The cars we loved.
Most car enthusiasts wouldn’t give a second thought to products from Chrysler’s darkest days. The late ’70s and early ’80s was a great example of what a car company could do in a do or die situation. Chrysler was no stranger to this type of situation and proved to be rather resourceful in making the most of what it had to work with.
The Horizon/Omni sedan was a game changer for Chrysler. As its first front wheel drive car, it spawned a successful coupe derivative called the Dodge 024/Plymouth TC3. The names don’t have any particular meaning other than to sound sporty and mysterious (as was all so common in the ’80s). Due to the enormous popularity of the sedans that they were based on, they carried the Horizon and Omni names until 1980, at which point Chrysler felt its L-body coupe could carry on without the need to name drop.
The early name associations made no attempt to conceal the fact that the coupes and sedans were similar mechanically. Besides being short of two doors, but they were lower, wider and somewhat longer in their quest to be sporty. Between the Dodge 024 and the Plymouth TC3 there were very little differences of note beyond the grille and slight variations of the tail lights.
They even had the same VW sourced 1.7-liter engine from the Horizon/Omni. At just 70 hp initially and lacking the fuel injection (of the VW applications with the same engine), the 024/TC3 could not meet the expectations of its sporty exterior. It took about 12 seconds for a 4 speed manual equipped 024 to reach 60 mph. Cars with the 3 speed TorqFlite automatic were significantly slower.
It got worse actually as horsepower actually went down to a low of 63 in 1980. If you really wanted the 024/TC3’s sleek shape with performance, you would have waited for the Daytona in 1984, a car no doubt inspired by the L-body coupe’s sleek profile. Carroll Shelby would eventually endow the direct descendants of these cars with supercar killer performance.
The L-bodies were all about style on a budget. If the “Ominirizon” sedan recalled the VW Rabbit, the coupe could have been inspired by the Scirocco. Although the two were priced different and went after different ends of the market, they shared similar rakish styling. The sharp angular design with “sugar scoupe” styled headlights was indeed sporty looking.
The long fast back design had the added benefit of being a hatchback, so the coupe was as practical as it was sporty looking. The front wheel drive transverse engine setup allowed maximum interior space, which was unusual for an American coupe of any size in the late 70s.
Although cheap when new ($5 to 7k), the coupes (like the sedan from which it came) were well-engineered for its day. The Dodge 024 was more likely to be optioned with extras like air, cruise control and fancier stereos, while Plymouth in keeping with its entry-level status may have cost slightly less (typically). These cars were so basic that a AM radio and rear window defroster were touted as selling points. They would eventually compete with the similar sized Ford Escort EXP.
What drivers could not always see but more often felt was solid engineering on a budget that stood up well to the competition. An all coil suspension with MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle in back provided passable road manners. With the optional sports suspension, the L-body coupe could be a cut-rate grand touring car, as long as you stayed away from challenges from the Alfa GTV6, VW Scirocco or BMW 318 drivers. In time, Chrysler would offer sportier versions of the L-body coupes. Again resorting to name dropping, but this time from the Italian sports car vernacular with packages that played on Italian car cachet.
Plymouth’s top TC3 was called the Tursimo. It added blackout trim and monochromatic paint, alloy wheels and bigger tires. Dodge’s version would go as far as to borrow some of the fame of the Pantera by calling its sportiest 024 the De Tomaso. As a package it added a choice of loud red or yellow paint with black lower accents.
Black out trim with a unique brushed metal C-pillar treatment added distinction. The package was topped off with the all important black window louvers. Chrysler shamelessly milked then chairman Lee Iacocca’s friendships with notable Italians like Alessandro de Tomaso on occasion to add flair to its cars where horsepower was often lacking.
Some substance finally arrived with the flair in 1981 in the form of a new 2.2-liter engine borrowed from the K-Car. Now with 84 hp, the 2.2 would become a stand alone option for all L-body coupes, while if equipped with a sport suspension, two would not totally embarrass its driver when more than parking lot cruising was called for. The 10.7 second 0 to 60 times from cars with manual transmissions put the 024/TC3 in the performance range of lesser versions of the Mustang and Camaro.
Performance was good, but in hind site not good enough for Dodge to call its version the Charger, as it did in 1983. For those who still sought out cheap style, there was another new model called the Miser. It was a stripped down price leader that used the old 1.7 and later a 1.6 that came from Peugeot.
It seems that there were enough people who wanted a cheap Miser to make it popular. It helped Chrysler return to profitability while expanding the L-car range to include something for everyone. In some ways the 024 and TC3 opened the door to low small price coupes like the Ford Escort EXP and later the Toyota Paseo. The L-bodies would go on to spawn more variants until the Neon replaced them in the ’90s.
As cheap cars even when new, the 024 and TC3 tended to attract the cash strapped type of buyer who treated them as appliances. Like many inexpensive gadgets, we expect to throw them away when they have worn out. That would explain the near absence of the 024 or TC3 on the road today. The modern Dart is a far cry from the L-cars of the past, but both have some Italian connection (real or imagined). Chrysler’s Italian name dropping during the ’80s has caught up to it resulting in substance to its current products like the Dart.