(first posted 4/9/2022) CC has previously looked at the Hillman Imp (Sunbeam Imp) and the Hillman Hunter (Sunbeam Arrow) and examined their role in the decline and fall of the Rootes Group and Chrysler in the UK. But what of the other car in the range Chrysler were building in the UK in the early 1970s, the Hillman Avenger? Let’s follow the story from Coventry, to the US (where it was sold as the Plymouth Cricket), a Government funded derivative as its maker declined, and finally a South American adventure, of which little was known in the UK at the time. The Avenger story covers a total of six marque names, no less.
Back in 1966, Rootes had launched the Hillman Hunter as a conventional, unadventurous and reasonably stylish saloon and estate, aimed at a point in the market slightly above the Ford Cortina and close to the Vauxhall Victor and BMC Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford saloons. It was a direct replacement for the earlier Super Minx, itself a little bigger than Rootes’ traditional volume car, the Hillman Minx, and although a low powered Hunter was offered as a Minx for a while, there was now a substantial gap in the range at a crucial sector of the market. Rootes, at this time becoming Chrysler UK, had no competitor for Britain’s best seller, the BMC ADO16 (Austin-Morris 1100, Austin America), the Ford Anglia or Vauxhall Viva.
The Avenger, known as the B car and development of which started in 1966, was to be the answer to this, and was all new when launched in the spring of 1970. The technical make up was fairly predictable, with an OHV four cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through a four speed gearbox, rack and pinion steering, MacPherson strut front suspension and perhaps the most interesting technical element, a four link coil rear suspension. Among its potential competitors, only the Vauxhall Viva had anything other than semi-elliptic leaf springs at this time, and Rootes were not known for their early adoption of technical innovations. This suspension and the new engine showed Chrysler’s investment was coming through.
A consequence of this rear suspension was the styling, and the indeed the packaging. Stylist Tim Fry, a leading light in the earlier Imp project, recalls that the rear suspension led to an unusually high rear seat. To achieve competitive rear headroom, the tail end of the roof had to be high, and the challenge then was to style the car so that it “didn’t look as if its backside was falling off”.
Fry sketched the high roof, sweeping rear window and boot line, and capped it with the distinctive hockey stick taillights. Part fashionable, part necessity, but it worked and ensured a contemporary feel to the car, and a clear break from any previous Rootes style.
One other consequence of the suspension was that the wheelbase was 98 inches, just half an inch less than the Hunter, although the Avenger was 6 inches shorter overall, and interior space consequently not far adrift. Weight wise, it was under the older and dated Hunter, and the shell was stiff, although Chrysler later stated that a cutout for an after market pop-up sunroof was not possible.
Power came from a brand new, Rootes designed 1250cc and 1500cc four cylinder OHV engines, ranging from 53 to 63 bhp driving through a four speed manual or three speed Borg-Warner 35 automatic. Performance was perfectly credible against its obvious rivals – the Escort, Viva and Morris Marina – and its handling possibly the best of the bunch. None of these were great cars though – you didn’t come to the UK in the early 1970s for the compact mainstream cars any more than you did for the food.
Trim levels went from the DL, with rubber floor mats and a strip speedometer, through the Super to the GL, with a fuller range of four round instruments and brushed nylon upholstery, itself a first for Britain.
The dash was designed with a focus on ergonomics, with the lights and wipers being controlled by drum like units, in addition to the usual indicator/flasher stalk, and very 1970s steering wheel design. The GL had four round headlights compared with the single rectangular units on the lower cars, and the usual additional chrome and smarter wheel trims.
Assembly of the Avenger started at Ryton, Rootes’ main facility just outside Coventry, although the body pressings came from Linwood in Scotland. Engines and transmissions were built in the Stoke works, in the city of Coventry.
The estate came in spring 1972, with a style that lost some of the tidy, compact feel of the saloon.
Both the 1250 and 1500 engines were offered but not the GL trim level. The feature car is a 1973 1500 Super estate, so mid trim level but the smarter estate option.
This well cared for car appeared recently on UK eBay, with a reported 52,000 miles from new with one owner for 40 years.
The plugs on the door jambs are from the aftermarket Ziebart wax based rust proofing, which seems to have done its job.
A stripped out basic model, with rubber mats, no passenger sunvisor and fixed front passenger seat came at the same time. The blue saloon is an unregistered 1971 car which has recently been on www.cars-from-uk.com. Any Avenger is a sight now; the total remaining in the UK is probably less than 200, and I had an eBay search running for a year to catch this estate.
In spring 1973, the two door models appeared, including a 1500GT with a distinctive and attractive three quarter length vinyl roof (if a vinyl roof can ever be attractive) occasionally seen on the four door, the four lamp front and no more power.
More power came in the Tiger version (picking up on an old Rootes name), with around 90 bhp and up to 110 bhp if a competition cam were fitted.
Two series of Tigers were built, totalling around 700 cars, in 1972-3, and very few survive. A full sports saloon interior was part of the package.
The Avenger Tiger was Chrysler UK’s rally car of choice, and was used by the Chrysler dealer funded team, achieving some class success and regional rally success, normally in Chrysler blue and white colours. Alongside the Escort, though, it was an also ran. Most were sold in Sundance yellow with a matt black bonnet, which I remember being the subject of a physics lesson at school at the time.
In late 1973, the 1250 and 1500 engines went to 1300 and 1600, and there were some trim and equipment changes. Unlike almost every other Rootes and Chrysler product, home market cars were all Hillmans. The UK did not get Sunbeams, and no one got a Humber version.
The car was sold across Europe, often as the Sunbeam 1250 and 1500, then as the Sunbeam 1300 and 1600, though in pretty small numbers. Assembly was also completed in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, with some regional variations, and a pickup version was built in central America.
Chrysler’s big ambition, though, was to market the car in North America, as a competitor to the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega and the sub-compact Japanese imports, under the Plymouth Cricket nameplate.
The Cricket (very English with a VW Beetle twist?) arrived in the US in November 1970, as a 1971 model. All US cars were 1500cc, with a four headlamp front, and front disc brakes, which were a model specific feature on the UK cars at the time. Marker lights, tombstone front seats and seat belt buzzers helped the cars meet Federal regulations.
Plymouth pushed the car for the properties that came from its light weight and compact nature, including the handling, ease of driving and interior space for the size of the car.
You only have to look at the emblem to understand how Chrysler wanted it to be perceived.
Sales wise, the car was a failure. In 1971, Plymouth sold 28,000 Crickets against 275,000 Vegas and 352,000 Pintos. Part of the problem may have been the lack of power compared with Ford and Chevrolet, accentuated by automatic transmission and air conditioning. The build quality and durability were worse than poor, with water leaks and (very) premature corrosion. Lucas were also involved……
Sales in 1972, even with more power from twin carburettors and a higher compression ratio, amounted to less than half of 1971’s and in 1973 the car was withdrawn. Plymouth in Canada continued to use the Cricket name, for the re-badged Mitsubishi/Dodge Colt.
Somewhat curiously, Chrysler also began selling the similar-sized Dodge Colt, a re-badged Mitsubishi Galant, the same year (1971). This created something of a show-down between the UK-built Cricket in Plymouth showrooms and the Japanese Colt at Dodge dealers. It won’t take much of a guess as to which one won out.
The Avenger now got caught up in the decline of Chrysler UK, as the company’s European adventure unwound in the face of the oil crisis, the issues in Detroit and the lack of integration and model failures (Hillman Imp, Chrysler 180) across its European operations.
In 1975, Chrysler presented the UK government with an ultimatum – bail out, nationalisation or closure. The Government backed a bail out for £162m (say $1billion now), linked to a revised model plan. The new Simca 1307/1308 (known in the UK as the Chrysler Alpine) would be produced at Ryton, displacing the Avenger to Linwood, the Hunter and Imp would be allowed to fade away and a new compact hatchback would be built in Linwood, based on the Avenger platform.
Distinctively styled by Roy Axe with a flat glass rear hatch and known as the Chrysler Sunbeam (an old Rootes brand being used as the model name), it was aimed directly at the Chevette and the first Ford Fiesta, which both preceded it.
It used a lot more Avenger than you might think, including the doors of the Avenger two door and the interior from the 1976 Avenger facelift, and offered a version with a derivative of the Hillman Imp engine.
The Avenger got its first and only serious facelift after the bailout.
Badged now as a Chrysler Avenger, it went into battle with the new Vauxhall Cavalier, Escort Mk2 and Cortina Mk4 and the Morris Marina. It may have looked new, and had a very mid 1970s interior but the competition had moved on and the company’s issues didn’t help.
Looking back, you sense that the only reasons the Avenger and Hunter weren’t replaced directly by the Chrysler Alpine were the conservative nature of the UK company fleet market and the Government’s wish to keep Linwood working. The Alpine could have easily replaced the Hunter and the Avenger 1600, and the Chrysler Horizon could have replaced the Avenger 1300 in 1978, giving Chrysler UK a new and fully contemporary range, as Chrysler France had.
In 1978, Chrysler sold out of Europe, selling the entire operation to Peugeot SA. What was not said loudly at the time was that although Peugeot had bought Linwood, they hadn’t bought the rights to the intellectual property in the Avenger, which was retained by Chrysler. And there was a good reason for this.
In 1971, production of the Avenger started at Chrysler do Brazil as the Dodge 1500 – in effect an Avenger 1500 with a set of more conventional looking rear lights and automatic transmission. An 1800 was added shortly afterwards, with an 1798cc version of the Avenger’s engine, which was not used in Europe or North America.
Brazil also got a revised style for the two door, featuring a revised rear quarter and tail that resembled the European Ford Escort Mk2 quite closely, the revised front end Europe got in 1977, and adopted the Dodge Polara nameplate. Production ran to 1981, when Chrysler pulled out of Brazil.
In Argentina, the story is more intriguing, as the car continued to 1991, after Chrysler left Argentina. The four door and estate were available (Brazil only got the two door) in 1.5 litre and 1.8 litre forms, and a 1500GT with the 1.8 litre and twin Stromberg carburettors.
In 1980, Chrysler left Argentina, selling out to VW, who continued to build the car, initially as the Dodge 1500 by Volkswagen Argentina and then as the VW 1500 and VW 1800. There were changes during this period, with another new front and a revised interior, and ultimately a five speed gearbox, until production finally ceased in 1991. In total around 300,000 cars were built in South America and close to 700,000 in Britain.
In late 1979, the cars were badged as Talbot Avengers, as Peugeot adopted a new identity for all the Chrysler Europe operations, but few noticed really. UK production of the Avenger and Sunbeam ended in 1981 and Linwood was closed entirely, and the car was not specifically replaced. Arguably, its place in the Chrysler UK range had been taken three years earlier by the Horizon.
So, looking back at the Avenger and its adventures overseas, what conclusions could we draw? Perhaps the biggest one is that the car, whilst competent and competitive with its home market peers, really was not enough. Being better than a Viva or a Marina was not enough, either in Europe or Britain, and like them it failed in the North American market.
The Avenger came two years after the Simca 1100, from Rootes’ French cousins, and in 1975 and 1978 the Simca was developed into cars which both won the European Car of the Year (the Alpine and European Horizon, although this is an imprecise judge of a design’s enduring significance) and a car that may be saved Chrysler in the US. The Avenger faded away to a low profile exile in South America, forgotten by its maker and unwanted by the new owner of the business.
I suggest you can trace Chrysler’s initial optimism and ambition for the UK venture and its worldwide potential in the car, and in its fade into obscurity Chrysler’s inability to follow this through. At the takeover of Rootes in 1967, the ambition for a UK based range of conventional, competent and stylish vehicles was there, and the investment was nominally available. Chrysler’s US issues, the oil crisis, the incomplete execution of the product and the evidently more fit for purpose French cars over-ruled this optimism, and being better than other inadequate cars was not enough, for the Avenger, Linwood or Chrysler UK.
Related Rootes reading:
Hillman Imp MkII Roger Carr
Hillman Imp Paul N.
Hillman Minx Roger Carr
Chrysler 180 Roger Carr