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Seemingly from out of nowhere, Chrysler Corporation started making a highly successful “Volkswagen Rabbit clone” in 1978 — around two years after the debut of the Rabbit itself, which wasn’t enough time for such a completely new car. How did they do it?
The Omni and Horizon were the first North American mass-produced cars with a transverse mounted engine, and the first front wheel drive US-made Chryslers; it was also the first to use a semi-independent rear suspension (with trailing arms and coil springs).
by Burt Bouwkamp
I was director of product planning for seven years, from 1968 to 1975. That was too long, because after seven years, corporate product planning committee and the board of directors knew what I was going to say before I said it. “Here comes Bouwkamp again, and he’s going to propose another small car.” I was discounted.
Because I was no longer effective, I got myself moved out of the job. My boss was a vice president and a good friend, George Butts; and in Europe, one of my friends who was head of European product planning and development, Don Foreman, was promoted to be managing director of Chrysler Spain.
So I said to George Butts, “Why don’t you send me over to Europe to replace Don Foreman?” He had a great smile on his face, which suggested to me it was a great relief to him because he didn’t know what to do with me either.
So off to Europe I went, and it was a wonderful, wonderful assignment. I learned so much about the automobile business. I had thought we were the greatest engineers in the world, that nobody could touch us. When I got to Europe I found out we weren’t. They were better suspension engineers, better brake engineers, and better packaging people.
When we package a car — setting the basic dimensions — we didn’t think anything about front overhang, for example. If adding another six inches of front overhang made the car look good, we did it.
In Europe, the smallest front overhang was an advantage. They made the car no bigger than was necessary for size of the cabin and trunk, and for the front overhang. I admired them for that, after I was there for a while.
One day, the chief engineer of advanced engineering came to my office and said “Burt, you’ve got to come down and see some drawings.”
I said “Why?”
He said, “We cut a half inch off the front overhang.” So I went down there and he was as proud as anything, because they got the front overhang of the Omni and Horizon down from 29 inches to 28.5. I congratulated him and I smiled to myself, because I came from the United States where we added six inches or three inches or whatever. We weren’t worried about that.
It really hit me when we had chauffeurs take us to Heathrow Airport in England — three of us plus the driver, in a Chrysler Two Litre, a 180 inch overall length car, and our three bags were in the trunk; we were sitting quite comfortably.
We went down to Heathrow Airport and were picked up by a New Yorker Brougham, probably a 1976 car. It was 220 inches long — we couldn’t get our three bags in the trunk. We had to put one of the bags between the two guys in the back seat and between the driver and the guy in the front seat.
I thought, “Here’s a car 40 inches longer than the one we went to Heathrow in, and we can’t get our bags in the trunk. How on Earth can we think we’re good automobile designers?”
I became a better employee when I came back from Europe than I was there.
Management didn’t want a small car because GM and Ford didn’t have small cars then. They gave up on the Falcon and the Corvair. As long as they didn’t have them, then Chrysler wasn’t going to have them; because they didn’t make much money — if any.
That’s the way it went until the president at that time, Gene Cafiero, and the executive vice president of sales, R.K. Brown, came to Europe. I’m not sure what their overall method was, but when they came into the Coventry/Whitley area they wanted to see all of the things we were doing.
We took them all out through the styling area, took them through all the products we were working on, and our focus then was on the C2, which became the Omni and Horizon. The clay model had been approved, so the packaging and the appearance of the car had been set. We had a good representation of the automobile, although it was in clay.
They saw it and they said, “We like it.” They did whatever they needed to do to get it in America.
That was good for the company, but a problem for Chrysler Europe, because all of a sudden our wheel lips weren’t big enough, because they had to have chain clearance in America. We had to redo the wheel lips and a whole bunch of things like that.
In the manufacturing area we were going to stamp the roof and the A pillar all in one, so the windshield aperture was in that piece of metal. So that’s the roof, A pillar and cowl top, the part the windshield wipers are mounted.
Detroit made that in three parts. They made a cowl top, they made A pillars, and they made a roof. That meant a joint at the top of the A pillar, and a joint at the bottom of the A pillar.
Europe manufacturing did not want to change. As John Peradon, who was head of manufacturing, said when he came to Detroit, “Gentlemen, we do not make all of this one piece because it’s easier. It’s we make it all one piece although it’s harder, because it’s good for the product.”
The philosophy in America was, “We’re going to make it the way we always make it. We’re going to put a joint at the top and bottom of the A pillar.” So that’s what they did, and the two designs split.
Other things happened that slowed the European product down, because we had to adapt some things that were going to be common. We’d have probably been better off just saying “Hey, America, here’s the car. Go do your thing.”
America did a MacPherson front suspension, and we used the Simca 1100 torsion bars, so that became a change. They used different engines, so everything relative to the engine was changed. Looking at a European car and an American car, they look the same, but they weren’t. But we made three million of them, probably two million in Belvidere and another million in France.
In Europe, we also wanted to go to the MacPherson strut. There was nothing magic about torsion bars, which were more expensive. With the MacPherson strut, we could get what we call the “heel point” down; that made the seat more comfortable. We called the chair high seats.
This is where we didn’t have enough authority. The guy leading that charge for the torsion bars was John Pareden, the head of manufacturing for Simca. He didn’t win in Europe, but he went to the president of the company in America, and said it’d be $25 million cheaper to use the Simca 1100 front suspension on the C2. Those are the magic words, so we got instructions from America to carry over the Simca 1100 suspension. There were some guys in Europe that were really disappointed with that.
It didn’t hurt the car, except the heel point went up, it added weight, it had cost, and it provided no benefits to the customer. It provided a benefit to the company because they didn’t have to spend the $25 million up front. I know John Pareden well enough to think that he probably flavored that number a little bit. I’m sure it was a savings; I’m not sure it was $25 million. [The North American version still used the struts.]
But we were the Car of the Year in Europe — a more prestigious award than in America, where it’s just Motor Trend. Car of the Year in Europe is some 25 to 30 automotive writers. We won, beating BMW and Volkswagen. It was a good feather in our cap, and it was a good car.
But it’s disappointing to me is there aren’t any Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni clubs. You know, like a 300-alphabet club or so on.
I had two C2s, Plymouth Horizons/Dodge Omnis, one in Florida and one here. Driving around was a trip down memory lane. In Hastings, Michigan, a guy by the name of Gilmores took an old farm and made it into an automotive museum. He’s got one building of Lincolns, a building of Mopars, and so on.
Once a year they have a Mopar show, with categories for C bodies and B bodies and so on, and then they give awards in each category. My Omnis are in really good shape. When I went in the gate I said, “I’m displaying this car. Where should I go?”
He said “Well, we don’t really have a category for this car. Why don’t you take it down and put it in the ‘other’ category?” That was a disappointment for me because we made three million of them and I thought that car should’ve been more than “other.”
The Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon were major sales successes for a company which had not hit any home runs since the 1970 Plymouth Duster. They played a large role in keeping Chrysler alive, and paved the way for the K-car project, a more conventional sedan tuned to American interests, which would turn the company’s losses into profits. Continue onwards with Creating the European Horizon “C2”, written by several of the car’s creators, and the full story of the Horizon and Omni.
Chrysler 1904-2018 •
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