(first posted 2/25/2015) In our last installment, we covered the introduction of the Valiant and the subsequent Australian models based on the US Valiant (and Dart), but beginning in 1971, Chrysler Australia went their own way with their own model. The photo above nearly bookends this era from the original 1973 Charger race car to the final CM model sedan.
Despite the work that had gone into prior generations, newly designed Holdens and Falcons meant that Chrysler was still third of the Big Three with 12 percent of the market and, with new cars coming from the other two, they had to respond. Unfortunately, the US Valiant was in stasis as far as Chrysler Australia was concerned; even the Duster/Demon/Swinger hardtop was of little relevance to the Australian market, so they took on a $22 million development of a new car.
With styling that reflected the 1969/70 C- and B-body fuselage cars in the US, some added character lines to the flanks, a three inch longer wheelbase (111 inches) and four inches of additional width (74.2 inches), the new car certainly fulfilled the bigger-and-better theme (at least on the outside, as one of the criticisms was that the interior space did not reflect the expanded sheet metal). Visibility was also markedly reduced from the previous Valiant, thanks to the raised waistline.
Curiously, the overall length only grew slightly over the old VG model, but it was still a hefty four inches longer than the HQ Holden and four inches longer than the XA Falcon released in 1972. All three cars sat on a 111-inch wheelbase and most other dimensions were close, with the surprising exception of the Valiant’s 58.3-inch track width which, while wider than its predecessor, was two inches less than those of the Holden or Falcon.
Perhaps the tucked-under look of the wheels contributes to the impression of the Valiant being larger than it is. Note that the car above has the wider styled steel wheels, while base models had narrower plain steelies.
While broadly speaking, there wasn’t a lot of mechanical change with the suspension and driveline carried over. There were the additions of an “economy” 215 cid version of the Hemi 6 for the base and Ranger models and a 265 cid version that was optional in most models except the Regal 770, where it was standard. The 265 was bored out beyond what was originally intended when the Hemi 6 was designed and shared pistons with the 318 V8. The 265 put out 200 hp, enough to deal with the extra 160 pounds of weight the new car carried. Finally, the long-wheelbase Chrysler by Chrysler brought the option of the new 360 V8 and an increased focus on performance-oriented variants, but we will come to those in a moment!
New models included the Ranger and Ranger XL, which slotted below the Regal and Regal 770; the Pacer also stayed on, although only 1,800 were built.
The long-wheelbase VIP was replaced by the Chrysler by Chrysler with its distinctive full-loop bumper. The car above has had its vinyl roof removed.
There was a new hardtop on the same 115 inch wheelbase (one inch longer than the VG but overall length was actually three inches shorter) in both Valiant and Chrysler by Chrysler guises.
Wagons were six inches longer than sedans, making them the largest sold in the country (at 198 inches), even though its GM and Ford competitors now sat on long-wheelbase platforms (114 and 116 inches, respectively). The wagon’s air deflector was now over the rear window, resulting a sleeker appearance.
The ute returned too, but also missed the boat of the GM & Ford utes’ move to the longer wheelbases. The base model utes continued with Dodge badging.
The biggest news with the new Valiant was the Charger, which really made an impact in the market. It was the first time a local hardtop coupe had been based on a smaller and lighter platform, but surprisingly, it wasn’t actually part of the original plan. It actually started off in secret, with Managing Director David Brown diverting a tiny part of the budget ($2MM) to the cause.
The wheelbase was reduced six inches, and the car shared doors with the long-wheelbase Hardtop. While some new panels were necessary, there were such cost-saving tricks as the boot lid being a shortened version of the standard item and a flat rear window. Not only was the Charger 300 pounds lighter than the sedan, it was also $100 cheaper. A louvered panel was added to cover the join of the roof and rear quarter panel, but budget constraints prevented its being functional.
The Charger’s TV advertising campaign was one of the most successful ever, with a catchy “Hey Charger!” slogan and the V-for-victory sign. For a time, the Charger made up 50 percent of all Valiant sales, something unheard of for a coupe/hardtop in Australia. While this figure would later decline to just five percent, it also probably reflects the ratio of surviving Chargers to other surviving Valiants covered in this article. The Charger also won the 1971 Wheels Car of the Year award.
Of course there were some wild colours available, including Vitamin C, Hemi Orange, Mercury Silver, Hot Mustard, Limelight and Bondi Bleach (a play on the famous Bondi Beach).
But while the Charger came in XL or 770 trim, the real action was found in the R/T, which took the reins from the Pacer (which continued) and its tweaked 218-hp 265. Most of the Chargers shown here feature the 14×7 ROH alloy wheel that was optional or standard, depending on the trim level.
The new 6-pack option got you three twin-choke Weber carbs and 248 hp, while the E38 option intended for the race track took that to 280 hp. Cars so equipped were sent over to Italy for Weber factory technicians to perfect the tuning. Even hamstrung by the three-speed manual, the E38 would clear the quarter mile in under 15 seconds, which was around a second faster than the cars with a single carby.
Exports both to UK continued, and also increased to South Africa thanks to the convenience of being RHD, replacing North American-produced cars. Actually the previous generation station wagons had already made the trip after the wagon was dropped from the 2nd-gen Valiant line-up in North America. For local content reasons the slant-six was used instead of the Hemi, and there were different trim level names: Rebel, Regal and VIP. The cars were also known as the ‘Fast-Body’ presumably for being much less square than the 2nd-gen Valiant.
Despite winning its first race, the Charger was largely an also-ran on the track, so performance efforts redoubled for 1972. This resulted in the E49 package, which (finally) had a four-speed gearbox and an engine tweaked to 302 hp and 320lb-ft–outstanding for just 265 cid. It was actually the most powerful naturally-aspirated six-cylinder engine in the world! This was enough to get the just over 3,000 pound Charger to 100 mph in the low 14-second range (faster than the immortal Falcon GT-HO Phase III, but using a 3.5).
This produced another iconic image used in Chrysler’s advertising, showing the extractor exhaust manifold glowing red-hot during a dyno test.
Victory still proved elusive at the all-important Bathurst 500 race, though. Thanks to their car’s lighter weight than the Falcon GTHO V8s and the big 160L fuel tank, Doug Chivas’ team planned on just a single pit stop, but for some reason attached the wheels using new lug nuts. The cold nuts jammed on the hot studs, and six precious minutes were lost before the car was returned to the track, only to end up in third place. Chivas would finish third, two laps, or just under six minutes, behind the winner, notching up Chrysler’s best-ever result at Bathurst in the process.
The factory race team had already been killed during an event called the ‘Super Car Scare’ in June 1972. That had raised hysteria over the prospect of 160mph cars being sold for the street. As a result, the Bathurst rules were changed, and the planned 340-powered Charger was drastically altered.
Since Chrysler had already imported 330-odd sets of parts to homologate the car for Bathurst, they were used in a special version of the top-trim Charger 770 SE. The 340 kept its 4-barrel carby, but the power was ‘hidden’ by a mild camshaft, small single exhaust, automatic transmission and tall final drive ratio.
The VJ model introduced in April 1973 was a simple facelift, with a new grille, round headlights, and new tail lights; mechanically, there was now an electronic ignition. The range was trimmed slightly with the Ranger XL, Regal 770, Pacer and Charger R/T not making the cut. This is more significant than it sounds, with the number of possible trim & drivetrain combinations dropping from 56 to 18.
Despite this, there were almost 91,000 VJ Valiants built, which is actually the highest of any model (although this was largely due to the 30-month model run), though the sales rate was slightly down from the VH.
The first special edition car was the Charger Sportsman, in vintage red with white 770 trim strips below the side windows and tartan cloth seat trim.
In October 1975 the VK debuted with another new grille and set of tail lights. With sales hit hard because of the fuel crisis, the range was trimmed even further. Base model cars were dropped, so you could choose between a Ranger or Regal sedan or wagon, a Charger XL or 770 and, if you wanted a ute, it would now be wearing Dodge badges only. The Chrysler by Chrysler continued, but the long-wheelbase body was dropped, along with the 360 V8 after new emissions regulations came into effect on 1 July 1976.
While the performance engines were gone, another Charger appearance package was brought out to bump sales: the White Knight, in white or red with colour-keyed exterior, white interior and special striping.
Those 200 units didn’t help a lot and only 20,500 VK Valiants were built during their 13-month run. Being the largest, heaviest car with the biggest engines and consequently poorest fuel consumption, the Valiant was hit hardest by rising fuel costs with sales down by about half.
Chrysler Australia also lost their UK export market at this time, although according to one source only 350 of the cars were sold, with prices being cut in 1975 to clear stock.
The CL model Valiant of October 1976 brought a larger change, with new front and rear styling that gave it quite a different appearance. Ironically, with the change to “C” designation, the Chrysler by Chrysler that had used the CH, CJ and CK codes was dropped and replaced by a Regal SE model that came standard with the 318 V8, a vinyl roof, colour-keyed wheel covers, a coach line, a walnut wood-grain dash, power windows, retractable front and rear seat belts and a fully carpeted boot; buttoned-leather seating was optional. Equipment levels were up across the board.
There was yet more musical chairs with model names as the Ranger name was dropped and the Valiant name was removed from the Regal. The Charger XL was only available to police forces, leaving the Charger 770 for the public; utes changed back to Chrysler Valiant badging instead of Dodge.
A few months later a panel van was introduced, as Chrysler no longer wanted to miss out on a class of vehicle that was taking a whopping 18 percent of the total commercial vehicle market. As you can see, it was a relatively straightforward variation on the ute in terms of production, which helps explain why Chrysler actually bothered to create it so late in the model run. The Valiant panel van had a lasting impact greater than its sales figures, as fewer than 2,000 were actually built.
This influence was thanks to Chrysler’s contribution to the van culture movement, the Drifter, which competed against Holden’s Sandman and Ford’s Sundowner. Typical of the late ’70s, the package consisted basically of some decals and all the ‘sporty’ equipment which could be thrown on. It could be had with either the 6 or V8. Twenty years ago I actually considered buying a V8 van when I needed to move, but never actually went to look at it because with a $650 asking price I fully expected it would be plagued with rust. Like a lot of cars from this era, Valiants certainly could rust!
Partway through the CL model run, the Electronic Lean Burn (ELB) ignition system was brought over for the 318 V8, approximately a year after it had been introduced in the US; it provided a 15% fuel economy improvement plus better power and driveability. The suspension geometry was also improved to take advantage of radial tyres.
I couldn’t neglect to note the Le Baron limited edition introduced in April 1978, the only use of this storied name down under. There wasn’t anything particularly special about it, just silver paint and a vinyl roof, alloy wheels, tinted windows, a floor shift auto and bumper overriders. Note that the car above has non-standard alloy wheels and the vinyl roof has been removed, but with only 400 cars built, I can’t be too fussy with a genuine CC find!
The CL was the last model for the Charger, ute and van, casualties of only 32,672 sales over two years. The final 1,813 CL Chargers included the only factory V8 4-speed cars–a fitting 813, because they ran the 318 engine.
The final tally of Chargers was a little under 32,000. Note that this is roughly 60 percent higher than the number of Falcon hardtops and twice as many Monaro coupes sold, in what must surely be the only market that Chrysler led. The long-wheelbase VH-VJ Hardtops added fewer than 2,000 units to this tally, and there were only 480 Chrysler by Chrysler Hardtops sold, which confirms that that body was a major misjudgment by the North American Chrysler management. The Drifter package was used to clear out the last 75 Charger body shells, echoing the fate of the Falcon hardtop and Monaro.
The final CM model was launched in November 1978, featuring a new grille and the model range contracted to just the base Valiant, the Regal and the Regal SE. Under continuing pressure to raise fuel efficiency, the Electronic Lean Burn system was adapted to the Hemi 6 with a claimed 25-percent improvement.
A new model was the GLX, which had a sporty flavour; it featured with the same grille, steering wheel and dashboard as the Chargers, plus alloy wheels and blacked-out door frames. The flavour was not too strong though, and only 605 were sold.
While this was happening, partly due to Chrysler’s problems in the US and partly due to local losses (including a $28 million loss in 1977), one third of Chrysler Australia was sold to Mitsubishi in 1979 with the remainder gone by April 1980. The company name officially changed to Mitsubishi Australia in November 1980, but the Valiant was kept in production because development and tooling costs had been fully amortized by this time, making sales very profitable.
This resulted in the rather unusual situation where you would find a Chrysler vehicle with a compliance plate issued by Mitsubishi–and you thought the Ford engine in the Sunbeam Tiger was a problem!
Mitsubishi had first become involved with Chrysler Australia in 1971, when local production of Galants started at Chrysler’s former Rootes factory, in Port Melbourne, before it was closed in 1972 and production shifted to Tonsley Park.
In late 1977, the Sigma was introduced and it would quickly become the best-selling four-cylinder car the next year; it was well placed to take over from the Valiant.
The CM would only sell just over 16,000 cars in a three-year run that ended on 28 August 1981. This brought to an end nearly twenty years’ production with a total of 565,338 vehicles. This is in stark contrast to the 1971-74 HQ model Holden that sold 485,000 vehicles alone; indeed, Holden sold roughly five times the number of Valiants overall from 1962-1981. Nevertheless, the Valiant is firmly a part of the automotive landscape, and there are still many cars in service both for daily transport and classic enjoyment.