(first posted 2/19/2014) In 1978, Chrysler launched its own all-new FWD small cars, the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni (CC here). The Galant Colts (gen1 and gen2) were essentially in the same size and price category as the Omnirizon twins, so they were eventually sent out to pasture, as their role as the primary small car in Dodge showrooms was effectively over. But there were still niches to be filled, including in Plymouth stores, and going forward that was the role that Colts were destined to play, starting with the smaller Lancer-based Colt.
The 1971 to 1977 Galant-Colts used a 95.3” wheelbase, and ran about 171” in overall length. This Lancer-Colt rides on a five inch shorter wheelbase, and lacks about nine inches in body length compared to the Galant based car. Some of the literature from 1977 calls this the “Mileage Maker” model, a high-efficiency model that was optimized for eye-popping EPA mileage numbers.
For the 1977 model year, Dodge carried over the old model in the two door coupe and four door wagon guise, and sold this new Lancer based Colt as the two and four door sedans. This collage of models shows the four body styles offered. The top two cars were Galant-Colts, while our two door Curbside Classic and the four door model are both Lancer-Colts. A bit confusing?
Why bring out a smaller Colt? Perhaps this ad makes things clear. As you can see, the 1977 Dodge Colt marketing focused on price and mileage. With the Omni scheduled for release in January of the next year, and probably wanted to position the Colt as an economy special, while also promoting the highest possible fuel economy numbers in a tough economy.
The internet also hints that tensions between Chrysler and Mitsubishi developed during this period. Mitsubishi wanted to export more vehicles to America, while Chrysler wanted to develop new US small car product to keep their hometown factories humming. Moving the Colt nameplate from car to car could be a symptom of a growing rift between Dodge and their overseas supplier. I didn’t find any juicy details, but the fact that in the early eighties Mitsubishi began selling cars in the US under their own nameplate supports the “Dodge isn’t selling enough of our cars” theory (Mitsubishi Cordia CC here).
Well, our little yellow Colt certainly screams inexpensive. Compared to that nicely finished Colt GT from 1976, this car includes all the hallmarks of a bargain basement stripper. No exterior trim, dog dish hubcaps, and a trunk lid that simply reads “Dodge.” Certainly Mitsubishi wanted to market higher profit vehicles than this in the world’s biggest car market.
But it could also be that Chrysler just didn’t know what to do with the Colt. For 1978, Dodge dropped the Galant based coupe, and replaced the Wagon with an entirely new model. As this image shows, the new wagon (CC coming later in this series) was considerably larger than the old car, and shared no parts outside the driveline. Dodge was using the Colt nameplate on all its imported cars, regardless of their position in the product line.
This approach continued in 1979. Dodge offered yet another Colt, this time an even smaller front wheel drive model called the Colt Hatchback (CC coming later in this series). Covering all bases, Dodge continued to offer the rear wheel drive sedans and big wagon alongside the hatchback in 1979, but dropped the sedans in 1980. The newer wagon would carry on until 1981, and the hatchback would remain until ’84, but our featured car lasted a mere three years in the US market.
And to confuse things a bit more, Plymouth started selling Mitsubishis too. In fact they beat Dodge with the new Celeste-coupe version of the Lancer-based car by one year, selling the Arrow starting in 1976.
In 1979, the Fire Arrow, sporting the big Mitsubishi 105 hp 2.6 four, became a bit of a cult classic. In the little Lancer body, it gave decent performance for quite little money, at a time when that was not easy to come by. Maybe it should have been called Hemi ‘Cuda II.
But the Arrow was just the start, as eventually Plymouth dealers also started selling certain Colt-branded Mitsubishis. They wanted in on the Japanese-car action, even if it wasn’t in really significant numbers.
I’d like to say something positive about this odd little Colt, but a closer look does not inspire. The rust on the corner of the back window does form a weep line over the fuel door, drawing our eyes to the (standard) locking gas cap. However, that’s rather typical of all Japanese product of the time, so we’re still looking for inspiration.
This closeup of the front bumper shows us everything is present, but the surface rust atop the bumper indicates this car is probably at the end of it’s life cycle. Someone is keeping it around for occasional transportation today, but I can’t picture a future buyer snapping it up as a restoration project, and there’s very few people interested in driving a patina laden, mid-seventies Japanese econo-box.
Looking at that interior does bring back memories, but not Dodge Colt memories. I drove a 1973 Toyota Corolla back in high school, and this cockpit matches it feature for feature. The round gauges, shifter placement, interior door latch, window crank, and arm rest come directly out of the same playbook. Even the dark colored door panels and light colored headliner match my Corolla memories.
Perhaps that similarity wasn’t exactly the best thing for this Colt. Given the speed of change we saw in the seventies, a new 1977 that recalled cars from five years earlier doesn’t strike me as a recipe for success. Searching the internet for further answers, I encountered this coupe with shiny paint and a lowered suspension. While a much nicer car than our featured car, it really does not move my thrill meter. Overall, I consider these ’77 to ’79 Colt sedans a lost generation–the final gasp for rear wheel drive, a cheap basic car to slot below the Omni, and a placeholder until Mitsubishi developed its own front wheel drive product.
To close, I’ll share this view of the most boring aspect of this boring car- the factory dog dish hubcaps. Credit where credit is due, the owner has kept track of all four of them for the past 37 years. Based on that accomplishment, I’ll anoint this Colt with full Curbside Classic accreditation. If the owner had not saved this Colt, we never would have learned how Dodge dithered with the Colt nameplate between 1977 and 1979, searching for a product line that fit their needs at the time.