Contrasting Fortunes (Part One)

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. 

autoenthusiastas via classic-car-catalogue

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The well-regarded but increasingly outdated Humber Hawk and Super Snipe large saloons were phased out in 1967 after a decade on the market.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.

(c) honestjohn

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.

1977 Chrysler Sunbeam: (c) avengersintime

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.

Late-era Avengers were branded as Talbot. (c) allpar

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

21 thoughts on “Contrasting Fortunes (Part One)”

  1. Cue the annoyingly catchy ‘Put a Chrysler Sunbeam in your life’ theme:

    The range commercial’s quite an ear-worm, too.

    I recall LJK Setright of Car magazine lamenting that small details spoilt the Avenger – he found it hard to get the key in to the door lock, as it was cheaply made, while the lock of a contemporary Beetle seemed much better engineered. My other main memory of the Avenger is my father blowing up the engine of one he’d hired to get him home. No doubt it wasn’t a well cared for example, though.

    1. That Sunbeam jingle may not have been ‘Downtown’ or ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ and the lovely Pet Clark’s voice may have been past its best, but it’s still brilliant, especially the rising chord towards the end! Thanks for posting, Charles.

  2. Avenger fun fact of the day: the car’s front grille was the largest plastic moulding ever used on the exterior of a European production car when the Avenger was launched in 1970.

  3. The original Avenger rear lights were a good, effectively part of a frame that extended under the boot lid and wrapped round and up over the (very slightly inset) rear window and linking them in with the raised character line over the rear wheel. The revised lights were disappointing though.
    I’ve always reckoned that the Chrysler Sunbeam was a 1970s version of the old Hillman Husky – take your small medium size car (Minx then Avenger), chop a bit out and make a small estate/hatchback from it. Unlike the old Husky though, the whole car managed to look very different, more in keeping with the squarer look of the late ’70s, despite using the most of the Avenger door.
    One small innovation the Avenger introduced to the British market was a plastic moulded front grille.

    1. Hi Bernard, you’re right about those ‘hockey stick’ rear lights. They were very well integrated into the design, carrying the crease on the top of the rear wings down and across the rear of the car below the bootlid. The ‘L’ shaped crease in the centre of the light lens is less apparent in photos than in reality, but this design sketch shows the detail well:

      Even the petrol filler cap was profiled to continue the crease.

      Here’s a photo that shows the bodged rear wing cap of the facelifted model:

    2. I’ve never made the Husky / Sunbeam comparison before, but I can see the point. As far as I can work out the wheelbase difference between the Minx and Husky was ten inches, which must have compromised its utility. It also had a factory fitted rear seat and side windows, which meant that Purchase Tax was levied. In the ’50s and well into the ’60s a huge number of small small vans in the UK were used as private cars, yet the Husky did seem to have a worthwhile niche following.

      And lest anyone thinks scaleable platforms are a new idea, the Husky’s shortened floorpan was just the right size for the 1959 Sunbeam Alpine which begat the Tiger. It’s probably stretching a point to suggest the Shelby-engendered V8 two-seater was the Sunbeam Lotus of its day….

  4. Another Avenger fun fact: the GL model’s four circular dials had transparent plastic ‘glasses’ that were concave-conical in shape, with the top of each cone (pointing to the driver) plugged with a black plastic cap.

    The shape was intended to eliminate unwanted reflections, which they did to a degree, but they also distorted the numerals on the face of the dials.

    What about those practical door bins? Very forward thinking!

    1. Another fun fact: The Motor’s launch article says that the fan / blower was made by Delaney Gallay in South Wales. I believe that company later became Delanair, a company I have happy memories of (I worked there for a year on industrial placement, while at university).

      I think I’m also right in saying that the Avenger was launched in Malta and that Chrysler UK thought it’d be a nice gesture to send journalists’ wives a momento of the event when they arrived home. Unfortunately, not all journalists had, ahem, actually taken their wives. I suspect that some ‘creative’ conversations followed…

    2. My father had three Avengers in succession, between 1976 and 1982. They were company-supplied, replaced every two years, once the mileage reached 50,000. The first was a Lavender blue 2-door DL, badged a Hillman. This was replaced by a 1978 2-door facelift model in white with an orange interior – this one was a Chrysler. The last was a 1980 four-door (production of the 2-door had ceased by then) in Honey, with a similarly hued interior.

      This last edition was notable for a number of reasons. It was assembled, not in Linwood, but here in the Republic. Run-out Avengers such as these came with vinyl roofs as standard, but owing to company politics – the managers also had more up-spec Avengers – the vinyl roofs were omitted from the batch of cars ordered for my dad and his colleagues. They did come with quite attractive (I remember thinking) plastic wheeltrims instead of the chrome hubcaps of yore.

      Having previously had a succession of Mark 1 Escorts, my dad appreciated the additional poke from the 1.3 litre engine, its standard fit front disc brakes, nicer cabin and better located rear axle. Having the option of the Avenger or a Mark 2 Escort, he didn’t hesitate to reject the Ford. One of his colleagues had a Marina. That was viewed with contempt.

      Another vivid recollection would be the first weekend after delivery, when he would spend the bulk of Saturday fitting a radio, aerial, centre console and the obligatory adhesive pinstripe. I recall he also fitted electronic ignition to at least one of them. The photo above also triggered a memory – he sourced a similar door pocket from a more upmarket Avenger (probably an insurance write-off) but lacking the door-card cut out, it wasn’t as commodious as the one shown. Personalisation, 1970s style.

      One final memory: On trips from Cork to Dublin, with four teenagers squeezed into the back, we used to unscrew the rear armrests from the doors to liberate a couple more milimentres…

    3. I am sure the only Porsche 924 I’ve been in also had conical instrument lenses but it wasn’t clear from the passenger seat if they eliminated reflections. There is to me something rather bleak about the Avenger perhaps it’s simply that the contemporary American saloon car look didn’t “Translate” when scaled down from say an Oldsmobile Cutlass sized car to a C segment European car. The windows look rather small although IIRC they were more or less the same as any other car. In contrast I find the “Arrow” series cars to be rather cool in a geeky kind of way (I also find this with the Lada Niva too)… Perhaps it’s just me.

    4. Now, here’s a really cool thing about the later Hunter dashboard. It looks like it could be from an Alfa Romeo:

    5. That’s a really nice dashboard on the later Hunter, and absolutely loving the purple trim.

    6. Well remembered about the 924, Richard:

      It even had the same little black caps covering the tops of the cones, just like the Avenger. I guess that, without them, the tip of the conical plastic moulding would look unfinished and might catch unwanted reflections.

    7. A few manufacturers tried conical instrument glasses, including Volkswagen (Golf mk1).

  5. For something made in the Pomigliano d’Arco of the North, that Avenger had a good innings.

    Unlike the unfortunate E91 beside it. (Just checked DVLA and my very similar 2007 example, of not particularly fond memory remains taxed and tested.)

    At work sometime around 1983 there was an Avenger 1600 Special, a 1978 limited edition, which served as the unofficial office hack. It been ‘improved’ with an ill-matched assortment of rally car engine and suspension parts, which made it a pain in the arse to drive in city conditions. Eventually I took it on a descent back roads run, and returned invigorated, declaring that I had made my peace with that ill-tempered dog of a car.

    Two weeks later the boss’s nephew took it over a hump-backed bridge with rather too much enthusiasm and it split in two at the front bulkhead. To give the rotten thing its due, he stepped out unharmed.

    This is what an Avenger 1600 Special looks like:

    Try to imagine it with an impressive array of unconnected auxiliary lamps, some very wide Minilites with rather too narrow 50-series tyres, and suspension lowered at least 50mm, and you will get the general idea.

    1. That strange 3/4 length vinyl roof was featured on lots of Avengers over the years. I don’t recall anything similar on any other European car.

      On the subject of long surviving cars, my company 1990 BMW 320i Convertible’s MOT expired only last month and its tax expired last November. Last recorded mileage was around 133k. My 1997 Discovery is still going strong on 160k miles.

  6. I was studying in London when this Avenger came out. Seemed a pleasant enough tin box with at least a coil-sprung back axle, but not overbuilt like the dowdy Rootes saloon cars of the 1960s. Far from it, as I had a laugh at Roberto’s description above of the car splitting in two after a big yump.

    When I returned to Canada permanently in 1974, it was to discover that the Cricket, as Chrysler called the Avenger, had been such a dud they had to stop importing them. General Motors of Canada had also at about the same time to stop importing the Viva, known as the Firenza, also because of outrageously poor quality. The union strife in Blighty affected more than British Leyland.

    In the four and a half years I was away, British car exports to Canada effectively ceased except for a few Jags and Rovers and jacked up MGB and Sprite and Spitfire dork-mobiles, and they hardly covered themselves in glory. In the place of the Avenger, Chrysler substituted Mitsubishis, which were rubbish to drive but at least didn’t fall apart when you looked at them sideways. I sighed in displeasure at the airport car rental kiosks when a Mitsu was my lot in the late 1970s. Ford and GM made the Pinto and Vega, which were complete rubbish, and so the japanese takeover of the smaller car market proceeded apace. The Datsun 510 was a neat car to pedal, for instance. The best Escortish size-car of the period, in my jaundiced view, with standard independent rear suspension before Datsun rediscovered the joy of leaf or coil sprung rigid rear axles for later models. The Escort was a far superior machine to the Pinto, but a week with a friend’s 510 on a road trip made me want to get one. And that was when they discontinued them, of course!

  7. Questions on the future of the sportscar aside, to my mind the Avenger in tandem with larger 1.8-2.0 Brazilian block Avenger engines would have served as a useful basis for an Sunbeam Alpine-replacing sportscar instead of the Arrow-based model.

    Chrylser’s financial problems and the shortsightedness of the US HQ certainly did not help matter as well as did much to abandon many a project or cost-cut anything useful, for example the Rootes UK engineers were apparently looking to draw inspiration from the Fiat Twin-Cam for the Avenger engine as well as spawn an Avenger-derived V6 only for both to be dropped with Chrysler UK inexplicably going to BRM instead of Cosworth (or Lotus) to work on the Avenger Twin-Cam engine.

  8. As for the Audax-based Hillman SuperMinx and Arrow / Hillman New Minx, it interesting to compare the former with the Isuzu Bellett and Isuzu Florian. Both the Arrow and Florian are of similar dimensions and had long production runs (with the related Faster pick-up ceasing production in 2002), together with Isuzu’s ties Rootes it is surprising there were not plans to merge the SuperMinx with the Bellett and the Arrow with the Florian to further atomize costs.

    It is also my understanding that Isuzu developed descendants of the Rootes Minx OHV engine include both the Isuzu GH/GL/G/Z petrols and possibly the C/DL/F dieselized versions, which it also fascinating given the production tooling at Rootes reputedly prevented further enlargement of the Minx OHV engine from 1725cc to about 1.9-litres for the Sunbeam Alpine roadster. Whereas Isuzu experienced no problems with enlarging Minx-descended petrol and diesel engines to 1949-1995cc or so.

    What Isuzu managed to achieve with its ties with Rootes gives an idea as to how the latter could have evolved with more capital, no subversive union strikes and no government interference. Even read engineers at Rootes looking at OHC and Twin-Cam versions of the Minx OHV that went nowhere (and were presumably given to Isuzu as part of the license agreement).

  9. Thanks for the Avenger article. Brought back happy memories of a 1972 GL I ran for over 100,000 miles. Excellent car blighted only by its appetite to devour Stromberg carb diaphragms. Part exchanged it for a Sunbeam, but that turned out to be a slight disappointment. I always felt the Ryton built Avengers were better quality than the later Linwood examples and also handled better. The Chrysler badged Avengers and Sunbeam both seemed softer n the suspension department too, presumably brought on by the growing French influence. If only Chrysler had seen fit to develop the Avenger engine instead of focusing on the rattly Simca lump, who knows what might have been.

    1. Hi Ayjay. You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it and that it brought back good memories for you.

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