Way back at the 2012 Geneseo, Illinois Trains, Planes and Automobiles car show, I ran across an endearing oddball. It certainly stood out amongst the dime a dozen red Camaros and Mustangs and streed rods. How about a 1989 Dodge Omni with less than 30K on the clock? And it was for sale too-yours for $3500!
These things used to be everywhere. It helped that they were in production for over a dozen years. But until I saw this silver time capsule, the last time I’d seen one of these was at the local junkyard. One on the road? I honestly can’t remember. No wait…I DID see one in traffic last summer, but it was pretty rough, missing the rear bumper.
I remember that the local family pizza place, Happy Joe’s, used them as delivery vehicles. By 2011-12 they were using a fleet of red Ford Rangers, and these days they seem to favor Ford EcoSports. But I digress.
The interior was equally mint. You can click on the picture to read the For Sale sign better, but it says this car has only 29,600 miles on it. Wow. I’m picturing a librarian or frugal grandmother as the original owner. Let’s face it. These-along with Escorts, Chevettes and Tracers-typically had the bark beaten off them at an early age. Usually by the first owners.
I think the price was (at the time) high enough to keep this car safe from someone buying it cheap and then ruining it. But hey, even ten years ago, who would daily drive an ’89 Omni? At any rate, it was quite the time capsule! Wonder if these are worth more or less now?
This was the next to the last year for these, the final ’90 models, oddly enough, added a driver’s side airbag, only to be axed in ’91. The early ’94 Neon more or less took its place. And now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t seen a Neon in probably ten years too!
It would have been funny if Iacocca had a companion model to the Omni America called the Omni France with the Simca 1.3 pushrod engine, the base Simca interior, the now legal again weak bumpers, and the French suspension tune. No AT/AC/PS. He should have priced it at the French price reflecting VAT, and farmed out assembly to Romania in the French style. Iaccocca was always complaining about the national inferiority complex that the auto press put so much stock in. They would just shake their head and think stupid old man. This pretend model would show what America could still do in 1989 even at the entry level, compared to what the other guy was dealing with.
What you describe is merely the difference between Europe where fuel prices are typically twice or more US prices, where wages earned by typical new car buyers are lower in Europe than US, but where taxes paid generally and especially on new cars are higher in Europe than the US (including displacement taxes that favor tiny motors). European market cars are sparse and underpowered because that is what customers can afford, because those are the type that socialist government policies force customers to buy. Such cars don’t make money anywhere, but if that is what policy forces you to build than automakers will find the cheapest way to build them in order to earn a tiny profit. Iacocca didn’t keep the Omni around because they were profitable, but simply because he needed cheap small cars for CAFE purposes in a market that was by the late 80s moving towards larger and more powerful vehicles that automakers loved because they were profitable.
You don’t think the tiny engines had more to do with the European design philosophy of what you need and no more. Think of all the Euro models that never came here so no worries about smog. The engine starts small, and then gets bigger and bigger with costly redesigns as the companies realize it is all just too weak. For example, the Sunbeam Tom chronicaled last week where every series got a slightly bigger engine.
Philosophy had nothing to do with it unless displacement taxes are a philosophy, because it was those taxes that made it punishingly expensive to buy a bigger motor version, which is why Ferrari made 1.999 liter versions for the home market, and nothing but exotics in France had more the 2.7 liters. High fuel taxes and low incomes also made larger motor versions more expensive to operate in theory (and CAFE testing) if not always in practice, as a hard worked little motor in my experience is often just as thirsty or more than a lazy bigger motor. Every European I’ve ever met who has had the opportunity to live in the US for a period of time always ends up buying something big with a V-8, which gives some idea of what they would buy back home if they weren’t taxed to death for making “bad choices”.
Does anyone look back in nostalgia for a car like this rather barebones Omni? Did any 14 year old during the 1980s dream about one day owning a Omni or have a poster/brochure for one posted on their bedroom wall? Does anyone now look back fondly on being shuttled to school in the back seat of one of these, or owning a beater version as their first car, so that they would want to find a “mint” one today to have in the garage? GLH versions I could understand, but what do you do with a grandma/secretary version? It would be interesting to know what condition this one is still in, assuming it hasn’t been turned into a fridge or beer can since 2012.
Actually I had a fair bit of nostalga looking at the interior which was shared with my first car a Turismo. That steering wheel had quite a sporty bit of soft feel that would have been unusual on an entry level family car. I also have a fair bit of nostalga for when young familys still could buy and own things that would make their life easier and help them persue happiness. If everybody drove the Contach they had on their wall, it would be a sad world. It meant nobody ever grew up.
What are your talking about? Young families are now mostly single moms on welfare who still somehow can afford to be obese, tattooed, pierced, and own the latest iPhone and designer handbag. Mom probably also has a car, but certainly not something basic and economical such as an Omni (probably a leased Buick/Lincoln/Lexus/Infiniti CUV). Thus it would appear that you nostalgic for the time when young families meant two parents who paid more attention to their kids than to designer living, which might mean sacrificing vehicle aspirations for something practical like an Omni, and if so I would agree that is something to be missed.
In the old days, welfare sponges were only allowed cars under $2500 to go with not having bank accounts. So the young families aspiring to something new with a long warranty were probably doing the right thing. When they bought the new Omni, they also showed themselves smarter than the many who fell for the pitch of the 1.6 liter Hyundai Excell with it’s Asian name so it must be good.
A smart Republican, who isn’t tied up in those coke fueled 70 year old orgies Madison Cawthorne recently told us about, would be jumping on this. Instead of the WEF great reset. A republican reset back to 1989 when things still worked and thus were savable. No more trannies outside of Boy George, and instead of cancel culture and smart phones we could bring back landlines that people had conversations on.
Stingray, there are still two parent families that pay attention to the kids, granted they are usally found in neighborhoods like Jack’s and Bark’s where home values almost aways increase and the schools are marginally better then average. Granted too many American families are having to get by on jobs at Wallymart, and driving for Uber because the jobs at the plant or the mill have disappeared. And that is the issue, when a large portion of the population can no long look forward to their kids doing better then they did you get a disturbance in the force and families brake down.
Yes I am aware that there are still intact young families and that many face challenges, but proportionately it is very different that a few generations ago. Yet it is still the case that families consisting of people who graduate high school, wait until after marriage to have kids, have at least one full-time bread winner, and avoid criminal activity have pretty much a zero chance of living in poverty as defined by standards that would be considered upper-class in most parts of the world or in the US not very long ago. The fact that more people did these things during the Great Depression and WWII when economic conditions and family stress were far harsher than today, would suggest that societal breakdown is not caused by mills shutting down (which they also did during the depression). The one big difference between then and now is the size of the welfare state and Leftist take-over of education, media, government, and “science”, which is where I would put my money if you want to point fingers as to the causes.
Yes, there’s at least one person I know who waxes nostalgic about these.
There is always nostalgia for the cars of the times of our youth and coming of age, regardless of the modern desirability of the vehicle. It’s an emotional response rather than a rational thing. This Omni reminds me of high school when a close friend’s parents had one. The nostalgia is less for the car as an object and more of a time when my knees didn’t hurt in the morning and I could read things up close without magnification. I have similar nostalgia for the car I learned to drive in (1970s Malibu Classic that faded from red to pinkish in two years and was on it’s second engine before 30k miles). Or for the 1970s Mazda Rotary engine pickup that was my first vehicle, which I seem to have as many memories of repairing as driving. By any modern standard they were crap, but nostalgia persists.
I am stupid crazy in love with these, mostly because of the nostalgia factor. My driver training car was a Plymouth Horizon. These were also the cheap new car of choice that Daddy bought for the middle-middle class kids I went to high school with. We didn’t have a student parking lot so the streets around Ogontz and Olney Avenues had quite a few of these lined up at the curb on weekdays. My HS ride? A 40-foot chauffeur driven Neoplan with “Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority” lettered on the back.
My unrequited high school love got a red Horizon when she got her license, and the parking lots at my college were packed with these and various J-cars. Seeing one of these takes me back, much the way a Model A sparked nostalgia in my grandfather’s generation.
You must of grown up in a rich neighborhood if Daddies were buying their high schoolers new Omnis. Kids that had cars at my high school mostly drove old beaters they bought themselves from part-time/summer employment or received as hand-me-downs from family. Some of those cars were 60s pony and muscle cars, but with 10+ years of rust, ripped interiors, oil smoke coming from the tailpipes, and far more bare-bones equipped than the garage queen versions you tend to see at the car shows these days. My driver-ed car was a pretty bare-bones 1977 Monte Carlo, which I guess might be considered a step up from your Horizon, but I have no nostalgia to own one. Which is my main point, I can look at a time capsule “boring” car like this Omni and recall some happy times when those cars roamed the street, but the memories aren’t powerful enough to make me want to pay money to buy and keep one in my garage. A CRX-Si or 325is from the same era, however, a definite maybe.
What did you drive in high school Stingray?
I did not own a car in high school, but if I asked real nice I was occasionally allowed to drive my parent’s very slow Volvo 245. I walked 1.5 miles to school (each way) including during winters when all the experts predicted global cooling and we believed them because it was -25 to -40F.
My driver’s ed car was also a Monte Carlo, but for some reason it was optioned up, including with the swivel bucket seats. It was the one nice car in the driver’s ed fleet. I went to a Catholic high school, so the local public high school had to offer driver’s ed to non-students, but they did it over the summer. The phys-ed teacher who was my instructor would always pick me up at my house in the Monte Carlo, and once he figured out that I already knew how to drive (Thanks Dad!), he would just tell me to drive anywhere I wanted to go. He would also take naps while I drove. Good times. I still love those Monte Carlos.
You forgot to mention Sundance and Shadow “America” filled the gap for entry level Mopar between the end of these and the start of the Neon production.
The “extra stripper” value package seems like such a long gone thing now, but it used to be common, Chevette Scooters, Pony Escorts and Pintos, the extra miser Sprint and Metro XFi, even Honda had the CRX and Civic HF models, their black bumpers and one outside mirror stood out like black dress socks and sandals…they were like badge your wore, announcing to the world that you weren’t going to be scammed with fancy stuff like an adjustable passenger seat and luxuries like a glove box light…..
Ahh, the memories of genuine cardboard door panels, but Studebaker started the extra stripper trend in the 50s with the Scotsman, which I suppose would somehow be labelled hate speech today.
Kasier also had a couple of “Vagabond” branded models, because I guess “Toothless Wino” and “Hobo” didn’t test well with buyers…..
True enough. I haven’t seen a Shadow or Sundance in probably ten years too.
I think there was a Pinto Pony as well, I have a fold out brochure from 76 or 77 featuring it.
The “Pony” trim for cheapo Fords lasted into the early Mazda Escorts from the 90’s, there was a cheapo “Pony” version of those.
Go Like Hell
Go Like Hell Somemore
Are two of the best car model names ever
GLH S = Go Like Hell Shelby.
Even with an automatic transmission, they were pretty zippy with that torquey 2.2L four.
It interesting when you think that these pre-dated the K cars by 3 years and out lasted the Aries/Reliant by one more. I remember the interior hardware in these was straight out of the 70’s, all the switch gear looked like it was straight from a Volare.
Interesting that the only other entry level vehicle worth a darn in 1989 was the Fox, that owed so much to the 1973 Audi version. It was easy to imagine a family using the Omni and the Fow playing Euro sport sedan. Think of those friends from Asia trying to push more reliable but less characterful Yugo clones.
I was still seeing lots of Ford Festivas on the street in San Diego a decade ago. It’s hard for any car made after 1975 to last more than 20 years on California streets because of the SMOG check laws. Festivas didn’t just last over 300,000 miles like Hondas, they did it without losing their ability to pass emissions long after most of their emissions related parts were probably NLA. I knew many people who bought new Foxes. The Brazilian cars aged like milk.
Fox owner, can confirm. The Festiva was objectively a better car. But the Fox was a genuine pleasure to drive fast compared to almost any other FWD car of the time.
I bought a new ’88 Festiva in the summer of ’87. I had a job on the opposite end of a road called 21 curves. I got 7,000 miles out of a pair of front tires; 17,000 miles out of a pair of rear tires. When I replaced the original Yokohamas with Pirelli P4s, they got so hot that the tread chunked on the rear pair. Amazingly, a set of Continental CS21s in 155SR12 stayed under it until I finally killed it with a rollover in the snow at about 45,000 miles in total. The only car that ever gained on me on a winding road was a Mazda RX7 Turbo II with a headlight signature that made me think it was a Chevette. I’ve never been more relieved when I slowed down to let someone pass on a straightaway then when I saw that the guy who was catching me wasn’t driving a Chevette.
I’m a bit perplexed by your Fox praise. I’ve driven them. They were built for dinky Ford 1.0 liter engines and low COG type 1 antiques, only for VW to stick their ‘big’ engine between the front axle and the grill, because it was certified for our market. The weight of the big engine was in the worst possible place while still being contained within the car, so I don’t see how it could have handled better than many transverse-engine FWDs of the period. Also, the steering wheels fell off of a few of my friends’ Foxes. What was your baseline reference when you say it handled? I had an ’85 Jetta GL 5-speed around the same time period that I drove Foxes, and my take was that its handling advantage more than made up for any power-to-weight advantage of the Fox, although VW might have also hobbled Foxes’ engines with exhaust restrictor orifices.
I see Festivas regularly. I think they even still make them in Iran. The lack in the USA of five doors limits their use as a family car as the Omni works. The 12 inch tires and short wheelbase keeo them from the open road where they could play sport sedan with Foxes.
Comparing them to Omnis doesn’t quite compute. If Mazda had offered a 323 with a 626 engine still made in Japan at Omni prices, that would have been competitive. Instead they badge enginered a base engine one made in Mexico priced beyond LX Escorts as the Mercury Tracer. Sitting on their reputation instead of buildimg it.
I read that as “Festivus.” Now back to your regularly scheduled airing of grievances…
When these arrived, they were the most modern American cars on the market. For the 1978 model years, GM’s small car choices were the Chevette and Monza. Ford was still selling Pintos. The Fairmont? Basically, just the cheapest car that could be made in dimensions the market might accept. When the Horizon and Omni were canceled, they’d gone from being advanced, to being competent, to being dependable but archaic. Many of the American cars that adopted the Omni’s layout and come and gone in their original forms. As for the battle for the American retail car market; comparing a 1978 Horizon, Civic and Corolla to a 1990 Horizon, Civic and Corolla pretty much would tell the tale.
We know how flush with foriegn exchange Japan was in the 80s, explaining how they pulled off their short product cycles. Oddly it was money that didn’t need to be spent. The people buying then were doing so to affirn their biases. They would have been just as happy with lightly updated 1978 Civics. You would have been just as happy with a 1978 kei Mazda in 1989, perhaps even more so if actually sported the Mazda name and Japanese construction.
Expecting a downsizing domestic maker match it is destructive and vengeful. It gets them to borrow to keep up, till bankrupsy becomes inevitable. When the domestics saw the foriegn factories, it was time to pay down debt and consentrate on easy refinements to the still new front drive lines.
Interesting at least to me, the Japanese seemed to have eventually learned my point above. My new issue of C/D came yesterday. It has a back page feature on classic cars to buy. 90% are 90s Japan of course. This month was the Lexus SC300, SC 400. I had forgotten that it had a nine year production run, with the biggest change, dropping the manual transmission. It still seems to excite the C/D guy. No mention of it, but I can’t help notice that when Toyota wrote the check to finally update the car fot the 2000s, they made it worse and aimed at an older crowd.
Both of these are outstanding remarks.
The Omni, when it first hit the market, was the right car for the times. The economy was poor, the national mood was way down, and austerity was the order of the day. They were a practical car for a practical time and I’d like to think that any nostalgia associated with them today resembles the nostalgia my own parents felt for their childhoods during the great depression. They weren’t great times, but they were *our* times.
John C’s comment on why the Omni wasn’t updated makes a lot of sense to me. As a practical car for people on a budget the Omni didn’t rate a lot of improvement, which is why the GLHS is so amazing – giving you performance with a sly little wink. They built it and sold it as long as they could. In return, the modest little Omni, along with the modest little K cars in all their variations, helped save Chrysler.
Also agree on the SC Lexus, but I think the reason they stagnated was more about the Japanese economy than anything else. Toyota already had the line running so they continued to sell the SC/Soarer, but I doubt there was much of a market for a 2 door grand tourer in post-bubble Japan.
Its easy to make money when your cost of capital is zero percent, which is what Japan had during the 1980s while US automakers started the decade with double-digit cost of capital. This means US automakers needed very high returns to get their money back. Given that gas prices dropped during the 1980s there were fewer US buyers who wanted little cars, and if not for CAFE the US automakers would have dropped or upsized their small cars in favor of more profitable large cars as they did in the 1960s. Japan had to make small cars for their home market, and with zero percent capital could make money on them even with 4 year product replacement cycles. As a result, Omnis, Cavaliers, and Escorts never made the Big 3 any significant profits, which is why they were never refreshed significantly (or switched over to Japanese platforms for the Escort), and why they fell so far behind Japanese competitors in the 1980s and early 90s. When the Japan Inc. bubble burst in the early 90s, the party was over for Japan and they had to start carefully considering ROI in their product development choices, and refreshing the Lexus coupe as the popularity of that body style declined made it a low priority.
I didn’t know the Japanese cost of capital was zero. I just though the interownership of bank, supplier, and manufacturer meant availability of capital was automatic.
Remember the front drive compacts were forced on the automakers by CAFE. They would have been happy to have kept the fresh on the outside, tried and true on the inside large cars that so annoyed the hippies and John DeLorean..
I didn’t have a car in hs but my friend had a T1000 (this was in the late 80s). It was depressing to ride in. other friends older beaters, Granada’s or Malibu’s from the late 70s, were much cooler
This Omni is in nice shape and that’s pretty cool to see. Wonder who bought it
So the rectangular outside mirrors on these were a one-year item only, just as with the airbags?
I can’t believe that Chrysler products made do with those dinky oval mirrors for as long as they did! I’ve never driven one of these (or any Chrysler product equipped with those mirrors), but I suspect that they didn’t allow you to see much!
And, whoa! Apparently that zombie piece was too much even for this site! ‘Twas hard-core (gore?) to be sure!
Sign me up as someone nostalgic for/admiring this thing. Never had direct experience with them aside from seeing many of these along with every kind of 80s hatchback growing up in Ithaca NY. At some point in the 90s a lot of these acquired pressure treated lumber for bumpers before leaving the roads for good. Our streets were full of Omni/Horizons, Rabbits, Chevettes, Citations, Escorts, and all the Japanese stuff and Saabs and Volvos (college town). Roomy airy hatchback with a simple torquey 2.2 4, with either a stick or bombproof 3spd torqflite, sounds good! They even seemed to resist rust decently enough around here, better than the Japanese stuff or Chevettes anyways.
I’ve seen how in the comments of this blog as well as TTAC, even the worst of shitboxes from back in the day are at least given grudging accolades.
This thing could have been had with A/C, a reasonable stereo, and a few other little creature comforts. I recall taking a couple two-hour trips in a couple of these, and they were reasonably comfortable. What more did you need, especially in high school or college, or as a second or third vehicle to be used as a grocery-getter or errand-runner?
Relatedly, I saw someone with a well-preserved VW Rabbit running on expanded use antique plates here in Northern IL earlier today.
Not sure how I missed this one but here’s my Omni/Horizon story.
At my urging, my mother got her license at age 50 and bought a yellow 1970 VW Beetle Automatic Stick Shift. By 1978 Boston winters had ruined the body so my roommate Greg bought it for peanuts and promptly wrecked it. I suggested a new VW Rabbit as a replacement (for my mother, not for Greg) so she ordered a silver, four-door automatic with sunroof.
This may seem hard to believe today but back in 1978 VWs were all the rage. As the wait lengthened the price increased, due to the volatile Dollar/Deutschmark exchange rate. Meanwhile, Chrysler introduced the Omni/Horizon twins, looking on paper exactly like Rabbit/Golf clones, right down to their VW engines (1.7 IIRC). Thus, the chance to own one of the last of German-made Rabbits disappeared as my mother bought a black Plymouth version with a red vinyl interior.
That car had teething issues and a floppy, creaky feel to it from day one, quite unlike my ‘76 Scirocco. Nevertheless, the car suited its purpose and soldiered on until 1987 when my brother and I replaced it with a 1987 Horizon America. Talk about continuous improvement! The ‘87 (metallic red/crushed red velour) was better in every way than that first-year version. The Chrysler engine (2.2?) was powerful, the transmission shifted crisply and the handling was tight and responsive. Plus, the America “value pack” included air conditioning and a decent stereo, all for a very attractive price.
The last car I bought my mother was a first-gen Dodge Neon, dark metallic blue with gray mouse fur. Again, a competent car that in several areas had my ‘98 two-point-slow Jetta beat yet somehow managed to retain Chrysler’s patented cheap American car feel. When Ma voluntarily stopped driving at age 80 after thirty years behind the wheel without incident I “inherited” the car and kept the it around for a couple more years before donating it to charity.
Side note to Tom: my father (who never drove) hated the crushed velour because he couldn’t slide his ass into the passenger seat the way he could with the slippery vinyl. His solution? A brown paper bag that he left on the seat as a kind of slip sheet.
I’ll bet Chrysler never thought of that, did they?