Welcome to another Shitbox Showdown! Continuing our theme of nice cars that should be dead by now, we have a pair of station wagons, both with six cylinders under the hood and three pedals on the floor. One of them was a reader suggestion; the other was my choice.
I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of yesterday’s voting. I expected the little blue Omni to lose, but it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of you, and took a decisive win over the Yellow Buick of Texas. From the sounds of it, it came down to the rarity of it: An old Riviera could easily be preserved as someone’s pride and joy, but a throwaway hatchback like a Dodge Omni? Now that’s not something you see every day.
I actually like both of these cars quite a lot. This generation of Riviera/Toronado/Eldorado is just such a nice comfortable car that it’s hard to pass up. And I think I’d be happier behind the wheel of the Riviera on a long trip – but I also think I’d have a lot more fun owning the Omni, so it gets my vote.
And thanks to the many of you who filled in our younger readers on how to set presets on a mechanical radio: tune to the station you want, pull the button all the way out, then push it all the way in. Next time you push that button, the pointer on the dial will jump to that position. And yes, the button position was independent of the radio band, so you had to remember which buttons you set to an AM station and which were set to FM.
Well, since everything worked out so well for that Omni, let’s see how another old blue-on-blue Dodge fares. The 1978 Aspen wagon we’re about to look at was a suggestion from reader David Pertuz, courtesy of our tip line, email@example.com. (I’m not to be trusted with my own email address, it seems, but suggestions sent to the tip line usually find their way to me.) David actually sent in two suggestions, but one of them didn’t have much in the way of usable photos. This Dodge, however, lined up nicely with a car I had already spotted in my searches earlier in the day. It was meant to be, so here they are.
Engine/drivetrain: 225 cubic inch overhead valve inline 6, three-speed manual, RWD
Location: Goshen, IN
Odometer reading: 147,000 miles
Operational status: Runs and drives well
Sequels are always tough. It’s hard enough to come up with one great idea and see it through, but then everyone expects you to do it again. And you just can’t force lightning to strike a second time. I mean, it does happen, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Just ask Chrysler, who tried to follow up the beloved Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant with this… thing. The broad strokes are the same: unibody construction, torsion-bar front suspension and a live rear axle on leaf springs, and that legendary Slant Six engine, but the devil is, as always, in the details. The Aspen and Volaré were rushed to the market, and plagued with quality problems and recalls.
The mighty Slant Six survived mostly unscathed, though strangled by emissions equipment. Most Aspens and Volarés were equipped with an optional three-speed Torqueflite automatic, but if you left the option sheet blank, you got that most standard of standard transmissions: a three-speed manual, with a floor-mounted shifter. This Aspen wagon is so equipped, which is not surprising; it doesn’t look like it has any options at all. That three-speed shifter bends over a plain vinyl bench seat, with no air conditioning to keep your thighs from sticking to it in the summer. There’s not even a luggage rack on the roof of this thing; that’s how stripped-down it is.
It’s all in remarkably good shape for a badly-made base-model car from the Carter administration. We don’t get a lot of information about its history, but I get the feeling it has been in the same family for a long time. It looks like something inherited from someone’s parent or grandparent. The back bumper is covered in AAA stickers, and it has a trailer hitch; someone has put that old Slant Six to work.
The seller notes that there is a little rust showing up here and there, but I don’t think there’s a single one of these that didn’t have some rust by the time Urban Cowboy hit theaters. The fact that the vinyl upholstery is all intact and it still has all four hubcaps is remarkable; we can forgive a little rust.
Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter overhead cam inline 6, four-speed manual, RWD
Location: San Diego, CA
Odometer reading: 135,000 miles
Operational status: Runs and drives well
Meanwhile, Japanese brands were seriously cutting into domestic sales. They had been around for years already, but in the 1970s, Toyota and Nissan started designing cars specifically with the American market in mind. The Datsun 810, based on the Japanese-market Nissan Bluebird, was one such car. In Japan, it was powered by a four-cylinder engine, but here in America, it had Nissan’s fuel-injected L24E inline six under the hood. Compared to the straight sixes in American cars at the time, it was high-tech, sophisticated, and powerful – putting 138 horsepower to the rear wheels through a four-speed stick.
This 810 runs and drives well, and has had recent work on the fuel pump and injectors. It sounds like it’s due for a smog test – it’s two years too new to avoid it, until and unless the rules change – but it should pass easily. It also has new tires, always a welcome sign on a car for sale.
It’s in good condition cosmetically too. The vinyl upholstery looks like it could use a good cleaning, and there are some cracks in the dash under that carpet toupee, but for a car that’s as old as Star Wars, it looks pretty good. The pale vinyl may show dirt easily, but boy, it does a nice job of brightening up the interior. I really wish cars were still this airy and inviting inside.
It’s pretty clean outside too, except for a few spots, and I really like this shade of green. You can tell how hard Nissan was trying to make this car appealing to American buyers, with all the chrome trim, and the waterfall grille with a hood ornament above it. You could even get a Datsun wagon with woodgrain sides, though fortunately this one has been spared that foolishness. Yeah, I know; some people like the fake woodgrain treatment. I think it’s foolish.
So there they are, two different ways of accomplishing the same thing, from opposite sides of the Pacific. They’re both holding up well; in fact, a determined enthusiast could probably daily-drive either of these without too much hassle. All that’s left for you to do is choose.
(Image credits: Aspen – Facebook Marketplace seller; Datsun – Craigslist seller)