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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. As much as I love the *ahem* character of the Courier, I don’t want to mess around with a wonky transmission. Not when the same money can buy that adorable little Colt with a fully functioning transmission. The A/C doesn’t work? Good. Not using it probably cuts the 0-60 time from 15 seconds to 14 and a half.

  3. This is a life experience no brainer. The Colt wins. I have put close to 4K on several of these (rentals) and beat the crap out of them. Never an issue. Been looking for a nice cheap one for decades now…No contest today.

    1. The GT is insanely rare as well. All the rentals you drove had the anemic 1.5-litre engine with 82hp, this one has the 1.6 DOHC with 115hp. Supposedly the GT only became available in 1990, but who knows. There is exceedingly little information available on these cars as they are overlooked by both lovers of Japanese and American cars.

  4. I can smell and feel the interior of that Colt from here. That vintage of Japanese upholstery, the semi-soft touch interior panels, it was its own element. Reliable AF, goodish mileage, will run until we stop drilling for oil…what’s not to love? At that mileage, in that condition, at that price, it’s a steal.

    No way that janky-ass pickup is a better buy than my beloved Colt.

  5. A friend bought a Courier from an auction for $250. Cheap even then since it would crank but not start. New plugs, wires, and half a can of carb cleaner later, it ran perfect. Washed, polished the wheels, Rhinolined the interior, and sold for $1500. That thing was genuinely fun to drive due to the light weight. Plenty of get up, park anywhere, load up with crap (seriously, cow manuer) like you don’t care, and it still gets good gas mileage, and parts are all over the u-pull yards and eBay. The Colt is in better shape for a daily driver, but I’m not buying an ’89 anything to DD.
    Appropriately sized truck FTW.

  6. That truck will drive through hell, load up Satan in back…take a tour for a millennia. Drop him back off, then keep on Rollin until the universe turns dark and cold….

    Voted for the truck

  7. Hard pass on that Courier. “Won’t go into reverse” means all the ‘new clutch’ and ‘new slave cylinder’ in the world won’t fix it. Which is why it’s for sale – broken gearbox that you can’t fix OR replace. I checked. If you need anything beyond a clutch or a basic rebuild kit for the automatic, it no longer exists.

    The Colt also has a lot going for it. The 1.6 is actually a 4G which will go forever when unstressed. The 4G61 is pretty damn unstressed while also being fairly competent. (It’s a 1.6 making 105HP; that’s nothing to sneeze at for ’89. Even the turbo only made ~150HP.) And it’s a whole 2500lbs sopping wet with driver. Just don’t get in an accident.

    1. Yeah, just way too much going on with that Courier. And while you can probably find a parts truck within a few months… there’s a good chance it will be in equal or better shape. So why did you spend two grand on this one?

      1. Chances of you finding a parts truck with the right gearbox on this one are between “hell no” and “no, seriously, get bent.” If the gearbox is good, somebody’s trying to cash in on the basket cases because “micro trucks so hot right now.” And if it’s not good, it’s probably for the exact same reasons.

        So for $2k, what you actually end up with is a miserable Mazda 2 liter with a broken gearbox that you’ll need to swap for the absolutely ludicrous 450lbs of 2.3 Lima Lump and a C3 (can’t use A4LD) or a Borg-Warner T18 or T5 for a 2.3 Lima (a case they haven’t made in years, but at least the internals are still made.)
        Which yeah, also means fighting the Fox Body AND Ford Ranger collectives for their parts. Good luck – make sure to leave your completed next of kin forms with HR.

      1. For the RWD transmission that is specific to the Courier and B-series, which was only found in those? And is completely distinct from the 4 speed?
        No, you didn’t. You found people advertising incorrectly or just outright falsely. Like TRANSPARTS BK132, which is decidedly not a rebuild kit.

        The ONLY parts available for that transmission are bearings and a few seals that are common parts. Maybe some NOS synchro rings here and there. None of which is a proper rebuild kit, nor is it sufficient. This is not an M5R1. Nor is it an SA. It’s specific to the B2000, and this one needs at least one fork, definitely all the fork pads, and probably a rail as well.

        1. Sorry if the name is misleading.. its EVOish..still two wheel drive.

          Built 4G63 6 bolt (1991 Eagle talon)
          HX35 Turbo
          Built drift motion R154 Supra trans
          Narrowed Ford 8.8 w/ 4.56 gears
          AEM Series 2 ECU

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. The Colt is the easy answer here. Those were great little cars. This is good, basic transportation for someone who needs it. The truck gets a huge bonus for being a truck, but it’s also sketchy AF.

    I’ve had three Colts, totaling over half a million seriously abusive miles delivering pizza, and never did more than wiper blades, oil, filters, brakes, spark plugs, timing belts, halfshafts, and coolant changes. Pretty much in that order of frequency. Well, all that, plus gas and tires.

    One died of transmission failure, but that was because the body was seriously smashed up by a truck backing into it when parked. I stopped caring about it and started shifting without the clutch because it was more fun that way.

    Mine were all manual transmission, though. I’d still take the automatic Colt over that truck, even if I had to remove the back seats completely to use it for truck duty.

  15. I have direct experience with the Courier but not with that engine, unfortunately. The Ford engine (we always called it the Pinto engine for reasons) was reliable and peppy with the five-speed manual. Was my dad’s last vehicle before he passed away, and he loved it. We abused the hell out of it. If it weren’t for the transmission issue, it would be well worth 2K. And the trans issue might just be a worn linkage. That’s not too pricy to fix.

  16. Ugh. You couldn’t pay me to drive a Colt of any year, no matter how shiny. And this one is an automatic with busted AC. I’d sooner walk.

    The Courier is much more my kind of shitbox. Ugly as sin, but money spent where it counts. I can’t imagine it being all that tough to fix or replace that transmission, and anyway I can drive something that size a long time before the lack of Reverse depresses me to the point of doing something about it.

  17. A little Colt like that is the first car I bought with my own money. Except it was a 5-speed.

    I wouldn’t say it was a good car though, and I wouldn’t take one over any other sorted, running, driving vehicle of the same price. Especially not over a pickup!

    It was an OK beater for the most part. Easy to work on, etc. But…

    One time when I was driving my Colt home from school for the weekend, the engine block broke and I was forced to fix it with an ice scraper handle.

    I had – like any good teenager with a shitbox would – put too much stereo in the car. And I was cruising down the Mass Pike….. when the stereo started flipping out. Restarting the track on the CD. Weird changes in volume. Etc. Then the headlights started to get dim. Then I started having misfires….. Uh oh. So I pulled over.

    I was expecting a belt.

    What actually happened was…. There’s a pivot point where the alternator is bolted to the engine block. An 8cm or so unthreaded through hole in the aluminum, and then for tension there’s a steel bracket with a slot… The ear of the engine block that bolt went through had split and was no longer constraining the alternator.

    Without access to TIG on the side of the ‘pike, I was left to improvise. I had a wooden handled ice scraper/brush in the back. I jammed it between the alternator and the engine sufficiently that I thought it _probably_ wouldn’t slip, and the pulley was sortof aligned. Broke the handle off short enough that the hood would close, push started the car, and made it another 60 miles home.

    To this day it remains the only car I’ve owned where pieces of the engine just broke off under normal load.

    (It did go another 100k miles after having the crack welded shut….)

    1. Incidentally, I think $2000 is what I paid for it when it was 10 years old and had a meager 40k on the clock! Though admittedly $2000 in 1999 money is like, what… $20k now? 🙂

  18. I love a good Courier and the Colt mostly disappoints me with all the things it stopped being from the earlier RWD “real” Colts. However THIS Courier vs. THIS Colt … have to go with the Colt.

  19. I wanted to pick the Courier, but its just too rough. Between the rattle bombed paint hiding who knows what, to the wires hanging out under the dash, to the no reverse … that truck should be $500. Even in this market.

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