Turning Japanese: The 1982 Plymouth Champ

After two years of nursing along a badly wounded Audi Fox wagon (the gory details can be found here), it was time to find something else to drive. The Fox was my third consecutive VW-based product (it was a rebadged VW Dasher), and I was ready to consider another marque.

At the start of the 1980s, Japanese nameplates were firmly ensconced in the American automotive landscape. A combination of excellent fuel economy and great reliability drew a growing stream of customers into showrooms. At the dealerships where I worked, one friend drove a Toyota Corolla SR-5, and another an AWD Subaru. A girlfriend bought a new Mazda GLC. I had ridden in or driven each of these cars. The owners had zero complaints about their cars; in fact, each of them praised the low maintenance and repair costs.

It was early 1986 when I narrowed my replacement search to a Mitsubishi product. The Chrysler Corporation had been selling their Dodge Colt since the early ‘70s. These Colts were all rebadged variants of various Mitsubishi Mirage/Galant models. (I don’t know who Chrysler thought they were fooling. It had always struck me as ironic how Lee Iacocca implored U.S. citizens to “buy American” with these Japanese-designed and –built vehicles in his showrooms.)

The generation of Colts introduced for the 1979 model year switched from a RWD to a FWD platform. The new body style, a practical 3-door hatchback, reminded me of a 7/8 scale VW Rabbit. Checking the Want-Ad Press, I found one locally, an ’82 with reasonable miles on it, stick shift of course. Memory says I paid $1,300 for it. Mine was badged “Plymouth Champ”, but was otherwise identical to its sister Colt.

Simply put, the car was a blast to drive. And simple it was. No power anything, no A/C, a frugal 4-cylinder engine, and most fun of all, the “Twin Stick” transmission which provided EIGHT forward speeds (if I wanted to shift every 3 seconds). I replaced the tires with something decent, changed the oil, and did precious little else to it but add fuel every few weeks. It was a great city car: at 145 inches long, 10 inches shorter than my Rabbit, I could squeeze it into the tiniest of Manhattan parking spots. (And no worries about someone stealing it.) It even held my drumset, and so became my transportation to and from gigs.

With back seat folded, full 4-piece drum kit fits. Note Mets bumper sticker!
With back seat folded, full 4-piece drum kit fits. Note Mets bumper sticker!

Thirty years’ hindsight reveals something else about my first Japanese car. I didn’t take it as seriously as anything in my possession before (or after) it. I have no envelope full of receipts from my time with it, as I have with almost every other car I’ve ever owned. It was a challenge to find any photos of it. It’s obvious to me now that I may have considered it to be disposable transportation, though to be fair to the car, that was based in part by how little nurturing it needed.

Among other things the car didn't get done to it was washing.
Among other things the car didn’t get done to it was washing.

Within a few months of buying it, I changed jobs and got my first dealer demo. I kept the Champ; it was useful backup transportation. Sometimes, I loaned it out to friends. By 1989, there were other, newer vehicles in the household. The Champ was not being driven. I sold it to a friend of a friend for a pittance; last I had heard about it, years later, he was still driving it. I was not surprised.


All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.