Vintage Views: Dodge Omni GLH

By Staff Writer
Dec 3, 2021 | Dodge, Buyer's Guide, Vintage Views, omni | Posted in Buyer's Guides , Vintage Views | From the Dec. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Dodge

Story by Bill Cuttitta

Few cars have earned more scorn from the general public than Chrysler’s compact Dodge Omni. On the enthusiast scene, however, the special GLH package—and later the GLHS formulation—turned the plastic-and-sadness hatchback into a serious performance player. This little demon earned its final stripes when Hot Rod ran an infamous cover that proclaimed, “GLHS Whips GT350!” The compact had trumped a 1966 Shelby GT350 in the magazine’s on-track shootout.

The Omni arrived in 1978 as the first mass-produced, American-built, front-wheel-drive compact, and for 1984 Chrysler’s engineers decided to give the enthusiast market something special: the GLH

The GLH carried a host of chassis upgrades liberated from the Dodge Shelby Charger, and it put down 110 horsepower from its normally aspirated 2.2-liter engine—respectable for the time. The GLH also featured a new five-speed transmission along with revised brakes. Its interior was, frankly, not a selling point, but with 100 fewer pounds and a longer wheelbase than the Charger, the car became a fast favorite on the autocross and rally scenes. 

All hell broke loose for the 1985 model year: A turbocharged 2.2 liter engine became an option on the GLH. Everything great about the original was made better with an extra 36 horsepower, and the driveline components were upgraded to handle the extra kick.

Torquesteer is common in high-horsepower, front-wheel-drive cars, but it has plagued few quite so famously as the GLH. Stepping hard on the gas meant the car would strongly encourage the car to make an impromptu lane change, particularly if the suspension bushings were worn. Despite that habit, the Omni GLH Turbos became instant legends. They went largely unchanged until 1986, their final production year.

Carroll Shelby poached the last 500 of the 1986 run to create the Omni GLHS fleet at his new facility in Whittier, California. Under the hood, Chrysler’s new intercooled Turbo II induction system replaced the original non-intercooled system. The improved efficiency pushed horsepower and torque figures to a staggering 175—a contemporary V8 Ford Mustang GT made just 200 horses. This final evolution also featured adjustable shocks and struts, a slightly larger front anti-roll bar, unique wheels and a graphics package.

The GLHS was raw but potent—a true Shelby. The unforgiving ride produced 0.88g through the corners and the hang-on-to-the-wheel acceleration saw the quarter mile pass by in 14.7 seconds. Some owners report returning more than 30 mpg on the highway, too. 

While the original Omni was a win for American manufacturing, the GLH, GLH Turbo and Shelby-massaged GLHS made their own mark by being great performers of their day. Pick up one today for chump change.

Shopping and Owning

Today, a Dodge Omni GLH can be had for very little money—as low as $500—though many of them have lived hard lives. Keep in mind that they’re at least 25 years old; if something hasn’t been replaced at least once by this point, put it on your to-do list. Expect to pay up to $5000 for a nice car. 

The Shelby GLHS commands a premium. Expect to pay $2500 for a rough car and at least $9000 for a show winner. Caveat emptor: Some Omni Turbos have been converted to Turbo II/GLHS specs and passed off as real Shelbys, so do your homework. 

Naturally aspirated versions are very stout, but many turbo models have been abused by too much boost. Always do a compression test and look for signs of a leaking head gasket. Bad hydraulic lash adjusters (lifters) create ticking noises in the valvetrain, but they’re inexpensive and simple to replace. 

Keep a set of plug wires and a distributor cap, rotor and pickup in the car, as the ignition system is a weak spot. If you change out these components and a car still sputters while accelerating, the Hall-effect blades may be wobbling in the distributor. That means you’ll need to install a new one or repair the old one. Fortunately, these blades are cheap and easy to deal with. 

The original alternators are another known shortcoming. Convert to a Bosch or Denso alternator to avoid problems. Engine wiring and relays on turbo models have been subjected to a lot of heat over the years and may become problematic.

GLHS-specific parts, such as the radiator/intercooler assembly and associated plumbing, are becoming tougher to find. 

Bushings in the shift linkages can wear out and cause shift problems. Some owners have converted to heim-jointed or cable-operated systems from some of the pre-1987 K-platform cars. 

Adjustable valves in the wastegate control line allow for additional boost in the turbocharged models. For GLH Turbos, adding Turbo II injectors and an intercooler will help keep the engine happy. A full Turbo II induction system from one of the later Chryslers—such as the Daytona and Lancer—will allow for even more power.

Looking for substantial horsepower—up to 300 or more? Consider that many owners have moved to Turbo II bottom ends, as delivered in Dodge’s Turbo II and Variable Nozzle Turbo engines between 1987 and 1991. These blocks feature forged cranks and beefy rods, and they’re a fairly straightforward swap. Take their transaxles, too, if you’re expecting anything north of 220 horsepower.

Common low-buck suspension upgrades include using the larger-diameter 11/8- or 11/4-inch front anti-roll bar from the later Daytona and K-based performance packages. To reduce bumpsteer, use washers or spacers to raise the steering rack about half an inch. 

The factory brake setup is adequate, though many owners have converted to larger brakes from K-based cars such as the minivans, Daytonas, Shadow C/S and Spirit R/T. The stock drum brakes do little; adding rear discs from one of these cars may reduce heat fade in track use, but they will certainly add weight, too.

Check for rust along the frame rails and under the side skirts, underbody fasteners, fuel filler neck, and carpets on the driver and passenger floorboards.

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Placemotorsports GRM+ Memberand Reader
11/19/20 9:01 a.m.

Always liked these, my first car was an '88 Omni

porschenut Reader
11/19/20 9:13 a.m.

Had an 86, bought new.  Amazing how fast 150 HP felt in that car.  Smoked a lot of sportier cars, did the best handbrake turns and wore out comp TAs every 10K miles.  Yes I drove it hard.  Maybe that is why it fell apart so fast.  Ate the head gasket at 58K, water pump and alternator at 62K.  Sold at 65K.

dherr (Forum Supporter)
dherr (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand Dork
11/19/20 9:29 a.m.

I remember the Car and Driver articles and fresh out of tech school, went down the Dodge dealer to test drive one. Loved it but could not afford the payments at the time. Always wanted one, I think I prefer it to the Shelby Charger as it is truly a "wolf in sheeps clothes".  Looks like the few survivors are seling for serious coin on BAT

Hasbro (Forum Supporter)
Hasbro (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
11/19/20 11:24 a.m.
Professor_Brap (Forum Supporter)
Professor_Brap (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
11/20/20 9:10 a.m.

As someone who currently owns a couple glh turbos. They are still peppy even to today's standard. 

Aaron_King GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
11/20/20 9:35 a.m.

I remember sitting at a softball game my junior year in HS talking with a guy whose girlfriends mom had a GLH with the turbo, this was in 88.  The kid had a 4 door Ford Granada with some sort of V8 and auto in it.  We were talking cars and he dais he could beat the Omni in a drag race because his car had an automatic and a big engine, I said he was crazy and that he would lose but he never believed me.  That was such a cool car, have always liked them.

ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter)
ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter) Reader
11/20/20 10:46 a.m.

My parents had a regular old Omni and man what a POS that thing was.  Maybe the worst car they ever owned.  It was the car that I had to drive when I turned 16 and I was so embarrassed of it.  It's funny to me now that the performance version is going for almost $40k on BAT.

Stefan (Forum Supporter)
Stefan (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/20/20 11:06 a.m.
ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter) said:

My parents had a regular old Omni and man what a POS that thing was.  Maybe the worst car they ever owned.  It was the car that I had to drive when I turned 16 and I was so embarrassed of it.  It's funny to me now that the performance version is going for almost $40k on BAT.

Yeah, my uncles had GLH and Shelby Chargers and my grandparents had an Omni Miser (so powder blue inside and out, no console, VW 1.7L powered with an automatic).  One of my uncle's used to swap plates and take Grandma's Omni through DEQ to get his DSP Omni to pass.  Eventually they closed that loophole via vin checking and then they closed the loophole of unlimited trip permits, so he converted it to Turbo/EFI instead of the high compression dual weber setup he was running.

Dad eventually inherited the grandparent's Miser and drove the piss out of it.  Melted the motor down on a drive back from the coast after dropping me off at Mom's.  Got to take a fun road trip with Grandpa and Dad to go pickup a donor motor from a Rabbit (complete with a stop at an old school diner for lunch).  Headgasket meltdown aside, it was a surprisingly reliable, if not uninspiring car.  Certainly built cheaply and not meant to live very long.

Doubling the hp and the amount of traction makes them A LOT more fun, but they certainly live shorter lives.  While in some ways they are built better than their VW contemporaries, they are still tin cans with a grenade under the hood.  I loved all of them that I ever drove/had and in my family we had at least one of every color Shelby Charger (from 83.5-87), an 86 GLH-S, plus nearly every color GLH/GLH-T (except blue, always liked that color) a few Daytona Shelby's, an early Lancer ES, a Turbo Caravan ES, Rampage 2.2, K-cars, The Miser and my 87 CSX.  Aside from the numbered cars, they all more or less changed hands amongst us all at least once.


Vigo (Forum Supporter)
Vigo (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
11/20/20 11:32 a.m.

I just gave back a GLH Turbo that i built an engine for (forged pistons/rods mostly).  I've been into k-cars for 20 years and l-bodies like Omnis and Chargers are associated so closely i've been around and worked on a ton of them too. Haven't owned many, though.. The difference in build between the 1978 Ls and the 1981 Ks feels like the biggest 3-year improvement in automotive history. But I do own a Rampage because when it comes to cool-looking tiny trucklets that you can just drop a giggle-factory engine into with basically no extra work, you take what you can get! 

But as far as my low opinion of L-body construction..

While in some ways they are built better than their VW contemporaries, they are still tin cans with a grenade under the hood.

I am at least glad i'm not the only person in the world who thinks that Mk1/2 VWs are WAY WORSE! Those cars are cool looking and highly swappable too, but on the tin can totem pole they are about the lowest i have experienced. 

dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/20/20 5:38 p.m.

Gutted and set up for the track they were a ton of fun. 

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