Affordable, driver-focused sports cars thrived in the ’80s, and many have gone on to become icons. It’s easy to conjure a mental image of a Nissan 300ZX or Mazda RX-7 from the period, and even the contemporary Trans Am/Camaro twins and Mustang aimed to deliver more than straight-line thrills by then. But what was missing—or at least according to Dodge—was a front-wheel-drive competitor. Enter the Dodge Daytona.
Built upon a modified K Car platform and first launched in 1983, the Daytona filled an as-yet-untapped niche. Hot hatches like Volkswagen’s GTI existed alongside the aforementioned rear-drive sports cars, but there just weren’t many front-drive cars shooting for outright sportiness. Even the Honda Prelude, having just entered its second generation in 1982, was a stretch; the slightly more performance-oriented redesign that would offer fuel injection and four-wheel steering was still four years away.
So if you were watching Remington Steele—suggested alternates: Alf or maybe Matlock—with a frozen dinner on a faux-wood appliqué TV tray and this ad came on, you were curious. Furthermore, you deduced that the Daytona to have was the 1987 Daytona Shelby Z. In its first significant restyling since its debut, Dodge killed the car’s Camaro-esque nose in favor of a more rounded fascia with pop-up headlights, all while retaining the aircraft-carrier-length overhangs folks had come to know and . . . well, just know. The 1987 Daytona looked sort of like the contemporary Porsche 944 if it were drawn in crayon by a five-year-old.
Nevertheless, the Shelby Z offered Chrysler’s newly developed 2.2-liter “Turbo II” engine, which used a Garrett T3 turbocharger to muster 174 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. Weighing something like 2,800 pounds, it could hit 60 mph in 7.5 to 8.5 seconds depending on who was doing the testing, and offered the kind of torque steer that demanded Dolph Lundgren–quality forearms to control. For some reason, Dodge’s print advertising quoted a zero-to-50-mph time to the hundredth of a second. (That’d be 5.76 seconds, for the record.)
The 1987 Daytona Shelby Z was a logical progression from the previous car, the 1986 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z CS (Carroll Shelby), whose nomenclature stew signified larger anti-roll bars, four-wheel disc brakes, improved struts, and wider Goodyear Eagle Gatorback tires, all of which translated over to the 1987 car. Though both bore the Shelby name, Carroll Shelby had nothing else to do with the cars.
The 2.2-liter Turbo II had the same displacement as the more pedestrian and concurrent “Turbo I” engine, but it was significantly upgraded internally, featuring a forged crank, Mahle pistons with full-floating pins, sturdier connecting rods, stronger bearing caps, and a cross-drilled block. Boost was regulated to 12 psi via a sophisticated electronically controlled wastegate.
Dodge stopped cutting checks to use the Shelby name in 1989, but it was still possible to get ahold of a fast Daytona or two. A very rare—but very unreliable—“Turbo IV” engine was installed underhood in 1990, strapped with a Garrett Variable Nozzle Turbocharger (VNT), which delivered slightly more torque (210 lb-ft versus 200) and a flatter torque curve—and thus faster acceleration—until it didn’t. Engineers said that carbon deposits and dirt eventually prevented the variable vanes from articulating, which resulted in frequent failure. Peak power was unchanged.
Counterintuitively, a “Turbo III” was introduced in the 1992 Daytona IROC R/T, well after the failure of the Turbo IV. Using a Lotus-made 16-valve head, it squeezed 224 horsepower from the K-Series 2.2-liter four, but without the sweet pop-up headlights of the earlier car, we can’t in clean conscience recommend it.
And we can’t forget the Daytona Decepzione, which should really earn the folks at Dodge some sort of medal. Featuring a Lamborghini Jalpa V-8 shoehorned between the front wheels and paired with an all-wheel-drive system designed by Lotus, it only barely resembled the car upon which it was based. But that’s a legend for another article.
If you were doing it right, you got your G-Body Daytona with T-tops. And while we’re not childish enough to make a cheap mullet joke, if you were the type, you might have also opted for louvers on that back window to complement the Z’s lower ground effects. You might have also had an affinity for sweet, one-wheel burnouts with Dokken’s “Back for the Attack” providing the sound track.
The optional digital dashboard was also a must-have, as it incorporated Chrysler’s super-state-of-the-art digital voice alert, which blared computerized statements out of a single speaker. The messages were all delivered in the same monotone voice, even as they ran from banal—“Your keys are in the ignition”—to red alert—“Your engine oil pressure is critical. Engine damage may occur” or “Your charging system is malfunctioning. Prompt service is required.” We highly recommend a YouTube search.
Poke as much fun as you want at the sheer ’80s-ness of the Daytona Shelby Z, but if you were hellbent on having a front-wheel-drive sports car in 1987, you could do a lot worse. Of course, it’s logical to ask why you would want a front-drive sports car at all. Even if you lived the “Mopar or No Car” life, you have to consider this vehicle was sold alongside the Chrysler Conquest, which offered rear-wheel drive and a larger 2.6-liter turbocharged engine, and such ’80s-isms as automatic seatbelts with repeated “Turbo” lettering. The fact is, the only rational reason you might have had for opting for a Daytona was that ad.