The cars we loved.
If you follow Chrysler history closely, you know that it can be summarized at times by crisis and innovation in equal measures. With each new threat of bankruptcy, the company rolls out some innovative product that saves the day until that product falls behind in the market and/or the poor sales of the company’s other products drag it back into the inevitable financial crisis.
One such crisis during the 1970s saw Chrysler with no modern fuel efficient cars to compete with Ford and GM’s new subcompacts, not to mention a wave of imports. The smallest thing Chrysler had in its arsenal during the mid-70s were a pair of rear wheel drive Mitsubishi sourced compacts. The imported Cricket was gone and its home grown Aspen had tried filling the gaps by appealing to everyone from Camaro to Maverick buyers. Chrysler once called the Aspen and Cordoba a small cars as if the stripped down 6 cylinder Aspen they marketed as fuel efficient could compete with Rabbits, Pintos and Chevettes. Chrysler’s captive imports helped its bottom line, but they were too small for most people and did not always blend well with Chrysler’s current designs.
Clearly something new was needed to fend off the likes of slightly larger sub compacts like the VW Rabbit. Engineers began working on the K-Car, but it would still be years away. Chrysler needed something soon or it was likely to go the way of Nash or Packard. The answers lie overseas with Chrysler’s European division. Fresh from absorbing the small French manufacturer Simca, Chrysler Europe with Detroit’s blessing had started the development of a world car code named C2. Development teams were scattered around Britain, France and America. In the states the C2 project internally was called the L-body but was better known as the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. Both cars had few differences between them, mostly the grille and tail lights, so referring to them as “Omnirizon” somehow seems appropriate. Although called a “world car”, there were big differences between North American and European versions of the C2 cars.
Oddly enough the car that was one of its biggest competitors seemed to have influenced its shape. Not only did the Horizon look like the Volkswagen Golf, it had a VW 1.7 liter engine! To its credit, it arguably looked better than the Rabbit and was nearly as sophisticated. Depending
on where the Omnirizon was sold (it was everywhere in the free world it seemed), it could come with engines as small as the Simica 1.6 and as big as 2.2 liters. While they were sold all over the world, cars sold in America were built in Illinois and Wisconsin. Chrysler used the 1.7 until it was able to develop its own four cylinder engine code named E86 in 1980. After Chrysler sold off Simica to Peugeot, a version of the Horizon was sold by the French company with engines smaller than 1.6L in Europe.The Omnirizon represented a long list of firsts for Chrysler. Its first front wheel drive car, first car with a semi-independent rear suspension, metric rated engine (2.2L) and its first four door hatchback. More importantly for Chrysler the pair was a sales success. While versions of the L-body cars were sold in Europe with a wider range of smaller engines, North American cars were mostly 1.7 or 2.2l equipped. While visually similar, American cars differed from their European counterparts in suspension (front McPherson strut vs. Euro car’s torson bar) and bumper design. There actually were very few interchangeable parts between the two.
With anywhere from 70 to 99 hp, the Omni/Horizon offered acceptable performance and good gas mileage, especially with the fuel injected versions of the 2.2l engine. Carburated versions of the 2.2L in 1982 were rated as high as 41 mpg on the highway. That figure would fall to 35 with the single throttle-body fuel injected versions, but offered improved drivability.
The transverse engine and front wheel drive layout allowed a car with only a 99 inch wheel base car to have nearly as much usable interior room as the larger Dodge Aspen. At 100.2 cubic feet, the Omnirizon’s interior volume was at the edge of what was considered subcompact. There was a considerable amount of standard features that included a AM radio, 13 inch white wall radial tires, rack and pinion steering and front disc brakes. All of this could be had for less than $4,000.
The uni-body construction was very modern. The upright boxy shape was very much in tune with the coming 80s and spawned a snappy looking two door spin off called the Dodge Omni 024/Plymouth Horizon TC3 in 1979. Even the spin-offs spun mutations in the form of mini pickups called the Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp. Sales peaked in 1979 for both the Omni and Horizon, but but after 1980 tapered off. During the height of its popularity, Motor Trend voted the Omni its “Car of the Year” for 1978. Sales were relatively strong considering how few changes were made through the 80’s. Small improvements like fuel injection, improved rubber suspension bushings and a 5 speed manual transmission improved comfort and broadened appeal.
The Plymouth branded Horizon was by far the more successful of the two, mostly due to its lower initial price. With the Dodge Aspen RT gone by 1981, Dodge used the L Platform as the basis for a performance variant of the Omini called the GLH (Goes Like Hell). In 1984 the 110 hp GLH was a pony car slayer that was topped only the Omni GLH Shelby version a few years later. At only 2,296 lb the typical Omnirizon was lightweight, but still heavier than many imports. It handled well with a compliant ride thanks in part to its comfort oriented tires and somewhat sophisticated suspension by small car standards. New models of the Plymouth Horizon called the Miser with the 1.7 liter engine went further in creating a low cost alternative to the wave of cheap imports like the Hyundai Excel and domestic competitors like Ford’s stripped down Escort Pony. Other models like the SE catered to the sport oriented with blackout trim, and a manual transmission in a time before the GLH arrived.
The Omini/Horizon did have its share of problems; the most notable of them was its poor frontal crash ratings. This may have been one of the contributing factors in the cars phasing out. Towards the end, fuel injection had become standard and one engine, the 2.2 liter four had become to sole source of motivation, due mostly to its excellent reliability.
Part of the simplifying of the line came as a result of quality control measures resulting in a single model called “America” in the US and “Expo” in Canada. These models had limited options and were sold at “one price”, much like Saturns would be a few years later. By 1990 the subcompact car market place was becoming crowded with new low end players like the Hyundai Excel. Chrysler had done an admirable job of developing its first real small car by late ’70s standards, but it was fast becoming dated as the ’90s approached.
In 1990, the final year, Chrysler finally address the front collision safety issue as all models got a front driver air bag. Critics may have thought a little too late, but the Omnirizon succeeded in its mission to prop up Chrysler’s short term fortunes so that it could continue development and release it’s successful K-Car platform. A new P-body pair (Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance) would replace the L-body, but by then the Omnirizon along with K-Car variants had done their job of saving Chrysler, yet once again.