(first posted 3/25/2016) Considering the grave situation Chrysler was in by the late-1970s, it was nothing short of a miracle (and a little help from Uncle Sam) that the automaker was able to recover from the brink of death so quickly and so spectacularly. Although the K-cars unquestionably played a vital part in restoring Chrysler to profitability, as far as product is concerned, they unfairly get all the credit for “saving Chrysler”. Yet the K-cars and Chrysler’s preceding government bailout would likely not have occurred were it not for the L-body Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, whose front-wheel drive and strong sales provided a glimmer of hope for the future.
By the mid-1970s, it’s fair to say Chrysler was up to its neck in quicksand. Sales of its still quite large and inefficient mid-size and full-size cars were faltering, with overflowing inventory rusting away at the infamous Sales Bank. Chrysler’s only home-grown smaller cars, the archaic Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant, weren’t all that fuel efficient, and they were rapidly losing ground to more modern competitors.
Their new-for-1976 successors, the Aspen and Volaré were largely just the same old formula with some new mechanics, not to mention a quality nightmare. The smaller, captive import Mitsubishis sold through Dodge and Plymouth dealers were enjoying moderate success, though their appeal was limited and their sales were not enough to provide much relief. It was quickly becoming clear that a smaller, fuel efficient car capable of selling in high volumes was needed for Chrysler to have a fighting chance of survival.
As Paul has stated before, Chrysler’s lack of capital required to develop an all-new subcompact exclusively for the North American market was probably a blessing in disguise. Unlike its North American rivals with their own subcompacts, Chrysler went the route of the Europeans, with a subcompact that was externally small, cleanly styled, respectably fuel and space efficient, and most notably, front-wheel drive, the first of its kind for any North American-built subcompact. Highland Park not only looked across the pond for inspiration, but in fact turned to Chrysler Europe and its plans for Project C2 (codename for the Horizon), a subcompact which would be sold under the Simca, Talbot, and Chrysler brands in Europe.
Already in the clay model stage, when North American Chrysler execs saw Project C2, they were quite confident that it could be sold in North America, albeit with some expected changes. Although the basic platform and body shell were shared between the European and American versions, the American-spec Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni (often abbreviated as “Omnirizon”) received unique powertrain and a different suspension setup from their European cousins, and more predictably, different bumpers, exterior lighting, and interiors.
Ditching the Simca’s costlier torsion bar suspension setup, Chrysler employed more basic MacPherson struts up front and trailing arms with coil springs for the rear. Production constraints dictated that Chrysler purchase engines and manual transmissions from Volkswagen as opposed to manufacturing their own. As a result, the initial engine offered was not the Simca’s 1.6L 4-cylinder, but rather a version of the Volkswagen Golf’s 1.7L, modified to feature Chrysler’s intake manifold and carburetor. Mated to either the standard VW 4-speed manual or Chrysler’s optional Torqueflite 3-speed automatic, depending on models years, this engine’s output ranged between 68-75 horsepower and 83-90 pound feet of torque.
Interiors of the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon were also substantially different than the European cars and more in line with other American small car interiors of the time. Steering wheels, dashboards and door panels were unique, with dashboards featuring a strip of wood tone applique as part of the premium interior package. Woodgrain also adorned the full-length floor console that was available with either transmission. During the first several years, a variety of all-vinyl and cloth-and-vinyl seat choices were offered, ranging from spartan to rather comfortable, by late-1970s subcompact standards that is.
Somewhat unfortunately, the Omni/Horizon followed Chrysler’s pattern of ill-timed introductions, going on sale for the 1978 model year, which ended up a strong year for large car sales. In light of this, combined first year sales of the two models totaled over 188,000 units, making them Chrysler’s best-selling car line through 1981. More importantly, the mere existence of the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon was instrumental in gaining government assistance, proving that Chrysler could successfully cope with the changing environment.
Sales and general publicity of the L-body took a back seat after 1981 with the introduction of the Aires/Reliant K-cars and all their descendents. Still utilizing the Omnirizon’s efficient front-wheel drive layout, the K-cars boasted roomier dimensions and a more traditional full-range of body styles, contributing to their far greater popularity.
Despite a diminished role in Chrysler’s hierarchy, the Omni and Horizon enjoyed respectable sales, even experiencing somewhat of a resurgence mid-decade. They quietly soldiered on through the end of the 1980s, sticking around for the inaugural year of the 1990s. In spite of this, the Omni and Horizon were not neglected. Trim details and equipment levels were expectedly shuffled around every few years, with new seat designs, upholsteries, and wheel covers among the visual changes.
The K-cars’ slightly more robust 2.2L inline-4 was added as an option in 1981, mated to either a new 4-speed manual with overdrive or the Torqueflite automatic gearbox. The Simca 1.6L finally found its way into the American Omnirizon in 1983, replacing the VW engine as the base power plant. The 2.2L would become the only engine from 1987-on, finally gaining electronic fuel injection in 1988.
New taillights also came for 1983, with each brand getting its own design. The following year, the cars received new front fascias with brand-specific grilles. Inside, a slightly revised upper dash with new gauge cluster came for 1984, along with two new cloth-and-vinyl sport bucket seat designs for the base and up-level SE models.
1984 also saw Dodge turn to Carol Shelby to add some spice with the Omni GLH. With a higher compression ratio and revised camshaft profile, output from the 2.2L was up to 110 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque. Along with a 5-speed manual, Dodge’s first foray into the hot hatch segment was capable of a zero-to-sixty time of 8.7 seconds. Among other performance modifications, Shelby also added stiffer springs, firmer dampers, bigger brakes, performance tires, and a quicker steering ratio. Cosmetically, the GLH was differentiated from lesser Omnis by its blackout trim, special badging, and 15-inch “Swiss Cheese” aluminum wheels.
For 1985, the GLH was now available with a 2.2L turbo, bumping horsepower up to 146 and torque to 170. A body kit was now standard, as were a new wheel style. For the GLH’s final year in 1986, 500 examples were badged as the Shelby GLHS, gaining a host of additional performance upgrades, most notably a new turbocharger that boosted horsepower and torque to 175 each. Zero-to-sixty times for the GLHS were around 6.5 second. No bad at all for 1986.
With the arrival of the Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance for the 1987 model year, the Omnirizon’s end began to look probable on the horizon. Trim levels and separate options for both the Omni and Horizon were consolidated into a single, standard-equipment “America” trim, with an available Discount Package adding all remaining optional features including upgraded high-back sport buckets, center console, and AM/FM radio. In doing this, Chrysler was able to reduce production costs and complexities, thereby increasing value and quality for the consumer.
With sales holding steady and all tooling for the L-body paid for, each Omni/Horizon sold were pure profit for Chrysler, a key driver in the automaker keeping these cars around for so long, despite newer models superseding any real need for the L-body. The Omnirizon entered the ’90s and its swan song season with several updates including larger exterior mirrors, a driver’s airbag, a new center console, and a redesigned instrument panel with centrally-located HVAC controls.
After thirteen years of production, Chrysler quietly discontinued the Omnirizon duo after the 1990 model year. Total Omni/Horizon production (excluding the 3-door 024/TC3) totaled 1,658,312 units, with the breakdown at 762,552 Omnis and 895,760 Horizons, for a 45.9/54.1 percent split. Largely due to the success and widespread application of the K-platform, the L-body Omni and Horizon are largely forgotten today, despite their unusually long shelf life for a Chrysler product. Regardless of their memorability, the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon were a crucial vehicle in Chrysler’s history, and without them, there likely never would have been the K-car or a Chrysler today.