This COAL series has been a really rewarding journey for me, as I re-live the memories of owning, loving, and occasionally swearing at the cars of my past. I’ve realized that my car choices and philosophies were shaped by my parents and the cars they owned during my formative years, none more so than this humble little Dodge Omni from 42 years ago.
Growing up, we’ve always had two vehicles in our household, as is typical for a middle class, Midwestern suburban family. Mom drove the ‘big’, ‘nice’, and newer car while Dad, with a much longer commute, had an econobox that prioritized fuel economy and low cost of operation above all else. Of course, a ‘nice’ car was relative; as I alluded to earlier, Dad was all about just getting basic, cheap transportation and saving his hard-earned money for more important things, so our big and nice car was still a bare-bones compact like the Dodge Aspen I talked about last week. When Dad retired after nearly 40 years with Nestle, he decided that he was going to finally treat himself to the fancy, luxurious car that he deserved. I wanted him to get a Cadillac but he wasn’t that extravagant so he bought a Buick Park Avenue instead, with the help of my GM discount.
But this COAL is about much simpler times, and a much simpler car. Dad drove a succession of basic, bare-bones econoboxes that I hated riding in the back seat of – VW Beetle, Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto. By late 1980 it was finally time to replace the Pinto which was aging poorly, plus all the news at that time about exploding Pinto fuel tanks must have weighed on him. Dad saw a full-page ad in the local newspaper advertising a Dodge Omni Miser for something around $5300, a loss leader price. He jumped on it and went straight to the dealership (of course I went with him). He had already soured somewhat on Chrysler products as a result of Mom’s Aspen, but this price was too good to be true and he once got to drive his friend’s new Plymouth Reliant wagon and was impressed, so maybe Chrysler had turned the corner on quality?
It was obvious that the $5300 Omni Miser was a bait and switch tactic, but Dad stood his ground and resisted all efforts by the salesman to upsell him into a fancier model. So he drove off the lot with a car that’s about as basic as they come. All vinyl interior with non-reclining vinyl bucket seats. Manual steering and a 4 speed manual transmission. 1 single left outside mirror, crank windows, and lots of plastic blank-out pieces in the dash to cover up the holes from not having a radio or air conditioning. Worst of all was a MI$ER decal in the back window, shouting to the world “look at me, I’m cheap.”
Despite the bare bones nature of this Omni Miser, it was not a bad car. Certainly compared to the miserable Pinto that this car replaced, Dad’s Omni was worlds apart. Owing to the efficient front wheel drive layout, the car was roomy inside, with an airy greenhouse that enhanced the feeling of spaciousness. The stripped out Omni was light, and with a 4 speed manual transmission and the 1.7l VW-based engine, was fairly peppy. Of course, the manual steering was very heavy; the clutch travel was too long, and the shifter felt like it was connected by rubber bands in a bucket of bolts. The year after Dad got the Omni, I got my driver’s license and the first thing Dad did was teach me how to drive a stick shift. So I dutifully parked the Omni at the bottom of a long hill in a suburban Columbus subdivision and proceeded to jerk and chirp and stall my way up the hill until I got the hang of it.
I got considerable wheel time in the Omni and got to know it pretty well. Dad at that time was on frequent business trips so I got to use his car for school and my activities when he was out of town. At that time my high school had an open lunch policy where if you were an upperclassman, you were allowed to leave campus and get lunch at the local McDonalds or similar fast food, instead of the dreaded school cafeteria. So I looked forward to Dad’s business trips which meant that I could take my friends out to lunch in the Omni and show off my stick shift driving skills. During these times driving the Omni, I developed an appreciation for the simplicity and honesty of a basic but generally well-engineered small car. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the kind of car this Omni represented would set the tone for a long line of cars that I chose to make my own in the future, starting with a Honda Civic in college up to and including my current ride. And I’m obviously not alone here. Jason Shafer has a remarkably similar story with another Dodge Omni Miser.
From what I remember, the Omni was fairly reliable and trouble-free. The fit and finish were terrible, however, with an especially ill-fitting passenger door in which you could sometimes see a sliver of daylight between the door seal and the door frame. The car developed some loud rattles later in life but otherwise it never suffered any major breakdowns, unlike Mom’s Aspen. Dad drove it to work every day, a 52 mile round trip, so his Omni accumulated a lot of miles over time but it just kept on running. I went away to college and a few years later Dad picks me up from school in a shiny new Ford Escort, and a well equipped Escort LX model at that. I asked him what happened to the Omni, to which he simply replied that it got old. I think the plain-Jane-ness of the Omni Miser is what really got old.
My dad bought a bright orange 1979 Plymouth Horizon new in the spring of 1979. This was just before the Iranian hostage crisis. Smaller cars weren’t selling and he paid $4300 for it. I still have the original paperwork and sticker. He gave it to me when I was in college in 1985 or so. The car had about 70K on it at that point. It was like the one in this COAL with the 1.7 Liter VW engine and 4 speed. The car was my first standard too I learned to drive on. The car when I had it used a quart of oil every 500 miles or so. It also had sticky doors in cold weather. They wouldn’t open. I climb through the hatchback to get in it a few times. Was a good car. I still prefer standards because of this car. Mine also had the luxurious AM radio in it that I later upgraded to FM from a car in the junkyard. I got into an accident with it around Thanksgiving in 1985. I totaled the car. I was sad. Felt a little disappointed as this was only the second car my Dad bought new. Was now almost 40 years ago now. It was also the easiest car being “Flame Orange” to find in a parking lot!
That was good timing, because later in the year, fuel prices jacked up – and so did the price of small, fuel efficient cars. Late that year my parents were shopping for a new car, and I remember going to the rounds with my dad – and saw a VW Rabbit Diesel priced with a hefty markup. Was thinking about the new GM X-cars then – but we dodged a bullet when we purchased a 1980 Buick Century sedan – yes, with the fixed rear windows. That car lasted a long, long time.
I know fuel economy stickers were calculated using a different formula from today, but I’d that quoted mileage anywhere close to what was achievable?
My ’82 Rampage was a derivative of the Omni. I never really drove a profile similar to the city cycle, but on the highway I would meet or exceed the sticker mileage as long as I stuck to the speed limit and was moderate with my acceleration.
Initial build wasn’t bad. I can’t comment on the long term reliability. It should have been totaled after the accident I had in January 1983 and I sold it later that year.
If I remember correctly, the Omni Miser was one of several small cars sold in the US in the early ’80s that were carefully designed to tweak the best possible EPA fuel economy figures, and were often used in advertising to imply the whole range got great gas mileage. The EPA figures were specific to each available drivetrain, but other things that could affect fuel economy (heavy power-assist options, larger wheels, heavier body styles) were averaged out. The key to a high-MPG model was only to offer it without these options, in the lightest body style, sometimes with minor aerodynamic aids like a spoiler, so there would be no mileage-lowering variations that would be averaged into the EPA figures. In order for the EPA to rate this model separately, it was sometimes necessary for some crucial item like an exhaust catalyst or fuel injection to be different as well to be considered a different drivetrain and/or model.
The biggest loophole was that if air conditioning wasn’t offered as a factory option, the EPA figures would not take into account that most cars would be so equipped. By this time, at least on Japanese cars, dealer-installed air conditioning that was identical to the factory A/C was available, and many of the MPG specials were sold this way even though the EPA mileage estimates didn’t take into account the added weight or the power draw of using the A/C.
I remember these well because of the Horizon my mother bought in 1980 – pretty much the total opposite of the Miser. Mom’s had air, stereo, cruise, automatic, two-tone paint and the nice interior. I vividly remember the shopping experience, and it was really the only vehicle people were coming in to see in Mopar showrooms in 1980, between the economy, gas prices and the company’s shaky finances.
Ours was put together pretty well and was a good car for the 5 years she had it, with very few issues along the way. She replaced it with a Crown Victoria, so in a way she got tired of a miser too. 🙂
I remember when the Miser came out the following year. I think they could do that because they had the K car out by then, so they probably saw demand falling off for the nicer L cars. They were limited to 300k engines from VW for each year, so selling strippers would make a lot more sense in 1981 than in 1980 when the company needed every buck of profit it could get from those cars.
As a kid, the idea of a stripper car was a horrible thought. As an adult, I understand your father – and copied him at least once in my efforts to snag a stripper Sedona. Which is an amateur stripper compared to the pro class that the Omni Mizer played in. And I could have gone all day without you mentioning that 1981 was 42 years ago.
Guy I know brings a silver blue one to all the local car events. Not mint but a cute little presentable car…
The first car I ever drove was my mom’s 2.2/auto ’86 Horizon and my own first car was an ’81 Omni Miser just like this one, except that it was red, had already acquired an aftermarket AM/FM/cassette stereo by the time I got it, and the “Miser” rear window decal was long gone (although the exasperatingly dorky white-stripe tires somehow had duly been replaced with like at every time over the years).
I have lots of nostalgic love for these. It warms my heart every time one pops up on these pages. There were 4 in my family’s fleet at any given time- a heavily-optioned ’79 Horizon automatic that my grandparents owned for a while, a ’79 TC3 coupe with 4-speed that my mother drove until ’82, a ’78 Horizon automatic that I drove for a few months before the automatic got annoying, and an ’82 Charger 2.2 4-speed that remains the unlikely favorite of any of the vehicles I’ve owned. They were thrown together with stove bolts and bailing wire, the stick-shifted ones felt like you were stirring a can of paint, they were crude and cheaply made, but they did their job, and they were just plain fun to drive in that “Driving a slow car fast” kind of way (except the automatic ones). Just good honest little cars that were comfortable, reliable, roomy for their size. I miss them.
My mother had a pretty loaded Horizon my parents bought new circa ’80. It had a rather nice silver/black/red paint job, and remains to this day her favorite car. She kept it until about 1987, a long time for her.
Everyone has his (or her) opinion, so here is MINE! With the possible exception of the 50s Rambler and first generation Valiants, small cars like these were ugly and too small! They did provide BASIC transportation and affordability, but I wouldn’t want one as a gift! Well, maybe it could fit in the trunk of a Lincoln Town Car, as a spare! Much respect to those who love these puddle jumpers, but not MY cup of tea! 😉 😜 😘 😉
A friend of mine had a somewhat newer Horizon that he put well over 200,000 miles on. That being said, his father was a Chrysler engineer and there were many days and nights of work done to that car to keep it running. Still, he drove it all over the US and I think the shock towers rusting is what finally got it.
Back in the day, having the Miser decal would be a proud thing to display – you were saving more fuel than most people when gas jumped in price. Similar to people driving Priuses and other high mpg cars today (and electric cars too).
Back then my father was commuting about the same distance as your father in an 1981 Toronado with big thirsty V8. It was great in the snow, but was replaced by a Maxima. My father liked the car but the RWD was a step back from the Toro. Next came an 84 Audi 4000S (not quattro) which was a different beast entirely!
I’ve never owned one of these, but I always liked them. I recall in or around 1986, 87 or maybe 88, my buddy was needing a car and I got him to look at a Horizon or Omni America model. It was much nicer than the base Miser models, and the interiors were always what I liked. The dash and seats were nice and comfy. The price on the one he looked at was $8,500. What a bargain for the features of A/C, AM/FM stereo, auto and rear defog along with the nicer cloth bucket seats. He didn’t buy it, but it was nice none the less. I also thought the quality was quite good with the materials and fit/finish. I was driving a Cavalier and it too was quite nice.
To this day, I’d love to “stumble upon” a really clean one today. Would love own one.
By the time the America came out (1987) the market had changed. High gas mileage was of modest importance, so the car became about value. It was in its 10th year by then, so everything was amortized and by simplifying colors and options, Chrysler could keep production costs down even more. Omni’s early advertising slogan was “Omni does it all!” I think that was one slogan that eventually turned out to be true.
Ah, thanks. So it must have been 1988 when we went and looked at one. All I can say is that I thought it was a really great buy with the features and MPG along with the $8500 price.
The spiritual successor to the Studebaker Scotsman. At least Chevy or Honda didn’t quite shove your thriftiness in your face quite so blatantly, with the Chevette Scooter or Civic FE naming. On a positive note, it’s hard to believe these transverse FWD, overhead cam hatchbacks are over 40 years old now, and the Omnirizon was the first domestic one. That Fiat/Autobianchi/VW Golf architecture sure has lasted well. The form factor isn’t really that different from a modern CUV either.
A ’78 Rabbit built at the Westmoreland, PA factory could be considered a US domestic car too, I think.
No, it’s a foreign-brand car built in the U.S., just like a Honda built at Marysville. “Domestic” means a car built in its maker’s home market; i.e., where the company is headquartered. The edges are a little blurry sometimes in a case like Ford’s, where Ford of Europe and Ford of Australia were doing every bit of their own design; engineering; tooling, and production (versus building lightly-modified versions of American cars); the same was true of Chrysler Australia for a stack of years, and GM-Holden.
But no, a VW built in the states is not a U.S. domestic automobile.
It’s interesting how the average American buyer thinks ‘luxury’ before fuel economy or reliability .
I remember these cars, the folks I knew who owned them didn’t consider them to be hair shirts in any way .
A/C wasn’t as prevalent then as it is now .
There’s a certain typ of joy in driving a basic little econobox that any full size vehicle will never achieve .
Good thing we’re allowed choices unlike some other countries .
I’ve been to other countries and they didn’t have the wide range of choices any American has .
Maybe I went to the wrong countries .
I was to the UK for the first time last fall, and was amazed and jealous at the wide variety of nice, and desirable small cars and hatchbacks that our British friends have access too, including many manual shift and diesel versions. And that, in a relatively small and specialized (RHD) market!
In the states we build almost no small hatchbacks anymore-almost no cars! Mainly suvs and pickups.
I almost bought one of these Misers in ’81, looking for fuel economy and space efficiency-my priorities at the time. We ended up waiting and buying a diesel Rabbit a couple of years later, and that worked out well. These Omnis were decent transportation for the money.
@ Paul ;
Yabbutt ~ the manufacturers only build what sells and economy cars don’t sell well in the U.S.A. .
Sad but true .
I didn’t think much of VW’s Rabbits, Golfs, Jettas and so on but time has proven them all to be stout if cheap transportation pods .
I bought an auction ‘81 Horizon in ‘93 for $800. It had been a utility company car, 5 speed with an AM radio and that was about it. It served its purpose well as a backup vehicle for 5 years. I put maybe 12k miles on it before I donated it to charity. I enjoyed scooting around in that thing.
I’m always fascinated when I see one of these still on the road; and I do encounter them somewhat more frequently than Chevettes or Pintos, which I never see. Back in the day, the roads were thick with these as I recall.
This is another car that wound up in my driveway as a long-term foster car (I should do a series of those…). My fond yet vague memory of it doesn’t immediately say whether it was an Omni or a Horizon, but it was about the year of Gene’s dad’s car and it was MoPar brown/tan/rust/butterscotch color. 4 speed manual, but no MI$ER sticker (there’s a story about those stickers, but I’ll save that for another time). This particular car was owned by a college friend, who immediately after college graduation signed up to be a flight attendant and had no need for her car. Still, she liked it and didn’t want to get rid of it, so it wound up parked in my driveway (me, being the only friend who actually had a driveway in 1983). Around about that same time, I had a VW Rabbit, and although I was free to drive the Omni-Horizon, and did as I recall for a short time before buying my Rabbit, the VW offered a tremendously more rewarding driving experience.
Ultimately, after a few years, my friend tasked me with selling the car. I tried for over a year (this now being around the mid-80s) and never could get a bite on the thing. Even in a college town full of impoverished students. Eventually, I gave up and my friend relocated the car to wherever she was based at the time.
Agreed. I remember when the roads were littered with these, K-cars, and first-gen minivans. We had a ton of them come through the repo yard over the years. I remember them being hastily assembled but reliable vehicles that usually stood up to a lot of abuse.
The grass was greener on the other side of the ocean, my one experience with this platform was on a family trip to Britain in a rented Talbot Horizon. This was an OK car, seeming a little less nicely finished than our 77 Accord hatchback and generally like an off brand A1 VW Golf/Rabbit. Of course Talbot had slightly better build quality than Mopar and slightly smaller engines.
BTW the 1.7 liter engine wasn’t just VW based, it was VW sourced because the block and head had Auto-Union rings on them. Best guess without an Internet search is they were buying long blocks or possibly crate motors from VW in Westmoreland PA. which may have been a hangover of the AMC deal that supplied VW engines for Gremlins.
VWAG had an agreement with Chrysler to sell 250,000 engine and tranny units annually .
It was a huge thing when they inked this deal, in all the trade papers .
My Mum had the European take on this – a Chrysler Horizon 1.1LS, IIRC a 1979 model.
Basic was not the word – no PAS, 4.5 turns lock to lock, and heavy even then, four speed box, just one external mirror, no headrests and just 58bhp….
Comfy and spacious though
I remember these well. My uncle bought a new 1988 Horizon Expo – it was fully loaded, automatic, air and tape deck. He loved that car and had it until 1994 when it was written off due to be hit while parked on the street. He replaced it with a new Plymouth Acclaim. A family friend bought a brand new 1978 Dodge Omni – 2 tone green with green cloth interior. Me even at 7 years old thought it was UGLY. He had it until 1991 with no issues other than wear & tear and our Canadian Winters – Rust. He replaced it with a new Chevy Sprint.