Chrysler Centura: a SIMCA down under

chrysler centura car

The rootes of the Chrysler Centura are to be found in Rootes Group. During the 1960s, Chrysler Corporation had taken over France’s SIMCA and Britain’s Rootes Group. They put the two companies together to work on replacing the Humber Hawk (Rootes) and SIMCA Vedette, but since both had already started work on their own large cars, there was some conflict.

Chrysler 180 cars

Chrylser Corporation chose the Rootes body, but then dropped the Rootes V6 engine developed for the car when it was nearly ready for production, giving it a SIMCA four instead. They also steadily reduced the range, from a series of cars that would go up to the large Humber Super Snipe to just the Chrysler 160 and 180 — no Sunbeam, no SIMCA, and no Humber. Eventually, a two-liter version was launched, dubbed the 2 Litre (shown above).

Chrylser 180 interior

The Chrysler 180 was imported into Australia partly because they seemed unwanted at home, but mostly to feed the growing demand for smaller cars that could slow the growing influx of Japanese cars. Chrysler was seen as a domestic producer at the time, so the 180 was localized to fit into the Australian market. When the company launched the Chrysler Centura in March 1975, it was indeed seriously revamped.

Australian tradition had large engines in small cars in Australia, and the Centura was true to form. While the entry model was a two liter four (the top of the range in Europe), upper models had larger engines, requiring a re-styled front end. In addition, the European version had two rectangular headlights, rather than Australia’s four round headlights (there were rumours that the Centura front end was originally designed for the aborted British Sunbeam 2000 version of the car).

chrysler centura

The bodies were built in France (later, Spain) but the engines were installed at the huge Chrysler plant in Tonsley Park. There were two forms, the Centura 4 and Centura 6; the lower model was almost pure Chrysler 2-Litre, but with drum brakes at the rear (the European car had discs in the 2 liter and drums in the 1.6 and 1.8 liter). It used a French differential and the French overhead cam 1.98 liter engine with twin-barrel Weber carburrettors. A sports model had a 4-into-2-into-1 exhaust. Some had a four-stud wheel pattern; the wheel style of the cheaper Centuras was used for the European 1979 and 1980 1610 and 2 Litre models.

The 2.0 litre motor was an overhead cam, alloy-head crossflow engine with a two barrel Weber carburetor having a water controlled choke and a thermatic fan.

Iain Robilliard wrote, “I had just moved off the drawing board to Project Engineer Suspension and Front Frame Structure in 1973, and my first task was to work out how to hang a bloody great big 6 cylinder motor in the front of the Chrysler 180 to make the Centura. Without power steering, either....”

The Centura 6 was a different kettle of fish altogether, using an Australian Chrysler Valiant Hemi engine with an Australian Borg-Warner gearbox and differential; it was available in 245 (3.5 litre, 140 bhp SAE) or 265 (4.0 litre, 165 bhp SAE) versions with a three or four speed manual gearbox, or an automatic. These cars had vented disc brakes, and a five-stud wheel pattern.

The K-frames supporting the engines differed; the 4 cylinder’s mount was suspended from the chassis, while the six was supported at the forward control arm mounting, integrated with the K-frame.

In true Australian style, they were simple rugged cars. Air conditioning was optional, and high backed bucket seats were standard across the range, but other than that the interior was all but identical to the European cars. The factory experimented with 318 V8s, but the body lacked the rigidity to cope with the torque. Centuras had coil springs all ’round, eschewing the Valiants’ and Chargers’ torsion-bar front suspensions and rear leaf springs.

centura profile

There were two trim levels available across both series:

  • XL: Cheaper model with no fake wood trim, rev counter, clock or vinyl roof
  • GL: Luxury model with vinyl roof, fancy hub caps and mock wood dashboard trim. Clock and rev counter standard.

The Centura was produced in two versions – the KB announced in 1975 and the KC model introduced in 1977. The two series were differentiated by trim and option choices; for example, the KB had a GL option while the KC had a GL or GLX. Velour seats and a collapsable steering column (as in the Valiants) were only available in the KC series.

head on

Heath Wogan wrote, “The Centuras are extremely light in the rear and suffer in handling a little, but it is possible to achieve decent handling. The major attraction is the straight-line performance. With a relatively stock motor it is possible to achieve quarter mile times in the 15 second bracket.”

Centuras were extremely light in the rear and suffered a little in handling. The major attraction was straight-line performance. In Australia today (1990s), “the Chrysler Centura is seen as a bit of a classic as well as being popular with hot rodders who often upgrade their cars with an American V8 engine.”

As for sales, they were below expectations. The launch occured at the same time as a trade embargo due to the French nuclear tests in the Pacific. The bodies were left on the wharves until 1974, when the tests stopped for a while. As result of all that sea air, many Centuras started rusting before they were built! This tarnished the car's reputation before it even had a chance to get established. Spending several months in crates on the quayside had done little for the cars’ longevity.

Chrysler Centura styling, with prototypes and sketches

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