- Photo credit: Hemmings.

The Dodge Omni Goes Like Hell!

That's not an opinion. That's the actual name of the first American hot hatch!

2y ago

Yesterday morning, I dropped an article talking about some of the 'forgotten' hot hatchbacks of the 1980's. It's at this point I must perform a virtual doff of the cap to our good friend Ben Koenig, who kindly shared the post on the local American version of the DRIVETRIBE homepage.

Reading through the comments on that piece, one thing quickly became very apparent. America loves the Dodge Omni GLH.

I'll be honest with you, as a Brit, I had never really paid much attention to the Dodge Omni. I sort of knew it existed in the very depths of my memory, but it never even occurred to me to feature it. Partially, and don't shout at me, this is because we have been conditioned over the years to believe that the hot hatchback is a European and Japanese domain. Mostly though, it's probably because here in the UK, the Dodge Omni was sold as the Talbot Horizon, which looked like this...

The European version of the Omni was the very lovely Talbot Horizon.

The European version of the Omni was the very lovely Talbot Horizon.

You can perhaps now understand why I had done my best to delete such a car from my memory. I won't bore you with the full details, but the basic story is that back in the late 50's Chrysler decided that they wanted to sell more cars in Europe. So they hopped on a nice big Pan-Am jet with a suitcase full of cash, and spent a few years taking long lunches and buying more and more shares in struggling European car companies. By the time the 1970's came around, Chrysler owned controlling stakes in both Britain's Rootes Group, and the French car maker SIMCA.

Chrysler management then noticed that a new type of car was becoming increasingly popular in Europe. The hatchback was winning friends all over the continent in a charge led primarily by the Volkswagen Golf. In an amazing moment of clarity for seventies Detroit, the Chrysler execs picked up the phone and told their Rootes and SIMCA divisions to stop squabbling (they had formerly been fierce rivals) and work together on designing a challenger for the Golf, which was made far too close to East Germany for their liking.

Anyway, a while later, the Horizon appeared. Unfortunately, as you can see from the photo above, it was far from the most inspiring-looking car ever to grace a showroom. It may not come as a shock to hear that VW sales were not particularly affected.

An American icon. And a burger bar.... Photo credit: Turbo Dodge Forum.

An American icon. And a burger bar.... Photo credit: Turbo Dodge Forum.

Faced with poor sales in Europe, and needing to recoup something from their investment in designing the car, Chrysler decided to start selling the Horizon in their homeland. Since the fuel crisis of '73, the market for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars known as 'Compacts' had been steadily growing. Chrysler was confident that their Euro-designed hatch would at least be able to take the fight to VW and the Japanese on their own turf.

Talbot as a brand didn't exist in the United States, so the decision was taken to sell the car under the famous Dodge nameplate.

However, there was a problem. Thanks to a man called Ralph, cars sold in North America had to adhere to all sorts of safety regulations that cars sold elsewhere didn't need to meet. So to get the new car, called the Omni, ready for sale in America, Chrysler had to redesign the entire front suspension, manufacture much bigger bumpers and completely replace the engine. Making all these changes to satisfy Ralph did not come cheap for the already indebted car company. The finished Omni may have looked the same as the old Horizon, but in fact none of the body panels were interchangeable.

An unexpected saviour? Mr Shelby is more readily associated with the products of another U.S car firm.

An unexpected saviour? Mr Shelby is more readily associated with the products of another U.S car firm.

At first, it seemed as though Chrysler's gamble hadn't paid off. When the Omni went on sale in 1978 gas-guzzlers were starting to regain a bit of a foothold in the American market. Chrysler was in real financial trouble and had to ask the U.S government for a loan to stay in business. Luckily for them, Washington saw the Omni as a sign that the company was committed to developing advanced, economical vehicles and the loan was approved.

But what to do about the Omni itself though? The car was selling steadily, but they were still being beaten by Volkswagen in Europe and America where sales of what they were calling the Rabbit were, erm, rampant. Chrysler needed to boost the image of the Omni if they were ever going to get some of their money back.

Some unlikely help appeared in 1984 in the form of a Mr Carroll Shelby. A man better known these days for his association with Ford products, Shelby had been working with Dodge in the early 80's and had lent his name to a performance version of the contemporary Charger. The partnership carried the modifications over to the Omni which included a more powerful 2.2 litre engine. The original plan was to call it the Coyote, but Shelby himself vetoed this idea and they settled on GLH, or 'Goes Like Hell'.

The new engine produced a healthy 110 horsepower, about the same as a Golf GTi, and with further suspension tweaks and bigger brakes, the GLH could scamper from 0 to 60 in a competitive 8.7 seconds. The following year things got even quicker with the introduction of the turbocharged GLH-T. Now sporting 146 horsepower the latest Omni was a serious performance machine which could hit 60 in just 7.5 seconds, on a par with more expensive European models such as the BMW 325i.

The new car was well-received by journalists and buyers alike and the Omni finally had some sales appeal. In 1983 Dodge sold 42,554 Omnis in America, two years later they managed to shift 74,127 of them.

After honour had been restored to the name of the Omni, the final 500 GLH-T's were all bought by Shelby and converted to GLH-S spec. This, if you hadn't guessed, stood for 'Goes Like Hell Some More', and the limited run car seriously delivered on its promise. Shelby upgraded the engine to produce a storming 175 BHP and added adjustible Koni dampers with stiffer springs to improve the body control. These final cars are now very rare, and those lucky enough to have one in their garage prize them enormously.

American car makers are often lambasted by us Europeans for building cars that may look nice and sound great, but are stone-age under the skin. Well, the Omni GLH is an example of the Americans taking a European design and making it much, much better.

Thanks for reminding me about it guys. All that remains for me to say is AMERICA. F**K YEAH!

What do you guys think of the Omni GLH?

Was it the last great American hot hatchback? Or can you think of another?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments! And don't forget to leave a bump!

And as always... Thanks for reading!

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Comments (9)

  • The Omni/Horizon were better cars than most people gave them credit for. The problem was Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth, or rather their image/perception. They needed the Omni/Horizon, and any small car they could but their way into. And did.

    It's too easy to compare the Omni/Horizon to the VW Rabbit/Golf. We forget VW was flopping all over with rear engine/air-cooled cars. If VW didn't buy Audi they wouldn't have the Rabbit/Golf. VW got the baby Audi and Audi shifted their brand upmarket.

    It's all good. The GLH was madness, a hotrod of a thing. It came out at a time when there were very few exciting American cars.

      2 years ago
    • Agreed, Ken!

        2 years ago
    • For those "not in the states" the 70's were a bit of a mess when it came to cars here. It's not like the big manufacturers didn't know that new regulations were coming. Or, that there was a possibility of a "fuel crisis". Pick any "fail" metaphor...

      Read more
        2 years ago
  • Cars like the GLH came around at a time when performance was unheard of from a US automaker. I'd put the Buick GNX and, while it was never a production car, the Oldsmobile Quad 4 in with the GLH. All three were cars that I remember reading about at the time and thinking that somewhere, in the soul-sucking abyss that had become Detroit, a few true gearheads were still working away!

      2 years ago
  • This was a much needed ploy to rekindle the inner speed demons that most of us enthusiasts have in spades. The reinforcement this gave to the concept of 'sleepers' was without question.

      2 years ago