Home » The Dodge DeTomaso Was Chrysler’s First Big Success In Turning Italian Design Into Crap: Glorious Garbage

The Dodge DeTomaso Was Chrysler’s First Big Success In Turning Italian Design Into Crap: Glorious Garbage

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Good news! I’m starting a new recurring series that I’ll probably update, at best sporadically! Maybe I’ll forget about it entirely? Who can say? We like to keep things exciting here. The series is called Glorious Garbage and it’s going to feature and highlight one of my favorite categories of car: crap, but somehow strangely desirable crap. Well, desirable to me, possibly less desirable to people who didn’t grow up in the era of leaded gas and all its well-established harmful effects on brains. These will be cars that are unquestionably miserable garbage but have that questionable appeal I allude to. A certain je ne sais merde, if you will. I’m not sure there’s a better way to explain it than by just giving an example, and I think the example I have for you today conveys the concept perfectly: the Dodge DeTomaso.

Yes, the Dodge DeTomaso, and if that name confuses you, good, because that just means you have adequate bloodflow to your brain. “That’s just the name of two car companies,” you’re likely screaming, adding “this just sounds like a Volkswagen Maserati or a Chevy Ferrari, it makes no sense!” and you’d be right, were it not for one important thing: money.

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You see, the late ’70s and early ’80s were a weird time for DeTomaso, makers of the legendary Mangusta and Pantera exotic sports cars. The 1973 oil crisis severely impaired sales of these powerful, fast, and sadly thirsty cars, and DeTomaso’s deal to sell cars through Ford dealers fell through. Ford bought most of DeTomaso’s shares, but the company still could build Panteras for non-American markets, which it did, in very low volumes. All I’m saying is that things weren’t really booming for DeTomaso in the Year of Our Ford 1980, so what happened next maybe isn’t so surprising.

Horizons

But before we get there, we need to talk about the Mopar side of things. Even before Holy Trinity of Lee Iacocca, The United States Government, and the K-Car conspired to save Chrysler’s ass, the ass-saving process had already been started in 1974 by Chrysler Europe, which was developing a small FWD, transverse-engined hatchback, much like the Volkswagen Golf/Rabbit or Ford Fiesta, called the Horizon, which would be sold under Chrysler and Simca brands in Europe, and also the Talbot badge when Chrysler Europe was sold to PSA Peugeot-Citroën.

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The European-designed-and-engineered Horizon was modified for American tastes a bit (more fake chrome, front suspension changed to McPhearson struts instead torsion bars, more velour) and became the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni. Those cars likely deserve their own stories told, but not here under the Glorious Garbage banner, because I’m not really sure they were either of those words. We want to talk about the Omni/Horizon’s sporty variant, the Omni 024 and Plymouth Horizon TC3. These used the same platform as the Omni/Horizon, but with a new longer, lower, sportier body. This was the Scirocco to the Omni’s Rabbit, a proporionally-changed hatchback design that felt sportier, but wasn’t really all that different from the base econobox under the skin.

I always thought these had a cool look to them, and I remember from growing up around these that the whole plastic front end would easily deform if pushed on with your hand. It’d bounce back, of course, but a car whose shape you could change by just pushing on it was a pretty novel thing for a little kid at the time. Here’s a commercial of the era for an Omni 024, which is compared very favorably with a car that people actually still desire today, something I’m not sure you can really say about the 024 even if you could find one, which you probably can’t:

The Omni 024 came with a Volkswagen-sourced 1.7-liter engine making a ravenous 70 horsepower, or Chrysler’s 2.2-liter inline four that powered so many K-cars, making a slightly better 84 hp. Even at the time, it was pretty well established that the sporty look of these cars was writing checks its drivetrain couldn’t cash, and, incredibly, it seems that it was this very quality that Chrysler doubled down on with the introduction of the Glorious Garbage car I want to tell you about, the Dodge DeTomaso, an Omni 024 with a special DeTomaso package.

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How, exactly did this happen? It seems that the friendship between Lee Iacocca and Alejandro de Tomaso is to blame. DeTomaso and Iacocca had been friends since Iacocca was at Ford, and had worked on some interesting projects. This was not one of them.

The most significant engineering challenge undertaken and accomplished by the Dodge DeTomaso was developing the technology to stick the name “DeTomaso” on the car in as many places as possible, and they achieved this goal remarkably well, with the name on both rear fenders, the rear, the windshield, the dashboard, even the floormats.

Detomaso Badges

Those DeTomaso names, plus a stripe kit, louvers over the rear quarter windows, and a fake brushed-metal “targa-ish” bar stuck over the C-pillar area like a hairband made up most of the modifications for the DeTomaso edition. And, really, that was about it. Car and Driver reviewed the DeTomaso in their January 1980 issue, saying that Alejandro de Tomaso pretty much just phoned it in, and that he “just dressed up his namesake in designer sportswear and signed his name.

It’s hard to argue with that. In that earlier ad I showed you up there the copy reads “Fire up the eager 1.7-liter overhead cam engine and feel the power surge around you.” Just so we’re all clear here, the “power” they’re talking about is only 10 more horses than a VW Beetle made almost a decade earlier and one less than a base-model VW Rabbit made.

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Power

The big difference here is that the Rabbit doesn’t have DETOMASO plastered all over it, of course. It’s such an incredible, gleefully cynical example of all show, no go.

 

 

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Okay, sure, in 1981 these came standard with the slightly more potent 2.2-liter engine, and then at least the 84 horses there were enough to beat the specs of an entry level economy car from VW or Honda, but we’re still not talking about DeTomaso-level performance at any level. The only DeTomaso actually named DeTomaso may be the least DeTomaso car ever to de a tomaso.

All of this non-performance wasn’t cheap, either. The base price of a Dodge 024 was $5,271 – about $20,449 today – and the DeTomaso edition added $1,575 to that price, which comes to about $6,100 worth of decals, louvers, and overpromises and disappointments in today’s money. Maybe that’s why less than 2000 of these were sold.

Detom Specs

So, yes, I think we can charitably say that the Dodge DeTomaso was garbage. But, I maintain that it’s Glorious Garbage, because today, this would be a really fun car to own. It has a look that’s aged well in all of its deeply, clinically ’80s glory, and the over-done decals and DeTomaso name everywhere and the whole silly story behind it just makes it even more fun. It’s an anti-snobbery machine, as it can devalue the worth of any real DeTomaso from across any Cars and Coffee parking lot. Bring this to any Radwood-type event and you’ll be a hero. It’s so terrible it wraps around to being fun again, and that’s what makes it great.

Plus, this lazy cash-grab set the stage for Chrysler’s more famous Italian partnership, the Chrysler TC by Maserati. Interestingly, DeTomaso owned Maserati during the Dodge DeTomaso era, and while a Maserati engine was planned for the car, in the end nobody cared enough to make that happen. The Dodge DeTomaso is a perfect foreshadowing of the half-assery of the TC by Maserati partnership, and despite both cars being flops, it’s important to remember that both exist mostly because of the friendship between Iacocca and DeTomaso, and there’s something beautiful about that.

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Two garbage cars, borne out of one strong friendship. It’s downright heartwarming.

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LAX4THEWIN
LAX4THEWIN
10 months ago

Am I crazy to think it looks great? LS swap anyone?

Dezeinstein
Dezeinstein
11 months ago

Didn’t that stand for “Goes Like Hell”?

10001010
10001010
11 months ago

I’m late to the party on this one but back in my teens my dad had a used Plymouth Horizon TC3 and we were convinced the TC3 stood for “Total Crap x3” or possibly “Torque Control Cancellation Contrivance” because it had negative torque. I don’t know if it had the 1.7 or 2.2L motor but does it really matter? That thing was a manual and due to its non-existent torque you had to release the clutch with surgical precision to prevent stalling it. For my 14th or 15th bday my dad drove me and a few friends down to the beach for the day. After a while dad did what dads do and fell asleep in the TC3 and me and my buddies did what teenagers will do and dug big holes in the sand in front of all 4 tires then pushed the car forward with a PLOP!!! Dad woke up, looked out the window and realized what had happened then said “very funny, now you have to dig it back out” and went back to sleep. We spent the rest of the day digging a long ass ramp out of the sand in front of that car and pushing from behind because it didn’t have the power to dig itself out.

The one cool thing I remember about that absolute shit of a car was the door locks, it didn’t need them! Seriously, both doors stuck so badly that even if it was unlocked you could pull on the handle as hard as you wanted and the doors wouldn’t open. The night Dad bought the car we found ourselves locked out and he made me climb in through the rear hatch to open them from the inside. Dad called the previous owner and it turns out they forgot to “teach us the trick”. See, you had to ram your hip into the door and press it into the frame HARD at the exact moment you pulled up on the handle and then the doors would open. That thing had keyless entry all the way back in the 80s, it was truly ahead of its time.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
11 months ago

I drove one Cross-Country with a friend who owned one.
The seats were quite a bit less than glorious – both of us had aching backs by the time we hit Nebraska

Happy Walters
Happy Walters
11 months ago
Last edited 11 months ago by Happy Walters
Cam.man67
Cam.man67
11 months ago
Reply to  Happy Walters

I concur. The Ford Maverick of its day.

Happy Walters
Happy Walters
11 months ago

“McPherson struts.”

NosrednaNod
NosrednaNod
11 months ago

$5299 in 1981 = $17684 in 2023

JDE
JDE
11 months ago

Are you suggesting people actually want the 200SX these days? the SX stands for SUX. Nobody wanted them back then either. Now rabbits were slightly more desirable during the inflation years. but outside of a Caddy VW mullet mobile, few desire the slow hatches of the day.

Greg Franklin
Greg Franklin
11 months ago
Reply to  JDE

I think you might want to look up prices of 200SX’s there bud unless you were being sarcastic.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
11 months ago

The bad old days. Thanks for the flashback. Looking forward to more of them.

Souper Heaven
Souper Heaven
11 months ago

Fun fact: One could step into a Dodge Omni and with no key, shift it into neutral. My friend and I used to harass his sister by doing this and rolling it out into their cul de sac.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
11 months ago
Reply to  Souper Heaven

Fun Fact: That’s how every manual transmission car, outside of a Saab, works.

Souper Heaven
Souper Heaven
10 months ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

Fair point and I’m well aware, as I drive a manual. Perhaps more specifically, name me another automatic transmission where that’s possible.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
11 months ago
Reply to  Souper Heaven

Pretty much all automatic cars have a shift lock release hidden somewhere so that first responders can move the car if needed.

Wrenches
Wrenches
11 months ago

GLHS

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
11 months ago

Yet another bit of glorious ’80s Mopar garbage that I would gladly put in my driveway. Amazing that something like the 024/TC3/Turismo/Duster/Charger had versions carrying the names of both DeTomaso and Shelby.

JDE
JDE
11 months ago
Reply to  TriangleRAD

Sadder really that ford failed them both so gloriously in the Malaise era.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
11 months ago

Great new series JT!

How about the Citroën GS?

Pros:
-Drove great, revved and sounded like a small Porsche (yes I’ve owned both at some time). Could go 100mph with a 60hp 1 litre engine.
-Looked beautiful. Designed by Robert Opron!
-Legendary Citroën suspension and brakes. What a package!
Cons:
-Thin steel everywhere, like a Ritmo/Strada only worse, so rusted badly and fast.
-Hand made by Gauloises smoking frenchmen (find the Louis Malle film about it!), so build quality not great.
-The design of everything mechanical, very hard to work on (Find Hubnut on YT)
-Engine out overhaul quite often, or live with oil loss from pushrod tubes.
-Seat fabric and foam disintegrated all by itself.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jakob K's Garage
Jason Smith
Jason Smith
11 months ago

I love it, this is the automotive equivalent of Defector’s “Remembering Some Guys”!

Idiotking
Idiotking
11 months ago

I had the misfortune of working on these cars when they came through Dad’s repo lot in the 80’s. They were made of the cheapest, sharpest metals possible, assembled with the same care a toddler shows their toys, and lasted about as long. I remember tearing the doors down to replace the locks and having the plastic tabs and panels snap like twigs under the slightest pressure (this in a year-old car). When I was done my arms looked like I’d been clawed by bears. They were gutless turds and deserved to be recycled into soup cans—good riddance.

Severson
Severson
11 months ago

Love this Jason, as a former driver and son of the owner of a Dodge O24 (such a great name, like a corvette or mustang, it will live only in .01% of the population’s name as a model that is etched in our brains).
Can’t say I knew about the De Tomoso package on that car since it only existed with the O24 nameplate for like 2-3 years.
We had one and its the first car I ‘officially’ learned to drive on and a manual to boot. Super slow car and we had the luck where it got stuck in 4th gear because the shift linkage popped out and drove it 20 miles in 4th til we got home.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
11 months ago
Reply to  Severson

My sisters, then eventually my brother had an Omni 024 with the 2.2, autotragic, and vinyl seats. The car looked just like the yellow one in the video posted. My biggest memory was of me getting burned on the vinyl seats in the wonderful Florida summers.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
11 months ago
Reply to  M0L0TOV

I drove the yellow 024 with 1.7 and 4 speed for 7 years. All I could afford at that time. It would eat clutch cables like potato chips. Drove it probably 10K without using the clutch. And spent all my free time trying to keep the pos from self destructing. Good times. Not.

JDE
JDE
11 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

reminds me of the AMC Alliance. that little turd ate the clutch cables quite often. the used Celica 2 door coupe that replaced the “new” car was far more fun and reliable even if it was brown on brown.

David Smith
David Smith
9 months ago
Reply to  Severson

My Omni also popped the shift linkage. It was on the North Capital Blues beltway after a day of climbing at Carderock on a Sunday. A passing tow truck stopped by and the driver helped us put it in third gear so we could get back to Annapolis where I was living at the time. We gave him all the cash we had on hand (probably ten bucks) and made it home safely although slowly with an engine that was whining the whole way.

I think the repair only cost $20. If I had known a bit more like JT I would have just strapped a couple of wire ties around a stone and just used it like that.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
11 months ago

I’d like to add that I miss maybe not cars exactly like this one, but cars that look good and bring a little something extra to the table without being sports cars. There’s a whole lot of people who could do well with “all show and no go”. Especially these days where every economy car can do 0-60 in under 9 seconds.

Damn near every car had a coupe variant with some sort of nutty design back in the day, and maybe most of them weren’t very good, but at least some of them were fun to look at. Even more recently I drove my dad’s Civic coupe and while most would make a wet fart sound when considering it’s performance, the car is oddly a breath of fresh air just for being a coupe that looks pretty nice and feels a little special from the driver’s seat. Not everything like this needs to be 50k with 350hp.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
11 months ago

“So bad it’s good” is my favorite segment of cars. This example is a solid one; An unquestioned piece of crap, but a piece of crap I would really enjoy owning.

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