The cars we loved.
Of the little 80’s era pocket rockets, few were as fierce as the Dodge Omini GLH Turbo. As an offshoot of the boxy Omni sedan hatchback, the GLH had a very VW Rabbit like profile. Chrysler had started the process of exploring the limits of front wheel drive performance through a collaboration with Carol Shelby. The Chrysler Shelby Performance Center, established in California in the early 80’s would be responsible for a string of performance cars that established Dodge as a legitimate alternative by countering the traditional ponycar thinking at GM and Ford
Although it seems the diminutive and boxy Dodge gets little respect today, it was one of the fastest cars on the road foreign or domestic. After trouncing the traditional GT cars of the day (Camaro/Mustang etc.) it went on to take the title of fastest four door production sedan in America, forcing BMW to remove its claim stating the 535i as such in its North American ad campaign.
The GLH wasn’t always so intense. The first “Goes Like Hell” (really), was introduced in 1984. It used a normally aspirated 2.2L four cylinder engine massaged to 110 hp by Chrysler. Although it was sporty in appearance, an optional body kit from Chrysler’s Direct Connection parts store gave it a more sinister look, especially when ordered in black. The market responded with muted enthusiasm, as the GLH was nothing more than a cosmetic upgrade with some suspension and engine tweaks. By the standards of the time, the 0 to 60 time of 9 seconds was good, putting it squarely in the middle of the pack performance-wise.
The next year things began to liven up. The 2,200 lb. GHL got optional turbocharging, bringing the 2.2’s output to 146 hp. That was enough power to make the GLH a formidable performance car, now nipping at the heels of the Mustang, Camaro/Firebird with a 8.7 0 to 60 time. The original Ommi had become the first US car to make use of a semi-independent suspension, which when recalibrated with revised spring rates and thicker anti roll bars produced a car that could corner as well as it could jet in the straightaway. Instantly, the GLH had become the frontrunner of the budding hot hatch phenomenon in America. And they were selling well too. The GLH had an upgraded interior compaired to regular Omini. The two-tone door panels and leather seats were a welcome contrast to what normally would have been a sea of cheap grey or black plastic. The control layout was simple and straight forward, but GLH still had an air of cheapness about it. The five speed manual transmission was not the slickest around, but after driving the GLH it was clear that development priorities were under the hood.
The Dodge name would leave the GLH as Shelby bought the last 500 cars in the 1986 model year and would rename the cars Shelby GLH-S, with S being Goes Like Hell Some more. The new car used the Shelby developed Turbo II induction system to push the 2.2 to 175 hp. Now the GLH-S was outrunning the likes of Porsche, Ferrari and BMW and doing it with room for 4 and groceries. The last batch of GLH-S cars called the Limited Edition GLH-S was a bargain at only $11,000. The parts list read like the recipe for an exotic: 15 inch Eagle GT Gatorbacks on Shelby Centurian alloy wheels, Koni Adjustable springs and a five speed manual transmission. Although it was stiff ridding, it offered performance equal to many European sports cars costing thousands more. In addition to being cheap, it was as practical as any Omini.
Simply put the GLH-S was one of the biggest performance bargains of the 80’s. Suddenly the old guard rear wheel drive muscle car hierarchy was thrown out in favor of front wheel drive turbo inspired performance. The image boost helped Chrysler sell other front drive performance cars and carried the company through a difficult transitional period in the industry. Although the press praised the GLH for its performance, the car got little respect beyond motorheads. Part of the reason may have been that Chrysler products were inconsistent in quality with fit and finish issues that plagued many of its cars. That unfortunate reputation may have been the main reason the GHL/S is so undervalued now. It did live a second life in the world of motor sports where it was a popular track car for SCCA type events.
Motor sports may be why the car lives in the living rooms of gamers everywhere. Ask most Civic or WRX drivers about the GLH, and you’re likely to get a blank stare, unless they discovered the car via games like Forza and Gran Turismo . Very few GLH or any Omini for that matter are seen on the roads today or in auto meets. Thats a shame because the GLH was one of the most important front wheel drive performance cars in American automotive history.