I don’t know about you, but I’ve been enjoying Mopar week, not least Virgil Exner’s wilder excursions into stylistic la-la land. But there was another era, devoid of Exner’s flamboyant styling, when Chrysler was (and not for the first time) fighting for its very life. Yes, Chrysler didn’t give up performance and luxury models entirely during the late- ’70s through mid-’90s, but everyone remembers those cars. Who will speak for the not very exciting, smallish and squarish basic vehicles that helped keep the company afloat during the Iacocca/bailout era? What the heck, I will. Oh, but please note: cars only here. With one possible exception, I’ll save the minivan pix for another time.
Leading off is an example of the unassuming econoboxes that arguably represented Chrysler’s first shot in its struggle to return to viability: the Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni twins. Based on a Simca design, and among the first domestic vehicles to adopt the transverse engine/front-wheel drive arrangement that was sweeping Europe at the time, they sold steadily over an run of more than 10 years, from 1978 to 1990. Unfortunately, they seemed to have about the same 10-year lifespan before they either rusted out or something too expensive broke. So, seeing any non-performance version of these cars in decent shape is something of a rarity today. The reasonably clean post-’83 Horizon shown above was spotted around Christmastime last year, near Middletown, PA.
But hey! I have been the proud owner of one of these cars, an eye-searing metallic brown ’79 Dodge Omni with huge decals screaming its pedigree to an indifferent world. This vehicle was a surprisingly rust-free western Pennsylvania example that I snagged for about $850 in 1989 or so. Equipped with a VW-sourced 1.7-liter four-cylinder, a manual transmission and not much else, it proved a reasonably reliable transportation device for the roughly three years I had it. Stylish it wasn’t, but it made some lengthy drives economically and without fuss.
Equally rare these days seem to be the Cars That Saved Chrysler ™ (’80s edition), the K-body Plymouth Reliant/Dodge Aries twins. The Aries sedan was photographed in Fremont, NE in 2010, and the rust on the rocker panels suggests the way many of these may have met their demise. The two-door Reliant, battered but much less corroded, popped up in front of a dollar store in The Woodlands, in Texas. Both sport the post-1984 facelift that added just the tiniest hint of aerodynamics to their boxy profile.
Back in the day, I drove several K sedans as rentals; I found them to be roomy, reasonably pleasant drivers, but was never tempted to consider actually owning one. If I ever did snag one, I probably would go for the wagon version for its maximum boxiness; however, I haven’t seen one since at least 2003, in Raceland, Kentucky, where this shot was taken.
If you were looking for a subcompact and the Omni or Horizon didn’t do it for you, Plymouth stores would be happy to sell you the Mitsubishi Mirage-based Champ. Along with the more-or-less identical Dodge Colt, these earned a degree of respect as reliable, rather attractive economy cars. The surprisingly clean ’78-82 example here has apparently weathered well in the mild climate of Winslow, AZ.
Same town, same day, different block: Another Mitsubishi product, sold from 1992-96 as the Eagle Summit Wagon (the photo vehicle) and the Colt Vista Wagon. Summit sedans were based on the Mirage, while the wagon version was actually based on the rather different RVR platform.
The Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance were sold from 1987-94. While listed as P-bodies they were, like so many Chrysler products of the era, derived in part from the K platform. For better or for worse, they brought back a more…American flavor to Chrysler’s compact offerings by cloaking their hatchbacks in sedan-like bodies. The yellow-and-blue Shadows appear to be 1989 or later models, based on the presence of composite (instead of sealed-beam) headlights.
The red Sundance flashes ‘Duster’ markings, pinning it down to the ’92-94 model years and 3.0-liter V6 power. All three machines were photographed within a few miles of each other, in and around The Woodlands, TX.
I can’t seem to stop thinking of these as America’s National Pizza Delivery Vehicles of the ‘90s. More than most other older cars, they always seem to be beat to Hell and back, to the point where I can no longer remember what they might have looked like new. Oh well, I guess that’s what Oldcarbrochures.com is for.
We close out with a quick look at the Aries/Reliant’s eventual replacements, which some consider to be one K variant too many – the Plymouth Acclaim and Dodge Spirit, both introduced in 1989. The well-maintained pre-’93 Acclaim was found in Yorktown, TX, while the nearly identical (but seriously peeling) Spirit was spotted just off Route 230, in Landisville, PA. The latter looks like a ’93-’95 model, judging by its body-color nose.
Whew, that’s a lot of bread and butter for one post–hope these trigger some memories nevertheless.