1991 Dodge Daytona ES

January 1, 2013 | By Bob Tomaine

A large gray area separates an older used car from a collector car and nobody knows exactly where the line between them lies or when it’s been crossed. A car on one side is rarely noticed and a car on the other is treasured. The car in the middle is the one to find.

The 1991 Dodge Daytona ES featured here is a perfect example. Charley Jeffries bought it in 2004 after his son found it and told him of its condition. It’s mostly original and was rescued early enough that it probably will never need a full restoration, despite the fact that it serves as everyday transportation.

“I’ve had thoughts of what I’d really like to do with it,” Jeffries said, “but I need a car to drive.”

When he bought it, the Daytona showed just over 100,000 miles, a figure that not too many years ago would’ve scared off nearly anyone in the market for a transportation car. The difference, of course, is that by the 1980s, automotive engineering and materials had reached the point where the 100,000-mile mark is easily achievable with the right care and probably even with less-than-scheduled maintenance.

Jeffries’ Daytona has obviously been treated well throughout its life. It isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that it might eventually become the car that leaves the garage only on nice days. “There are some things that need to be done with it,” he said. “The paint’s one of them. “If I get a new paint job put on it and I get to liking it a little too much...”

My Ancestor, the Omni

It’s not hard to believe that this could turn into a fair weather driver, as the Daytona has a lot going for it and a big part of that lies in its history. The story is complicated, to say the least, and goes back to Dodge’s 1978 introduction of the subcompact Omni four-door hatchback.

The inaugural front-wheel-drive Omni made no pretense of being anything but a pleasant little econobox, as they were called at the time, so in 1979, it was joined by a hatchback coupe. The new 024 bore no resemblance to a four-door Omni, but barely differed under the skin. Despite its fastback design—much like the basic shape later seen in Jeffries’ Daytona—the original coupe package was mostly for appearance.

But as you might expect, the 024 gradually veered away from the Omni. In 1980, a DeTomaso package added not only appearance items, but also better suspension and wider wheels. The next year saw the DeTomaso joined by a

Charger package, both with a 2.2-liter four instead of the base 1.7.

Something else happened at Chrysler in 1981, though, when the K car was introduced. Available as a Dodge Aries or Plymouth Reliant, it was a front-wheeldrive compact that by no stretch could be called anything other than basic, but would go on to serve as the platform for a seemingly unending series of models and, oddly enough, other platforms. Chrysler has frequently been criticized for having beaten every last bit of life out of the K and its derivatives and then beating them some more, but for the restorer, the commonality of parts that resulted isn’t a bad thing at all.

Before that really got underway, though, the Omni-based coupe made its final break, in a marketing sense, from the four-door and in 1983 became not the 024, but the Charger. And just as that happened gradually, another element of performance was showing up, too, this in the form of the Shelby Charger. The Shelby’s 2.2 was good for 107 hp and if that doesn’t sound like much, remember the era and the fact that the base Charger engine was the 1.7-litre with 63 hp. A 44hp increase was a considerable jump, but the Shelby also added better wheels and suspension plus appearance items.

Daytona Debut

For 1984, Chrysler tweaked the Shelby and since building the 024/Charger/ Shelby on the Omni platform had proven to be a good idea, it repeated the process by creating the Daytona from the K car’s basics. The new model carried the essential shape and proportions of the older design and picked up enough styling cues to ensure a family resemblance, but it virtually eliminated the crisp angularity and thus couldn’t possibly be mistaken for the Omni-derived coupe.

With its near-twin, the Chrysler Laser, the Daytona made many of its domestic competitors look somewhere between clunky and dated, and the car could be optioned for more than just appearance. The standard 2.2-liter four produced all of 99 hp, but the turbocharged version was good for 142 hp and available across the board in the base Daytona, the Turbo or the Turbo Z, the latter wearing an aerodynamics-appearance package.

A Carroll Shelby handling package appeared for the Turbo Z in 1986 and a non-turbo 2.5-liter became available. Dodge made that the base engine for 1987, when it also restyled the Daytona with hidden headlights and full-width taillights. With that, the styling cues that had tied the Daytona to the Omni-based coupe were gone, but there were more important differences. The Shelby Z now used an intercooled turbo 2.2 with 174 hp, an engine that Dodge would wisely continue even as it introduced the ES model and updated the body again in 1989. The latest aero package was the big change and in case anyone might fail to notice, its silver-gray paint would draw attention.

!991 Dodge Daytona Engine Compartment
The engine compartment is crowded and probably looks much more forbidding than it really is.

Dodge had frequently rearranged the Daytona’s engine offerings and for 1990 gave it the 3.0-liter 141-hp Mitsubishi V6 that powers the feature car. It also modernized the interior with a new dash and console, so when it came time for the 1991 models, changes were minor. The 3.0 remained available with turbo and non-turbo 2.5s. Dodge built less than 18,000 Daytonas in 1991 and only about 9000 of the final 1993 models.

When It’s Time for an Inspection...

In its decade-long life span, roughly 400,000 examples were produced, but time is probably running out for anyone who hopes to acquire a Daytona as nice as Jeffries’ car at a reasonable price. Like

other cars that perform well, many Daytonas have been badly abused or wrecked and although good ones certainly exist, finding a good one that’s for sale might not be easy. At least some of their potential faults, of course, would be comparable to those of most cars and familiar to experienced collectors and restorers.

!991 Dodge Daytona ES Dash
The Daytona has some curiosities to offer, such as the dashboard-mounted turn signal switch, but a restorer working on one will need to contend with more important things. Airbags, for example, call for special precautions.

“Your rust problems, I think, would be the biggest things to look for,” Jeffries said, “especially with the frame. The unibody itself, the rails and, of course, the floor, where mine is (rusted). Mine actually looked pretty solid until recently, but now it’s starting to show up. If I would’ve gotten under there and pushed every inch of that car, I probably would’ve found that, but now, it’s apparent.”

Checking the floor and underbody carefully might seem necessary only on a car showing signs of water damage in the interior, but that’s not the case. Jeffries’ Daytona doesn’t leak.

“I’ve never found any signs of water in the back and I wash it often,” he said. “Just recently we had a big storm and I’ve never seen any evidence of any water back there. It’s dry as a bone. The door seals and everything else seem fine. There are no leaks around those or the hatchback itself.”

Weatherstripping might be long-lasting on Daytonas, but like a lot of cars from that period, interior pieces break. The good news is that many of them interchange with other Mopars, meaning the supply should be fairly large. Jeffries has had to replace the cargo cover because of a broken hook and his car still needs a rear interior light that was damaged, but he’s taken some precautions on pieces that might be harder to find.

“I got an extra turn signal switch because I could,” he said. “The only reason I had the dash apart was trying to get that tachometer to work, so I have extra parts there.”

That merits some explanation. The Daytona’s turn signal switch isn’t a conventional stalk on the left side of the column, but a slide switch mounted on the dashboard at the edge of the instrument cluster. Jeffries acquired the extra while removing a tach from a salvage-yard car, since the tach on his car has provided the only unsolvable problem so far. Changing everything associated with it hasn’t yet made any difference.

“It’ll work when it wants to,” Jeffries said. “I’ve had it out of the dash and wiggled the tach drive and it started working or punched the dashboard and it started working. You turn the turn signal on and it’ll start working. Push the cruise control off and it’ll start working. Put your foot on the brake and it’ll start working. Like I said, it just works when it wants to.”

This Calls for New Skills & Insights

While hunting down that tach malfunction has been impossible so far, the source of a minor problem has been

obvious. Jeffries said that the car has its share of odd creaks and noises, none of which are serious because they come from the plastic panels in the rear interior rubbing from normal vibration and flexing.

“There’s nothing (rubbing) as far as the suspension,” he said. “I put new shocks on the back and there’s nothing loose back there. There’s nothing that could actually even creak. It’s just plastic rubbing together.”

The fact that plastic pieces cause a condition that noticeable, though, does raise a point about restoring a car like the Daytona in that the project is probably going to require some new skills. Those whose experience is with older cars might remember the dire warnings common years ago when many believed that increasing use of plastics meant that what were then modern cars would never be restored. It didn’t work out that way, of course, and most interior plastics today can be repaired with no more difficulty than working on metal. Even better, that’s just about as true for exterior plastic components, but in either case, there’s still the matter of learning how to do it.

There are some other things that a restorer will need to know as well before starting in on a project from roughly the post-muscle-car era. Something as simple as changing a fuel filter or pump might not be that simple at all, thanks to the pressures required by fuel-injected engines. Inside the car, it’s possible to trip an airbag by accident. Anyone who’s actually seen an airbag inflate—not in an accident, but in a demonstration—would appreciate the need to be exceedingly cautious. This is not the car on which to take wild guesses about how it works. Shop manuals are indispensable.

That sounds like a lot to deal with, but people have never stopped working on cars. Changing components, for example, in a 60-year-old car’s coil suspension is potentially dangerous if the right precautions aren’t employed. Similarly, Daytonas and cars like them have now been undergoing repairs for years, generally with little drama because those making the repairs have been following the instructions. However, Jeffries is probably correct when he says that the apparent complexity of his Daytona’s engine compartment would stop many restorers.

“I think that people are more scared of it than anything,” he said, “because they haven’t really looked into it. An old bare bones V-8 from 1966 is going to be different than that is, but once you start looking at the thing, it’s all basic stuff. If you’ve got to get a good book and learn

from the book, there’s no reason you can’t restore that. It’s all relative... I look under the hood of a newer car and I see things and I can’t even tell you what they are. I’d have to get a book and do research on it.”

The cost-benefit relationship here can tilt toward the restorer, though, in that diagnosing many engine problems can be a straightforward process.

“For the most part,” Jeffries said, “you have diagnostic tools to tell you what is going wrong. It’s actually made it simple, if you have the tools to do it.”

That probably isn’t enough to convince the owner of something like a 4-42 or a V-12 Packard that a Daytona should be his next project, but 40 years ago, few expected to see a 1966 Studebaker being restored. Tastes change and the hobby evolves, but just as that Studebaker didn’t seem to have much potential in the 1960s, the Daytona had its own hurdles in its day.

Becoming a Salvage Yard Shopper

The Daytona and other small American sport coupes suffered from two big problems that weren’t even their fault; the muscle car faithful didn’t exactly rush to embrace them, nor did those whose tastes ran to the European performance sedans and coupes. Mostly, the people who did appreciate them were relatively young drivers looking for fast, noticeable cars that handled, which was actually taking something from both the muscle and the European factions. Jeffries falls into that last group, since the Fiats in his past date to an X1/9 while in college and his other car—the one that now leaves the garage only on nice days—is an incredibly nice original 1975 Lancia Beta coupe.

Given his training and background as a mechanic and engine rebuilder, he also has a good sense of what he’d be getting into by keeping the Daytona.

“What I have to work with is a good restorable car,” he said. “It could very well be made into something I could take to shows and probably even as it is, I could take it as an unrestored vehicle and people would look.”

There’s not yet enough interest in Daytonas for a parts supply and reproduction network to have come very far, but interchangeability helps to offset that. Jeffries spoke of a local salvage yard as an example.

“It’s basically like all the other Chrysler front-wheel-drive cars,” he explained. “The parts are available. I can take a ride to Harry’s and find probably four or five cars that I can get parts off of easily. They’ll match right up. If you can’t get it off of a dealer or an aftermarket source, you can get it at a salvage yard very easily right now.

!991 Dodge Daytona ES Side View
Chrome-plating is a non-issue on the Daytona, but restoring one will probably require working with plastics and replacing trim.

“Ten years from now, it might be a different story; right now, I don’t think it would be a problem. If you bought one that even had a blown engine in it, you could probably go up there and pick up an engine because the rest of the car is so rusted and that’s why it was junked.”

Driving a “Forgotten” Vehicle

Ten years from now, it might actually be too late to find a decent Daytona with anything but serious hunting. The car has its deeply devoted fans which is understandable considering how nicely Daytonas drive. Taking Jeffries’ car over the roads that serve as the course for Pennsylvania’s Weatherly Hillclimb quickly illustrated that. It’s an easy car to drive fast and one that doesn’t feel like it’s just waiting to break away. Granted that front-wheel-drive on twisting roads calls for a different driving style and a willingness to stay on the throttle, but a moderately skilled driver would be comfortable with the Daytona in short order and might well find himself learning to push a little harder.

“Once you start pushing it a little bit,” said Jeffries, “you’d be surprised just how well this handles.”

No, actually, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. The steering has a nice mix of feel and resistance, the Michelins don’t even hint that they’re losing grip and the suspension is stiff enough to provide good control without too much of a penalty in ride quality.

It really is that comfortable—something that’s helped by a good driving position and good visibility—and while my tastes lean much more toward a fivespeed stick, I could live with the fourspeed automatic. I could also live with the 25 to 28 miles per gallon that Jeffries said it routinely returns and to top it off, the Daytona’s stock exhaust has a good sound without being obnoxious.

It has shortcomings, too, such as the oddly located turn signal switch, plus that creaking from the plastic panels rubbing together. Removing the key from the ignition switch requires a push-and-turn to reach the locked position, which is done by habit only after a while. And although it’s hard to decide whether this is a point for or against it, the Daytona is something of a forgotten car.

!991 Dodge Daytona ES Hatch Back
The Daytona is a small car, but beneath that cargo cover, it offers adequate carrying space.

Jeffries knows of a few others in his general area, but aside from those, he hasn’t seen a Daytona on the road in months. He hasn’t seen any at shows, either, but said that even those who can’t identify it notice his car.

“Most of the people I know are my age and they do know what it is,” he said, “but the kids, no. The younger kids, even like 18, they probably don’t. But they’ll turn their heads and look and they’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ Do they know what it is? Maybe they look and see ‘Dodge’ on there and then they do.”

A group of import-drivers gathers regularly in a lot near his house, he said, and he’s seen them notice the Daytona when he’s washing it. They were there when we returned, so I drove through the lot to look for reactions. Sure enough, they paid attention to us, but it’s hard to know whether they knew what they were seeing. How old would they have been when Daytonas were common? “They were just out of diapers,” Jeffries laughed.

!991 Dodge Daytona ES Side View
Chrome-plating is a non-issue on the Daytona, but restoring one will probably require working with plastics and replacing trim.

Once it’s painted, he said, he’ll be able to find out just how much of a mystery the Daytona is by taking it to shows. That’s when the danger of keeping it forever will become very real.

“I don’t know if I’ll make it a fullblown show car,” Jeffries said, “but we’ll see.”