COAL: 1983 Plymouth Colt – Chapter 15, Keep It In The Family

I had just spent four years in automotive daily-driver-almost-nirvana with my 1966 Plymouth Fury III.  Those years, 1987-91 were four of my most satisfying years of automotive ownership.  But you noticed that I said “almost-nirvana”, which is not the same thing as actual nirvana.  The Fury fell short in a couple of areas.  By the spring of 1991 it was up to about 60k on the odometer, so I knew that the almost repair-free existence I had experienced could not go on forever.  I was also tired of the high-maintenance white paint that, being forced to live outdoors, could start looking pretty grungy if it did not get regular waxings.  And then there was the big one – no air conditioning.

The Colt was a “car of opportunity” that came into my life through family.  In a kind of full circle, it had been Marianne’s first new car.  She had finished college in 1980 and was moving into adulthood with a good job at a life insurance company and her own apartment.  One last hurdle to real adulthood was the car.

Marianne had grown up in a family of VWs.  Not new VWs, but older VWs.  Which would be expected given that her father ran a VW repair business.  Marianne had several hand-me-down VWs in her early driving and college years, and the last was a dark green ’68 fastback.  Marianne is nothing if not thrifty, and made that fastback last a good long while, but it was finally time for her to make a choice in cars that was all her own.

She wanted something fun and inexpensive, and the answer seemed to be found at Tom O’Brien Chrysler-Plymouth in the form of an blue Colt sedan.  She was used to shifting gears, so the Twin Stick transmission was perfect.  She was convinced that it would be less expensive to buy a non-a/c car and have the dealer retrofit air.  Perhaps it was just more profitable for the dealer.  In any case, with the  dealer-installed air conditioning, the little blue Colt would be even perfecter, and she bought it for a figure she recalls as  about $6,000.  This was, by the way, the first year that it was called a “Plymouth Colt”.  The year before, the same car had been the “Plymouth Champ”, but it was the same little Mitsubishi something-or-other that was conveniently offered at nearby Palmer Dodge as the Dodge Colt.

The Colt was a good, reliable car for her and she drove it for 5 years.  But about that time, she started having some shoulder problems and thought that getting rid of the stick shift might help.  We have already told the story of the Colt’s replacement – a new (also blue) 1988 Accord LX, that was a far more luxurious car.  But what to do with the little Colt?  Enter her brother Bill.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that the car had somehow come to have two matching blue wheels on the passenger side but two matching silver wheels on the driver’s side. As long as I only saw one color of wheel at a time it didn’t bother me.


Marianne is the oldest of five, and Bill was next in line, two years younger.  He was also getting on with an adult life and bought a new Civic wagon not too long after Marianne got the Colt.  Bill has always been one to take care of his things, and when his sister was going to get another car, it occurred to him that he should buy it from her.   The Colt would be his commuter special that would allow him to spare his Civic from the wear and tear of his daily drives to and from downtown.  A deal was made and the Colt moved to a new owner, but one with the same last name.  Bill used the Colt for work and also allowed it to be used as the family-wide temporary spare car.  But after about three years, he decided that he didn’t really need it and told Marianne that he was going to sell it.  She, in turn, shared that bit of information with me.

Once I thought about it for a few minutes, the Colt seemed to be a perfect replacement for my ’66 Plymouth.  The little blue Colt was now 8 years old, had about 60k miles on it, and was in great condition.  Which was, of course, more or less like almost every car I had ever owned.  It also had functioning air conditioning, so my days of driving to court on hot afternoons with a wet dress shirt pressed to my back were over.  And it was spring, so my new car fever could be salved again.

By this time the household fleet included the Thunderless Bird and the Model A, so there was no need for my daily commuting car to double as a hobby car.  A plain vanilla econobox would be just the thing to take care of business while other cars supplied the fun (or aggravation).

The Colt needed tires, so a deal was struck with that expense in mind.  After buying the car plus a set of new tires, I may have had about about $1600 in it, I no longer remember.  What I do remember was what a hoot it was to drive.

It was really, really different from the big Fury.  As they say, it’s fun to drive a slow car fast, and the Colt was great for that.  It was good to be back into a daily driver with three pedals, and I was lapping it up.  The Twin Stick was a new variation on that experience.  The big lever was a normal 4-speed manual.  The second, smaller lever offered a choice between “power” and “economy”.  In actuality, it was a basic 4 speed transmission mated to a 2-speed axle.  For awhile, each trip began with “Hmm, do I want power or economy?”  But soon the solution appeared.  Each time the car got underway, the “power” setting was the play.  The car was so much more sprightly with the lower gearing, and thus more fun.  And if I reached a speed where the car felt like it needed another gear (which was about any speed over 40 mph) – well, guess what, I had one right there with a shift into “economy”.  So that was it.  Each stop light saw the big lever go to 1st and the little lever go to Power, then row through the four gears and shift the second lever to “economy” for “5th”.  Rinse and repeat.

Actually, the car even seemed more fun than the VW GTI I had bought new just a few years earlier.  Of course, the GTI would have creamed the Colt on twisty mountain roads and was certainly more powerful, but the featherweight Colt felt more nimble, with a tossability about it that could make me giggle like a little kid, even if the car objectively lacked the GTI’s bona fides.

Thirty plus miles per gallon in spirited driving was a fun respite from life with the Fury – it had not gotten terrible mileage, but 14 mpg around town was on the high end of its normal.  If I ever got under 30 mpg with this one it was only with great effort.  Really, this Colt was almost like driving for free.

It was also the continuance of the theory of family car ownership that I kind of backed into when I got married – going forward there would be a “good car” and a “second car” that would look decent and be reliable.  By nature, I like older and simpler cars, so everyone was happy – Marianne would get the good car most days and I would only take it on days when I needed to drive some distance or where I needed to meet clients.  And when it was necessary to load bags of mulch or such, nobody was going to stress over the Colt getting a little dirty or picking up a scratch.

I remember that Colt with great fondness.  Every morning I looked forward to driving it to the office, and every evening I looked forward to driving it home.  When I needed to run an errand on a weekend, the Colt was almost always my first choice.  The Accord was far more comfortable (and had better air conditioning).  However, where the Accord suffered from that horrid condition called 4 cylinders and an automatic transmission, the little Colt was both engaging and fun.  It reminded me more than a little of my years-ago time with the 6 cylinder 3 speed Mustang.

The Colt and Accord made a perfect combo of daily drivers when an Imperial came to augment the Thunderturd and the Model A.  The two blue dailies were both as drama and stress-free as any pair of cars could have been.  The only real repair I could recall doing was after I noticed the shifter trying to escape through the floor.  Something that connected the shifter mechanism to the floor of the car had failed, so I periodically needed to yank the assembly upwards into place, where it would stay until bumps and vibrations sent it slinking back down again.  For work I don’t do myself I usually gravitate towards independent shops, but some jobs call for a dealer.  I figured (in those pre-internet days) that this must be a common problem as these cars aged, so back it went to the selling dealer for the repair.  I recall that the shift action felt a bit sloppier than it had been before the repair, but otherwise the little Colt was ready to kick up its heels again.

I looked forward to several more years of economical fun, but it was not to be.  At the end of my second summer with the car, we had plans to drive to Fort Wayne for Labor Day weekend, which was always a Three-fer for us.  We could visit my mother, we could visit my dad at his lake place and we (actually I) could spend time at the classic car auction that was part of the annual Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg festival weekend.  I planned to leave work a little early on Friday and we would take the Honda up north.

It was a beautiful, sunny Friday morning as I drove to work.  The drive from home to office was scenic and relaxing.  The weather was comfortable and my window was down.  About six blocks from my house saw me on a 4 lane residential boulevard.  A city bus was slowing for a bus stop in the curb lane and I was going past it in the inside lane.  That was when I saw the black Ford Tempo.  Its driver, at a stop sign on the side street to my right, saw the bus stopping and saw his break in traffic to start his left turn to go in the direction opposite me.  He saw the bus but did not see that I was behind the bus – until it was too late.  I was going maybe 30 or 35 and there was nothing to do but stand on the brake pedal as I t-boned the black Tempo.

I will never, ever forget the strong  embrace of the three-point seat belts which arrested my otherwise-certain meeting with the steering wheel and windshield.  My first thought was “what a great day to not be driving the Model A or the Thunderbird, neither of which had any seat belts at all.  I had actually considered driving one of the beltless Fords because I was in an old-car-mood that morning.  But had decided against both of them because taking the Colt (which was parked out front at the curb) was less effort than getting one of the others out of the garage.

The police were called, reports were taken, and I was driven home in what has been my only ride in the back seat of a police car.  Jitters from a lack of coffee was my only injury but my little Colt was not so fortunate and went away on the back of a flatbed.  The other driver was at fault and his insurance company pronounced the Colt totaled.  I did not disagree with them, because it was a pretty hard hit of the right front corner of a FWD car.  An old, cheap FWD car.  Marianne did not cry about this one, which had originally been chosen more out of budget constraints than about what she really wanted.

In the early 1990’s, older subcompact cars were not valuable items and I had to fight like crazy to get a reasonable payment from the insurer.  That is the downside of driving a really nice older car – all of the insurance value guides give prices for “average” cars.  They do not give prices for the exceptional ones.  It took a small claims suit to get them to an amount anywhere close to my car’s value, but we got there and that was that.

The postscript to the Colt story was that I got a rental while I looked for a replacement.  My rental was a fairly new Toyota Camry sedan, much like the one shown here.  It was a great chance to do a one-to-one comparison with the ’88 Accord that I had found so humdrum.  It was during my couple of weeks with that Camry that a switch was flipped and my preferences became clear – between Honda and Toyota, I would henceforth be a Honda Guy.  The Camry was nice and all, but it lacked the personality, the style and the driving dynamics of the Honda.  I didn’t expect the Camry to be as fun as the Colt.  But it was not even as fun as our Honda.  I still considered our Honda as a dull appliance, but my dullness meter was recalibrated after time with the Camry.  I remember looking at the dash and interior of the Camry as I was parked at the curb in front of my house one morning, thinking that it was the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera of Japanese cars.   From that moment forward I never again thought of the Accord as a snoozer.  Had I the opportunity to re- compare them at 15 years in the salty climate and 150k+ miles my switch might have flipped the other way, but we will never know.

Soon enough the rented Camry was replaced with my next set of cheap wheels.  Those cheap wheels would not be as fun as the Colt – but then few cars could be.  It would also not be as trouble-free as the Accord.  But that next car would be a lot more interesting than the Camry.