Cohort Classic: 1987 Dodge Shelby Lancer – Special K



(first posted 5/8/2014)     A big shout out to dmala77 for capturing this beautiful Shelby Lancer, the ultimate of Chrysler’s H-body liftbacks.  Debuting near the same time as GM’s own excellent H-bodies, the Lancer and LeBaron GTS put Iacocca’s insistence on Broughaminess into perspective, as they were never as popular as upmarket K-car derivatives like the Dynasty or the regular LeBaron.


Those who took the plunge for the Shelby version, however, were treated to the same experience that made the Omni GLH-S such a sensation, but in a slightly more refined package.  If there were much of a difference between the two cars, its insignificance highlighted the predominant role of the turbo powertrain in shaping the character of both cars.  I’ll apologize on our contributor’s behalf for the cut-off ends of this photo; I think it’s cool looking enough, with its ground effects and tiny spoiler, to merit being posted.  Very period specific, but also very tasteful.


This particular car appears to be an ’88 or ’89 model, meaning it was built by Chrysler in Michigan rather than by Shelby Automobiles in California, as first-year 1987s were.  That doesn’t make it any less special, as its intercooled Turbo II now could send an extra twenty-five lb-ft of laggy torque, along with 175 horses, through soft engine mountings and a reinforced transaxle to the stiffly sprung front wheels.  It was a genuine guilty pleasure.  After all, while front-drive was more widely embraced by consumers in the expensive sedans of the day, critics were a lot less tolerant cars with more than 150 horsepower (or whatever arbitrary number suited them) sent through their front half shafts.  Here at CC, where supercharged Park Avenues are popular, we react to such sentiments with an emphatic whatever.


Dodge’s performance sedan for the ’80s was also generously equipped with a ten-speaker Pioneer CD system, a state-of-the-art piece of kit for the time.  It was accompanied by deeply bolstered buckets, which looked serious enough to match the fat tires and bodykit.  The blocky dashboard may have been the most honest presentation of the car’s workmanlike origins (odd, given the newness of the H-body), but the addition of these extra features showed Chrysler’s intention to woo more upmarket consumers.

Screenshot 2014-05-07 23.03.48

As a limited production version of a car with already limited popularity, however, it posed little threat to the period’s modest and limited performance sedan establishment.  Perhaps it was a model meant mainly for Mopar fanatics.  After all, other cars in the same vain, including chubbier looking Shadow CSX and the manic Spirit R/T (the ultimate turbo K-derivative), kept coming and never achieved much popularity.  And after the souped-up turbos went away, and until the debut of the 5.7 Hemi in 2003, high performance Chrysler enthusiasts were limited to the Ram, Dakota and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

1987 Dodge Shelby Lancer-03-04

It’s likely that people who actually bought the Shelby Lancer weren’t cross shopping the likes of the Mercedes 190E 16-valve or BMW 535i.  As an upmarket contender with no snob appeal, and no red-blooded V8, it was a very self-selecting group who plunked down $17,000 for a manic, fully-equipped four-cylinder American turbo.  When it came to performance, the era was dominated by expensive imported sedans or cheap thrills, either in the form of the reinvigorated pony cars or pocket rockets.  And being American certainly didn’t help, with so many people choosing Legends and Maximas over the LeBaron GTS and Lancer.  Not even the slick Merkur managed to make any impact and when you think about it, the critical success of the (admittedly more sophisticated) SHO was a minor miracle given this context.



The flip side of this is that the 2.2 liter tweaker under the hood requires less upkeep today than the Ford’s Yamaha V6.  Even better, according to the NADA guide, those who did keep their Shelby Lancer in good condition can get about between $10,000-$14,000 for their car today, more than the similarly conceived Mustang SVO or the SHO.  A quick look at online ads paints a different picture, with examples going for between $5-7k, and if anything this more realistic figure is even more encouraging for anyone who wants to own this obscure piece of ’80s muscle.  What do you guys think?  Does a rare, factory authorized Mopar tuner special have a place in your garage, or is it merely the sort of animal you hope is kept around by other enthusiasts?

Screenshot 2014-05-07 23.12.12