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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

1978 Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni

Chrysler Canada hadn’t offered small four-cylinder cars in decades but what goes around comes around and in the 1970s, small, economical vehicles shone as brightly as the midnight sun over the high Arctic.

Chrysler Canada pulled a rabbit (okay, pun intended when one considers the German competition) out of its corporate hat when it introduced the subcompact L-Body car in November of 1977. This was a no-nonsense, four-door Euro-style sedan with a generous hatchback entry at the rear. Unique grilles and badges would allow the vehicle to be sold as both the Dodge Omni and the Plymouth Horizon. Pundits referred to the look-alike pair as the “Omnirizon.”

Horizon was a box on wheels. It was an attractive little box but it was an econo-box, nonetheless.   The basic package for this vehicle was very similar to that of the ultimate benchmark Euro-sedan, the Volkswagen Rabbit.

1977 Volkswagen Rabbit.
 In fact, Horizon made use of VW mill, bumped up to 1.7-litres, fitted with Chrysler’s Electronic Lean Burn System and then transversely mounted into the engine compartment. It is interesting to note that had the VW power plant not been available, the tiny twins  from Chryco would have been delayed in bowing to consumers for up to another two years. 

The public would need some education in order to appreciate Horizon. Consumers weren’t particularly familiar with front-wheel drive. As the first of the breed to be built in North America--Belvedere, Illinois USA to be exact--Chrysler dealers would have to get consumers up to speed on how these vehicles differed from ordinary cars.  Learning to accelerate into curves with front-wheel drive took some getting used to for millions who were used to conventional automobiles using the traditional Panhard layout, a.k.a. rear-wheel drive.

Advertising billed the Plymouth Horizon as the car that “goes anywhere with comfort and confidence.” Front wheel drive was the secret. “With Horizon, you’ll move confidently over mud, snow or rain-slick roads. Its front wheels do the driving. You’re being pulled by the front wheels.” Of course, the four-wheel independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, low-rate coil springs, shock-absorbing front struts, rear trailing arms and anti-sway bars both fore and aft made the little car ride like a dream despite its bite-sized 2 520-millimetre (99.2-inch) wheelbase. “This contributes to a great road-hugging performance with a minimum of road noise and less buffeting by strong crosswinds or side drafts from oncoming trucks.”

Badged as a Simca, the Horizon was assembled and sold in Europe.
This was a very advanced vehicle, one that delivered “tomorrow’s engineering today.”  Horizon was designed using Metric specifications, giving it clout around the world. It boasted the latest in technological wonders—a diagnostic plug in the engine compartment that made electrical system tests quickly and efficiently.  The fan belt had been eliminated. 

Designed to be simple to service for the growing do-it-yourself crowd, the distributor cap, spark plugs and oil dipstick were all easy to access. The cooling system featured a single easy-to-reach drain plug. Clutch adjustments were possible without tools, the thermostat was readily replaceable and so was the oil sump pan.

The cabin was surprisingly generous for such a small car. Mounting the engine transversely and drastically reducing the transmission hump helped greatly. With the drive shaft eliminated, there was enough room left over to stash the spare tire in the spot where the rear axle housing was located on conventional vehicles.

1975 AMC Pacer.

Stealing a page from American Motors' revolutionary Pacer with its “people first” design, Horizon bragged, “You’ll like its people-room inside.” Advertising crooned sweetly. “There’s room for legs, feet, shoulders and hips-all adding up to seating comfort.”  Bucket seats were adjustable, trimmed in vinyl and headrests built into the seating. Carpeting was cut-pile and colour-keyed to match the upholstery. Custom or Premium interiors could be had in a range of materials including vinyl, cloth and vinyl, porous vinyl and crushed velour.

The instrument panel was efficient with a pod cluster holding gauges and speedometer. White numbers on black-face dials made monitoring easy. A multi-purpose stalk to the left of the steering column contained the turn signals, the headlight beam control and the windshield washer and wiper controls.  While common in European and Asian vehicles, this multi-purpose stalk was new to millions of North Americans and as such, rated its own space in sales brochures and  was given special attention to salesmen in their training sessions.

The Horizon's cargo area was given a great deal of attention in advertising. The space boasted a movable security shelf that acted as a lid to hide the contents in the luggage area. Available cargo space with the back seat folded down came to 1014 cubic decimetres or 35.8 cubic feet (ancient Canadian units of measure).

Horizon and Omni could be ordered in Custom, Premium or Premium Woodgrain exterior packages to dress up the Unibody design. Exterior colours for the pint-sized inflation fighter were Sunrise Orange, Spitfire Orange, Formal Black Spinnaker White, Yellow Blaze, Light Mocha Tan and then in the metallic family, Pewter Grey, Regatta Blue, Starlight Blue Sunfire, Tapestry Red Sunfire, Caramel Tan, Augusta Green Sunfire and Mint Green. A triple sport stripe was available as a dress-up item. Two-tone paint jobs were available in five self-proclaimed classic colour combinations. If that wasn't enough sass, there were vinyl roof toppings in red, tan, green, blue, silver, black or white.

The optional equipment list was small and compact, like Prince Edward Island.. Extra cost items included air conditioning, tinted glass, dual horns, colour-keyed floor mats, carpeting for the cargo area, a centre console with rear ashtray, a nifty storage compartment with a roll-top cover, a clock, an electric rear window defroster, a rear window wiper, a locking gas cap, a roof rack, remote control left- and right-hand mirrors, power steering, power front brakes, AM/FM radio or stereo, a Deluxe three-spoke steering wheel, a rally wheel, TorqueFlite automatic transmission, undercoating and P165/75R13 glass-belted radial ply whitewall tires.

Horizon, along with the Dodge Omni, was impressive enough that it was promptly named Car of the Year by Motor Trend Magazine. That accolade didn’t hurt sales one bit and even though inflation was 8.9 percent in 1979, the calendar year tally for the Horizon allowed it to claim the 34th spot in Canadian sales with 10,726 units delivered and the Dodge Omni right behind it in 35th place with 10,728 units sold.

Those Horizon and Omni sales helped Chrysler Canada to reach 166,677 new automobiles sold, giving the Windsor-based manufacturer 21 percent of the domestic market.

 Copyright James C. Mays 2006
All rights reserved.


portage used dodge said...

Well in 70s' the car was designed well but not too stylish and looks big as well. But now if we compared a brand new car we feel a huge difference. Isn't it?

Jack Stone said...

White numbers on black-face dials made monitoring easy.

Pinhead said...

These may have been the only 50's onward American cars that didn't change on the outside every year, once they got fuel injection, an airbag, and a stabilizer bar Chrysler quit making them.

Then incidentally Chrysler wasn't doing so well.

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