We conclude the story of the Avenger and 160/180/2-Litre and their very different fates.
The C-Car programme that would ultimately become the Chrysler 160/180/2-Litre* ran in parallel with the B-Car Avenger, under the supervision of Rootes Design Director Roy Axe. The initial plan was to offer the C-Car in three variants; a base 1.8 litre Hillman version to replace the top-line Hunter models, a 2.0 litre version carrying the Sunbeam marque and a 2.5 litre version to replace the Humber Hawk. A stretched D-Car variant was also envisaged to replace the Humber Super Snipe. The 2.0 litre and 2.5 litre C-Car models would be powered by a new range of V6 engines.
Like the B-Car Avenger, the design would be conventional, but competently executed. The styling proposal looked like an enlarged Avenger, but with more conservative detailing such as the straight waistline and upright rear lamps. The interior on the high-line versions would feature wood and leather, a well-regarded feature of traditional Humber models.
In isolation, this plan appeared perfectly logical, with the possible exception of resurrecting the Sunbeam marque for the mid-line model, which might have taken badge engineering a step too far. Unfortunately, trouble was brewing on the other side of the English Channel.
Chrysler had purchased a 64% majority stake in the French auto maker Simca in 1963 and completed its takeover in July 1970. Both Rootes and Simca had been allowed to operate autonomously by their US owners and the latter was working on Projet 929, its own plan for a large car.
In early 1969, Chrysler belatedly intervened to stop this duplication of effort and decided that the C-Car was the more attractive and highly developed proposal. However, in order to mollify its French outpost, Chrysler handed the project over for Simca to complete. Rootes was initially allowed to continue planning a more upmarket UK version of the C-Car, but even this consolation prize was rescinded before the car was launched.
Despite being almost production-ready, the proposed large capacity V6 engines, which would have been heavily taxed in France, were canned, writing off over £30m already invested. Likewise, the wood and leather interior, air-conditioning and other embellishments such as twin headlamps that would have distinguished the high-line models were dropped. The stretched D-Car proposal was abandoned completely.
The car was launched as the Chrysler 160 and 180 at the Paris Salon in 1970. The engines were Simca designed four-cylinder OHC units in 1639cc 80bhp and 1812cc 97bhp versions, specified to align with the French motor taxation class system. The larger engined version had a low-key introduction in the UK market in early 1971.
UK reaction varied from indifference to outright hostility. Instead of the new Humber that had been expected, here was a big Avenger made in France and carrying an American brand that enjoyed no equity. What was perceived as Chrysler’s betrayal of its UK subsidiary was widely known. It didn’t help that the car was no more than competent to drive, with a strong tendency to understeer. It was a pleasant enough cruiser, but no performance car, with a top speed of 101mph** and a 0-60mph time of 12.4 seconds. Fuel consumption was heavy, averaging 21.7mpg. Instead of real wood and leather, the interior was an ornate and heavily American-influenced confection of vinyl, plastic and chrome.
Even in France the 180 sold poorly, so much so that the Simca 1501 it was intended to replace remained in production, initially as a run-out model. The 1501 was subsequently reintroduced in 1973 and remained in Simca’s line-up until the launch of the 1307/Alpine in 1975.
A 1981cc version of the new car, branded 2-Litre rather than the more logical 200, was introduced in early 1973. It was distinguished with driving lamps and a vinyl roof and came only with automatic transmission. It made little impact in the market on either side of the English Channel. So desperate was Chrysler to try and stimulate interest in this forgotten car that the company rebranded it Chrysler-Simca for continental European markets in 1977.
After Chrysler sold off its bankrupted European assets to Peugeot-Citroen in 1978 for a nominal $1, the 180 continued to limp on and briefly became a Talbot in 1980 before it finally expired. During the course of its ten-year lifespan, there were almost no meaningful updates made to the 180. Its meagre sales simply didn’t justify further investment.
One country where it did sell was Spain, after production was transferred to Chrysler’s Barreiros subsidiary from Poissy in 1976. As a locally built model, it enjoyed purchase tax exemptions in the protected (effectively, closed) Spanish market and was favoured by taxi drivers. Verified sales data are hard to come by, but it seems that the 180 never sold more than about 2,000 units a year in the UK. In total, 288,294*** units were sold throughout Europe over its ten-year lifespan.
Why did the 180 fail so miserably? First, Chrysler’s attempt to find a compromise in 1969 regarding its design and build alienated management in both Ryton and Poissy, each regarding the car as not made here. Second, the decision, again in a misguided attempt at compromise, to launch it as a Chrysler more than five years before a second European model (the Alpine) would carry that marque name, handicapped the 180 from the outset. Third, its lack of a unique model name in place of the cumbersome 160/180/2-Litre nomenclature probably confused the (non-) buying public still further, as did its bland and nondescript big Avenger appearance.
The 180 was never a great car, but neither was the Avenger. Had it instead been launched as a Humber Hawk and Super Snipe (with a better interior) in the UK, and a Simca in France, it might have done better. A tantalising glimpse of how a new Super Snipe might have looked was seen in the Chrysler Centura, an Australian built derivative of the 180, with an elongated nose and twin-headlamp front end behind which sat a 3.5L or 4.0L straight-six engine. In any event, this is only speculation, and we’ll probably never really know why the 180 failed so comprehensively.
* Hereafter referred to as the 180 for convenience
** Performance and fuel consumption data from a ‘Motor’ magazine road test, April 1971