The Avenger and 160/180/2-Litre were intended to carry Chrysler Europe successfully into the 1970’s and beyond. One succeeded, while the other was hobbled by indecision, poor management and Anglo-French rivalries.
By the late 1960’s the Rootes Group’s range of cars was beginning to look rather threadbare. Its newest model, the Arrow series Minx and Hunter, introduced in 1966, was still relatively fresh and selling quite well, but was hampered by a limited engine range, which comprised a four-cylinder OHV unit in 1,500cc and 1,725cc capacities.
Attempts to broaden its appeal with more upmarket badge engineered variants using the Humber, Sunbeam and (very briefly) Singer marque names met with limited success. There was, however, a rather attractive coupé version that sold in modest quantities as the Sunbeam Alpine and Rapier.
The well-regarded but increasingly outdated Humber Hawk and Super Snipe large saloons were phased out in 1967 after a decade on the market. The smaller Hillman Imp, introduced in 1963, had never fully recovered from its early build quality and engine reliability issues and was forever in the shadow of the highly successful (if unprofitable) Mini. A UK Government directed plan to locate Imp production at a new plant in Linwood, Scotland had overstretched the company’s management and further impaired its profitability.
Salvation came in the form of the Chrysler Corporation. The US auto maker was keen to expand its presence in Europe. In 1964 it had purchased a 30% share in Rootes and, three years later, completed its takeover of the impoverished British automaker.
Armed with new investment, Rootes devised a two-pronged strategy to broaden its range with a pair of conventionally engineered but modern and cost-effective models that were designed to challenge Ford’s competitiveness in the European market for such cars. A key individual in the development of both cars was Roy Axe, Rootes’ Director of Design. These projects were known internally as the B-Car and C-Car.
The B-Car, which would be named Avenger for production, was a clean-sheet design with a focus on simplicity and ease of production. It would be RWD with a live rear axle and coil springs all round. Its fastback styling, with a hint of a Coke-Bottle upswept waistline, was designed to appeal to a younger demographic than the rather staid Arrow. It would also be much easier and cheaper to assemble.
Much thought was put into appealing to female drivers and a newly emerging market, the ‘company car/user-chooser’ driver. Hence, the car would initially be offered in a range of three visually distinct trim levels and two engine sizes. The 1,248cc and 1,498cc OHV units were a new design, unrelated to the Arrow’s engine. Its 98” (2,500mm) wheelbase was exactly the same as the Arrow’s and also the Mk2 Cortina, against which the Avenger had been benchmarked.
The Avenger was launched in February 1970 in DL, Super and GL trim levels. The GL was distinguished externally by dual round headlamps in place of the single rectangular units on lesser models, and internally by circular instruments instead of a strip speedometer, and brushed nylon rather than vinyl seat upholstery. In October 1970, a high(er) performance GT model with twin carburettors was introduced. In 1972, a five-door estate model in DL and Super trim levels was added, as well as a new base-specification model aimed at fleet buyers.
Although the Avenger was originally intended to compete with the Cortina, Ford almost immediately moved the goalposts by lengthening the 1970 Mk3 model’s wheelbase by 3” (75mm) and adding a 2.0L engine to the range. This left the Avenger competing instead with the Escort, Viva and Marina, against which it was broadly competitive and well regarded, with superior dynamic qualities than either the Marina or Viva.
Chrysler UK (as it was now called) initially argued against the need for a two-door Avenger but relented and introduced one in March 1973. The new version was neatly styled but lost the distinctive Coke-Bottle waistline. Later that year, the engines were enlarged to 1,295cc and 1,598cc.
The Avenger range benefitted from a halo model, the Tiger. This had an uprated GT engine that developed 89bhp. It gave the car a 0 to 60mph time of 8.9 seconds and a top speed of 108mph, which outperformed the contemporary Escort Mexico. The Tiger came in distinctive bright yellow and red paint colours with black decals.
The Avenger was subjected to a major facelift and was rebranded as a Chrysler in September 1976. The restyling took its cues from the recently launched Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1307 model, with a forward-canted grille and enlarged headlamps with outboard indicators. At the rear, the saloon models lost their distinctive hockey stick shaped lights in favour of slim horizontal units.
A consequence of this change was a truly amateurish looking steel capping piece over the corners of the rear wings where the original light units had been positioned. Inside, the car received a dashboard and steering wheel virtually identical to the Alpine’s, and rather garish horizontally striped upholstery on some models. Production of the Avenger was shifted from Ryton to the former Imp plant at Linwood.
In 1979, following the collapse of Chrysler Europe and sale of its assets to Peugeot-Citroen, the Avenger was rebranded again, this time as a Talbot, in four-door and estate form only. By now, the Avenger was very much in its twilight years. It continued in production until 1981 when the Linwood plant was closed.
The Avenger enjoyed a parallel career in South America where it was sold as the Dodge 1500 in Argentina from 1971 to 1981, then as the Volkswagen 1500 until 1990 after the German company bought out Chrysler’s interest in its local subsidiary. In Brazil, the two-door Avenger with updated rear styling and an enlarged engine was sold as the Dodge 1800 from 1971, then Dodge Polara from 1977 until 1981.
The Avenger also enjoyed some limited sales in Europe where it was sold mainly under the Sunbeam marque. It was also briefly sold as the Plymouth Cricket in the US from 1971 to 1973 but was poorly received and couldn’t compete with another Chrysler captive import, the Dodge Colt, manufactured by Mitsubishi.
The Avenger mechanical package and underbody, with 3” (75mm) taken out of the wheelbase, provided the underpinnings for a stop-gap smaller model, the Sunbeam, which sold from 1977 to 1981 under the Chrysler, then Talbot marque. Even the doors of the two-door Avenger were repurposed, albeit with different window frames, as was the Avenger’s dashboard, switchgear and some other interior fittings.
Nobody would ever have described the Avenger as an innovative or revolutionary design, but it served its intended purpose well and remained in production, at least in the guise of a VW, for twenty years. UK production of the Avenger over its eleven-year lifespan totalled 638,631 units. The Avenger may, however, have cannibalised sales of the lower line Hunter models in the UK, given the two cars’ similarity in interior space, if not overall length.
Of course, the de-facto replacement for the Hunter, the putative C-Car, was intended to grow, which would have solved the overlap, had it not been hobbled by indecision, mismanagement and Anglo-French rivalries.
In Part Two, we’ll see how that project evolved into the unloved and unsuccessful Chrysler 160/180/2-Litre range.