By Rogério Ferraresi
Rugged, roomy, and fast, the Dodge 1800/Polara was a victim of being rushed to its release, the oil crisis, and the purchase of Chrysler by Volkswagen of Brazil.
The story of the Dodge 1800 and Dodge Polara goes back to 1888, when William Rootes opened a small bike shop in Hawkhurst, England. He built that into a small automotive empire, buying and consolidating companies including Humber, Hillman, Karrier Motor Ltd., and Sunbeam Motor Car. After World War II, Rootes focused on exports; the last Rootes Group acquisition was in 1955 with the purchase of Singer Motors Ltd. The Hillman Imp, a rear-engine car that would compete with the Volkswagen Beetle, was an amibitous effort, but numerous development problems caused severe financial problems for Rootes just as competition was intensifying.
To recover, Hillman started planning a 1,500-cc (92-cubic-inch) unibody four-door car. The Avenger (“Vingador”) interested Chrysler, which, under Lynn Townsend, was already seeking worldwide expansion. Chrysler bought Rootes Group and launched the Avenger (also assembled in Venezuela and Peru).
Chrysler sold the Avenger in the United States, giving it a cuter name: Plymouth Cricket. The same was done with the Dodge Colt, a similar car made by Mitsubishi. Sales of the Cricket languished as Colt gained popularity, with the latter’s superior reliability, and Chrysler dropped their own captive import in 1974 (they did own a share of Mitsubishi and planned to buy the rest).
In the same year, the Avenger and Dodge 1500 started to be manufactured in Argentina and remained in production for many years, even after the purchase of Chrysler-Fevre by Volkswagen; at this point, the old Hillman gained the VW 1500 name.
In Brazil the car was slightly redesigned, sporting two-door bodywork, a market demand at the time. The change was made by Chrysler of Brazil’s style department, which included professionals such as Celso Lamas, and was managed by Argentine Peter Falconer; the company never had a Brazilian head of any of its departments. Interestingly, not only were the Avenger’s sides changed but also its rear (the lamps were unique) and interior (for example, the dashboard).
When the former manufacturer began making Regents and Esplanades, Chrysler had already thought of producing a line of big, small, and utility vehicles in Brazil. Company executives had the option of choosing the Colt in addition to Hillman, but they took too long to make their decision, allowing Volkswagen and Ford consolidate the Volkswagen LT and the Ford Corcel. As Hillman-designed cars were all over South America, the Avenger was preferred, if only because there was the possibility, however remote, of various countries making parts and vehicle components, something common these days but uncommon at the time.
In mechanical terms, the Brazilian model’s biggest difference was the bigger engine, 1,800 cc (110 cubic inches; 78 hp), and other changes made due to the low octane gasoline, which required a lower compression ratio.
The Dodge 1800 finally trumped many to be successful, but executives prematurely introduced the car at the Auto Show (1972), as only then would the vehicle would go on sale beside the Chevrolet Chevette, Ford Maverick, and Brazilian Volkswagen. [Watch a video of the Dodge 1800 (in Spanish) on Youtube.]
The “Dodginho,” which went on sale in April 1973 in Gran Luxury and Luxury versions, fell victim to a curious anecdote at its launch in São Paulo, Brazil. Upon learning that the base model’s price was Cr $24,775 (compared to, for example, the four-cylinder Opel sedan’s Cr $24,612), a journalist asked Daniel Warren, vice president of Chrysler International, “A car nicknamed ‘Codorninha’ appears with a Christmas ham’s price?” [There seems to be a Portugese joke here.]
The cost, however, was not the biggest mistake. Rushed into production, the first 1,800 cars were actually pre-production cars, filled with defects. Chrysler customers, although they didn’t know about it, became test drivers, which led the vehicle (and its owners) to become a laughingstock.
In 1974, due to the Dodge Dart SE’s success, Chrysler introduced the sporty 1800 SE model and eliminated many of the Dodginho’s shortcomings. Still, both competition from the Volkswagen Passat and the oil crisis hindered the 1800’s sales, as many prospective owners eventually chose cars which had lower performance and smaller displacement, but cost less and did had better gas mileage.
In December, during Auto Show IX, the company exhibited a Hillman Avenger van, modified to have the same details as the Dodge 1800. Chrysler promised to release it in Brazil, but due to financial problems, the car was never mass produced, and the show car returned to its home country, Peru.
In 1975, to eliminate the bad reputation gained since its launch, Chrysler began selling the 1800 with the “Total Guarantee,” which not only covered tires and tubes, but was endorsed by the poster child actor Paul Goulart.
The end of the 1800 SE’s production marked the appearance of the Polara line in 1976. Named after the full-size American Dodge, it had a new front grille, steering wheel, and redesigned taillights. Chrysler’s mechanical engineering department redesigned the cylinder head, increasing the power to 82 hp, which contributed to the Dodginho being voted Sport Auto magazine’s “Car of the Year.”
The vehicle only had undergone a major re-styling with the emergence of the 1978 models, gaining rectangular headlights and turn signals and larger taillights. But the biggest news was the adoption of the automatic transmission, making the Polara the first national car to use such equipment.
Volkswagen bought Chrysler Brazil the following year. It was thought that the Dodginho would not have further changes, but, contrary to logic, the Polara GLS was launched in 1980. Luxurious and sporty, the GLS had a dual-stage Weber carburetor, Veglia dashboard (with speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure gauge, water thermometer, fuel-level gauge, and ammeter), Pied de Coq plaid upholstered seats, unique trim, and hubcaps.
It was probably a model planned prior to the sale of Chrysler, since there was no rationale in Volkswagen releasing a new version of the car, despite its low production, to compete with the Passat. Indeed, it was for these reasons – plus the German automaker’s interest in using Chrysler’s facilities to manufacture its first trucks – that the Polara’s production ceased in 1981, after a total of 92,665 units were produced.
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