Derided by its creator, the “Plug-Ugliest Little Box” was a rocket from the Eighties
It was 1987, during the National Automobile Dealers Association’s (NADA) annual convention at the Las Vegas Hilton, and Carroll Shelby was about to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Featuring a six-page feature on Shelby’s past, present, and future, the Los Angeles Times was on it. The past was the legendary tie-in with Ford, now ending over a trademark dispute; the present was a whole line of K-Cars with turbo power, a Dodge Shelby Performance Center outside Los Angeles, five years into his lash-up with Chrysler and his old friend Lee Iacocca; and the future was a $11,719 Omni GLH-S—a car that both Shelby and the Times struggled to fathom, even as they extolled its hyperbolic potential.
“Why build performance into a small-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door compact sedan with the sex appeal of a cargo container?” asked the august paper.
Shelby answered “with his usual indifference to the possible corporate consequences of his words,” according to the reporter: “I wanted to take the plug-ugliest little box Chrysler made,” said Shelby, “and turn it into something that could whip a Ferrari or a Porsche, at a price the average guy can afford – the guy making $20,000 or $25,000, with a wife and couple of kids.”
If anyone, twenty years earlier, had predicted that Ol’ Shel – resplendent with his cowboy hat, his steely gaze – would stop racing Fords and put his name on a front-wheel drive Chrysler with four-banger power and based on a French commuter car (derived from the Talbot Horizon, which Chrysler Europe developed, the GLH was thoroughly re-engineered and assembled in America), one would think you were Ken Kesey undergoing an acid binge.
But twenty years later, he did. And it worked. Dodge and Shelby offered two variants of the Omni GLH; both of them included a swear word in the name. The Omni GLH began humbly: with Chrysler’s 2.2-liter engine, the cylinder heads were reworked, compression increased, and new cams added. Well-trod hot-rodding stuff, and good for 110 horsepower. A year later in 1985, the GLH received Chrysler’s first turbo motor: a Garrett T03 unit added 7.2 psi of boost for a total of 146 horsepower. People began noticing. “A terrific little high-performance sedan for not a whole lot of money,” said a May 1985 Car And Driver review, “…perhaps a little less user-friendly than a Volkswagen GTI, but it truly does go like hell.”
“Never mash the throttle real hard in first or second gear,” the magazine also cautioned, “without first making sure that the front wheels are pointing exactly where you want to go.”
By 1987, the wily Texan had mustered enough bravado to take on the truly exotic, and the Omni GLH-S’s Turbo 2 engine was firing with 175 horsepower, 12 pounds of boost and a front-mounted intercooler. Just 500 were built, many from the previous year’s leftovers. It took a while for Shelby to work his magic, but by now it was set: the Omni GLH-S set a 0-60 time, by Road & Track’s 1986 test, of just 6.7 seconds. Thirty years later, that is still fast. The hubris worked. Chrysler had hired him for a reason.
“True, it's not very fancy (11 grand does not a Porsche buy),” said Road & Track. “Nor is it a model of durability (11 big ones won't get you a Mercedes-Benz). But, like fast food, the Shelby is available in lots of places (remember, only 500, however), affordable, and able to satiate one's appetite for performance and handling.”
Koni shocks and Goodyear tires helped the GLH-S handle. At Willow Springs, Road & Track found the handling balanced, neutral. They were surprised: this was still a front-drive econobox, built by the French. “In a back-to-back comparison with the normal GLH, the S feels more sure-footed…yet it is still responsive (perhaps too much so). And golly, does it get from turn to turn in a hurry.”
It looked the business, too: all squares and angles, black on black and equipped with Bosch foglights and Shelby Centurion one-piece, unidirectional wheels. Stripes, stickers, Shelby’s letters on nearly every panel. Everything was blacked out, which was the default transformation in the Eighties for factory-tuned machines: simple, effective, intimidating.
Hot Rod Magazine tested the GLH-S against a 1966 Shelby Mustang GT350 and found that it was faster through the quarter-mile by exactly one second. How’s that for progress? they must have wondered.
Shelby conceived a publicity stunt while seemingly pandering to the Ferraristi: he invited any 308 owners to meet him at Willow Springs for a race against his GLH-S. “The Ferrari lovers did a lot of whining,” Shelby told the LA Times, “but no takers. I'm still waiting.”
Back in Las Vegas, Iacocca and Shelby, toasted to their friendship. “For 28 years, he's been my sounding board,” said Iacocca. The gala dinner was to honor Shelby, as many gala dinners have, and many would. “Earlier tonight,” Iacocca said, “Carroll leaned over to me, and said: 'Jeez! Tomorrow I get inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame, and I'll be sitting up there next to [Ford CEO Donald E. Petersen]!’ I said, 'So?' And Carroll said, 'I'm suing him for 30 million bucks!'
"That's typical Carroll," Iacocca finished.
Twenty years later Dodge would repeat the cheap, fast car mantra with the Neon SRT-4. Like Hooters, and possibly the Omni GLH, it was delightfully tacky, yet unrefined. And like the Omni, surviving examples that haven’t been thrashed to a circle of hell are rare.