COAL: 1981 Dodge Colt – Big Rig Shifting

My next car would be my first new car purchase. After owning 3 fairly crude, rear wheel drive imports I was ready for something a bit more civilized. But I still wanted a small, two door import with a manual transmission. Discerning eyes will note that the subject photo is of the Plymouth Champ, a virtual twin (triplet?) of the Dodge Colt and Mitsubishi Mirage.

My job in electrical contracting was going well. After a year and a half I gotten a promotion to project manager along with a commensurate pay increase. At about that time, I began to grow bored with my Corolla. Rust had started to appear along the rocker panels and fenders and I just didn’t want to deal with that again. Mazda had introduced the 626 sedan and coupe models during my senior year of college and I really liked the look, especially the coupe. To my eye, the 626 had a vaguely European look, especially after the 1981 facelift, not much like anything else coming out of Japan at the time. But with college loans, I decided that maybe the GLC was a better choice for my pocketbook. The GLC came in a Sport trim level, I think it maybe had alloy wheels and some interior upgrades. I spent a couple of months reading everything I could about the 2nd generation GLC that was introduced in 1981. Although clearly a VW Rabbit clone, I just fell in love with the look. The Mazda dealer in North Syracuse had a couple in stock, but as was standard practice at the time, it was loaded up with dealer options and dealers weren’t negotiating. My memory is a little vague, but I think the car I wanted was stickered north of $7,800. More than I was willing to spend at the time.

The VW Rabbit GTI was still a couple of years away and the Westmoreland, PA produced Rabbit was just too, well, American for my taste. The rectangular headlights and extended width taillights ruined the proportions for me. The FWD Tercel was just strange looking, as was the Datsun F10. And I’ve just never seen myself as a Honda owner, so the Civic was out.

In the spring of 1981, with hopes of buying a GLC starting to fade, I began to consider some more affordable alternates. The little Mitsubishi Mirage, sold in the US as the Dodge Colt (and Plymouth Champ) had been collecting some very favorable reviews in the motoring press. Paul covered this generation in part 5 of his Colt Chronicles, so I’ll keep the technical details short. Suffice to say, this was a very slick looking two door, especially when compared to the competition.

What most people remember now about this generation, if they know of it at all, is the Twin Stick stick manual transmission. A traditional 4 speed coupled with a second smaller shifter for selecting Power and Economy modes, giving you essentially an 8 speed. Gimmick? Sure, but fun, at least until the novelty wore off.

There was a Dodge dealer not far from where I worked in East Syracuse and I went over after work one night to see what they had in stock. I was really interested in the RS package with two tone paint, 1.6L engine, handling package and interior upgrades, but there were none on the lot. However, I did find a black one with the 1.6L and upgraded wheel package for under my target price of $6,000. I took a test drive and went home with a brochure to study. You can tell that Dodge really didn’t have their heart in selling these Mitsubishis. They had just one brochure covering the Challenger, Colt and the Ram 50 pickup. Still, this car looked very promising and after 2-3 days of talking myself into it, I made a struck deal for the black Colt.

This was to be an all cash purchase, I didn’t want another loan on top of what I was still paying for college. That helps explain my $6,000 budget. So I made arrangements to pick up my new car after work, having a coworker drop me at the dealer on his way home. This being my first new car and all, I was a little vague on how to close the deal. We had agreed on the price and the dealer was prepping the car, so I assumed I could just show up and write them a personal check. Apparently not back in those days, especially if you were a young man under the age of 25. My salesman explained that I would need a cashier’s check. My bank was set to close in about 30 minutes and I had no transportation. Relax says the salesman, take your soon-to-be new car and drive over to the bank to get the check. I can still recall how nervous I was driving across town during rush hour in a brand new car I didn’t own yet, hoping to get to the bank before they closed. But everything worked out and by 6:00 that evening I was sitting in the parking lot of my apartment enjoying that new car smell. 

Ownership of the Colt was uneventful. I remember driving up to Potsdam to surprise my girlfriend that first weekend. We drove up to Massena to look at the Eisenhower Lock on St. Lawrence Seaway. The car was so much more refined than the Corolla. More power, better handling and just more fun to drive, especially before the Twin Stick novelty wore off. I did have a couple of appearance issues show up pretty early on in my ownership. Road grit soon started taking the paint off the rear fenders, just in front of the rear wheels. And the quality of the seat material, a combination of cloth inserts and vinyl sides, was not quite up to Toyota quality and soon started to show wear. But I never had any mechanical issues in the 4 years I owned it and it remained a fun car to drive, especially around town. 

This was the last new car I would own without A/C and after four years, I was starting to get the urge for another upgrade. By this time I was married and living in Cambridge, MA while my wife pursued a PhD in Chemical Engineering. I was now working for an electrical distributor in South Boston and the Colt was the perfect cross town commuter car, but not so great for long distance trips back to New York to see family. 

The mid-1980s were perhaps the peak of Japanese car innovation and that drove demand for these cars as Detroit continued to struggle to keep up. Dealers were adding on aftermarket options like undercoating and fabric protection, boosting the sticker prices on popular models well over MSRP. I quickly found I was once again priced out of the 626, now in it’s third generation. But we somehow stumbled into an amazing deal on a new model competing directly with the 626.