Dodge Colt Or Ford Courier: Which Captive Import Captures Your Imagination?

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Welcome back! It’s time for another week of junky, janky bad automotive ideas. I can’t believe we’ve been at this for a month now; I’m still having fun, and I hope you all are, too. We’ve got a couple of imports-in-domestic-clothing to look at today, but first let’s see who won our big project car shootout last week.

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And there you have it. Respect the tailfins. That big blue Imperial really would be the most satisfying project of the four, I think, whether you go electric or just pop another big V8 into that engine bay. And I learned something: I had no idea the goth community was such a big fan of ’50s Chryslers. But hey, if that’s the Cure for what ails ya…

Anyway, moving on: Back when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, our family’s “foreign” cars marked us as oddballs, though not quite outcasts. I grew up in a Union town, and you just didn’t buy Japanese cars. My family’s German and Italian and British cars flew in under the radar (they were acceptable because we usually had a Dodge, too), but if you pulled into the grocery store lot in a new Datsun or Toyota, you could expect to get the cold shoulder. But buying American wasn’t quite as cut-and-dry as it seemed.

All of the big three U.S. automakers in the ’70s adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude towards the Japanese automakers. GM partnered with Isuzu (and of course Toyota later), Ford got in bed with Mazda, and Chrysler teamed up with Mitsubishi. Cars like the Chevy LUV pickup, the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ, and Ford’s Courier pickup were American in badge only.

These days, it hardly matters where a car is made. Components come from all over, automakers are international corporations, and they all swap partnerships like couples at a… squaredance. (What did you think I was going to say?). But today, I’ve got a not-really-a-Dodge and a not-really-a-Ford from the captive-import days of yore for us to look at.

1989 Dodge Colt GT – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter DOHC inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Santa Ana, CA

Odometer reading: 124,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs great, according to the seller

The Dodge Colt was one of the first Japanese cars to be marketed under an American nameplate, way back in 1971. Originally rear-wheel-drive and based on Mitsubishi’s Galant and Lancer, it became front-wheel-drive in 1980 when the Colt name was moved to the Mitusbishi Mirage, where it remained throughout the rest of its run.

This particular Colt is from the third front-wheel drive iteration. Not many of the cool features of earlier Colts made it this far: the twin-stick “Super Shift” transmission was long gone, and only a very few Colts of this generation were turbocharged. This GT version wasn’t the most fun one, with a naturally-aspirated version of the turbo’s 1.6 liter engine; plus it has even more of the fun sucked out of it by an automatic transmission.

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But it’s still a handsome little car, and has remarkably low miles on the odometer. The seller says the air conditioning isn’t working, but thankfully refrains from claiming it “just needs a charge.” One seam has popped on the driver’s seat, but apart from that, there’s not much to complain about. It’s just a useful little hatchback, the likes of which get harder and harder to find new every year.

 

1979 Ford Courier – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: outside Hood River, OR

Odometer reading: 80,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs fine but won’t go into reverse

Before the Ranger, there was the Courier. Ford’s answer to small trucks from Datsun and Toyota was designed and built by its partner Mazda. Ford wasn’t alone in this; Chevy had its Isuzu-built LUV, and the Dodge Ram 50 and Plymouth Arrow pickups were both different badges on a Mitsubishi Mighty Max.

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Ford offered the Courier with either a Mazda-built engine or its own 2.3 liter “Lima” four; this one has the Mazda powerplant, which looks almost too shiny for the rest of the truck. I suspect this engine has had more work done recently than the cursory tune-up mentioned in the ad. The seller notes a problem with the five-speed manual – it’s hard to get into reverse. This might be minor, or it might be a big deal. Either way, you can always just park where you can pull through. Why go backwards, right?

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The scruffy interior and the rattle-can flat-black paint job don’t do it any favors in the looks department, but it’s a truck, and trucks can look scruffy if they want. At least it isn’t rusty. No word on whether all the crap in the bed is included, but maybe it’s a negotiating point. New tires are a nice touch, and the black steel wagon wheels look pretty sharp on there. And remember when trucks used to have rope cleats on the outside of the bed? Why don’t they do that any more?

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And there they are, two survivors from the days of captive imports. Will it be the zippy little hatchback, or the rough and tough little truck?

Quiz maker

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67 Responses

  1. The Courier was someone’s love project before they found out how much the transmission would cost. Hence the clean engine and new tires.

    Them Smoky Bear OR plates cost an extra $50.00 to put on, and they stay with the truck in OR, so that’s worth something.

  2. Colt hands down. It was the most beaten-up shitbox I’ve ever had in my life, yet I loved it so much and can’t really explain why.
    1.3 liters of fury, 8 valves, 5 speed manual, carburetor, manual everything, no power steering but electric sunroof and Colt GTI seats from the factory. It was slow and weak and the engine only made a little power from 4,5k RPM to redline, which is where I kept it pretty much all the time. It refused to die.
    It was also my last car in Europe.
    If I had the space to keep one again, I would in a heartbeat.

  3. Two grand? Seriously? These are two grand? People want two grand for five hundred dollar vehicles?

    I mean, it’s fun to look at a couple of survivors and think back to what they were in their era, but still, fuck, two grand?

    Time to pour myself a stiff drink and weep.

  4. The courier may be marginally more useful… but honestly just throw a tarp down in the back of the colt and you’d probably haul just as much bark mulch or rocks or whatever. That and a working reverse gear, I think I’m going with the colt.

  5. Courier all the way.

    Those old Mazda engines are rock solid and I absolutely love the design of that body, as much as this example needs work on the paint and trims and well, a lot of it, it’s still an easy choice.

    You couldn’t give me one of those Mitsubishis if it had $2k stuffed in the glovebox.

    1. This site desperately needs edit and delete buttons. My further remark is that the Colt is a no no because it reminds me of the bilious yellow vehicle my sister bought in the early 90s to replace a Rabbit convertible.

  6. Loved driving the Courier I bought out of a farmer’s field in 1985 for $300. Serious midwestern rust, alas. You could break into it with a can of rust remover…or maybe erase the entire body.

  7. Both vehicles will require work. I think the Courier would be easier to work on myself. Swapping a manual tranny in a truck from that era is an afternoon job. Another afternoon stripping the interior down, stashing all the loose wires, and installing a seat cover and floor mats. If you feel inclined to go the extra mile, invite a few friends over for a sand and paint party and you’ll have a decent-looking little truck.

    Of course, I’d check into how much a replacement gearbox and a new clutch are and then deduct that (along with my labor) from my offer.

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