Mexican Mopars, Part 6: Dodge Magnums Of The 1980s – Coming Down From A V8 High

Mexican muscle car enthusiasts loved their V8s and Chrysler had offered these enthusiasts what they had wanted for years. However, Chrysler’s brush with bankruptcy had left the company with different priorities and a new form of high performance had to be found. Before Chrysler de México embraced turbocharged four-cylinder K-Car derivatives, however, they first sent the V8 muscle car off with a bang.

In the early 1980s, Chrysler’s V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive lineup began to thin rapidly. The R-Body sedan trio was axed after 1981. The Chrysler Cordoba, Dodge Mirada and Imperial were gone after 1983. All that was left was the M-Body intermediates and although there was heavy-duty hardware for police models, the showroom Dodge Diplomat and its fellow M-Bodies were about as exciting as wallpaper paste. None of these vehicles emphasized performance, with the last sporty V8 Mopars being the Road Runner, R/T and Super Coupe editions of the F-Body Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré.

Photo courtesy of Misael González

But while emissions and fuel economy standards, insurance premiums and rising gas prices had almost killed the muscle car in North America and wounded the pony car segment, Mexican consumers still had a yearning for V8 muscle. Chrysler de México had continued to offer a sporty Super Bee variant of their F-Body, equivalent to the Aspen R/Ts and Volaré Roadrunners north of the border. To continue to satiate the Mexican market’s desire for performance, Dodge replaced the Super Bee in 1981 with the Magnum.

Like the 1980 Mexican Dart, the Magnum was based on the M-Body Dodge Diplomat. While the Dart came with a choice of sedan, coupe and wagon bodies, the Magnum exclusively used the Diplomat coupe body. It was much sportier looking than a US-market Diplomat coupe, with blacked-out trim, rear window louvers, 14-inch styled sport wheels and a buckets-and-console set-up inside.

Unlike many “sport” editions in North America during the 1970s, the Magnum was more than just an appearance package. The only engine was Chrysler’s 360 cubic-inch V8 with a 4-barrel carburettor, reportedly rated at 300 hp, and mated to either the A727 three-speed automatic or the A833 four-speed manual transmission. The Magnum used components from the police edition Dart/Diplomat, including stiffer springs, thicker front and rear stabilizer bars and an engine oil cooler.

Photo obtained from Mercado Libre

Unfortunately, the Magnum arrived during Mexico’s worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Chrysler was also going in a different direction – building smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles – and so the RWD Magnum lasted only two years. Despite this short run, it has amassed a loyal and passionate following among Mexican muscle car enthusiasts.

For 1983, Dodge of Mexico’s performance flagship would be a vastly different car. The Magnum nameplate was shifted to the new K platform. The car used the frontend of the 400 and the body of the Aries coupe; a 1986 facelift saw the 400 clip replaced with that of the Plymouth Caravelle. Officially, the car was called the Magnum 400.

The standard engine was the K-Car’s carburetted 2.2 four-cylinder mill with 108 hp at 4900 rpm and 130 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm. However, a turbocharged version was optional from 1984, producing 140 hp at 5000 rpm and 155 ft-lbs at 5000 rpm. This allowed for a reported 0-60 time of around 10.4 seconds.

That kind of performance wasn’t bad by 1980s North American standards and very impressive in an extremely restricted Mexican market from which Ford had just removed their Mustang. There was little in the way of inexpensive performance offerings and so the Magnum carved a niche in the marketplace. To further cement the Magnum’s position as the sporty Dodge, the only transmission was a four-speed manual and Recaro buckets were available.

Dodge advertising boasted the Magnum “disappears into the horizon with an open and close of your eyes” and proclaimed the compact coupe the fastest car in Mexico, the first car in Mexico with turbocharging and fuel injection, and even touted the Magnum as being quicker than its V8 predecessor.

Later Magnums received more powerful naturally-aspirated and turbocharged 2.5 four-cylinder engines, the latter of which produced 150 hp, while the four-speed manual was replaced with a five-speed Getrag unit. These figures may seem unexceptional today but this was power equivalent to some V8 engines of the time with the added bonus of superior fuel economy. In a market with such high barriers to entry and little competition, the Magnum was an impressive little car. There was also no internal competition as the Daytona was never sold in Mexico. The FWD Magnum was finally discontinued in 1989, but turbocharged Mopar muscle would be available in the car’s Chrysler Shadow, Phantom and Spirit successors.

It’s rather curious that both the final RWD Magnum coupe and the FWD Magnum 400 used the staidest, most upright coupe bodies in the Mopar menagerie. The RWD coupe looked sufficiently tough, resembling performance editions of the GM G-Body, but the FWD model looked so very much like its lesser Dart K compatriot. But Mexican coupe buyers cared more about performance than aesthetics and, besides, beggars can’t be choosers. When your market is as restricted as Mexico’s was in the 1980s and you want something sporty, a boxy little K-Car is perfectly acceptable if it has a turbocharger under the hood.

Magnum photographed in Centro de la Ciudad de México.

Magnum 400 photographed in Colonia Obrera, Ciudad de México.

Related Reading:

Mexican Mopars, Part 1: 2017 Dodge Neon and Vision – Hi! Again

Mexican Mopars, Part 2: Chrysler Stratus and Cirrus 2.4 Turbo – Clouds That Fly

Mexican Mopars, Part 3: 1999-2001 Dodge Ramcharger – Rising To The Challenge

Mexican Mopars, Part 4: 1987-94 Chrysler Phantom – The Camargue of Mexican Chryslers

Curbside Classic: 1982-83 Dodge 400 – Dodge Does Not Do Personal Luxury