Open Menu
Open Menu

Turbocharge Me, Please! My Obsession with Turbo Chryslers

Published in

I got a midlife crisis “boost” when I bought a 1984 turbocharged Plymouth Colt. Super quick, it handled like a slot car yet achieved 35 mpg. Photos by the author except where noted.

[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden’s car-guy escapades aren’t limited to the hot rods and mid-century chromemobiles of his youth. This week, he tells us about the turbocharged Chrysler products that have come and gone throughout his life.]

I was 40, suffered from midlife crisis, and needed an ego boost. What hair I had was turning gray, my belly was expanding, and my daughters called me “Fun-Guy” (plural of “fungus”).

Too many years of driving anemic cars that lost stoplight duels and wallowed in curves had taken their toll. Then, one day, I saw a car ad that changed everything.

“Pavement scorching performance made affordable!” the headline screamed.

Could I believe the ad? Did Chrysler really offer a car that scooted to 50 in under six seconds, got 35 mpg, and cost less than $8,000?

Building my courage, I decided to visit a Plymouth dealer and check out the 1984 turbo Colt. On the way, however, I stopped at a VW showroom and tested the new GTI, a “pocket rocket” highly touted by car magazines. I was in awe of the GTI… several had beaten my station wagon at stoplights.

Tires squealing, the GTI took me up New Jersey’s steep Watchung Mountains with the ease of a gazelle. It was fast… much quicker than any car I had owned. Disappointment set in, however, when I learned it cost more than $9,000… too much for a father raising daughters and paying a mortgage.

Speed-read Japanese
Arriving at the Plymouth showroom, I was surprised to learn the Colt was an import. A Mitsubishi product, it was what my dad derisively called a “foreign car.” He didn’t like them… especially Japanese models. “They’re made from tin cans,” he often told me.

I wondered if he was right as I inspected the tiny Colt. Smaller and lighter than the GTI, its round styling wasn’t as aggressive. But I was impressed with decals on doors and rear hatch proclaiming “TURBO.”

“Take it for a spin,” the salesman yelled, flipping me the keys. “But hold the wheel tight when you floor it.”

Come on, I said to myself, the car only has 101 horsepower. My 1965 Plymouth Valiant with a six-cylinder had the same rating, and I never held tight when accelerating. In fact, I usually fell asleep on the journey to 60.

But I could see this car was different when I slid behind the wheel. Unlike the GTI, it had two floor shift levers.

“Wait!” I yelled, before entering the busy highway. “What’s the other shift lever for?”

“Pull it back if you want more power!” he screamed. The four-speed manual transmission offered two different drive ratios, “economy” and “power.” It was really an eight-gear car.

Two seconds before being crushed by traffic, I floored it to escape a semi. My heart stopped for a scary moment. Nothing happened… this was the first time I experienced “turbo lag.” Then the Colt’s engine gave a loud “WHOOSH.” The car lurched to redline in a nanosecond—steering wheel pulling to the right—and snapped my head back. What happened?

Looking in the mirror, traffic was suddenly way behind, and I was speeding. Ahead was a red light, and I slammed on the brakes. Two cars lined up next to me. My hands started sweating. Revving the 1.6-liter, SOHC four and popping the clutch on green, little tires spun like crazy and I sprinted to an easy victory. No more “Mr. Nice Guy.”

I had ‘turbo fever’
I had “turbo fever” from that day forward. It’s insidious… like an opioid addiction on steroids. The 2,000-pound turbo Colt, which sliced through traffic like a slot car, made the GTI feel slow. I had to have the Colt. But what would I tell my wife, Grace, and daughters after I bought it?

“It’s so small” was their first reaction. The girls wondered if they could fit in the back.

Squeezing inside, knees against chins and backsides sitting on inch-thick cushions, the girls held on tightly during their first ride. Grace noticed her normally slow-driving husband was now “Mario Andretti.” I got nervous when she saw how fast I was driving.

“It’s an ‘economy car’,” I argued with a big grin, “and gets 35 miles per gallon.”

She grew to like the Colt when she drove it to the supermarket. I knew she, too, had “turbo fever” when she described a stoplight encounter.

“Two guys in a Ram pickup tried to cut me off,” she said, “but I shifted into ‘power mode’ and left them in the dust.”

Little girls grow up, and it wasn’t long before the Colt was too small. I needed a four-door car with larger interior. Reluctantly selling the little speedster, I dreaded the prospect of going back to a station wagon. Was there an alternative… preferably one with a turbocharger?

My eyes popped when reading an ad featuring racing legend Carroll Shelby standing next to a Dodge Omni GLH (“Goes Like Hell”). The car had four doors and a 146-horsepower, SOHC, turbocharged four with five-speed. “Turbo fever” infected me once again. I had to own one.

Racing legend Carroll Shelby breathed fire into the four-door Dodge Omni. Turbocharging, beefed-up suspension, and wide tires made it fast and maneuverable.

A few years passed and my company transferred me and my family to Dallas, Texas. Gazing out an office window, I thought I was dreaming when I spotted a red, 1986 turbo Omni GLH pull into the parking lot. It didn’t take long to find its owner.

“Let me know when you want to sell that car,” I told him.

“You can buy it now,” he said. “I’m looking at a new car, and don’t like what the dealer offered on the trade-in.”

My 1986 Dodge Omni GLH turbo really did “Go Like Hell!”

Larger than the Colt, the Omni had four doors and could pass as a “family car.” The only giveaway that it wasn’t “stock” was wide tires on alloy wheels that had more holes than Swiss cheese. The car drove well, and I bought it after a fast test drive.

Chrysler was turbocharging everything back then, and I noticed the Omni’s turbo—a Garrett TO3 putting out 7.2 pounds of boost—was either “on” or “off.” You went “like hell” or you poked along. No in-betweens allowed.

The car was “crude but effective,” as one car magazine called it. It rode rough on stiff shocks and springs, every bump and pothole registering through your backbone. The five-speed shifter was sloppy, too, especially the second-to-third shift, which often hung up between gears.

But I didn’t care. Every time the turbo spooled it made me feel young. It was genuinely fast for its day. Not by today’s standards, of course. But during the mid-Eighties when emission devices were crude, there weren’t many cars, including Mustang GTs and Camaros, which could beat it to 50. Zero-to-60 came up in a tad more than seven seconds.

Just as I was growing fond of the Omni, fate intervened. My daughter, Jenne, was getting married and, like most fathers, I needed cash for the wedding. The daddy who bought the Omni for his daughter really liked the car. “This thing flies, doesn’t it!” he exclaimed. I got the feeling he bought it for himself.

‘Fastest four-door in America’
I needed another turbo-fix. Several years passed, however, before that happened.

A car magazine claimed the fastest four-door sedan in 1991 was the turbocharged, inter-cooled Dodge Spirit R/T. Its 224-horsepower, DOHC four propelled the car to 60 in six seconds…with a top speed of 140. That was really fast back then.

It was 1998 now, and I had a new car-buying tool: the Internet. Weeks of research resulted in finding the Spirit in Detroit. Photos revealed a pristine example that had won first place at the drag strip (14.85 seconds in the quarter) and cost only $4,500. Using frequent-flyer miles, I bought one-way tickets for Grace and me, and we took off on a cold January morning.

The Spirit owner and his wife met us at the airport. A few hours later I paid him, and Grace and I set off on snowy streets for the long drive to Dallas.

Grace and I flew to Detroit to purchase this 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T, the fastest U.S. four-door sedan when it was made. We drove it to Dallas in a blizzard. Grace’s fanny didn’t like the front seat.

It was a memorable drive. Blizzard conditions—pummeling snow and wind—hit us as we wheeled into Kentucky, our first stop a town humorously named “Deer Snort.” Skirting Nashville, we began the long trek west across Arkansas into a torrential rainstorm. All the while, Grace squirmed on her race-designed bucket seat. I was agonizingly aware of her back pain when, after arriving in Little Rock, she exited bent over. The car failed her “fanny test.”

After a sleepless night we pushed on to Hot Springs and a hotel offering scalding mineral water baths guaranteed to remove every ache and pain. It was a delightful stopover that prepared us for the final leg to Dallas.

No sooner did we arrive than I purchased a newspaper ad. A young man bought the Spirit and handed over $6,500, about 45 percent more than what I paid. I was sad to see it go. As it turned out, the car—which had a production run of only 2,000—is now very collectible. But Grace’s comfort meant more to me than any car.

The final mid-life crisis turbo
My turbo days weren’t over, however.

One fateful evening two years later, I accompanied daughter Tori to an Acura dealer to look for a new car. While she talked with a salesman, I spotted a bright red convertible that made my brain shift into high gear.

“Mitsy,” my 1998 Mitsubishi GTS Spyder turbo, took Grace and me to Key West, top down most of the time. Its trunk didn’t hold much, but who cared? It was fast and economical… and fun to drive.

There sat a 1998 Mitsubishi Spyder GTS turbo. Black leather seats and a slick five-speed floor shift complemented the turbocharged, intercooled DOHC four. During the test drive the salesman said, “I didn’t know this car was so fast!” After Tori purchased her Acura, I asked Grace if she’d enjoy a convertible. “Go for it,” she said… and I did.

What a great turbo car. It was fast—0 to 60 in about six seconds—yet 30 miles per gallon on the highway wasn’t uncommon. The seats were comfortable—Grace suffered no backaches—and our granddaughters could squeeze into the back.

We drove “Mitsy,” as I named her, all over Texas. The highlight of our travels was a 4,000-mile round-trip from Dallas to Key West, Florida, in 2003. The top was down almost the entire time as we sped through Louisiana into the Florida panhandle, down the Emerald Coast and into Panama City. On we went to Tampa/St. Petersburg, and finally the incredible highway across the Keys.

But, like all my turbo cars, Mitsy bit the dust for practical reasons. Tori and her fiancé, David, announced their July 2004 wedding. I sold the convertible to help finance the ceremony.

Like Grace and I did when buying the Spirit R/T in 1998, a young man and his wife drove from Milwaukee to purchase Mitsy. Off she went… and so ended my 20-year mid-life crisis and love affair with turbocharged cars.