Lemons Wish List: 5 American Cars With Imported Engines

By: Eric Rood Photo Credits: Manufacturer photos
April 24, 2019

The 24 Hours of Lemons considers automotive oddities and strange engine swaps its home turf. From a Ford Taurus SHO engine shoved into the back of a Geo Metro to a Chrysler Slant Six in a BMW E30, we’ve seen nearly everything over the last 12-½ years of Lemons racing. However, automakers—specifically American ones—often sold cars that were either outright rebadged imports or had imported engines. Here are five we’d love to see, nearly all of which are likely to land a team in Class C.

Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni

The famous Omnirizon twins trace their front-wheel-drive lineage back to Chrysler’s European collaborations with French carmaker Simca. However, when the twins debuted in 1978, Chrysler was several years short of developing their own four-cylinder engine to fit the compact. Chrysler went with something off the shelf to bridge the gap. That happened to be Volkswagen’s 1.7-liter engine used in early Rabbits and Sciroccos. They would eventually swap that out for the Simca-sourced 1.6-liter as a base engine in later years. Neither of those engines made more than 75 horsepower, which makes them prime Index of Effluency territory.

AMC Gremlin

Chrysler wasn’t the only American automaker in the late 1970s to borrow from the Volkswagen Auto Group. The Malaise Era prompted AMC—like the other American companies—to downsize from a V8 offering to include a four-cylinder Gremlin (and later Spirit). Trouble was, AMC neither had an engine nor the money to develop one. So they bought engines from Audi/Volkswagen to use. Those carbureted 2.0-liter engines, it turns out, share the engine block with the early Porsche 924 (although the Porsche version had fuel-injected and a different cylinder head). Yes, that is the AMC-Porsche crossover you never knew you didn’t need.

Buick Skyhawk T-Type and Pontiac Sunbird GT

Two of General Motors’ J-Body platform models offered an optional overhead-cam engine that even came with a moon-boosted option. The Buick Skyhawk T-Type and Turbo Sunbirds was truly a world car: the Opel-designed engine was built in Brazil for the domestic American market. With provenance like that, we see no surprise that these cars are extremely tough to find. If any has, the 1.8-liter turbo versions made a sturdy 150 horsepower. Later Sunbirds offered a bigger and more powerful 2.0-liter version. Considering the naturally aspirated versions made under 100 horsepower, we figure the engines might be a little…stressed. And perfect for Lemons.

Mercury Tracer, First-Generation

The 1987-1989 Mercury Tracer holds the distinction of being the rare Mercury without a Ford counterpart. Before being the redesigned Ford Escort’s slightly upscale mate, the Tracer was a captive import based on the Mazda 323. Japanese and Mexican factories built the three-door hatchbacks and five-door versions, respectively. An 84-horsepower version of Mazda’s B6 engine powered all of them. Twin-cam versions of that Mazda B-Series engine would later power the Ford Escort GT, Mercury Capri, and Mazda Miata.

We have had one first-generation Tracer in Lemons back in 2010. However, that automatic-equipped econobox lasted less than one race. We’re ready for another Tracer.

Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon, base model

However, nearly all of the Chrysler-Mitsubishi joint-venture Lasers and Talons (and Eclipses, of course) have sported Mitsubishi’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter 4G63 engine. Turbo versions of that engine can make real horsepower (for short periods of time). However, the plebeian base models in first-generation DSMs came with a 92-horsepower 1.8-liter 4G37 engine. That lowly mill ended an engine line first offered in 1969. If any of these base-model DSMs still exist, we’re ready for that, too.

These are all ways to get on the good side of the Lemons Supreme Court. Want more suggestions for Lemons cars we’d love to see? We have a whole pile of previous Wish Lists for your perusal:

Lemons Cars We’d Like to See, Part 1
Lemons Cars We’d Like to See, Part 2
Lemons Cars We’d Like to See, Part 3
Late-Model American Cars We’d Like to See
Six More Cars On Our Wish List
Still More Wish List Cars
Weird GM Hatchbacks for Lemons
Even More Wish List Cars

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