1st Gen Neon ACR
This may come as a shock to many, but the history of the ACR does not start with the Dodge Viper and its ACR variant in 1999. Rather it starts with the Viper’s diminutive sibling, the compact Neon. When the Chrysler corporation introduced their new sub-compact car, the Neon, to the world in 1994, they wanted to draw some attention to it and make a big splash to improve sales even further. To do that they decided to go back to a proven method they used in the 1950’s and 60’s… make an impression on the race track! The difference was that the Neon was never going to be a drag racer or NASCAR competitor, so they instead opted to use the popular Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) as their avenue to promote the Neon.
To do this, in 1994 Chrysler initially took 182 Neon 4-door sedans and turned them into SCCA competition cars. They used the base model sedan because it was the lightest car and they also left off the A/C and radio and then added the anti-lock 4-wheel disk brakes, a racing suspension and a performance 5-speed manual transmission with a lower final drive ratio and lower fifth gear to aid in acceleration . The only option that was available on this first run of factory race cars was a rear window defroster, you could check that box… or not. Perhaps the biggest difference on these cars was the mentioned ‘SDK’ competition suspension which had a front and rear sway bar, very stiff struts and a quicker steering ratio.
These first 1994 race cars were ordered with the sales code of ACR and the buyer had to hold a current SCCA racing license in order to purchase one. Contrary to popular belief, originally the ACR code was not a moniker that stood for American Club Racer… that ended up being adopted later.
Visually there wasn’t much to visually distinguish the ACR Neons from the base cars, there was just the front sport fascia with empty fog light holes. These fog light holes could be used to duct cooling air to the front brakes, clever. Also, the side molding that went along the middle of the doors was also never applied to the cars in order to save some weight. The final visual queue was they did have unique ACR only alloy wheels that were another giveaway to what the car really was, if someone knew what they were looking for.
In 1995, the ACR became the ‘Competition Package’ and it could now be ordered on the Coupe as well as the four door Sedan. Because the ACR was now a separate package, the cars could be ordered with some other options including a radio or even A/C. Though, make no mistake, the ACR still consisted of the same manual transmission and competition suspension and the other ACR components as well as some new upgrades such as thicker hubs to accommodate higher stresses encountered when racing.
The ACR suspension is of special note and is perhaps the biggest contributor to the Neon’s dominance in SCCA events. The SDK suspension included a 22mm front sway bar and a 16mm rear sway bar with 150 lbs/inch linear front springs and 120 lbs/inch linear rear springs. The 1994 through 1996 cars had Arvin struts that were adjustable for camber. In 1997 Chrysler made a change to Koni struts with adjustable rebound damping to adjust the handling balance to the drivers desire. Initially the Koni’s also included camber adjustment as well, but that was discontinue in mid 1998 due to the dealers not understanding the alignment requirements for the ACR cars. The steering ratio was a quicker 16:1 with hydraulic power assist. The SDK suspension was ever ONLY available with the ACR package and no other neons had this suspension.
Most of the 1995 through 1997 ACR Neons were built using the “base” model cars due to less sound insulation and other options that would add weight to the cars. The initial ACR coupes in 1995 used the highline model but then switched to the base model in 1997. In 1998 a change had to be made and all of the ACRs were built on the highline model as the base model was discontinued that year.
The engine used on the ACR was the same as the normal neons, with the SOHC inline 4-cyl with 132hp motor being used for ALL first generation ACR sedan’s and the DOHC inline 4-cyl with 150hp being used for ALL first generation ACR coupes. The engine was combined with the performance oriented 5-speed manual transmission with a lower overall gear ratio and a lower 5th gear. This change, combined with the lighter weight of the cars, made a noticeable acceleration improvement when compared to the standard Neons. The brakes were four wheel disk brakes on all of the first generation ACR neons but did not consist of the anti-lock/anti-skid setup, though they were modulated.
The interior on the early ACR’s was spartan, keeping with the ACR racing purpose. As the base model Neons disappeared from the order sheet, the base interior of the ACRs also upgraded slightly. In 1996 an ANC option package became available and included leather wrapped steering wheel, leather wrapped gear shift and sport seats with side bolsters. This ANC package became standard on the ACR in 1998 when the Base model, and its interior, went away.
The ACR soldiered on until the end of the First Generation Neon in 1999. By this point in time the ACR had established itself as a racing power house in their classes on both the autocross and SCCA road racing circuits. This caused a stir in the ranks of non Neon drivers which led to some rule changes and more importantly, forced other manufactures to get in the game and come out with their own performance oriented versions of their entry level cars. (Ford Focus SVT, Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and others). Along the way, the ACR option code also became known as the “American Club Racer” and is still assumed by most today to stand for that.
Misnomer or not, the first generation Neon ACR made an impact and more importantly, set the stage for even greater things to come for the ACR tag.