! The exterior tried too hard to be Japans version of a Chrysler. It didn’t work then and it still doesn’t today. The interior was a mass of black lunged ribbing and I rememeber riding in numerous examples of this time period with warped dashes from the sun, center consoles that wobbled more than a drunk lady and lots of ill fitting pieces. If this exact car were made by Chrsyler I would bet that it would be under the Deadly Sin series faster than this slug could accelerate from a stop sign.

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