The Plymouth Horizon, and its twin the Dodge Omni were the first American Made (well, mostly) subcompact automobiles to feature front wheel drive, at least in the postwar era, and were built at Chrysler's Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant from 1978 to 1990, when they were replaced by the Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Neon. They were not the first front wheel drive cars in America, and in fact Chrysler Airflow was front wheel drive in the 1930's. In the 1960's and 1970's, General Motors built 3 front wheel drive cars for the luxury market, the Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile Toronado, and the Buick Riviera.

Front wheel drive for the working man came to the United States in the early 1970's from Germany as the Volkswagen Rabbit, and around the same time several Japanese manufacturers imported the likes of the Honda Civic and Datsun F-10. These cars had a lot of interior room for their small exterior size and weight, and as a bonus had good traction in snow, because the majority of the car's weight was over the drive wheels. In the fuel-conscious 1970's, they were seen as the future of automobiles. Front wheel drive subcompacts became popular first in Europe and Japan, where high gas prices have almost always been a fact of life.

It was not until 1978 that one of the Detroit Big 3 had a front wheel drive subcompact of its own, and they were the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. They were essentially the same car, built by Chrysler Corporation and took much of their design from the highly successful Volkswagen Rabbit, but the Horizon's roots trace back to the Simca 1100, which was introduced in Europe in 1967 by Chrysler's European division as a 4 door front wheel drive sedan with a transversely mounted 4 cylinder engine. It was very successful in Europe, and inspired many copycats, including the VW Rabbit. The Chrysler Horizon was introduced in Europe in late 1977 as a replacement for the venerable, yet aging Simca 1100, and as a 1978 model in the United States. By this time, Volkswagen had a hit on its hands with the Rabbit, and also had a surplus of engines that were of an approved EPA design, while Chrysler was having problems getting its own European engines to pass EPA muster. As a result, the Omni/Horizon in North America came with 1.7 liter VW motors, with Chrysler supplied manifolds, carburetors, and accessories through the 1979 model year. In 1979, a nicely styled 2 door version was introduced, the Horizon TC3 and the Omni 024. Later, Chrysler used a 2.2 liter American designed engine, along with the smaller 1.6 liter engine built by Peugeot, but was a copy of a Chrysler design. These two engines served through the end of the model run.

The Horizon was received favorably by the public in the USA, but the introduction was marred by a controversial report by Consumer Reports, which sharply criticized the car's emergency handling characteristics, and labelled it not acceptable because of a steering oscillation which set up when the wheel is turned sharply at high speed and let go. There was controversy over the relevance of the test, but in any event Chrysler made changes to correct the problem and Consumers Union backed off on its criticism somewhat. Compared to other American subcompacts of its time, such as the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Chevette, and Ford Escort, and even the first generation Honda Civic,the Omni/Horizon was actually a pretty decent car, though it did suffer a host of minor problems, mostly electrical and body hardware related.

Driving Impressions:

My first real car was a used 4 door 1978 Horizon which was 2 years old and had 17,000 miles it when I got in in college. I drove it for 5 years and 110,000 miles, cross country and in grueling 125 mile per day commutes. I have also driven many competitors of its day, and can attest to the car's virtues and faults. Being a 1978 model, it had the VW Rabbit engine, along with the Chrysler Lean Burn System, which was designed to keep exhaust emissions low. The car was softly sprung and had lots of suspension travel for a subcompact, and soaked up bumps fairly well, compared to the likes of the early Civics and Escorts. It also had room enough to seat 4 adults comfortably, and haul a reasonable amount of luggage in the hatchback compartment. Compared to my sister's 1978 Honda Civic, the interior was cavernous. The ride was easier on the back than the Civic's jiggly ride as well. Equipped with a 3 speed automatic transmission, it got better mileage than my sister's Civic which had a 2 speed Hondamatic transmission, mid 20's around town, and about 33 miles per gallon on the highway. With a manual gearbox, the car could get 40 miles per gallon or better on the highway. Despite the soft springs, the car was easy to control and fun to drive, despite CU's complaints.

I did agree mostly with CU regarding its frequency of repair record. It was a car that pretty much compelled me to carry a decent set of tools wherever I went, but it rarely left me completely stranded. The 1.7 liter engine had problems with burning oil from about 35,000 miles on, due to problems with the valve seals, but continued to run well even when It used a quart of oil every 300 miles before getting them fixed. This was a common problem with the VW motors. After getting the seals replaced at 80,000 miles, the car did fine for oil until the transaxle died at 127,000 miles, forcing me to give up on the car. More vexing than the oil burning was the constant stream of minor electrical problems, broken accessory brackets on the engine, carburetor problems, body hardware breakage, and most of all too many run ins with bad mechanics who continually misdiagnosed or botched repairs. Mine was a typical experience with this car, if you could deal effectively with the nuisance type problems, it wasn't a bad car for its time. Still, when replacement time came in 1985, I decided to go Japanese with a Nissan Pickup for my next ride.

Buying and caring for a Used Omni/Horizon

By now, most of the Horizons and Omnis built have been retired to the great parking lot in the sky, or recycled into Nissans, Toyotas, Kias, or Hyundais, but there are still a quite a few running around and for sale as basic transportation. The good thing is there are plenty of Horizons in the junkyards to snatch parts off of when needed. If you happen to stumble across one, and need a cheap car or for whatever reason want to collect one, here are a few things to look out for:

Engine: The 78 and 79 VW motors as mentioned, had valve seal problems. A couple of hundred bucks to fix, but even the VW motors can last over 150,000 miles if taken care of. Watch for carburetor problems, especially on the VW motors. Watch for head gasket problems as well, but mine was fine. The 2.2 was a good motor, and can go over 200,000 miles properly maintained. Keep an eye on your cooling system, accessory brackets, and so on as well. In 1984 to 1986, a version called the Omni GLH was introduced with a 2.2 liter turbocharged engine. Fast, very fast, and potentially quite collectible if you can find one.

Body The Omni/Horizon came in 3 body styles, the 4 door sedan, the 2 door Horizon TC3/Omni 024, and the Dodge Rampage Pickup, introduced in 1982. Rustwise, Omni/Horizons actually fared better than many of their American and most of their Japanese counterparts of the time, at least through the mid 1980's when the Japanese finally learned to rustproof their cars decently. Still, with a car that is 15 or more years old, rust can be a problem, so don't overlook the underside even if the outside looks okay (I learned this the hard way on a 1987 Honda Prelude. Check around the floorboards, gussets, and suspension mounting points for rust out. Also check the floorpan in the trunk, as the hatchback was prone to leakage. Unibodies can be difficult and expensive to fix, so reject anything with serious problems if you are buying. Body Hardware can be an issue with these cars, but most problems can be fixed by a quick trip to the junkyard for the inevitable broken mirror, doorhandle, or control. Try to find a model with most of the bits intact, or negotiate on the price if they aren't.

Chassis: Problem areas on the suspension and chassis include: Upper strut mountings, transmission linkages, and ball joints. Again, on an old car, check everything, but the strut mountings and things like clutch cables and transmission linkages seemed to be a problem with these cars. CV axles, as with any front drive can be an expensive proposition to replace, although rebuilt half-shaft assemblies make the job easier and cheaper than replacing parts piecemeal used to be.

Electrical The early Omni/Horizons were notorious for electrical problems, though not as bad as British cars. One problem was inadequate terminals on the field windings of the alternator which was solved by a recall in 1981, but that was only one piece of the puzzle. Alternators tended to have a short life on the early models, due to poorly designed alternator brackets that allowed the alternator to shake excessively. The brackets themselves also seemed to have a short lifespan as well. Also be wary of the voltage regulator. If you have an early Horizon, it might be wise to carry a spare around town, and a spare alternator as well if you are contemplating a cross country journey with your Omni/Horizon. It would also be a wise move as well to inspect, clean up, or redo as many electrical connectors as you can find, and to upgrade them to more robust connectors where possible if you want to make your Omni/Horizon a car you can depend on. This includes the ammeter behind the dash, which only worked on mine if its connections were shiny and clean. Spray exposed connectors under the hood with a rust preventative spray as well. While this will not bring the Omni/Horizon's reliability up to modern American or Japanese standards, it will go a long way to making sure your car will get you to work or to the store when you need it to.

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