Dodge Dart Returns Chrysler to the Small Car Market

Dodge Dart 2013 from Dodge Dart will return next year; see for pictures and information about the January 9, 2012 “reveal”. Based on an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, it is truly a sportscar, and bears no resemblance to the original.

Nevertheless, the return is good news. Because through the years, one niche that Chrysler excelled in was the market for small, economy cars. Mostly un-hip, Chrysler cars were never boring and because they were so unfashionable (but practical in price and maintenance cost), they had a sort of reverse snob appeal.

Chrysler small cars were always interesting, unlike GM and Ford, which had AWFUL early small cars like the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega. The late 1970s-1980s Dodge Omni/Horizon was terribly practical, even though some of its features (such as corduroy fabric seats and fake exterior wood grain) were oddly compelling. Based on a French Simca model, the series lasted for a dozen years, from 1978-1990. It had American parts; even the radio was  standard-issue Chrysler (really hard to push channel buttons) and was the same that appeared in Chrysler’s larger cars. The Omni/Horizon was a copycat VW Rabbit; oddly the Fiat Ritmo (sold in the U.S. as the Fiat Strada) also channeled the VW Rabbit.

The Dodge Neon (1994-99) was another under-appreciated upstart. While it did not survive permanently as part of the Chrysler lineup, those who still drive the car today swear by it, even with the odd colors. In fact, there is even a dealer in northeastern North Carolina who makes a habit of selling used, rebuilt Neons to be used for knockabout cars.  (If anyone has the name, please leave it below in the comments section).

Chrysler had a long string of imports badged as Chryslers. In the early 1970s, they imported the Hillman Avenger and sold it as the Plymouth Cricket; its most unique feature for an early 197os car was a manual choke! Chrysler also imported Mitsubishis as the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ (and also the sporty Sapporo); they were miraculous cars because of their mileage, durability and cheap introductory price.

But perhaps the most pioneering of Chrysler’s small cars were the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart; a commercial is seen below. Introduced in 1959-60 as the Valiant (the Dart and Valiant became essentially the same car) and produced until the arrival of the Dodge Aspen, it was a small car that acted big. An introductory speech on the car line is at the site The originals were light, airy, roomy and a bit snazzy,  with seating for six.

The names Valiant and Dart were replaced in 1976 by the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Aspen, the former of which was a sort of Mercedes wanna-be and much more of a lunky mid-sized car. The originals had so much authenticity, derived from their simplicity, including Chrysler’s legendary Slant 6 engine, wonderfully described at the website Allpar. Allpar also has a brilliant history of the Dart on its site.

The famed Reliant K-car replaced the Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen, which were smaller, yet still held six passengers. The “A” platform survived until the late 1980s, when the line was updated as the downsized Chrysler LeBaron and Plymouth Fury. One of the more interesting variants was the wood grained Chrysler Town and Country, which later morphed into the minivan of the same name.

New Dart for 2013

Chrysler has released images of the new Dodge Dart; it will be based on an Alfa-Romeo. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but Dodge is making a mistake if it makes it too much of a racing car.

Certainly, it needs a sport version, but the genius of the original Dart/Valiant was that the same car could be  sold to a mom, a dad, a 70-year-old church widow AND then customized for the rural and suburban youth market. There was not only the Dart, but then there was a Dart Demon and Swinger (such a name!). Plymouth had the Duster and Scamp sport versions. At their top, they were selling nearly half a million cars a year for Chrysler.

The Dart/Valiant was replaced in 1976 by the Volare/Aspen, which was plagued by recalls, though long-term was pretty reliable.

Below, a reel of Plymouth Valiant commercials.

Below, an ad for the Plymouth Horizon. Don’t you just love the grille? So “big American car” yet a copy of the VW Rabbit.

Meanwhile, the Omni, which “Does it all”

The question becomes; is it too sporty? Does it deserve to have a less sporty version? Personally, I think so, but time will tell.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.

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