It became a depressing tendency in the late 1970s to bestow optimistic-sounding names on increasingly scrunched-down and browbeaten economy cars that were at best proletarian-geared “transportation modules” as enjoyable as day-old coffee and stale bagels. The theory was that people might be able to feel better about themselves by negating reality — like calling a “stock boy” a “sales associate.”
In better days, when driving was something to be looked forward to, cars were named after vigorous animals or given names that at least suggested something positive, such as speed or graceful athleticism. Impala, Barracuda, Tempest, Monte Carlo. A man could proudly tell his buddies about his new Fairlane GTA or the Challenger 340 Six Pak in his garage. Even station wagons used to have great names like Biscayne, Vista Cruiser, Estate Wagon, and Park Avenue Ultra.
But what, exactly, is an “Omni”?
According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s more a prefix than a word in its own right: “A combining form meaning all, everywhere.” As in “omniscient” or “omnipresent”? Perhaps Chrysler’s advertising and marketing people figured that people might look upon the Omni as being the “all-car” that answered every transportation need. Except, of course, deriving any enjoyment whatever from the trip. This was a car to slug to your soul-sucking daily grind at the Shoe Outlet or mall food court in – or your after-hours gig as a minimum-wage security guard. All-miserable would have been much more accurate, but it wouldn’t fit on the fender.
As for “Horizon” – the Omni’s Plymouth-badged corporate cousin – well, things were looking pretty dim if all you could afford was a cube-shaped little drone-mobile that marked you as a loser living on the periphery of the service-sector economy.
Weirdly enough, one of the fastest cars of the mid-1980s was a modified Omni — the Omni GLH and GLH-S.
“GLH” stood for “Goes Like Hell,” and it wasn’t a lie. (The “S” still meant it was a shitbox, though a quick shitbox.)
Carroll Shelby of Mustang legend had a hand in putting the package together for Chrysler and even allowed the use of his name to help pitch the car. The GLH packed a turbocharged punch and as much as 175 horsepower in the GLH-S, which could cover the standing quarter-mile in less than 15 seconds. That was exceptionally quick for the time, right up there with V-8 Camaro Z28s and 5-liter Trans-Ams.
But no matter how many Shelby badges it had, it was still just a powerful — and just as ugly — Omni. The wise old mechanic had it right: You can’t polish a turd… .
Five Fast Facts
The initial run of Omnis and Horizons used a VW-designed 1.7-liter engine that developed 70 horsepower. It was replaced in 1981 with Chrysler’s own 2.2-liter engine — a version of which was still in use in 1990s-era Dodge Neons and also the PT Cruiser.
Special equipment that came with the Omni GLH and GLH-S models included a different camshaft, milled engine block (.020) to raise the compression ratio, long-runner intake manifold, slotted alloy wheels and 15-inch Goodyear speed-rated “Gatorback” tires, Koni shocks, and, on GLH-S models, a Garret/Air Research turbocharger that boosted output from 110 to between 146 and 175-horsepower in the “Turbo II” models. (These modifications helped you avoid being recognized as the owner of an Omni by driving faster.)
The Omni/Horizon platform was used to “spin-off” a pair of compact pick-up trucks in 1982 — the Dodge Rampage and the Plymouth Scamp. One of the rarest sub-models is the Scamp GT, of which just 1,380 examples were built.
The Omni and Horizon hold the distinction of being the first American subcompact economy cars with front-wheel-drive, which became the dominant layout for almost all passenger vehicles by 1990.
Unlike the Chevy Chevette, Ford Pinto, and other economy cars of the era, which also came as coupes, hatchbacks, sedans, and even wagons (in the Pinto’s case) the Omni and Horizon were never offered in multiple body styles, but were sold as boxy four-door sedans only.
Excerpted from “Automotive Atrocities” (MBI, 2004) http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Automotive+Atrocities&x=0&y=0