Thanks to Andy Thompson
The Hillman Avenger was borne of the need to bridge the gap between Rootes Group’s little Imp and the Hillman Minx, Rootes’ best seller at the time, and due to be replaced by the Hillman Hunter.
The “B car” would be compact, smart, roomy and quick, and cash in on the advent of the ‘company car’ as a popular way of rewarding employees. Thus, according to Styling Director Roy Axe, the first formal thoughts on the Avenger were recorded in January 1963.
Stylists were looking towards Detroit for inspiration, other than wanting short overhangs for efficiency; a great deal of thought went into ensuring the car did not end up with an “over-cabined appearance.”
The B Car was styled around a shape that was more integrated than past efforts, and dispensed with the traditional waistline, so the shorter car would not look stunted.
Several quarter scale clay models were produced in December 1965, which were taken to the company's portable viewing tunnel for “life-size” evaluation. They chose the “semi-fastback” or “flow-back” roofline; the removal of the waist-level feature line meant that the top and bottom halves of the car flowed pleasingly into a single curve, but side feature lines were used towards the rear to avoid any appearance of “heaviness.”
Work on full size clays began in January 1966, and in November, final approval was given. The Hillman Avenger also became one of the first cars ever to have the body shell designed with computer aid.
Three separate designs could be produced using a single sheet metal facia, by mounting different plastic mouldings, to differentiate the planned De Luxe, Super, and Grand Luxe models. The interior was mocked up and tested for ergonics, yielding the decision to site all the major and minor controls in the column area.
The three trim levels had to be differentiated, while keeping as many common parts as possible; management approval was finally given in November 1967.
Perhaps more than any other UK maker at the time, Rootes considered the needs of the female buyer. The design department had several consultants to predict material and design trends, and how they could be applied to the interior of the new car.
The B Car was an ambitious programme for a UK manufacturer of the time. Chrysler’s investment was beginning to bear fruit, and their keenness to expand in European was demonstrated by the expansion of the Rootes design facility in Coventry. All available suspension and transmission layouts and engine configurations were tested, weighing the pros and cons of flat-four (“boxster”), V-4, and inline-four engines. Cast iron and aluminium were compared for head and block material. The company's eagerness to try new ideas also extended to the suspension, looking into alternative springing media, such as air and rubber, but they chose a conventional layout to keep costs down.
The Avenger would have an in-line 4-cylinder engine in front, driving the rear wheels, with a rear four-link coil spring suspension. The car it was aimed at competing with, the Ford Cortina, was also conventional, and probably for the same reason: because a conventional
layout would make it far easier to use locally produced
parts when selling around the world. This modular approach
to car design became more widespread in
The B Car would be lighter and cheaper to produce than the Hillman Hunter (Arrow). There were fewer panels, they needed fewer welds, and there was less sheet metal needed.
The chassis received a great deal of attention; the four-link rear suspension offered many advantages over the common leaf spring system. The rumour that this system was chosen over the leaf spring system because the car's rear end styling revealed too much of the leaf springs has entered the realms of motoring folklore.
Because of the intensive development programme, the front end received much attention too, and as a result, front anti-roll bars were standard on all models. The effects on ride and handling have been well documented in the generally favourable road tests that appeared soon after the car's launch in 1970.
The engines were also new, using 1248cc, 1295cc, 1498cc and 1599cc versions in Europe and an 1800cc unit for South America. The camshaft was much higher than the competition’s overhead valve engines, so the push rods were as short as possible. South African models (sold as the Dodge Avenger) had a Peugeot unit to meet local content rules.
In February 1970, the Hillman Avenger was launched, and the press was taken by its overall competence on the road, and smart contemporary styling. There was a real sense that the car offered the ailing company a shot in the arm, and that under Chrysler's direction, what was the Rootes group would prosper in the emerging company car market. It was a car for the time, and one that people wanted.
In contrast to previous Rootes practice, which offered each car as a basic Hillman, upmarket Singer, sporty Sunbeam and plush Humber, the new Avenger was always to be a Hillman. No frills, but a low price and conventional (yet contemporary) technology. Compared with the Austin Maxi, a competing product launched the previous year with 5-speed gearbox, front wheel drive, overhead cam engine, hatchback body, independent hydrolastic suspension the Avenger really was a conventional car, but it was just right for the British public who were scared of new-fangled technology and it is said used spark plug access and cheap exhaust replacement as the primary considerations when choosing a new car.
Road tests were positive, and the Hillman Avenger carved itself a favourable niche with the motoring press. The initial range of engines offered were the 1250 and 1500cc versions, and trim levels were DL, Super and GL. The Deluxe and Super had a simple dashboard with a strip style speedometer but the GL was equipped with a round dial dash, although the effect was rather spoilt by conical instrument covers that distorted the readings! The GL was one of the first British cars to have as standard brushed nylon seat trim.
A high-powered twin carburettor 1500 GT followed in October 1970 with bizarre dustbin lid shaped wheel trims and go-faster sticker tapes down the side of the doors.
Critical acclaim followed the initial launch of the Avenger, and although the car never really competed with the big boys, it was a hit for the company. According to Graham Robson's book, Cars of the Rootes Group, the 50,000th Avenger was produced in August 1970, and by the end of its life in 1981, a total of 638,631 Avengers had been made.
The range slowly developed with the announcement of the estate (wagon) version in March 1972. Deluxe and Super versions were offered, with a choice of 1250 and 1500 engines.
Stripped out fleet models came in February 1972 as well. Simply called “Avenger,” these didn’t even have a sun visor for the passenger but still offered a choice of 1250 and 1500 engines. At the opposite end of the scale, in September 1972, the GT was replaced by the GLS – a more luxurious car with a vinyl roof and proper Rostyle sports wheels. Motor magazine concluded that “the GLS must appeal to those drivers who want a refined, comfortable car that is well mannered and not too big.”
A two door version arrived in March 1973, reviving the GT badge with a 1500 model distinguished by a three quarter length vinyl roof but sharing rectangular headlamps with the cheaper models in the range. The 1500 GT was described by Motor magazine as “thoroughly enjoyable”. Other two door models were the basic fleet model, a Deluxe and a Super. Still, in two retrograde moves, all the small-engined Avengers lost their front anti-roll bar at this time and drum brakes replaced the front discs.
In August 1976, the first and only major change was made to the Avenger. As part of a government backed rescue plan for Chrysler UK, there was a major re-shuffle of models and factories. Production of the Chrysler Alpine, using French kits, started in Ryton, so Avenger was moved to Linwood, Scotland – where its body panels had been pressed for years! The Hunter, which had been built at Linwood since 1969, then moved to Ireland, and the Hillman Imp was dropped. In the process, the Avenger lost its Hillman badges and became a Chrysler. The Hunter, the sole remaining Hillman car, became a Chrysler in Fall 1977.
A facelift gave the Avenger a new face and dashboard, making it look more like the new Alpine. One of the Avenger’s most unique features, the L-shaped rear lamps, were replaced by slim horizontal affairs that made the car look a little more modern, if less unique. Instead of making new rear wing pressings, Chrysler put ill fitting metal caps in the space where the lamps had previously been. Three trim levels were offered – Deluxe, Super, and GLS.
CAR’s Giant Test pitched the new Avenger against the Mk 4 Cortina and the Opel based Vauxhall Cavalier. CAR wrote: “if the rival manufacturers in this Giant Test had made such a transformation to one of their products, they would have ballyhooed it as a new model.”
All the sports models were gone, with rallying attention focused on the smaller, but still Avenger-based Sunbeam. The Avenger GT disappeared from the catalogues but remained listed for some time in the price lists published by Britain’s motoring journals. It seems as if the face-lifted GT was only available to special order to those in the know…
As the UK was the only market that bought the car in any significant numbers, it was now on the fringes of the Chrysler Europe range. The Avenger withered on the vine with just the odd minor specification change to keep it alive. In August 1977, LS and GL labels replaced Deluxe and Super respectively. The GLS lost its Rostyle wheels in favour of cheaper sports style wheel covers. For 1979, the LS lost its hubcaps and the two door models bit the dust. The Talbot badge appeared in October 1979 for the 1980 model year, the GLS was dropped and all got that rapidly fading style icon the vinyl roof fitted as standard. In March 1980, the GL models got sports style wheel trims and the GLS returned to the range but this time as an 80bhp estate complete with chrome roof rails.
Chrysler's replacement for the Avenger was effectively the three box version of the Alpine that would hit the streets in 1980. Although the Avenger did become a Talbot, its future was tied to that of Linwood. Linwood was closed in 1981, and along with it the Avenger, a car that had performed admirably for the company and deserved a better fate.
The Avenger was styled well for its time, opened up new markets for Rootes and Chrysler, and was what people in the 1970s wanted. There were problems with the car, although most of these could not be aimed at the design, but at the manufacturing.
The car’s production was blighted with industrial unrest, and it suffered from below-par build quality (which especially affected sales of the Plymouth Cricket badged version in the USA) and poor protection against rust. Instead of using underseal, electrolysed paint was used to coat the floors, which could rust out very quickly.
The engine, all iron with a pushrod valve, seemed low-tech but was strong and quiet and could rev to 7000 rpm. They gave good performance and economy and although they became noisy with high mileage rarely failed.
Their inherent toughness came to the fore in the Hunter Arrow series made under license in Iran as Paykan. From the mid-1980s, the Avenger engine was used instead of the Rootes 1725 engine. Transmissions were bulletproof. Servicing and repair were cheap and easy. The design of both engine and suspension was carefully thought out and executed.
The Avenger was a lightweight car with a computer-designed body shell that resulted in the strength and rigidity necessary for good handling. A well-kept Avenger will still delight its passengers with a quiet smooth ride and entertain the driver when the twisty bits loom on the horizon. The larger engined 1500 and 1600 models are even better at high speed as they have a higher final drive ratio.
All in all, almost three-quarters of a million Avengers were made. The most popular export area (after the US badged Plymouth Cricket) for the Avenger was Scandinavia, where the car was badged the Sunbeam 1250/1300/1500/1600. However, the vast majority were sold in the UK. More than you would think survive today and there is a thriving owner's club dedicated to the Avenger and its Sunbeam sibling.
The Hillman Avenger was also made by Chrysler do Brasil from 1971 to 1980 as the Dodge 1500 (and 1800) and, later, as the Dodge Polara (a name applied to a much larger car in the US).
As Hugo Borgo wrote, When Chrysler Argentina was sold to Volkswagen in 1980, the car was called “Dodge 1500, made by Volkswagen Argentina,” the last four words in a sticker on the back window, later in a metal plate on the front side. The car itself was unchanged; in 1982, it got a simple restyling, with plastic bumpers and other decorative plastic and rear lights, and the name was changed to Volkswagen 1500.
Hans Ensing pointed out that the Hillman Avenger / Dodge 1500 / Dodge 1800 was the first car to successfully be converted to alcohol, in 1975, as part of Brazil’s PROALCOOL program, designed to adapt sugar cane to fuel. An article in 4 Rodas Magazine noted the changes:
The alterations caused around 5% to 8% lower gas mileage, but 6% higher power; yet it lost around 0.5-1.0 seconds in the 0-62 mph tests.
Hillman Avengers of New Zealand (with local production)
The most stylish Avenger derivatives may have been the Brazilian ones. The Polara looked almost like a two-door coupe, such was its roofline.
The Avenger was also made by Chrysler do Brasil from 1971 to 1980 as the Dodge 1500 (and 1800) and later as the Dodge Polara augmenting the Dart in popularity. Called "Dodginho" in Portugese, it was not initially a sell out despite a relatively nice interior, partly because it was not well adapted to local driving conditions. To increase sales, its name was changed to Polara, which had a relatively good image due to the prior Valiant-based Polaras; GLS and GL models were added in 1980. It was the first Brazilian production vehicle to have a standard automatic transmission, and sales were steady for its last six years at about 13,000 per year. In 1981, Brazilian production of the Dodge 1500/1800 ceased, when Chrysler pulled out. In Brazil just the two door version was offered, which also featured a different style of rear side window to that used on the European model.
Five years after being conceived in 1966 as part of the Hillman Avenger programme, South American production of the Avenger began in Argentina in August 1971 as the Dodge 1500. Made by Chrysler-Fevre Argentina S.A. there was a choice of 1500 cc and 1800 cc engines. The latter, a large version of the standard Avenger power unit, was never sold in Europe. Chrysler Argentina launched the new car with a peculiar pre-launch advertising campaign, in which the car and its name remained hidden until the car finally went on sale. With its relatively compact dimensions (4.2 meters long and 1.6 wide) the new car was remarkably agile, especially when compared to the enormous models that, until that then, had dominated the local market (the Ford Falcon and Fairlane and the big American based Dodge and Chevrolet saloons).
The most visible difference between the Avenger and the 1500 was the back lights — the British hockey stick style was replaced by a more conventional horizontal approach. In England, the Avenger was sold with three different bodies: two doors, four doors and estate. However, in Argentina only the four door and later the estate models were offered.
Initially, three models were available to customers in Argentina, all four door saloons. At the bottom of the range was the standard Dodge 1500 with 72bhp engine. Next up was the Dodge 1500 SPL, with the same mechanical bits but more luxurious trim. Both models had the same 1498cc (86.1mm x 64.3mm) engine. Completing the range was the Dodge GT-90. In 1974 the 1500 SPL Automatic with automatic gearbox was announced along with the Dodge 1500 1.8 which boasted a 92bhp 1798cc version of the basic engine. In 1977, all received their first major restyling which was pretty much the same as that applied to the European Avengers. Bigger headlamps and a different grille were the main changes. Also in 1977, the Dodge 1500 GT-100 producing 105bhp was introduced. It had the 1800 engine, two Stromberg carburettors, a 215mm (8.5") diameter clutch and a high performance manifold. This model could be had only in blue dark or black with obligatory sports stripes. In 1978, the first estate models — called Rural — were announced.
The model was a success, with an average annual production rate of between 14,000 and 15,000 units. The best years were 1979 and 1980 — 26,148 and 27,627 units, respectively.
Although English production of the Avenger ended in 1981, the car was made in Argentina until 1990/1 by the Volkswagen-Audi Group. In the middle of 1980, Chrysler sold its Argentine subsidiary to the VW. The main changes made at this time to the Dodge 1500 were a restyled grille, front and rear lights, door windows without their quarter lights and a completely new interior with revised dashboard and steering wheel. The car was called ‘Dodge 1500, made by Volkswagen Argentina’. The last four words were shown on a sticker on the back window but later in a metal plate on the front. Mechanically, the car was unchanged.
In 1982, the car received another mild restyling to include new back lights, plastic bumpers and other decorative bits which were aimed at giving the car more of a Volkswagen identity. The name was also changed to Volkswagen 1500. It was the first non-VW design to which the German company gave its name in Argentina.
The new range was made up of the Volkswagen-Dodge 1500, 1500 Full, 1500 1.8, 1500 1.8 Full and 1500 Rural Full. This latter was a Station Wagon equipped with the 1800 engine and air conditioning. During 1987-88 a basic Volkswagen 1500 was announced, being essentially a stripped down economy model. In 1988, a five speed gearbox became available and air conditioning could be ordered on more models in the range.
The car’s mechanical robustness was its main selling point. This inspired the advertising slogan "It runs, it runs and it runs..." A total of 262,668 units were sold until the car was axed in 1990 when it was near turning 20 years. It was a "durito" that knew how to gain the Argentine heart by being a trusty and worthy tool of the middle classes.
The Avenger was originally built at a new assembly line at the newly expanded Ryton plant, near Coventry. Ryton was essentially an assembly operation, because the bodies and pressed panels were shipped by rail from the Linwood plant in Scotland and the engine/gearbox assemblies came from the company's Stoke plant. This was actually a neat arrangement (well, it made the best of a bad situation) because the trains carrying bodies to Ryton did not return to Linwood empty, as they carried Imp engines and gearboxes. In 1976, Avenger production was moved to Linwood, meaning that the majority of the operation fell under one roof, thus cutting logistical costs.
Avengers seemed to be gaining some sort of "classic" status in the UK, as mainstream cars from the 1970s suddenly become "cool". Many people that bought these cars (and their rivals such as Morris (Austin) Marina, Ford Escort etc.) new on their retirement were giving up driving or passing away, so the cars were being sold. Typically these cars were one-owner, with less than 50,000 miles, in mint condition. Prices were usually around £1000, which was not much for a slice of 1970s style and a car that would be arguably more looked-after than say a 10-year old "housewife's hatchback." I used to drive an old Volvo that had come from similar circumstances and used to get a lot of admiring glances and people saying "I used to drive one of those..."
The Avenger and Sunbeam had their own owner's club, the address was: 75 Church Drive, South Kirkby, Pontefract, Yorkshire, WF9 3QW.
Sunbeams seemed to be a bit thinner on the ground - this made sense as only 200,000 were built as opposed to 650,000 Avengers. Again, rust seemed to have finished most off. A flick through an Auto Trader (a car advert weekly magazine) would show up that there are still quite a few surviving Lotus Sunbeams, with prices going from £2000 for an example that needs some TLC (rust!). The hotter Sunbeams (1600TI and Lotus) were always popular as rally cars, so maybe some ordinary ones have been gutted for body parts. Either way, they weren't as prolific as Avengers.
A classic car mag called Real Classics featured an article on the Chrysler 180/2-Litre (or Chrysler Centura to Australians). The writer said he knew of only one other in the country other than his. I certainly haven't seen one in the metal since the late 1980s, in this country at least (they used to be all over the place in Spain around that time - any left?). Again in my local paper last year had a one-owner 1974 model with a paltry 22,000 miles on the clock going for £1500. With one of these cars getting spare parts must be a nightmare. In my job (doing 1,000+ miles a month) I couldn't justify it!
Classic Chryslers were cheap ways of acquiring part of our 1970s manufacturing heritage, but didn't seem to have the classic interest that British Leyland products (such as the Morris Marina and Austin Allegro) had, and the Avengers, Sunbeams and Alpines were arguably better cars. I think more people would save them if running them were easier - it's almost 20 years since the Linwood plant stopped building Avengers and Sunbeams, and almost 15 years since the last Alpine (effectively the last Chrysler Europe product) was built, so I'm not sure what the spares situation was.
Chrysler UK was still known as the Rootes Group with the Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and Commer (commercial vehicle) brands when the Avenger was introduced. It was not until the following year that the first Chrysler-badged model (the Spanish-built 180/2-Litre) was introduced, and it took until 1976 for the last of the Hillman-branded cars (Singer and Sunbeam having died earlier) to become Chryslers.
The new car, a small-medium sedan and wagon to compete with cars such as the Ford Escort (first introduced in 1968 as a rear wheel drive sedan), Austin 1300 and Vauxhall Viva. It was to be very similar in size to the "Arrow" range of cars introduced in 1966, but these sold in a higher price class, competing with the Ford Cortina. Also, these cars were available as Singers, which were done out with wood trim and chrome in a luxury style - in those days visual opulence sold well, with people enjoying the envious glances that such showings of visible extra expense brought.
The new car was to be just a basic Hillman, so no frills, but a low price and conventional (yet contemporary) technology. As such the car featured live rear axle suspension, a four-speed manual gearbox, two or four-door sedan (or four-door wagon) body and overhead-valve all-iron engine of 1250 or 1500cc capacity. Compare that with the Austin Maxi, a competing product launched the previous year - 5-speed gearbox, front wheel drive, overhead cam engine, hatchback body, independent gas suspension...yet the Avenger was just right for the British public who were scared of new-fangled technology and it is said used spark plug access and cheap exhaust replacement as primary considerations when choosing a new car.
Selling in basic DL or plusher GL form to begin with, the Avenger's semi-fastback styling, with unusual L-shaped rear lights and the distinctive Hillman feature of having the petrol cap in the rear panel between the lights. Usually most cars have their registration plates fitted here, not so the Avenger which had it located under the bumper.
Even though it didn't take well to the US, where it was sold as a Cricket, the Avenger sold well in its home country. In 1973 the engines were increased in size to 1300 and 1600cc. A year earlier, mainly for rallying purposes a limited-production model called the Tiger (evoking memories of the Sunbeam Tiger, an older Alpine with a V8 engine, perhaps?) was launched. It had a hot 1500cc engine that produced, in standard form, around 90hp net (107 bhp gross @ 6100 rpm, 90 lb ft torque @ 4,200 rpm).
Externally, the car was Sundance Yellow, with a broad black stripe, square headlights, a bonnet bulge, and a rear spoiler (the first three were white with a blue stripe). Later versions had four round headlights and a black bonnet, but lost their magnesium Minilite wheels in favor of much cheapter Exacton alloy wheels (thanks, Russell Mowat, for modifications); Wardance Red was an option to Sundance Yellow. In a quest for more rallying power BRM developed some sophisticated twin-cam 16-valve heads around British and Brazilian Avenger blocks, with up to 205hp available from 2-liters. These cars were campaigned in the UK from 1974 to 1977, and its quite possible that no more survive today. (Thanks to Marcus Chambers, Avenger Tiger Model Registrar & Magazine Editor for the Avenger & Sunbeam Owners Club, for clarifications.)
In 1976, with the impending introduction of the Chrysler Alpine (or Simca 1308 [Bill Watson says Simca 1510] in its native France), the Hillman marque was at last killed off. The Imp died (in fact no more development had really been done since the late 1960s), leaving its Linwood, Scotland factory free. It was decided that Alpine production should start at the Coventry, England plant (where all Hillman Avengers and Plymouth Crickets had been built), so production of the Hunter (the last of the "Arrow" cars that would die in 1979) should be moved to Ireland, and the Avenger to Scotland. [The Alpine, a four-door hatchback with a 102" wheelbase, used torsion bars in the front suspension]
At this time it was decided that the Avenger should get a facelift. This was done with larger rectangular headlights with indicators alongside (rather than in the front bumper as they were before) and a new grill featuring the Chrysler pentastar. Indeed, from the front the car resembled the Alpine giving a new corporate identity to Chrysler UK (that would later be strengthened by the Sunbeam, an Avenger derivative, and the Horizon). At the rear the biggest change took place. The L-shaped lights were gone, replaced by a full-width narrow tail panel with long rectangular tail-lights. Inside the dashboard now looked like the futuristic (for the time!) Alpine piece. A new model-name system was introduced: LS, GL and GLS. LS models were equivalent to the DL, GL was as before, and GLS was the "luxury" model, with vinyl roof, fog lamps, wheel covers, radio, seats with headrests, etc. etc. All sports models were gone; rallying attention focused on the smaller, but still Avenger-based Sunbeam that was about to be released, which would produce two cars - one for the clubman, the Ti, which featured a 100hp 1600 version of the Avenger Tiger engine, and one for winning the World Rally Championship outright (which it did in 1980), the Sunbeam-Lotus, which developed 160hp from the Lotus 2.2-liter engine; this car was good for 0-60 in 7 seconds and a top whack of 125mph; very similar to the Omni GLH concept, and not bad from a car the size of a Chevy Chevette!
And that is how the Avenger stayed. Cars were rebadged as Talbots in 1979 following the Peugeot takeover of Chrysler UK, and still sold steadily when the Linwood factory was closed in late 1981. They appealed to the British public as well-equipped, solid, sensible family cars. Many were sold as company or fleet cars - my dad had one of the last, a 1980 LS wagon.
Avengers were used by quite a few of the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland forces as a police patrol car, particularly in the late 1970s; the 1600cc engine made 81hp in standard form, and could make more with a little messing.
Chrysler-Argentina built the Dodge 1500 and the related Dodge Durango.
All in all, almost three-quarters of a million Avengers were made; it is not known if this total included Plymouth Cricket production. The vast majority were sold in the UK. More than you would think survive today.
(All development pictures are from STYLE AUTO magazine.)
Early styling sketches of the B Car showed very clear Detroit influences, with a semi-fastback style that would become an Avenger trademark.
The proportions are more daring than the final model, but the character of the Avenger shines through.
Again, pure Detroit, and none the worse for it - this picture could have been produced by any of the US producers as a styling sketch for the mid-1960s.
Another Avenger trademark, the L-shaped rear lamps, were designed in from an early stage in the project.
The first quarter scale clay model is worked upon by (right to left) lead modeller, Ray Key, exteriors modelling supervisor, Matt Muncaster, exterior chief stylist Reg Myatt, and Roy Axe.
One of the proposals that went to full-size clay for submission to management. This version was passed over.
Working off the drawing to get the full size clay model. The di-noc'ed version of the final car was given the green light on 16 November 1965.
A styling scheme for the interior (a red one was also made) produced under the guidence of Executive Styling director Bob Saward.
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