Curbside Classic: 1987 Dodge Daytona Shelby Z – Baby Steps

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Just mentioning the word “K-Car” will ignite a firestorm of opinions, ranging from flaming hatred, to acceptance, to even admiration. We could sit here for days and discuss how overboard Chrysler went with its continued endless array of K-based offerings, all while it could have been putting its resources towards developing new products.

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Yet this is what Chrysler (under Lido’s command) did and there’s nothing to do about it more than twenty years later. Nearly all of the very many EEKs (excellent family tree by Jason Shafer) were basic family-oriented vehicles. However, a select few did manage to evoke a tad more emotion, such as the J-body LeBaron, H-body Lancer/LeBaron GTS, and the G-body Daytona/Laser.

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Introduced as a 1984, the G-body Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Laser were the first K-car derivatives that sought to project a sporty image and appeal to the driving enthusiast. While the Daytona and Laser were never true high-performance sports cars, they represented baby steps back to Chrysler’s performance legacy, which had been mostly lost with the 1970s fuel crises and Chrysler’s own near-death. At the time of their introduction, these were Chrysler’s closest home grown entries in the then-vast field of sporty coupes.

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During this period, Chrysler also sold the smaller but more powerful Mitsubishi Starion as a captive import under the name “Conquest”. Initially sold under the Dodge and Plymouth brands from 1984-1986, the Conquest became a Chrysler for 1987-1989. Along with most other captive imports sold by Chrysler, the Conquest never really gained much of a following, resulting in low interest and unsubstantial sales. Although still a rebadged Mitsubishi, the 1990 Dodge Stealth that replaced it was a slightly more serious effort, yielding moderately more success. 

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Riding on a 97-inch wheelbase, the Daytona totaled about 179 inches in overall length, placing within close dimensions of cars such as the Camaro, Firebird, 300 ZX, and Supra. The Daytona’s styling and handling could’ve benefitted from a longer wheelbase, but in an era when large overhangs were still the norm in American automobiles, there were much poorer-proportioned cars out there at the time.

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Styling while decidedly different from the boxy K-cars, was somewhat derivative of the L-body Charger/Turismo coupes. Thankfully, the G-body coupes had a considerably more solid appearance than the somewhat clumsier-looking econobox L-bodies. Like many other cars in their class, the Daytona/Laser design was characterized by a long, low-slung hood, rakish windshield, and an expansive rear glass hatch.

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This rear was where the G-bodies were most distinctive, with their trapezoidal rear side windows beginning higher than the front-door beltline. Forward-slanting B-pillars enhanced the racy look. Unlike some competitors that offered notchbacks and fastbacks, all Daytonas had a sleek fastback-style roofline, allowing for a liftback hatch. The large wraparound spoiler on higher trims added serious magnetism to the overall look of the car. Base models without this spoiler and ground effects looked significantly cheaper and less impressive.

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This 1987 Daytona Shelby Z features the optional T-top removable roof panels. With this roof treatment also came blacked-out A-pillars and front window surrounds. Particularly with flame red exterior paint, the black contrasted very nicely in an aggressive manner. Overall, the Daytona and Laser were very attractive vehicles and in truth, the G-body was one of the most striking Chrysler designs of the 1980s, though in reality there wasn’t much competition for this title.

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In original form, the Daytona and Laser featured quad sealed-beam headlights, but these were replaced with the in-vogue pop-up units as part of the Daytona’s first freshening for 1987. These new headlights were part of a redesigned front fascia that also featured the other new styling trend of eschewing a traditional grille for a solid panel and lower air intakes. New taillights now had smoked lenses and a full-width effect.  

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The interiors of the G-bodies were also a thankful departure from the very basic and boring K-car interiors. The upper dash and center stack each sported a more driver-focused presentation. Large analogue gauges were standard, with an interesting digital instrumentation package available. Also optional was a 22-function vehicle information center, providing digital readouts for information such as fuel economy, trip computer, and doors ajar (along with Chrysler’s Digital Voice Alert). Pretty high technology for 1987!

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A standard center console housed either an automatic or 5-speed manual shifter. It’s standard glove compartment “cascaded” into it for a better-integrated look than the available consoles in the K-cars and most other EEKs. Several controls, including those for the window defroster, were located on this slanted panel. Even the door panels showed some curvature for a bit of a cockpit-look.

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Speaking of seats, this Daytona Shelby Z features very coddling 8-way power adjustable sport seats with available leather. These specially-designed seats also featured manually adjustable thigh and lumbar support, and even inflatable side bolsters, providing both ease of ingress/egress and greater lateral support once in motion. The roll of Kodak film on the passenger’s seat is a nice vintage touch.

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While the Daytona was clearly sporty in looks, its actual performance was not always something to brag about. As an early-1980s Chrysler product, the Daytona had several strikes against it. In the wake of several fuel crises, the early-1980s was an unquestionably low-output era for all automakers. Unlike other automakers, Chrysler almost totally committed itself to small front-wheel drive cars and 4-cylinder power, its V8-powered M-bodies the exception.

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As a result, in predictable early-’80s fashion, initial output levels were rather weak. While an affordable poser sports car probably suited some of this decade’s very image-conscious buyers just fine, for those who desired actual performance credentials, Chrysler was able to crank out additional increments of power nearly every year, either in the form of turbocharging or eventually larger engines.

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For its inaugural year, engines were either the K-car’s naturally-aspirated carbureted 2.2L I4 making 93 horsepower, or a new turbocharged version of this engine with fuel injection, the “Turbo I”, making 142 horsepower. The first use of a turbo in a front-wheel drive American sports car, this engine could get the relatively light Daytona to sixty in about 8.5 seconds, which was comparable to the Camaro Z28, Firebird Trans Am, Supra, and 300 ZX.

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In 1985, the power rating of the 2.2L Turbo I increased marginally to 146 horsepower and all engines now used fuel injection. For 1986, the base engine became a 2.5L I4, now making 96 horsepower. The big news however, was for 1987, when the Shelby Z model debuted with an available new version of the 2.2 turbo, dubbed “Turbo II”. Now making 174 horsepower and 200 pound-foot of torque, the Daytona Shelby Z was capable of a zero-to-sixty sprint in 7.5 seconds. Carroll Shelby himself was not as heavily involved in the Daytona as he was in other Dodge-based Shelby models, however the Daytona Shelby Z did feature some Shelby modifications, including upgraded brakes and suspension components.

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By 1989, the Turbo I had been enlarged to 2.5 liters and now made 150 horsepower and 170 pound-foot of torque. Also for this year, the turbocharger in the 2.2L Turbo II was improved to reduce lag. The following year, a Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0L V6 arrived as an optional powerplant. Despite its greater popularity, it did make less power than both turbo I4s, at 141 horsepower and 161 pound-foot of torque. For the Daytona’s final two years (1992-1993), a more powerful iteration of the 2.2L (the “Turbo III”) was added in IROC R/T models, making an impressive 224 horsepower and 217 pound-foot of torque.

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Unfortunately, by this time the Daytona was approaching a decade old. With newer sport coupes from competitors and Chrysler, the Daytona’s aging underpinnings and design were becoming apparent not only in its looks, but in its performance. Based on the humble K-platform, the Daytona’s chassis and body lacked the structural rigidity allowing it to handle as well as newer entries in its class. Next to Dodge’s own Stealth and Viper in showrooms, the Daytona looked positively frumpy and ancient.

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Chrysler had toyed with redesigning the Daytona in the late-1980s, even constructing this prototype in 1987. However, the Daytona was left to soldier on in its vintage-1984 body through 1993. By that point, Chrysler had the DSM Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser coupes, which were externally smaller, but offered similar power and better handling with a more competitive chassis and modern styling. Another Diamond Star product, the Avenger coupe, arrived for 1995, effectively filling the Daytona’s role in terms of size.

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The Daytona was based on the K-platform, so by default, it could never be a truly-dedicated sports car. However, given what designers and engineers had to work with, Chrysler does deserve some credit for not only an all-around effort in making a sporty coupe based on the K-car, but for incrementally improving it right up until the end of its long life.

Related Reading:

eBay Find: 1984 Chrysler Laser

Kurbside Klassic: 1986 Dodge Daytona