1978 Plymouth Horizon
1978 Plymouth Horizon. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

In 1960, Detroit’s Big Three automakers introduced their compact Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Chrysler (soon Plymouth) Valiant to counter growing import sales. When these gave only temporary relief, Ford, General Motors and American Motors produced even smaller cars, called subcompacts, for 1971.

These second locally built import fighters were the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega and AMC Gremlin. The Gremlin, by virtue of being a chopped off Hornet, was able to beat Ford and GM to market by half a year. Chrysler couldn’t afford to engineer an all-new car, so it bought a piece of Japan’s Mitsubishi and imported a model which it sold as the Dodge Colt. It also brought in a small English Rootes-built car (Chrysler held an interest in Rootes) that it called the Plymouth Cricket. These “captive imports” kept Chrysler in the market without the expense of developing its own car.

Although Chrysler’s overseas associations continued, in 1974 the corporation decided that it should develop its own American-built small car. The 1978 Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon was the result.

During the period of the O/H’s development, front-wheel drive was proliferating in small cars, a movement that had been led by the 1959 Austin/Morris Mini. Then came the Honda Civic and the Volkswagen Rabbit (called Golf in Europe) and others. Packaging the entire drivetrain in one end of the vehicle eliminated the long driveshaft and provided superior space efficiency. Chrysler’s product planners wisely decided to follow the trend.

Because it was planned to also market the O/H in England and France (Chrysler also held interests in Simca), the basic outline of the car was done in England, with French and American input. The project was moved to Detroit in 1975 where it was completed.

An outstanding small-cars of that time was the Volkswagen Rabbit, styled by the famous Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italy. Chrysler had no qualms about “borrowing” a good concept, but wanted more interior space than provided by Giugiaro’s “creased and folded” shape. Thus the unit-construction O/H emerged as a kind of plumper Rabbit. The VW association didn’t stop at the styling; Chrysler also used a Volkswagen powerplant. Seeking a little more displacement than the Rabbit’s 1588 cc overhead-cam four, Chrysler had VW lengthen the stroke to provide 1716 cc.

Chrysler received the engines in bare form, and “dressed” them with such items as a Holley carburetor (replacing VW’s Bosch fuel injection), manifolds, and its Lean Burn ignition system. The transversely mounted four developed 75 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, and drove the front wheels through a VW four-speed manual transaxle (a five-speed came in 1983) or an optional three-speed Chrysler TorqueFlite automatic.

Suspension was via MacPherson struts in front and semi-independent trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. Springing was “Americanized,” meaning softened, compared to the Rabbit’s, and steering was by rack-and-pinion.

When the Omni/Horizon arrived for 1978, Chrysler had beat both Ford and GM to market with a small, domestically designed, state-of-the-art front-drive car. It was hailed as a great leap forward. Road & Track magazine called it “one of Detroit’s most significant designs – ever.” Car and Driver said it was “undeniably Chrysler’s ride to the future.”

Shortly after its introduction, the O/H was dealt an unexpected blow by Consumer Reports magazine. In its July, 1978 issue CR labelled the little car “not acceptable” because of “some bad handling traits.” CU arrived at this conclusion by a rather unorthodox and questionable technique. While travelling at freeway speeds the tester twisted the steering wheel approximately 90 degrees, and then took both hands off the wheel. The O/H failed to display sufficient recovery to satisfy the CR testers.

Road & Track, feeling its integrity impugned because it had given the O/H’s handling a good rating, retested the car and again found it “stable and comfortable to drive.”

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also tested several O/Hs. Its engineers concluded that they “could not find a safety problem involving the stability and control characteristics of the Omni/Horizon cars.” The matter was soon forgotten, and O/Hs went on to provide safe motoring for millions of drivers.

Sportier coupe versions, the Dodge Omni 024 and the Plymouth Horizon TC3, were added in 1979, and coupe-based pickup renditions (Dodge Rampage/Plymouth Scamp) in 1982.

When Chrysler brought out its K-cars (Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant) with its own 2.2-litre overhead-cam four in 1981, it also made the engine an option in the O/Hs. A pushrod Peugeot 1.6-litre engine replaced the VW four as the standard engine from 1983 to ’86, before Chrysler switched exclusively to its K-car powerplant.

The most outlandish iteration of the O/H was the Dodge Omni GLH (for Goes Like Hell), a special econobox hot rod created for Chrysler in the mid-1980s by Carroll Shelby of AC Cobra fame. It brought pony car performance to the economy-car field.

The O/H soldiered through the ’80s basically unchanged as Chrysler’s home-built bread-and-butter economy model until it was discontinued in 1990. The O\H was always good value, and was a pioneer by being the first North American small front-drive design.

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