Welcome back! Today, we’re moving away from the cheap, ugly, and broken cars and looking at a couple of unlikely survivors available for only a little more money. They’re not really comparable cars, but when cars get to this age, it’s less about what it is and more about how it makes you feel.
Yesterday was all about getting around cheaply, and honestly, I fully expected that disaster of a Toyota to beat out a battered old Dodge, even with half the miles. But the vote stayed close all day, and in the end, the Dynasty barely won. It’s probably the only race a four-cylinder Dodge Dynasty will ever win.
I guess I don’t need to tell you all which one I would pick. I don’t dislike the Toyota Echo, exactly, but when you’re shopping at this end of the market, simplicity counts for a lot – as does the price of parts, as our pal Stephen showed us yesterday. And in that regard, a Chrysler K engine and Torqueflite transmission is the way to go.
One of my favorite things about our little corner of the car-culture universe is that so many people here, writers and readers alike, share my love of everyday cars. I mean, sure, we love exotics too, but celebrating the ordinary, and finding the extraordinary in it, is kind of becoming our thing. And I love it. Fancy cars are cool, but a working-class hero, as a wise man once said, is something to be.
And judging by the comments on our recent “Autopian Asks” questions, you’re all here for it. Yesterday, Jason posed a question inspired by a discussion in Slack about the humble Chevy Chevette Scooter, and one comment included a link to a surprisingly nice Dodge Omni. I simply had to feature it. To counterbalance the bright blue econobox, I’m also featuring something a little more aspirational – a middle-of-the-road personal luxury coupe. Let’s check them out.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.7 liter overhead cam inline 4, three-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Henderson, NC
Odometer reading: 55,000 miles
Operational status: Runs and drives well, probably could use some exercise
In 1981, Ford made a lot of noise about their new “World Car,” the Escort. It wasn’t really a world car; the American version only resembled the European version, though it did share a drivetrain. But three years earlier, Chrysler had already tapped their European wing for a subcompact: the Chrysler/Simca/Talbot Horizon, sold here as the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni. Like the Escort, it wasn’t exactly like the European version, but it sure looked like it.
To suit American tastes and roads, the Omni and Horizon featured a larger engine than the European Horizon: a 1.7 liter overhead cam four supplied by Volkswagen. And of course, an automatic transmission was an option from day one. I would also be surprised if the European Horizon had as much fake woodgrain inside it as this one does.
This Omni has been in the same family since it was new. It has only 55,000 miles on its odometer, and has been garaged and carefully maintained its whole life. It may not seem like the sort of car worthy of such attention, but sentimental attachment is a powerful thing; sometimes we love cars not for what they are, but for how they make us feel, and the memories we have of them.
The result of all this care is that we get to enjoy this wonderful time capsule of a forty-five-year-old economy car. And the more you look at it, the more delightful little details jump out: the aforementioned woodgrain, which even makes an appearance on the top of the shift knob; the body-colored steel wheels with chrome hubcaps and beauty rings; the wonderful simplicity of the instrument panel. Not to mention the original AM/FM radio – which I’m going to use as a little age test. If you’re old enough to remember how to set the station preset buttons on one of these, tell the youngsters how it’s done in the comments.
Engine/drivetrain: 5.0 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Dallas, TX
Odometer reading: 62,000 miles
Operational status: Runs and drives well
Bread-and-butter economy cars like the Omni were one thing, but if you wanted to announce that you had “made it,” you traded up to a personal luxury coupe. Maybe not a Cadillac or a Lincoln; you weren’t made of money, after all, but a Buick would do nicely. Comfy and fancy, but still sensible and honest. Not a Regal, though; if you were going to do it, you went straight for the Riviera. That promotion came with a big raise, after all, and you want to flaunt it, just a little. But, you know, in a good respectable blue-collar way.
This is the sixth-generation Riviera, in which Buick’s flagship coupe finally joined the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado in embracing front-wheel-drive. If you checked the option box for a V8 instead of Buick’s standard V6, you got an Oldsmobile engine too, in this case displacing 307 cubic inches. It’s mounted longitudinally, and sends power to the front wheels through a chain-driven Turbo-Hydramatic 325-4L transmission, a descendant of the original Toronado transmission also used in the GMC Motorhome. This one has only 62,000 miles under its belt, and runs well, with a rebuilt carb and a new fuel pump.
A personal luxury coupe is pointless if it’s not as comfortable as a good Barcalounger, and the Riviera does not disappoint. This is a smooth, comfortable car, made to sail down the highways and byways without its driver even being aware of the pavement passing under its radial whitewalls. This one is in really nice condition inside, too, with only one tiny spot of wear on the driver’s seat where the shoulder harness rubs. The seller does say it needs a new headliner, but doesn’t include a photo of what’s wrong with it.
Outside, it’s not perfect, but it is really nice. It could use a good wash and wax, and those plastic filler panels behind the bumpers could use replacing, but that’s true of almost every GM car from this era. I know they’re available for Cadillacs; hopefully the Riviera has enough of a following that someone is reproducing these as well. The pale yellow color is apparently part of a “Yellow Rose of Texas” special edition package. I have to assume the beer can flattened under one tire is part of that package as well. (I kid, I kid…)
The appeal of ordinary cars that have been kept in extraordinary condition is strong, but too often the prices of such cars is wildly inflated. Neither of these is perfect, but they’re not absurdly overpriced either. And either one could be polished up a bit and shown off with pride. So what’ll it be – the grocery-getter Dodge, or the shop manager’s Buick?
(Image credits: Omni – Facebook Marketplace seller; Riviera – Craigslist seller)