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Hooniverse Chrysler Domestic Sub-Compact Weekend – The Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon

Jim Brennan October 29, 2011 Weekend Edition 53 Comments

Continuing on with our Holloween Special featuring the Domestically produced Chrysler Sub-Compacts, we move on to the Plymouth Horizon, and the Dodge Omni. These were actually very modern cars when introduced, with the first domestic transverse engine and front wheel drive vehicle ever, beating both Ford and General Motors by almost two years. This car also came at a critical time for Chrysler, as they were trying to find Government Support to survive, and with news reports that these fresh, small cars were actually selling well, convinced Congress that Chrysler was worth saving at that time. So, lets rediscover the American produced competitor to the Volkswagen Rabbit, and find whether this model is a Trick, or a Treat.

It has been written that these cars had substantial European origins, with development provided by Simca which was then the French division of Chrysler Europe. If this was true, then the other stories about Chrysler retaining the North American rights to the car seem to hold up. Either way, this was a brand new platform for Chrysler, who usually took the easy way out by having captive imports fill their need for small, fuel efficient cars. This was the first front wheel drive car set to be sold in large numbers (The Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado rarely sold over 40,000 copies), and was one of the first domestic products to offer an OHC engine.

That engine for the debut year was the Volkswagen sourced 1.7L OHC four cylinder that deviated from the VW design with a Chrysler engineered cylinder head and manifold, with an electronic carburetor used instead of fuel injection. The engine produced 75HP in this application. Later on, the 2.2L Chrysler K-Car engine was used as the optional power-plant for the 1981 model year, which produced 84HP early on, but was upgraded to 93HP and finally 96HP in later applications. This was the only engine offered after the 1986 model year. One interesting engine option was the Simca/Peugeot-produced 1.6L OHV four cylinder engine that was only available from 1983 through 1986, and then only with a manual transmission.

Production for these cars was actually respectable, and include the 3-door variants.
Year Omni Horizon
1978 81,611 106,772
1979 141,477 162,763
1980 138,155 162,478
1981 77,039 94,859
1982 71,864 37,196
1983 42,554 46,471
1984 71,355 78,564
1985 74,127 88,011
1986 73,580 84,508
1987 66,907 79,449
1988 59,867 61,715
1989 46,239 45,341
1990 16,733 16,397

The real treat to these cars were the Dodge Omni GLH, and the Shelby Tuned Omni GLH-S. The Omni GLH was first introduced for the 1984 Model Year, and featured a normally aspirated, high compression 2.2L Four Cylinder producing 110HP. For 1985 the MPFI/Turbocharged Turbo I 2.2L engine was placed on the option list, and this engine generated 146HP. With a low weight (as little as 2,000 pounds) this car really moved… well for the time period at least. The final 500 GLH models were bought by Shelby, and were sold as the Omni GLH-S, with the Turbo II 2.2L engine and fited with an intercooler, this powerhouse produced 175HP.

The Dodge Omni and the Plymouth Horizon will be remembered as Chrysler’s first true economy cars, that really were good value for the money. But collectors will search out those Shelby models in years to come, and who knows, in 20 years they may bring in Hemi Money at the 2060 Barrett Jackson Auctions.

  • eggsalad

    It was my first new car, a base-model '89 in Ice Blue. I paid $6000 out the door. It had some build issues, but it was overpowered for it's weight and geared right. I could get 45mpg on the highway with regularity. I drove it for 3 years and 60k miles, paid it off, and sold it for a grand. Chrysler always had trouble retaining value.

  • julkinen

    Euro (Talbot) Horizons were also cranked out by the same Valmet factory in Finland that nowadays makes Fisker Karmas. They were improved during the production run with Saab seats and whatnot.

    <img src="http://img847.imageshack.us/img847/1559/datassa.jpg"&gt;

    That black screen bottom is due to one of the improvements, a raised rear shelf to increase the trunk space.

    • mallthus

      Interesting that the 5 speed emblem is from a Saab as well.

      <img src="http://loz.zelandeth.org/cars/86saab/5speed.jpg&quot; alt="5-speed" />

    • Perc

      Speaking of improvements… Valmet also made a version that could run on kerosene. Custom fuel system, dual tanks and some extra switchgear. The same system could be had on the Saab 99 too. Talbot Horizon Petro and Saab 99 Petro. You needed gasoline for starting. Once the engine warmed up, it automatically switched over. There were some kind of manual override controls as well.

      Perhaps the most important improvement of them all is the "5 speed" badge, also found on saabs from the era. Dunno if it was a Valmet thing or if Swedish made saabs had them too. It seems to be well made though. If you take a look at a classic Saab today, the 5 speed badge still shines even though the others are worn down to the black plastic.

    • Manic_King

      The sticker on the window? Unbelievably pointless "Car – that's what everybody use for transportation" or smthing, must be joke or is it Talbot's original equipment? Also, ASS plate….

      • julkinen

        The sticker was from some kind of a campaign back in the day, probably from the dealer or the like. The ASS plate is a gem 🙂

        • Perc

          "Auto – sillä kulkee kaikki" was Autoliitto's slogan back in the day.

          No idea how to translate Autoliitto, Their own web site says "Automobile and Touring Club of Finland"

          • TurboBrick

            That's a pretty good translation. last time I was back home I found one of my old toy trucks, and it still had a "Muumi loves Horizon" sticker on it. Wish I had remembered to take a picture of it.

            Also, wasn't another twist for the Valmet Horizons that they used Saab paints and painting processes, and hence they had different color options than the rest of the Talbots.

            Talbot Horizon was the first new car my father bought. He sold it after smashing the oil pan on a rock back in '84. He was cleaning the garage few months ago and said that he found the original cold weather radiator shield kit for it, still in it's pouch, and he tossed it. I told him there's a scary Talbot zealot somewhere quivering in his anorak because that was the last thing he needed to complete his painstaking 100 point concours restoration.

        • dukeisduke

          Who's driving that – The Assman?


  • tonyola

    The introduction of the 2.2 in the 1981 models was one of the best things that could happen to these cars. While not particularly powerful in non-turbo form, the engines were torquier than the old Fours and made the Omni/Horizon much more pleasant to drive.

    Also, the 1987 America models should be mentioned. On these, Chrysler added standard equipment, cut back on the options, and lowered the price on the base models by as much as $700 compared to 1986. The result was good value and strong sales for a nearly decade-old car.

    • Devin

      I'm curious why Chrysler retired the America entry level models. It's a good badge, and they do the same thing north of the border with Canada Value.

  • So, Jim, you are telling me to buy one now off eBay, and store it for 20 years so I can rake in the cash? Done and done.

  • Joe Btfsplk

    Ya wanna be sure that the the one you purchase does not have a bastard, Franken-engine…unless you love combing the interwebs for auto parts and paying double what they're worth.

    • Tempting, but no, I still don't want one.

  • I'd drive one, but that doesn't really mean anything.

    • Maymar

      That sounds like our motto.

  • humblejanitor

    My mother owned a white '84 and red '89 and both were very pleasant cars to ride in. Good on gas mileage and you could hoon them if you so wished.

  • OA5599

    The GLHS engine is not quite the same as a Turbo II; it does not have the beefier bottom end of the "true" T2 cars. Part of the justification of the project was to shake down the driveline in small batches for Chrysler before the engine became an option on the larger numbers of production vehicles the following year.

  • Vavon

    How strange that the Dodge Omni & Plymouth Horizon soldiered on untill 1990… Selling in quite large numbers, whereas in Europe the Chrysler-Simca-Talbot Horizon was (considered) way by its sell-by-date in 1983. It was supposed to be replaced in 1985 with project C28: the Talbot Arizona. As the brand Talbot had been doomed from day one, Peugeot, the owners of Talbot, hastely rebadged the Talbot Arizona as the Peugeot 309. It was to be the final nail in the coffin of Talbot.

    <img src="http://beta.autoscoops.eu/files/imagecache/full_width/nieuws/2010/07/peugeot-309-2.jpg"&gt;
    C28 = Talbot Arizona = Peugeot 309

    • tonyola

      Chrysler increased the content of the Omni/Horizon over time while keeping prices low, so by the mid-'80s, they were pretty good value for the money. That was especially true of the 1987 America models which I discussed above – they undercut the Japanese competitors in price while offering high equipment levels. The tooling had long been paid for, so Chrysler could keep the base price below $5,500 in 1987 – nearly $1,000 cheaper than even the base Ford Escort and just a few hundred more than the older and cruder Chevy Chevette while offering rather more standard equipment than either Ford or Chevy.

      • Vavon

        Aha, The loaded-special-edition-trick always does it!

    • smokyburnout

      If they've already done a 309, and the 308 is the oldest of the _08 cars… Do we know what Peugeot has planned when they run out of numbers?

      • Vavon

        The latest I heard on this subject is that Peugeot is apparantly going to keep the modelnames with -08. So the replacement of the 308 will become the 308 again. Just like a Golf or a Civic. The reasoning behind this is that it's easier for people to remember what size of car and what brand it is and the ending in 8 seems to mean something positive in China.

        • tonyola

          I read in the past few days that Peugeot will go back to 301 for the 308 replacement. I think it was in Autocar or Auto Express.

    • Perc

      "How strange that the Dodge Omni & Plymouth Horizon soldiered on untill 1990… Selling in quite large numbers, whereas in Europe the Chrysler-Simca-Talbot Horizon was (considered) way by its sell-by-date in 1983."

      I think it's because the Omni & Horizon was the bottom feeder model in the US. It didn't need to be good, as long as it was cheap. On the European market is competed in a slightly more upscale segment and needed to be competitive. This is also the reason why the american Golf gets a 2.5 liter i5. The 2.0 FSI needs premium fuel and that doesn't fly in a car that's supposed to be cheap.

      Ford of Europe managed to squeeze in two completely different generations of Focus while the US only had one, and the US version had some nasty old engines we never got here. The third generation released recently brought it up to par, finally.

  • The Talbot Horizon was largely outnumbered by the VW Golf in Europe, Talbot came too late to the game and the PSA group had no real interest to develope the Talbot brand.
    A interesting version was the Lotus Sunbeam 150 Hp natural aspirated,

    <img src="http://www.ianhardy.net/gallery/main.php/d/90876-2/croft_historic_rally_2009_0913.jpg&quot; width="550">

    • Vavon

      The problem wasn't really the late arrival of the Horizon. The Simca 1100 had been a huge succes and the sales of the Simca Horizon started out quite nicely, however the Horizon's early career was soon overshadowed by the political machinations of Chrysler. Sadly, Chrysler's mounting problems in the USA were becoming intolerable, and in an effort to concentrate on its core businesses in the USA, the inevitable decision to offload Chrysler Europe was taken. Much of the momentum of Horizon sales was lost by the change from Chrysler Simca to Talbot across Europe on 10 July 1979. Both in the UK, in France and other key European markets like Belgium, Holland and Germany, customers were confused by the name change. Simca was popular and well-known, Talbot was nothing but a name from the past which the general public had completely forgotten about.

      • tonyola

        Once the Horizon came under Peugeot's wing, it was competing against the in-house Peugeot 104 and soon-to-come 205 along with the Citroen Visa. Also, Peugeot in late '81 introduced the Talbot Samba, which was a modified 104. Those cars certainly didn't help the Horizon, and I suspect Peugeot let it die of slow neglect.

        • Vavon

          Those cars were all small cars that didn't compete in the same category as the Horizon or VW Golf. The 5-door 104 was a much smaller car than the Horizon. In length it was 40 cms (almost 16 inches) smaller. It competed with the VW Polo and the Renault 5. The 3-door Samba was even smaller with 50 cms less (almost 20 inches!). It competed directly with the 104. The real problem was the name change and the fact that Peugeot dealers that had also become Talbot dealers which didn't want to sell Talbots. The Simca dealers that didn't want to become Peugeot-Talbot dealers jumped ship to other brands. The production-figures of the Horizon in France clearly indicate the Talbot-name was the main problem.

          1977: Chrysler Simca Horizon 385
          1978: Chrysler Simca Horizon 207 544
          1979: Chrysler Simca Horizon 222 296
          1980: Talbot Horizon 158 809
          1981: Talbot Horizon 100 372
          1982: Talbot Horizon 71 339
          1983: Talbot Horizon 59 063
          1984: Talbot Horizon 26 554
          1985: Talbot Horizon 4 637
          1986: Talbot Horizon 0

          ( Figures from Horizon fan-site: http://passionhorizon.wifeo.com/historique-1.php )

    • earlofhalflight

      The Sunbeam was a completely different car to the Horizon. The British Sunbeam was from the Rootes Group and was a development of the rear wheel drive Hillman Avenger/Plymouth Cricket. The French Horizon was from Simca and was a development of the front wheel drive Simca 1100. They didn't share a single major component.

  • mad_science

    Blows my mind to see so much well reasoned in depth discussion of these cars. I love our commenters.

    All that comes to mind is that batty hp number on the glh (-s), as well as being shocked they still made these in 1990.

  • CJinSD

    GLH stood for Goes Like Hell, and the S for Some more.

  • CJinSD

    My mother bought a 1979 Plymouth Horizon. The variety of available options was amazing compared to buying a car today. There were low back bucket seats, high back bucket seats. Optional rear defroster and rear window wiper/washer. Optional cargo cover. Optional trunk carpet. Optional interior carpet. Optional external turn signal indicators for the front fenders. Optional wheel trims, hubcaps, allow wheels, whilte wall tires, white letter tires. Optional trasmissions. Interior carpetting was optional. There were at least two levels of interior door panels, the fancy ones my mom picked having carpeted lower sections and a bit of fake wood in a tiny stripe around a black trim piece in a tan interior. Seats could be vinyl or a couple types of cloth. There were three steering wheels. There was an optional roof rack. For the exterior, there were countless paint finishes. Black out rocker panels were an option, as were some more conventional two tone paint jobs.

    • CJinSD

      Radios were optional, ranging from a single speaker AM radio up through AM/FM stereo, 8-track, cassette, built in CB radio. There were several levels of exterior chrome available, including wheel arch covers, a belt line door protector, or a chrome accent that ran around the car at the character line starting over the headlights. The passenger side mirror was optional, as were remote(not electric) controls for external mirrors. A tachometer was optional. A/C was an option. Power steering was an option too. I don't remember anything about power brakes.

      My mother's car had an AM radio, but it had almost everything else available. The price totaled at least 40% over the advertised base price. The car had a velour interior with most painted metal surfaces covered by vinyl and plenty of traditional American upscale details. We had the most upscale interior available with all the creature comforts and a middle level of external chrome. Had the rear wiper-washer, which I think was the only car we ever had with one.

      • CJinSD

        We had the little indicator lights on the fenders too, and the interior actually impressed a girl who was used to austere imports when I first got my driver's license. We didn't get power steering though, I believe as a direct result of Consumer Reports' campaign against the Omni and Horizon. They claimed that if you sawed at the wheel repeatedly and then released it, the PS equipped Omni didn't self center in a safe manner, and since we all do that regularly, it would be totally unacceptable from a safety standpoint.

      • RWB

        "…Traditional American upscale details…"

        This is what I'll call chromed plastic from here on out.

    • Van Sarockin

      Once upon a time, you could order any car with a plethora of options, all individually selected. Someone figured out once that you could get up to three million unique Impalas, if you built each of the possible combinations. It also didn't hurt that sometimes you could have up to about a hundred color choices, about a third of them semimetallic.

      Then manufacturers decided to raise profits and simplify inventory, so they invented option packages. They dropped the really slow selling options, as well as most of the ones that didn't have a big margin. But the bundling also let them put together high profit items that might not have been ordered individually – like tying the nav system, or special lighting to a sunroof – so if you want one, you have to pay for them all.

      Now most cars come with only a handful of options packages and a handful of colors. I'm not sure it's an improvement.

      • west_coaster

        The model for this actually came from the Japanese.

        When the Honda Accord debuted and became a big hit, there were two trim levels and only three or four colors each year, with the only stand-alone options being dealer-installed (air conditioning, radio upgrades). Other models like the Toyota Celica were built in a similarly simple fashion.

        Above all, this made manufacturing and supplier inventory much easier and more streamlined.

        • OA5599

          I remember when the dealerships used to advertise "Air Conditioner ready" in the list of features for their Honda inventory, in order to mislead some customers into thinking the car had air conditioning, ready to go.

          • west_coaster

            Up until 1982 at least, that's the way all Accords came. A guy I worked with bought a fully-loaded LX 4-door, but the a/c had to be added at the dealership.

      • OA5599

        By the same token, it always annoys me to see a vintage car advertised as 1 of [some low number] because of the unique combination of options it has. Some of the rare and desirable options, like a big gas tank in a Vette or power windows in a Hemi car might be understandable, but when "rare" because of it's combination of pale puke green paint with a 3-on-the-floor, non-electric windshield washers, dark green interior, and the fourth most powerful engine offered in that model, who cares?

        • west_coaster

          Yep, every idiot with some strange combination of options at a classic car show makes a big deal about it. ("Wow, it has air conditioning and radio delete. I'm impressed.")

          A friend summed it up perfectly for me once. Think of an attractive woman. If she has two large perfect breasts, that's desirable. But what if she has THREE large perfect breasts? Rare? Oh, yes, Desirable? NO!

          • jeepjeff

            Haven't you seen Total Recall?

            More seriously, my feeling is rare options do not make a rare car. But everyone wants to be King of th Hill, even if it is a puke green hill with no A/C.

          • CJinSD

            The third breast is great, but it should be on her back for slow dancing.

      • Maymar

        From what I understand, the reduction in variability makes for an improvement in quality – I remember reading a review of the 2nd gen Neon, which talked about how Chrysler had reduced the number of different Neons you could order from the hundreds or even thousands down into the double digits (I want to say 28, but that sounds a little low). I agree, Vive La Difference, but at the same time, your Camcordpaltima driver stopped caring about variation when they bought a Camcordpaltima.

      • CJinSD

        Other than the move to simplified options lists, although it almost seems like Ford is headed the opposite direction with the Focus now, the funny thing is what you couldn't get from that immense list of available features. I don't believe power windows or locks were available. Nor was leather. I'm not sure when that stuff started showing up in subcompacts, but it may not have been until subcompact nameplates had grown to fit compact cars.

  • west_coaster

    I was a box boy at a supermarket when these cars came out, and had to schlep groceries to customers' cars. That was actually pretty cool in some ways, as I got to check out a lot of new vehicles up close. (On the other hand, it sucked when these packrats who carried around tons of shit in their trunks would pop it open and say, "I don't know how you're going to get all that in there!")

    One woman was bragging about her new Omni as I was loading her groceries, and I commented about how it looked kind of like a Rabbit. "Oh no!" she said. "It's much better than a Rabbit, and roomier too." I couldn't argue with her on the roomier part, but in build quality there was no comparison. (Pre-Westmoreland on the Rabbits, of course.)

  • AteUpWithMotor

    You might make some kind of case for the Horizon/Omni being the first domestic badged/U.S. market volume-production FWD cars, but outside the U.S., that wasn't the case — there'd already been a lot of FWD Ford Taunuses, Citroëns, Minis, BMC 1100/1300s, Autobianchi A112/Fiat 127s, Simca 1204s, etc., etc., well before the Horizon was even conceived. In that sense, the domestic makes were really kinda late to the party…

  • ptschett

    Per Allpar there were some big differences between the European and US versions of the cars… for example the US cars had Macpherson strut front suspension, where European cars had torsion bars.

    Also, how have we gone 48 comments and not noted that the Omni/Horizon platform led to the Dodge Omni 024 / Charger and Plymouth Horizon TC3 / Turismo, which in turn were the basis for Chrysler's only US-market coupe utilities, the Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp?
    <img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/45/1983_Dodge_Rampage.jpg/800px-1983_Dodge_Rampage.jpg&quot; width="500"/>

  • Ol' Shel'

    You'll never convince me that these aren't Golf 1s. And the VW engine isn't helping your case.

  • Paul_y

    I've always had a soft spot for these cars. My parents bought a Horizon new in 1985 (silver w/ whorehouse red interior, 5-speed), and had it until 1997. Just about every piece of the car fell off at least once (bumpers, wipers, shift linkages; the radio was nonfunctional before the 80s ended), but it always ran really well). It also hauled much of the lumber used in my parents' deck.

    …and at the same time, my grandmother and uncle both had acquired platform-mate Dodge Chargers (and now that I think of it, I haven't seen one of those in YEARS, but I do still sight the odd Omnirizon).

  • This one was for sale in my neighborhood a few years ago (long since gone).

    [youtube 4wiwYnpP5n4&feature=channel_video_title http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wiwYnpP5n4&feature=channel_video_title youtube]

  • Salman A

    An ’83 Omni was my first new car. I loved it, my previous car was a VW Rabbit, so it was very similar. That can ran perfectly for the first 6 years, then trouble began; was it the car, or bonehead mechanics who did not want to look into what they were doing? When the water pump went bad, I took it to 3 different shops, but they found nothing wrong; when I decided to get dirty, I saw green liquid dripping from the engine compartment–voila! When the transmission went bad, another idiot chose to tell me that only the clutch needed replacement. I put in a used clutch, the tranny started to grind more, and I sold the car; the new owner told me that the transmission became unusable a mile from his home–30 miles away.