By on December 3, 2013

01 - 1996 Plymouth Neon Expresso Down on the Junkyard - Picture Courtesy of Murilee MartinThe Neon sold in respectable numbers during its 1995-2005 production run, most Detroit cars in high-turnover self-serve wrecking yards are 12-15 years old, and so you’ll see many, many Neons in such yards these days. Most of the time, Neons are just junkyard background noise to me as I look for interesting cars to photograph for this series; I’ll shoot a rare Neon R/T, but that’s about it. Still, something about the dot-com-boom optimism of the Expresso trim level catches my attention, so I paused to document this ’96 in its final parking spot.
05 - 1996 Plymouth Neon Expresso Down on the Junkyard - Picture Courtesy of Murilee MartinThese cars were cheap and had a bit more power than their similarly priced imported competitors, but they never built up much of a popular reputation for longevity.
04 - 1996 Plymouth Neon Expresso Down on the Junkyard - Picture Courtesy of Murilee MartinThere was a time when 16-valve four-cylinder engines were exotic, as were 5-speeds and fuel injection.
11 - 1996 Plymouth Neon Expresso Down on the Junkyard - Picture Courtesy of Murilee MartinThis car has the automatic, though. Note the cheerful party-style seat fabric.

Because I spend a lot of time watching low-budget race cars clank around road courses, I think of the Neon as a very good cheap racer— quicker and more reliable than most Japanese LeMons cars, and of course there’s that incredible junkyard parts selection. Here’s in-car video from one of those Neons in action.

It’s a pretty hot little number!

Neon-style cuteness was definitely out in the minds of car marketers of the 21st century, and so the Neon’s successor got ads like this. Stupid little fairy!

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43 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1996 Plymouth Neon Expresso...”

  • avatar

    That is a funny commercial for the Caliber. I forgot about that bad ass bass riff Dodge had in their ads. I had a Neon for a loaner more than once and they weren’t bad little cars. Not at all.

  • avatar

    Takes me back to the day.

  • avatar

    Coming home from Thanksgiving dinner I saw a similar vintage 2-door Neon traveling up the interstate. I didn’t even remember them being made with 2-doors. It had a decent look to it though, and that car wasn’t totally trashed.

    You use to see Neon’s everywhere. Not so much these days, especially the 1st gen. When you have old cars, and drive some of them a lot, something from the 90’s doesn’t really seem that old, but more and more, these things are starting to look ancient compared to what’s out today.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “There was a time when 16-valve four-cylinder engines were exotic, as were 5-speeds and fuel injection.”

    That time was 1985. By 1995, those specs were pretty much “Hey, thanks for showing up”. The Neon is another in a long line of domestic cars that looked good on a spec sheet at the auto show, but were apparently made from surplus Warsaw Pact-grade dog food.

    • 0 avatar

      What didn’t have “16 Valve DOHC” or similar decals in the 80s and early 90s? Almost as common as “TURBO” decals on turbo cars and “4×4” or “AWD” decals on off-roading vehicles…

      • 0 avatar
        Land Ark

        My 1997 Audi A6 bragged about its Quattro system, but was oddly quiet about its 12 valve V6.

        • 0 avatar

          Huh, I didn’t know Audi used Quattro decals that late…I know you can still get Audis with the “four circles” decal.

          • 0 avatar

            The “four circles” is their emblem. What are you talking about?

            Four circles stickers and Quattro stickers? They still use Quattro in the grilles. And on the rear end.

          • 0 avatar

            @ CoreyDl

            I think he is talking about the Audi emblem door decals, hon.

            IIRC those decals went well into the 90’s. They may have them even now…not a huge Audi fan but I ADORE the 80’s Quattro.


          • 0 avatar

            Thanks, we sorted it out below already.

  • avatar

    Oh the memories this brought back!

    When I was about 10 years old (this car would’ve been a new model then), I’d be riding around in my mom’s baby blue Plymouth Voyager, and I’d see an Expresso driving around town regularly. It was purple-blue with lime green Expresso decals. I loved the font on the Neon name, and the lime green stickers really did it for me. I thought it was such a cool, sporty little car. I’m sure I told her I wanted one, several times.

    But then by high school time (00-04) a couple kids had 1st gen ones, and they didn’t seem cool any more. And I said pffft to them as I passed in my steel blue, lifter-ticking Audi 5000.

  • avatar

    Oh nice. A flatbill Neon driver!
    Most likely a chick.

  • avatar

    Had an early build ’95 with the five speed. Fun to drive, quick. Not quiet. One head gasket in 217,000 miles. Much better car than my ’11 Fiesta. The Plymoth should have been how it was, cheap and plastic, the Dodge should have had a nice interior at about $3K more.

  • avatar
    Dirk Stigler

    Cancelling the Neon should be considered one of Chrysler’s deadly sins. Sure, it was universally and fairly seen as cheap and unrefined, but it had more power than the competition, there were people who raced it, and it became a perfectly legitimate nameplate by the end of its run.

    Then they dropped both the car and the name and replaced it with the ersatz-SUV Caliber, later hurriedly squeezed into a more carlike shape a few years later. Now they have the Dart, which doesn’t in any way remind anyone of the old Dart, but does happen to be a dead-on modern interpretation of the Neon in both spirit and styling. Why didn’t they call it a Neon?

    • 0 avatar

      Why would any buyer of a compact car in 2013 want to be reminded of the original Dodge Dart? Even from a classic car nostalia standpoint, they’re pretty stodgy.

      As Phil says, Noens weren’t completely awful cars, but they developped a reputation as a crapwagon, which in my opinion was often due to their owner demograhic and how they were cared for. The early head gasket issues didn’t help either.

    • 0 avatar

      “Now they have the Dart, which doesn’t in any way remind anyone of the old Dart, but does happen to be a dead-on modern interpretation of the Neon in both spirit and styling. Why didn’t they call it a Neon?”

      Because most of us still remember the head gasket, wheel bearing, fragile suspension and other issues of the earlier Neons. it was so bad that (in Canada at least) Chrysler changed the name from Neon to Dodge 2.0 in 2002 or thereabouts.

      Still our daughter’s 2001 example, as unreliable as it has been, was an improvement over the two Cavaliers her biological father bought for her.

      The new Dart looks promising, and I hope it proves to be a long-term success with dependability and durability that can finally compete with (or even eclipse) anything Japan or Korea can throw at us.

  • avatar

    That three speed automatic dates to 1981 and is essentially the same automatic you’d find in a 1978 Dodge Omni. Now that was a deadly sin in 1996. There’s a very, very good reason the only people who remember these fondly are the ones who prefer 3 pedals.

    • 0 avatar

      There were a lot of el cheapo compacts that still had 3 speeds up until the end of the millenium, like the Corolla. Not that it makes it any more OK.

    • 0 avatar

      On the other hand, what the 3-speed lacked in goodness, it made up in being semi-reliable. As of ’95, Chrysler was still having trouble with 4-speeds, sticking with the archaic transmission might’ve saved the Neon from being remembered as an even bigger crapwagon than it was.

  • avatar

    I hate it when people call coffee “expresso” and the name of this car just perpetuates that.

  • avatar

    I actually kind of liked these cars when they were new. Cheap and cheerful, as opposed to Cavaliers and Escorts that were cheap and awful. Or Corollas that were neither. But other than the occasional Gen2, I doubt there has been one in a Maine junkyard in the past 5+ years, those Gen1 cars are GONE from around here. Rampant rusters, if the headgaskets didn’t get them first.

    Given enough engine, a 3 speed slushbox is just fine, and Neons had more than enough engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Disagree. On paper, 132hp was a mindboggingly high amount of horsepower for a base economy car, but in real life, the extremely tall gearing (unavoidable, i guess, with only 3 speeds), and this motor’s particular torque curve made this car feel lazier than my 94 shadow 2.2 (a ground pounding 93hp). Well, until you got it north of 4,000 rpm. Parents had one (’96 Highline 4dr?) when I had my Shadow.

      IIRC, Consumer Reports (take with a grain of salt, I know) got a real-life 0-60 (no brake torquing, no neutral drops) of 11.8 seconds with the 3 speed auto. That is truly pathetic, even for an economy car in the late 90s. Especially for one that had more power than most of its competitors (on paper) for a good deal of its first generation run.

      Oh, if only Chrysler had a reliable, economically viable version of the A604 available for this car before 2000….

      Killer, KILLER stock stereo though. Those stock 6X9s in the back sure could thump…..

      • 0 avatar

        I met a guy who used to own a DOHC Neon coupe with some serious engine work and a five speed, and that thing was a total monster, only done in by the head warping multiple times. He also ripped a couple hundred pounds of weight out of the car, so it was pretty much a track car he chose to drove on the street. Something like 250 horsepower and 2500 pounds? Probably kept warping the head because of super high compression.

        • 0 avatar

          Yeah, even in STOCK form, the SOHC 5 speed stick version got times in the low 8s, high 7s to 60—I mean, a 3 freaking second difference between Auto and Stick???? That should tell ya how bad those ratios were for this engine.

  • avatar

    It’s Expresso with its full capabilities. Now it’s livin’ in recycling facilities.

  • avatar
    Toy Maker

    My family bought one of those in 96 when we first immigrated to the West.

    It did have a lot of power compared to the rest of the segment, but that 3-speed auto is death.
    The shape never grew on me, too long of a body for such stub noises and butt. IMO the neon concept car had a better proportion and much more congruent.

    That stock radio had some bass, though. Great for blasting Metallica as a teenager.

    5 years in and although virtualy problem free, my dad finally admits he hated the neon and traded it for something more upscale looking… a 2001 neon 2.0.

    Unfortunately for my dad, that 2001 was a lemon through and through. Insane windnoise (it whistles!) , squealing/warped brake rotor (serviced 10 times), stripped sunroof gear (need to replace entire unit.. $1,500), leaks..
    Last straw was when the rear drum brake reservoir blew up on me on the highway. Fun times trying stop a highway car with 3 speed transmission and handbrake.

    That neon green logo was quite nice, though.

  • avatar

    To my Brazilian eyes, the Neon always looked quite interesting. they did cut quite a figure here.

  • avatar

    Went to two junkyards today just for fun. Not much to report though. An interesting old school Subaru turbo sedan (did they really still put the spare there inches above the snail??) 3 TPI F bodies (never even seen one before when I owned one and was looking!) and a bunch of old iron probably dragged at long last out of somebodies field well past any hope of restoration.

  • avatar
    Offbeat Oddity

    I bought a used 1998 Dodge Neon with 80,000 miles back in 2004. I drove it for 6 years and sold it to my grandma when it hit 115,000 miles (I didn’t do that much driving). Other than a small oil leak and regular maintenance, the car was very reliable. I had it outside all of those 6 years, with winters that could get to 30 below, and the car started up every time. My grandma’s still driving it now, and it has held up pretty well.

    I still miss that car, as it was fun to drive and peppy enough for my needs. The design has held up very well, imo.

  • avatar

    I had a ’95 Altima. I wish the paint on it held up as well as that Neon. It even has fewer dents than my old Altima.

  • avatar

    I drove a 1995 2 door Dodge Neon Sport in high school. That thing survived 3 teenage drivers (after the head gasket went out a month after we bought it, of course). I think it finally kicked the bucket around 180k.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Makes me kinda sad to see that. (Yes, the “hi” ads worked on me.)

    I always liked the Neon from a distance, and came within minutes of buying a new one in 2000. But a call home (at the prompting of my 11-year-old daughter who was with me) killed the deal when my wife put the hate on spending the money. She is a wise woman. In hindsight, I was probably better off.

    Now Neons are so old I wouldn’t even consider one for my kids.

  • avatar

    Takes me back too. I washed cars for the local Mopar dealership when I was in high school. They sold a ton of these. I remember the bright neon green colored keys and those “Hi” ads most. As I recall, they weren’t bad to drive, especially with the manual. A little loud, but decent power for the day.

  • avatar

    @CoreyDL: I’ve seen Audis with the Audi emblem as a decal, usually behind the rear doors ahead of the rear wheels, though the classic Ur-Quattro had them on the front doors. I’ve also seen Audis with quattro decals in similar locations, but not really newer ones.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah! The newest version of that sort of thing I’ve seen is a Quattro decal on the front lower doors of a 1st gen TT. It looked factory.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m surprised I don’t see more decal-ed up Audis around here. Volkwagen owners in my age group do the dumbest things with their cars…novelty German plates stuck by the A-pillars, 80 decals on the rear windows, Mercedes “monobloc” wheels (or even worse, late C4 Corvette wheels), airbag suspension, and, of course, stancing.

  • avatar


    I’ve been frequenting this blog for years and this series has consistently been one of my very favorite not only on TTAC but on any blog I read. Thanks for producing such a compelling, consistently interesting series.

    Love the types of cars you pick for this. Oftentimes it is your more ‘odd’ choices that really fascinate me; in particular the econoboxes and other mainstream cars which are not necessarily what enthusiasts would gravitate towards.

    The main reason I love this series is because oftentimes, through both your own writing, as well as the comments, I gain access to how these cars were perceived of when they first debuted, rather than through the lens of the present.

    I do occasionally wish you would expand on things just a bit more. Like this line: “Still, something about the dot-com-boom optimism of the Expresso trim level catches my attention, so I paused to document this ’96 in its final parking spot.”

    I am fascinated by this line, but so badly want to know more! Was the Expresso trim the top- or bottom-level trim? In what WAY does it seem optimistic? Do you mean that a car this “cute” could only come about when the country as a whole is feeling very happy/optimistic, a la the dot com boom?

    None of this stuff is totally clear, but its exactly the kind of info I love getting from TTAC–understanding cars in their own contemporary context rather than my own looking back on them in relation to the cars I see on the road today.

    In any case, I don’t mean to be overly critical. Just a fan of your series that can’t get enough of what you’ve got to say about all these long-forgotten, rolling works of art.

    Thanks again, Murilee, and keep up the great work.

  • avatar

    I LOVE the junkyard finds. Hopefully, one day, you’ll post one and i’ll be harassing you with email’s on where I can buy it :)

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