By on June 27, 2014

08 - 1981 Dodge Colt Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinBy the final years of the Malaise Era, Chrysler had their econobox needs covered on the one hand by much-modified rebadged Simcas, and on the other by not-at-all-modified rebadged Mitsubishis. These cars were no worse than their Ford and GM competitors (which isn’t saying much), but the inherent cheapness of the 4th-gen Mitsubishi-built Colt meant that most of them weren’t worth fixing after about 1992, and these cars are rare indeed nowadays. In this series, we’d seen just one example of this generation of Colt/Mirage/Champ prior to today’s find.
05 - 1981 Dodge Colt Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThis one was parked illegally in Hayward, California, and the owner couldn’t or wouldn’t rescue it before the tow-truck man came to take it on its last ride.
09 - 1981 Dodge Colt Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinBy any sort of 21st-century standards, these cars sucked. They were noisy, rattly, slow, and broke down a lot. However, we are now living in the Golden Age of Miserable Little Econoboxes, where even the diminished-expectations Versa and Spark are perfectly pleasant transportation applicances, and so it just isn’t fair to apply 21st-century standards to the ’81 Colt.
01 - 1981 Dodge Colt Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinJust imagine you’re listening to Debbie Harry “rap” about Fab Five Freddy on the AM radio and getting 40 mpg in the grim years after the Ayatollah jacked up gas prices and this car makes more sense.
11 - 1981 Dodge Colt Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinNot much attempt was made to obscure the Japanese origins of this car, though the same could not be said of the French origins of the Omni/Horizon.

Perhaps Chrysler should have gone with the Japan-market ads for this car.

Imported for Dodge!

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

44 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Dodge Colt...”

  • avatar

    These and Plymouth Champs I considered the cleanest and best looking econo hatches back in the day. I loved my silver ’78 Fiesta S, but never thought it was beautifully styled on the exterior. When the Colts were revised later, I hated the long snoutish hood. Then it seemed as awkward as the Chevrolet Uplander’s.
    I just googled the ’93 Colt and it doesn’t seem so offensive. Your presentation today shows how my perception has changed in 20 years. It looks cheap, uncrashworthy and not that handsome after all. I forgot about the two-speed transaxle, but it doesn’t have it anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      I always thought the Fiesta was a good looking little hatch, but I did like the Colt too. Check out that greenhouse! It’s almost awkwardly tall, but what visibility.

    • 0 avatar

      I actually liked the styling of the Fiesta as well. It was kind of a nice blend of Rabbit and Scirocco in one practical package.

  • avatar

    My folks had an 81 Plymouth Champ LS, new. Learned to drive a stick on it, a few years later.

    I still think of those cars fondly, and still think they are pretty good looking (for a penalty box). Th 2 speed transaxle was neat, and I also dug the presence of gauges for oil/batter instead of just a light.

    Yep, I’d drive one :)

    • 0 avatar

      My folks traded in their 73 Plymouth Satellite for a 79 Colt. I remember they paid $3900 for it. I lraned to drive in ours too, Also a stick. My Mom drove that thing into this mellenium, then gave it to my brother. It had around 300k on it. (rebuilt once)

  • avatar

    I have fond memories of these cars. My father had a Plymouth Champ of slightly earlier vintage, and it was the most reliable car my family had ever owned up to that point (previous vehicles being “real” Dodge and Simca ones). The Champ only broke down once – a broken clutch cable – during 10+ years and 200K+ miles of use. The paint on the roof did turn white (peel?) and the front seat-back latch failed, but considering it was never washed and wasn’t coddled, that seemed understandable. I learned to drive in it, and my only gripe was it was underpowered. As a teenager, I was blown away by the high-tech and nicely integrated dashboard and instrumentation and the dual gear shifter, as well as the smooth sound of the engine and transmission compared to the domestics of the era.

    It was definitely not crash-worthy. I recall seeing one that’d been rear-ended while parked on the street by a drunk. The back bumper was essentially pushed into the front seatbacks.

    My father was actually a fan of domestic Chrysler products, and was tricked by the dealership salesman into thinking this was an American car. He was mad when he later learned it was a Japanese import. But, after years of reliable and economical service, he was so impressed he started buying Japanese brands after that. My experiences with using that car and my mother’s unreliable 1st Gen Ford Escort that left us literally stranded numerous times, resulted in me switching from having a “Buy American” philosophy to buying Japanese cars when I became an adult, too.

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds like my dad. Around 1980, we went car shopping. Dad was test driving a used ’78 brown Colt wagon (I know its a totally different vehicle) and Mom loved it and Dad was ok with it, but noted it had 1/3 the passing power of the LTD. Probably had 1/3 the displacement also. Anyway, I was 16 or 17, wanted them to get a manual, and a dick, so I said, “It’s made in Japan.” That was the end of that. Dad bought the new wedgy Cordoba for Mom. A gorgeous car with no practicality, reliability or economy, that was only kept for a year.

    • 0 avatar

      The paint didn’t peel or turn white, it dissolved, revealing the white undercoat Japanese cars used – it was even on my ’83 Accord, making me think the car was originally white and had been repainted. The same dissolving paint trick happened on my ’95 Altima, and that white undercoating wasn’t rustproofing – rust popped up through it. Anybody know what that white undercoating was?

  • avatar

    My first car was a 1980 Brown Plymouth Champ. It didn’t have reverse or any a/c. But it never left me standed. I was a great little car. I think at one point there was a Turbo Colt.

  • avatar

    My wife had 2 pf these way back when, both bought new and very basic – vinyl seats, 4 speed stick, no a/c. And she punished them! My brother in law and I figured she took one of them well over 10k without an oil change. They were very reliable for her and she was a firm believer in Japanese cars but decided to move up to a brand new loaded 94 jetta gls, a topic for another day

  • avatar
    Clueless Economist

    I must disagree about the car breaking down a lot. My colt never broke down. And I always thought the styling superior to all similar cars at the time except for the Civic.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    My second car was an ’82 Plymouth Champ, 1.4L, 4-sp (no twin-stick, sadly). It only made 64 hp, but it was fun to wind it out. Otherwise, the car was crap. I was always patching rust holes, and the door locks froze so frequently I stopped locking the car from Thanksgiving to Spring Break. Any pothole of decent size would knock the car out of alignment. The stitching was split on the driver’s seat when I got it, despite the fact that only previous owner was a 100-lb woman. At least it had a non-interference engine, so when the timing belt broke and left me stranded, it was a cheap repair.

    It’s the only car I’ve ever owned that I didn’t miss when I sold it, not even for a moment.

  • avatar
    B Buckner

    I bought one of these new. With the 1.8 liter engine and twin stick, and considering its very light weight, this car was pretty quick. I also liked the clean styling which was miles ahead of competitors. No reliability problems either. However, the tires were skinny and the suspension soft, and the you could feel the body flexing under acceleration and cornering. loved the twin stick.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    41/53 MPG? Dang… That’s impressive even by today’s standards.

    You can have your new-fangled hybrids, turbos and EVs. Throw in an anemic engine, forego any frills or crashworthiness whatsoever, and you can drive forever on a tank of gas!

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Ah, but they’re not today’s standards. Knock about 15 mpg off each number to get a rough approximation of what the current numbers might be.

      “Throw in an anemic engine, forego any frills or crashworthiness whatsoever, and you can drive forever on a tank of gas!”

      The Mitsubishi Mirage is basically a 2014 version of this car.

    • 0 avatar

      2000 pounds and 70hp isn’t even that anemic (it beats my ’89 Metro at 1700/53, though not by much).

      (Though, consider that with bumpy’s critique of a more likely 26/38 and you get numbers a lot like my Corolla’s.

      Which has 130 hp and 2500 pounds.

      The takeaway being that modern engine technology does more with less.)

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    When were the final years of the Malaise Era anyway? I think it tailed off well into the mid- to late-80s.

    I hope we never go back to those times. Even as a kid, I could tell cars of that era sucked big-time.

  • avatar

    A neighbor of mine had one of these, drove it forever, and when she finally wore it out, she went right out and bought another one, and drove that for many years too! She was full-on impressed with them.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    There was a turbo version of these. I remember there was a Popular Science or Mechanics review of the turbo where they referred to it as a “rocket powered phone booth”

    If Chrysler still owned a portion of Mitsubishi the new Mirage would be the Dodge Colt.

  • avatar

    from the ages of 14-17, I spent every waking hour either in scool, studying, working at McDonalds, or working on basket case 1969 Mach 1. By the time I was ready to drive at 17, so was the Mustang. longstory short, my father was responsible for the complete destruction of that car.
    why does this matter?

    becuase he felt SOMEWHAT responsible for destroying my car all by his lonesome, he went out and did me a solid by buying a cherry condition 1982 Plymouth Champ in the same color as the Colt in this article. He was actually proud of it when he gave it to me. My mother still refers to the ensiung ‘discussion’ as world war III. Having no money and no other options, I took the car.

    The flaming POS had less engine displacement than a bottle of coke, and I would ‘parallel park’ it by nosing into a spot, getting out, phyisically picking up the rear bumper and moving the ass end of the car over into the spot. I also did not fit in the drier seat and had to pull ot out and redrill the seat rails so it would go back far enough that I could breathe.

  • avatar

    The turbo versions of these were a whole lot of awesome. Could actually pop your shoulder out of the socket with torque steer.

  • avatar

    My dad had ab lue one of these in the early 80’s. My only really significant memory of the car was the first time I recall my mother swearing. A McDonald’s “shake” spilled on the front floor and she yelled “SH1T!”. The the beginning of the end of my innocence.

  • avatar
    SOF in training

    Bought a ’79Colt GT in about 1985. Spunky little car. Liked it enough that we got Champ too. Having kids made us move on, but they were both fine cars for the era. My sister still keeps the Colt GT as an almost daily driver. Stopped being worth fixing long ago, but she’s been keeping it alive anyway. It’s been good to her.

  • avatar

    My Mother bought one of these two door with the twin stick tranny , in New England , I borrowed it every time I visited and drove it hard , up into New Hampshire and beyond .

    It was O.K. and gave her ZERO troubles for the decade or so she owned it .
    As I was an Air Cooled VW guy , the NVH issues didn’t bother me atall ~ economy ‘ penalty boxes ‘ are fine in my book .

    I’d not have bought one new nor used but as basic transpo it was fine .


  • avatar

    Are we saying this had a high and low gear splitter for the rear end?

  • avatar

    Looking at things from a different era can change your perspective. I sure remember them new and thought they were pretty good. You are right. Everything has changed and it wouldn’t work today. I have a 57 Chevy that I promise to work on again soon. I parked it because I was using it as a DD till 2007 when 13mpg got it parked. Times change and our government has created a different automotive world. Some good, some bad,but different.

  • avatar
    Negative Pineapple

    I had an ’84 four door, bargain basement E model, in light blue. The paint started to dissolve after two years. I got 10 years and 200K out of that car until I put a Japanese crate engine in it and got 50K more. Then it wouldn’t pass smog (I’m in California) and it wasn’t worth it to fix it.

  • avatar

    I had a 1980 Plymouth Champ LS four-speed twin stick. It was two-tone, brown over beige, with a pop-up, removable glass sunroof. I thought oil pressure and alternator gauges in the console were really cool. I purchased it in the fall of 1979 just as I got transferred to a shore duty post in Newport, RI.

    It’s biggest weak link it had was the location of the alternator, which was on the front side of the engine, and mounted low. That meant it sucked up a lot of water when you drove in the rain, which tended to corrode out the diodes in the regulator. Even though the regulator was built into the alternator you could buy a new regulator assembly at that time and didn’t have to replace alternator. All you had to know was how solder, and know enough to put heatsinks on the diodes.

    One of the nice things about that car was that you could disassemble the CV joints. That meant when you ripped the outer boot and got dirt in the CV joint, you could disassemble it, clean it out, and repack it before installing a new boot. You just had to be careful you didn’t pull the half shaft out of the transmission and drain out all the oil.

    I purchased the shop manual for the car right after I bought it. In several places in the manual it mentioned the fact that the carburetor had a special piece in it so the float closed in the event of a rollover accident, preventing fuel leakage, and possibly a fire. They also mentioned that in the owners manual. “That’s a strange thing to design into a carburetor.” I remember thinking as I read that… that is, until I rolled the car.

    One fine spring afternoon in 1983 on Route 2 just outside Concord, MA a lady tried to violate the laws of physics and tried to occupy the same space in the road that I was occupying. Needless to say it didn’t work and she sent me into a spin, and I eventually landed with the wheels pointing skyward. And that was the end of my Plymouth Champ.

    Overall, was a decent enough car. Mileage is acceptable, but not outstanding. But it was a darn sight better than the brown 80 Datsun 310 I bought to replace it. (It took five years to settle with the lady who hit me, so that’s all I could afford at the time. I had also gotten laid off right after the accident.) After I settled in to a new job I ended up replacing the Datsun with 84 Honda Civic wagon… the first car I ever put 100,000 miles on.

    PSA: Seatbelts save lives! Had I not been wearing mine, I could very easily awoken up dead. Since it was such a nice day I taken the sunroof out, and it was sitting in the back seat at the time of the accident. Had I not been strapped in, I think I very easily could have gone through the sunroof as the car rolled and ended up between the car in the road when it stopped.

  • avatar

    At least at the time, these things had a reputation for being one of the most reliable and durable things available. It was definitely an oddball purchase in middle America – most of my friends and their parents had Escorts (crappy) or J-Body GM compacts (even crappier), but the couple of families I knew with these Colts got them through over 150k miles. That was unheard of for an American nameplate in those days.

  • avatar

    I was a teenager and thought the Champ/Colt had character. Also, from Consumer Reports and word of mouth, my perception was Mitsubishis were reliable cars (from the people that brought us the Zero in WWII).

    I think the beginning of the end of the Malaise era was 1982. That year the Mustang GT and Rabbit GTI came out, fun and quick. Consumer Reports said the Rabbit was the quickest car they had tested in the last 6 years.

    By the time the Taurus and 3rd Gen (85-86) Accord came out, the Malaise era had ended and most cars were good again–and getting better, thanks to fuel-injection and the beginning of on-board computers. By 1989, even the dowdiest GM anc Chrysler cars were quite credible, and 1990 to now has been a golden era, where 4-cyl Camrys and Malibus are better objectively than even a BMW 5-series from the 70s or 80s.

    I see us reentering another “Malaise Era” in the near future, thanks to conflicting (safety/economy/nanny state) yet overbearing govt regulation. Make your next new car one you really like, becuase just like 1960s, the cars available in 5-10 years will cost a lot more and give you a less of what you like.

  • avatar

    I currently own a 1982 dodge colt. Everything is intact. no rust. i use it for work still.

  • avatar

    “By any sort of 21st-century standards, these cars sucked. They were noisy, rattly, slow, and broke down a lot.”

    Even by 1988 standards these were dying painful deaths. That’s when I got rid of my ’81 after 3 years of constant repairs. Cost more since it was ‘Asian’. I bought it in 1985 based on rave reviews in Car and Driver, when brand new.

    Would have been better off buying a new ’85 Escort, Omni, or even Chevette! JK

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • EBFlex: “Another thing is that I sneak up on deer all the time on my mountain bike.” No….you...
  • EBFlex: ORV is just off road vehicle. A more broad term than ATV or UTV. And again, those are not analogous. Those...
  • Kenn: When I walked by the open door of the GM’s office at a SoCal Toyota dealer, the day I took delivery of my...
  • slavuta: Before traveling to space he could take care of public transport. You should like this...
  • ToolGuy: I spend that $169/year on washer fluid and oil filters instead.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber