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Carroll's Forgotten Cars: The Shelby Lancer

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author photo by Aaron Gold January 2017

When someone says "Shelby," you probably think "Mustang" or "Cobra." If you have a love for the obscure, you might remember the Omni GLH and GLH-S, perhaps even the Shelby Charger and maybe -- just maybe -- the Shadow-based CSX.

But does anyone besides me remember the 1987 Shelby Lancer?

(Not to be confused with the Lancer Shelby -- more on that in a bit.)

The Dodge Lancer was arguably the most interesting of Chrysler's K-based cars. Technically known as the H-platform (one wonders if Chrysler ever grew to regret hooking the general public on platform letter codes), the Lancer was Chrysler's attempt to take on European sport sedans. And while the whole thing seems a bit silly now, people took it somewhat seriously back then, which should clue you in as to how starved the motoring world was for decent transportation.

The Dodge Lancer and the Chrysler LeBaron GTS were stretched K cars with a 5-door hatchback body, and they were pretty darn slick for the time. Remarkably, there was no Plymouth equivalent, though the differences between the Dodge and the Chrysler versions were minimal: grille, taillights and a few interior bits. At the time, only the grille and taillights differentiated Dodges from their Plymouth counterparts, so extra interior bits were kind of a big deal.

The H-cars had stiffer suspensions than the standard Ks, and Chrysler happily touted the performance measurements in which they were superior to the Germans: skid pad, braking and acceleration. (Chrysler was fond of using 0 to 50 mph instead of 0 to 60, citing the national speed limit and ignoring the coincidence that their 0-to-50 times were similar to the 0-to-60 times of real performance cars.) The Lancer and LeBaron GTS were fairly well-received in the United States, and Chrysler, with its corporate head stuffed with delusions of adequacy, attempted to sell the H-cars in Europe as the Chrysler GTS. The less said about that, the better. Suffice it to say that people awash in real European cars weren't exactly bowled over by Chrysler's effort.

But I digress. In order to cement the Lancer's reputation as a proper performance car, Lee Iacocca handed it over to his pal Carroll Shelby. Carroll fitted the car with his own version of the Chrysler 2.2-liter turbo engine, complete with an intercooler and a turbo that could produce 12 pounds per square inch of boost. Output was 175 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque, which was hot stuff for the time. (Chrysler fitted the same bits to their Turbo II engine, but as far as I can tell, Shelby's engine was based on the Turbo I, which didn't have the same bottom-end fortifications.)

Along with Shelby-themed styling cues, the cars had a modified suspension and 4-wheel disc brakes, which were pretty darn exotic, as was the Pioneer CD player fitted to the upgraded interior. Performance was pretty good for a domestic car of the time: 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds, 15.7 seconds in the quarter mile and 0.85g on the skid pad. Shelby built 800 examples: Half had a 5-speed manual transmission and cloth seats, and the other half had a 3-speed automatic and leather.

For the next 2 years, Chrysler built their own version of the car, the Dodge Lancer Shelby. These cars had similar interior and exterior styling cues but were built by Chrysler on the assembly line in Michigan (as opposed to the 1987 Shelby Lancers, which were modified by Shelby in California) and used Chrysler engine hardware: the 175-hp Turbo II for manual cars and the 146-hp nonintercooled Turbo I for automatics. The Chrysler-built cars got some of the same suspension mods as the true Shelbys but reverted to the regular Lancer's rear drum brakes.

Unfortunately, the late 1980s saw the auto industry waking up from the great malaise of the rest of the decade, and the Chrysler K-based cars were starting to be seen for what they were -- an 8-year-old design done on the cheap. Dodge offered the Lancer Shelby for the 1988 and 1989 model years, but they sold even fewer copies than Carroll Shelby's limited-run original. The Lancer was discontinued in 1989, making way for the Spirit, from which greater things were to come.

Today, the Shelby Lancer (and the Lancer Shelby) are largely forgotten, but they're a very cool bit of history -- a bright spot in a rather dark decade and one of the highs in Chrysler's roller-coaster ride of the 1980s.

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Carroll's Forgotten Cars: The Shelby Lancer - Autotrader