Curbside Classic: 1978 to 1980 Dodge Omni – The Formative Years

The sun was shining brightly, the new restaurant Mrs. Jason and I had just tried was a success, and we were taking a nice stroll around the downtown area.  With it being our anniversary we were reminiscing as we walked, tying these memories into future plans.

As we crossed High Street to head back toward the car, there it sat, dwarfed by its much younger contemporaries.  Once upon a time it hadn’t seemed so small, but cars have puffed up in the forty years since this Omni was built.  Mrs. Jason and I had been chuckling about how time flies; this little Dodge was proof of that.

But this Omni stimulated many memories from my formative years, involving a similar Omni that was in the formative years of its run.  Was it really that long ago?  Yes, it was.

It was a cold Saturday in January 1981.  I was lying in bed eavesdropping upon my parents who were nearby in the kitchen talking about car shopping.  Unable to hear every word, I could hear enough to determine the old, brown 1973 Ford Torino sedan was on the chopping block, having accumulated 123,000 miles since they had purchased it new.  It had had zero issues other than a broken timing chain but it was looking tired.

It’s biggest virtue was consistent fuel usage of 12 miles per gallon.  Nobody likes surprises.

Pop knew the Omni and Horizon were front-wheel drive but he wasn’t sure if the Escort was or not.  He suspected it was yet pivoted to talking about base model Fairmonts.  In disbelief how something so readily obvious had escaped him, I piped up from my bedroom: “Pop, the Escort is front-wheel drive.  It’s about the same size as the Horizon.”

I could hear my mother mutter about my being awake as I tromped into the kitchen.  At eight years of age I was showering automotive knowledge onto my father.  That was the last time he listened to any of it.

Later that morning, I found myself with them and my younger sister at Ford Groves in nearby Cape Girardeau, Missouri.  The industrious salesman had wheeled a very cold Mercury Lynx, the Escort clone, up to the front door.  All I remember is that two-door Mercury was gray with a red interior, had a manual transmission, and neither of my parents were particularly impressed.

Upon leaving we drove the forty miles to Guetterman Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge-Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Cairo, Illinois.  Guetterman’s had been strictly a Chrysler franchise until about 1980 when, for some unfathomable reason, they acquired a Ford franchise.  Sitting on the lot was a light blue Dodge Omni Miser, the Miser being powered by a 1.7 liter Volkswagen engine.  It went home to Casa de Shafer and the Torino was promptly sold.

The Omni perched in the driveway next to the 1978 Plymouth Volare two-door.  While both were Chrysler products, the Omni had used a vastly different design template.  Despite its diminutive size, the legroom was not much different than what I was accustomed to with other cars.

For years Pop had a commute of fifty miles each way and the Omni was his new commuter car, the Volare being promoted from commuter car to family car.  The Omni was equipped just right for my father with air conditioning being about the only option.  It had an AM only radio, a four-speed manual, light blue vinyl seats, and no power steering.  It served its role of commuter car with amazing distinction.

My father kept fanatical records about the Omni’s fuel consumption and maintenance in a log book he kept in the glove compartment.  That Omni routinely achieved just over 30 miles per gallon.

On a few occasions the Omni served other purposes.  It ferried the Shafer family to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982 for the World’s Fair.

Incidentally, we rode one of those blasted cable cars.  A thunderstorm blew up right as we were hustled into Car #13.  The ride was uneventful.

This trip also took us to Lynchburg, that tiny town in which Jack Daniel’s whiskey is produced.  The brewery had running jokes about their whiskey being produced in a county in which liquor sales were still prohibited.

Another time my mother used the Omni to transport me and a few friends on a Cub Scout outing.  We convoyed with two other mothers to tour the facilities of KFVS, Channel 12, the CBS affiliate in nearby Cape Girardeau.  The two other cars were a 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix and a 1979 Cadillac Coupe deVille.  When we got to straighter road, the other mothers decided to recover lost time.  That Pontiac and Cadillac flat ran away from that 63 horsepower Omni.  My mother quit trying to keep up as there simply weren’t enough squirrels under the Omni’s hood.

My embarrassment was immense.

That was a day of varied memories.  Seeing a television station in operation was fascinating as was meeting the local television legends of Don McNeely and Mike Shain, the meteorologist and anchorman, respectively.  McNeely was a fixture on KFVS from 1943 to 1993, first on radio then on television starting in 1954.  Shain joined KFVS in late 1972 and retired in 2009.

Meeting them was like seeing old friends.

As an aside Mike Shain once did a live report after a snowstorm in Cape.  Any snow in Cape Girardeau is newsworthy as it’s far enough south to be an irregular occurrence.  This particular snow, likely in 1979, was much deeper than most.

As is the habit with many reporters during inclement weather, Mike Shain was reporting on this extraordinary weather event by standing in its midst.  While on-air in front of KFVS’s Hirsch Tower studio reveling in the sea of white, he took a step.  His step was unknowingly down some concrete stairs that were covered.  Nearly falling, Shain yelped an excited “WHOA, SHHH…!” in the middle of his live report.  Even though he caught himself literally and figuratively, it made for great television, but providing a different dramatic effect than he was seeking.

The advertisements for the Omni rang true.  That blue Omni did a lot of things and it did them quite well.  Folding down the rear seat was like tearing out an interior wall in your house due to the dramatic increase in usable room.  The backseat of the Shafer Omni was only dropped a time or two making it all the more memorable.  It also highlighted the weird dynamic my father had with my female rat terrier, Pepper.

Pepper had some kind of weird phobia about thunder, loud noises, and butterflies.  Seeing them would send her tearing around the seven acre homestead (dogs never came in the house) barking her head off.

My father, who has a phobia about barking dogs, would open windows, run into the yard in all states of dress, and attempt anything to tell the dog to shut-up.  The richest was during a thunderstorm when Pepper was in the very back of the yard, a good three hundred feet from the house.  A clap of thunder triggered the dog and I could hear a window in the master bedroom directly above me being opened and my father almost hissing at the dog.

As if the dog was going to hear him, let alone comprehend.  It’s been a decades long source of amusement for my sister and me.

Even though this essay is about a Dodge Omni, I have to set the stage for my most vivid Omni memory.

Anyone familiar with dogs knows that chicken bones can be deadly as they can splinter and sever intestines.  Somehow Pepper found some chicken bones that royally corked her up, an outcome preferable to the alternative.  When Pepper was having no success answering nature my mother realized what had happened.  As a nurse she knew what needed to be done.

My father actively wanted no part of this plan.  My mother is easy going until suddenly she isn’t.  And suddenly she wasn’t.

Her remedy involved a rubber hot water bottle, flexible plastic hose, warm water, liquid soap, and a douche wand.  You can imagine what happened next.

It worked like a charm although Pepper keenly observed my father’s profound annoyance in helping.

Soon thereafter Pepper got her canine revenge.

We were taking a trip somewhere.  This necessitated taking Pepper and my sister’s parakeet Gypsy to my paternal grandmother’s house.  Grandma fed the bird and Pepper got to roam the Shawnee National Forest.

The day before our departure, the four of us piled into the Omni along with Pepper and a caged Gypsy.  The backseat was folded down.  For reasons inexplicable even then, Pop decided to take the longer route to my grandmother’s, a route he was hard-pressed to take any other time.

Pepper got rambunctious mid-trip.  The bird subsequently went bonkers and started flapping around, making all sorts of noise.  Pop was annoyed but under control.  Then, as all got quiet, Pepper spotted something up ahead.  She stood on my sister’s lap with my sister about to have a spasm from repressed laughter, as we both knew what was about to happen.  Pepper put her head about four inches from Pop’s right ear, and started barking furiously at whatever it is she saw.  It was quite the spectacle, mom again inquiring why he had opted to take the long route.

I do give Pop credit.  While it likely took every fiber of his being to remain reasonably calm, he managed to do so.  Of course the dog got a healthy admonishment that accomplished nothing.  Pepper still managed to pull off a few more barks in the backseat of that blue Omni.

My family does not have a good history traveling with dogs.

A Dodge Omni always makes me smile.  My parents got 110,000 to 115,000 trouble free miles out of that little Dodge.  It went away in 1986 for a lightly used 1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria which was the polar opposite of the Omni in every way imaginable.

Sometime ago I had wondered if all these early Omnis were extinct.  It seems they aren’t.

This particular example may still be a continental traveler.  Licensed in Nebraska it had been purchased at one point in Wheaton, Maryland.  Google tells me this town is now Wheaton-Glenmont and no doubt somebody from that area will know the story.  There’s been forty years for towns to change since this Omni was built.

Our featured Omni appears pretty basic with those fans being a good idea for July travels.  This interior evolved some by 1981 but it remained almost elegant in its simplicity.

Periodically we hear about “honest” cars, cars that lack any form of pretension.  This Omni is as unpretentious as any car ever built.  It is what it is and it is quite comfortable in its own skin.

There’s a lot to like about that.  No wonder the Omni stuck around with few physical changes until the end of the next decade.

Found July 11, 2019

Jefferson City, Missouri

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