I don’t just want to buy a Neon. I require one. Like with my earlier posts featuring mostly unloved cars, there’s solid reasoning behind this realization.
I’ve done the Baltic Press Rally a few times now, and part of the excitement is arriving in Latvia or Lithuania in a total underdog car and then doing better on the handling tracks and parking lot autocross stages than anyone, including me, expects. That means not being last, by the way. But I also don’t want to repeat myself, so doing the rally in the same car twice or thrice is out of the question. I’ve also sold the 205 I drove in 2018 and the Fiat Panda I used for this year’s rally, so I need to buy something for 2020. A purchase price of way less than a grand is preferred – those two cost just a few hundred each.
This is where the Chrysler Neon enters the picture. Yes, it was called the Chrysler Neon here, not Dodge or Plymouth – Chrysler’s European arm probably figured it was a better bet just to sell everything, including the Viper, as a Chrysler.
The Neon is now worthless and offers more than 130 horsepower in a barely-over-1000kg package. That alone sells the car to me. Add the very-‘90s exterior and interior design that not a lot of people love and I’m already shaking your hand. Remind me that the Neon did very well in autocross in its day and I’m practically signing the title.
Of course, the Neon’s motorsport activities were usually left to the ACR models, which benefitted from a shorter ratio gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes and some other improvements like a quicker steering rack and better suspension. Depending of the model year and number of doors, there was also an available 150-horsepower DOHC engine instead of the SOHC 133-hp unit. The ACR was never shipped to this side of the pond, and the only Euro Neon near it is the CS, which only really adds the quicker gearbox but also includes useless luxury like a leather interior. But the base Neon already has a lot of good stuff, like the aforementioned two-liter 16-valve engine with over 130hp, and rear discs can be added from a junked 2nd generation car.
Speaking of the 2nd gen, I really don’t like it. Most Neons anyone ever sees here are the newer cars, without frameless door windows and without the classic mid-‘90s radness. The Neon was ruined when it was improved: I want it light, simple and raw, like it was the American Samara. And it absolutely has to be manual, as most of them have the awful three-speed automatic gearbox thanks to it being a no-cost option and the sole point of choosing a Neon over anything else on the market, if you were looking for an automatic car. Manuals are rare, as out of the 50 currently-listed used Finnish Neons five are manual.
So far, I’ve looked at two manual Neons around here. The other one is a 170,000 km 1995 with unpainted bumpers and Strawberry Red paint and the bubble-style wheel trims. It looks launch-spec, and the details make it closer to the original concept. While it has been re-welded and it’s far from mint, I’m still thinking it might be a little too nice to race in the Baltics, and it belongs to a little old lady that might want the car go to a good home.
The other Neon, a white 1998 with 228,000 km has sat at a parking lot in my town for four years and while it doesn’t seem to have rotted too badly, it obviously isn’t road legal at this point and a complete assessment of its abilities has to be made before a purchase is considered. Immediately visible problems include a completely rotten fuel tank filler pipe, which will need to be sourced from the U.S, and as the battery wasn’t present I couldn’t verify if the car actually runs. It also has the weaker 1.8-liter engine, meaning there’s a 20-horse deficit: still good, but not optimal. However, the full white exterior makes it visually closer to the ACR cars and adds at least 50% more motorsport cool. But while the white car probably costs just a couple hundred, tops, it’s best to presume it’s very needy.
Perhaps the ideal Neon would be something from between these two: an early car that’s road legal and has the 2.0-liter motor, but one that’s not too nice to drive in a sporting fashion with little mechanical sympathy. I’d ideally add 15-inch, six-spoke wheels from a second gen Prius to be able to have very light 5×100 wheels to further enhance the handling and to be able to use some semi-slick tires I already have, but those particular wheels are not easy to find here and they also need the center hole re-bored to 57,1 instead of 54,1. VAG wheels already match the Neon’s specs including the center hole, but they are usually heavier. I also don’t want to pay very much for wheels I might kerb at the Baltic autocross tracks. Heck, part of the idea of going with a cheap rally beater is that I can just pocket the plates and walk home if the car eats its head gasket somewhere near Kurpalaukis.
I’ll have time until May 2020 to come up with a good, but not too good Neon. Let’s hope the right one comes along at the right price by next spring.
[Images: Chrysler/Antti Kautonen]