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When Dodge Didn’t Sell Muscle Cars

There was a time when Dodge didn’t sell muscle cars.


It’s true. I was a teenager just about to get my driver’s license and I was itching to get my hands on 70 Charger , Challenger or maybe a 74 Sebring Satellite with a 440. But by 1982, all the Big Three were reeling from the tumultuous gas crisis and oil embarg0.

If you remember, in the late ’70s, the automotive performance world had been decimated by government regulations and soaring gas prices. MPG and going far had replaced having fun and going fast. If you were a hot-rodder, it was a dark time. Things over at the Chrysler Corporation were especially bad and the company was on the verge of going belly-up. Then along came a guy named Lee Iacocca to try and right the floundering ship. Spoiler alert: He pulled off a minor miracle and saved Chrysler.

The Dodge Omni Was Built To Compete With the Popular VW Rabbit

One of the cars that saved Chrysler was the Dodge Omni (and the similar Plymouth Horizon). Launched in 1978, this small and boxy front-wheel-drive econo-car was just what the market craved. You see, VW Rabbits were selling like hotcakes and Chrysler wanted a piece of that schnitzel. Chrysler Engineering’s Ed Poplawski wrote, “When they did the American version, Chrysler bought 79 Volkswagen Rabbits for all the departments to get ideas from and to see how they were made. We used to all laugh at the number of Rabbits running around Highland Park. Talk about rabbits multiplying … it was quite a joke at the time.” The Omni was the first front-wheel-drive subcompact car ever built in America, so it was quite the game-changer. By the end of the run in 1990, millions of Omnis and Horizons had been built.

The 1978 Dodge Omni Was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year?

The four-door hatchback was affordable, had a roomy interior and was powered by a 1.7-liter overhead-cam four-banger that put out a whopping 75 hp the first year. With a 99-inch wheelbase and 165-inch overall length, it was designed to fit a lot into a small package, and although 75 hp sounds pathetic, the car’s 2,167-pound weight kept it peppy enough. Almost 200,000 were sold that first year, so, yeah, it was a roaring success. In 1978. it was awarded MotorTrend Car of the Year! Yeah, seriously.

Fast-forward a few years and a certain Ford builder named Carroll Shelby started working for Chrysler to help them develop cool cars. In 1984, that meant the Dodge Omni GLH, an acronym coined by Shelby that stood for “Goes Like Hell.” The car adopted many of the mods from the 1982 Shelby Charger, including its 2.2-liter, 110-hp, high-output inline-four engine. It also had stiffer suspension, better brakes, and meatier tires. For 1985 and 1986, Shelby had Chrysler stuff a 146-hp 2.2-liter turbo I-4 under the hood. Ok, now the horsepower numbers were getting up there—and remember, it still weighed just a bit over 2,000 pounds!

The Shelby GLHS was one of the fastest cars around in 1986. In the April 1986 issue, HOT ROD Magazine tested a 1986 GLHS against a vintage 1965 Shelby GT350 Mustang fastback and the GLHS destroyed the classic ‘Stang on the road course.

HOT ROD Tested the 1986 GLHS Against a 1965 GT350 Shelby Mustang!

As HOT ROD stated in the article, “The two cars took to the track looking as mismatched as David and Goliath. It was a growling V-8 against a muffled straight-four. A fat-rubbered, rear-drive, 3000-pound muscle car versus a gumballed, front-drive, 2300-pound shoebox. Surely Shelby was starting to sweat. The contest came up to speed in a hurry, as the GLHS took off in an effort to stretch an advantage, with the GT350 in hot pursuit. The gap opened to about 10 car lengths, where it remained for three rapid laps. Much to our amazement, the GT350 showed no significant advantage anywhere on the course. It reeled in a few car lengths at the exit of the low-speed corners, but was held at bay down the remaining straights. The GLHS had slightly higher corner entrance speeds and was able to pull out a few lengths in the really tight stuff.”

“Feeling a wealth of confidence, we backed off the throttle in the GLHS, letting [the Mustang] charge about 10 car lengths ahead. With both cars back up to speed, another three-lap ding-dong developed: this time the GLHS closed up. By mid-point of the second lap the GLHS was on the trunk of the GT350. To pass it would serve no point. The cars returned to the pits together. Shelby beamed.” The GLHS was fast, faster than most, and even beat a Ferrari 308 in testing at Willow Springs. We’re sure that caused some tears to fall in the pasta.

I didn’t care. Choosing a 4-cylinder anything vs. a fire-breathing V8 anything would leave me in a state of piston envy.

How naive I was.

The cars that followed the Dodge Charger 2.2, and the later Daytona which featured a turbocharged 4 cylinder along with cars the Plymouth Laser.

It was in 1984 that Chrysler introduced a model it billed as the brand’s “first sports car,” and later as the “first front-wheel drive sports car built in America.” Not content to show its Laser out-handling a Nissan 300ZX in the slalom, out-braking a Pontiac Trans Am or out-accelerating a Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 from 0-50 MPH (when properly equipped, of course), Chrysler’s early advertising for the car touted luxury features like adjustable sport seats with Mark Cross leather and an available digital dashboard. Despite regular improvements to an already competitive car, buyers failed to materialize, and the Chrysler brand ended its sport coupe experiment after a brief three years.

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Initially, Chrysler offered the Laser with two powertrain options, including a normally aspirated 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder, rated at 93 horsepower and 121 pound-feet of torque, and a turbocharged version of the same engine that produced 142 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque.

Rowing one’s own gears with the turbocharged engine produced a 0-60 MPH time below 8.5 seconds, which put the Laser in the same league (acceleration wise, anyway) as the Nissan 300ZX Turbo and the Porsche 944.

For 1985, the turbocharged Laser received a bump in output to 146 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque, courtesy of a computer-controlled wastegate. A new model, the performance-themed XT, joined the family in the middle of the model year, and this variant added a body kit, unidirectional performance tires, a turbo boost gauge (since the XT came exclusively with the turbocharged engine) and a performance suspension.

And while most hot rodders dismissed these front-wheel drive cars as a step backward, the truth is that these cars handled, and braked much better than almost any car on Earth, especially American muscle cars. They were also fast from 0-60 which means most stoplight grand prixs would end in favor for these little squirts.

As we ease into the electric vehicle age, we will soon again a time when Dodge won’t be selling muscle cars – not in a conventional way.


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