COAL – Flashback – The Cars Of My Childhood 2 – 1981 Dodge Omni Miser, The Modern Model T

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.