(Motor) Way of Life: Ode to the Dodge/Plymouth Neon. It was better than you remember.

29/38 MPG. 132 HP. Seats 4 comfortably. $15,000. Would you buy this car? I did. In fact, I owned 3 of them. The Car? A Dodge/Plymouth Neon. In January of 1994, Chrysler Corporation released their new compact car as a 1995 model. Replacing the K-Car based Dodge Shadow and Plymouth Sundance, the Neon set the bar as far as a new car launch goes. These included the “checkerboard square” method in production facility planning, a transitioned to environmentally-friendly water-based paint implementation, and breakthroughs in computer modeling. Such innovations in engineering Chrysler gained during the birth of the Neon were a major reason as to why Daimler-Benz purchased Chrysler in 1999.

Yes, the Neon was an utter shitbox; especially the base model which originally sold for $9300. For that price, one received a 4-seat economy car with 13” steel wheels, a manual transmission and no Air Conditioning. However, the more upscale Sport/Sport Coupe and Highline models featured options far above those of its competitors.

In 1994, the Neon was a true segment leader. The car was faster, better handling, more interior space, and was more profitable.  It certainly made one hell of a race car, dominating at various levels of Sports Club of America (SCCA) competition right out of the gate.

The Neon was not without its flaws. Namely, head gaskets. The Neon’s 2.0 engine was available in 132 HP single overhead cam and 150 HP dual overhead cam specifications. The engine block was iron, while the heads were aluminum. Unfortunately, the thermal properties of iron and aluminum are dissimilar. As the engine would heat up, these metals expand at different rates. This necessitated a multi-layered steel (MLS) head gasket. The MLS gasket was made out of sandwiched pieces of metal, allowing the head and block to expand and contract as needed.

Initial plans were for a MLS head gasket, rather than the more traditional unit, fitted at the beginning. Why you might ask? Corporate accounting. The MLS gasket was more expensive to produce, thus raising the cost of the cars. Eventually, those added profits were marginalized as cars came in for warranty work due to the failed gasket. In 1998, the MLS gasket was installed on all Neon engines. By then, its reputation was already ruined.

One place the Neon’s reputation was already solidified happened to be racing. In 1994, the ACR (later known as American Club Racer) package was released. Initially featuring a “base” sedan for weight reduction with the SOHC engine, the ACR included an option package tailored for competition. It lacked A/C (later available as an option), sound deadening, and a radio. Also standard was an updated transmission with 3.94 final drive ratio for quicker acceleration, stiffer springs, “heavy-duty” Arvin struts (later replaced by Konis in 1997), 4-wheel disc brakes, and a larger front and added rear sway bars. Later in 1994, a Coupe model was added and featured the 150 HP DOHC engine. The DOHC was also available as an option for all Neons until 1999.

Neons dominated in competition. Chrysler paid out a lot of contingency money to those campaigning Neons. It was the de-facto standards in many forms of motorsport. Between 1994 and 2001, Neons took over 38 national championships, ranging from Solo II to Showroom Stock. They even had 2 of their own series, dubbed the “Neon Challenge” and “Neon Celebrity Challenge.” The Neon Challenge was a showcase for the most successful Neon road racers in the countries, allowing large amounts of prize money for the best Neon racer in the country. The Celebrity Challenge featured a fleet of factory-prepped cars campaigned by local celebrities across the nation. This series occurred on selected Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART, now known as Indycar) events during the season. It was upon seeing one of these Celebrity Challenge cars in 1994 that first sparked my interest in the Neon.

The Neon was my first car. A 1999 Plymouth Highline Sedan. By 1999, the Highline was the main trim level offered on Neons. Gone were the “base” models of 1994. The only two options on my 99 featured were the automatic transmission and Air Conditioning. The previous owner botched an engine install and I purchased it non-running for $900. After replacing all engine gaskets and a crankshaft position sensor, I had a running car.

It was then that I learned about automotive forums and tuning sport compacts. My first purchase was an exhaust off of one of the Celebrity Challenge cars. It was a straight-pipe replacing the muffler, making the car unbearably loud. Despite the car was horribly slow, visions of it tearing up a race track were always in my head.

I had a lot of firsts (and lasts) in that car. My first real date, the first time I drove over 100 MPH, the first accident I almost got into, and my first (you fill in the blank). It was also car in which I went on my last date with probably the first girl I was ever truly into. One never appreciates true freedom until they have the ability to transport themselves anywhere they wish. The car eventually was passed down to my sister, which carried her safely throughout High School. It was eventually sold to a girl commuting from Detroit to Ann Arbor for College. Unfortunately, my first car met its demise after coming in contact with a Ford Escape.

When I turned 21, I got a new job. Doing promo work for 5-Hour Energy, I was making pretty decent money working there and at my local bicycle store. I had enough saved up to buy my ACR. It was a Black 1998 Dodge ACR Coupe that spent the first 13 years of its life parked in a garage on the outskirts of Toledo. The original owner, Jason, campaigned in Auto-X from new. The ACR came equipped with the entirety of the Mopar Performance catalog, Kosei K1 wheels, and a host of other modifications.

That car was my baby. I washed it religiously. Some claimed that it was one of, if not the cleanest coupe in the country. It was never truly up to my standards, however. I purchased new front and rear bumpers that were painted. I met a good friend, Tony, who previously was a subcontracted engineer for Chrysler. One of his primary jobs was actually prepping the Celebrity Challenge cars out of a shop in metro Detroit. He was restoring a black ACR coupe of his own. I purchased a lot of parts from him, namely a Keystone Viper Hood. The hood featured a NACA duct (hood scoop) much like the 1996 Viper GTS Coupe. I soon purchased a set of Electromotive/Hilborn Individual Throttle Bodies with plans of installing a stroked 2.4 PT Cruiser engine for “big” power. When I calculated the cost of bringing the car to my standard, I realized the foolishness in dropping $10,000 “slow” Neon.

It was then that I put the car up for sale and began shopping for the Z06. Based upon the reputation my ACR had within the community, I sold it for a pretty hefty profit a week later. I regret selling it to this day. Luckily, I am still in contact with the current owner. I plan on purchasing it back if the opportunity ever arises.

That car is what really got me into the whole “car scene.” I did a lot things that I’m not entirely sure the statute of limitations has expired on yet. I beat cars to which many would not believe had they not been present (5.0 Mustang were easy targets). I can honestly say that I’m glad I didn’t own something like that in high school; it would have ended up in a ditch after the first week. I attribute my currently level of discipline and car control skills (or lack thereof) to what I learned in wheeling the ACR.

I made a lot of memories in that car too. There were several solo trips to northern Michigan contemplating life, camping trips to the lake, and drunken nights sleeping in the car. I rejected more than one attractive female’s advances while I was caretaker of the ACR. There was one girl that I ended up “freezing out,” and parked it at a friend’s house for two weeks. I truly expected her to key the thing in my driveway. On the car’s last night, I rejected someone to which I probably shouldn’t have (to say the least). This is one of the few regrets I still hold, second to selling the car I rejected her in. I’ll never forget the defeated look she gave me as I dropped her off at her apartment for the last time.

I also purchased a 1-owner 1996 sedan from an old man in my city for use as a winter beater. Despite the 170,000 miles in that car’s lifetime, the body is spotless. Nearly every replaceable component was fitted sometime during its lifetime. It would return nearly 40 MPG on my highway trips, with A/C as an added luxury.

Despite the short time I was actually driving the car, quite a few crazy things happened. I made more than a few trips up to visit my sister in northern MI to party with her college friends. My best friend, Dosh, and I drove it to my cousin’s wedding in Pittsburgh. We nearly burned out the clutch trying to drive the car on the steep inclines of the Allegheny Mountains. Unfortunately, I lunched the motor with two friends during a crazy January night out in Downtown Detroit. It has been down for two years as of writing this diatribe. The bottom end was rebuilt and I am lacking the motivation to put everything back together.

I understand that my experiences with Neons are not the norm, and that they will not change your opinion as to how great (or horrible) they are. However, this one car played a large part in shaping me to the person I am today. Without this shitbox designed in Highland Park, I most likely wouldn’t be even writing this for you.

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