1975-1977 Chrysler Centura history and model cars

Chrysler Centura GLRegular readers will know that my tireless dedication to bringing you models of interesting and worthy prototypes can occasionally get sidetracked when I stumble across something so rightfully neglected that it becomes totally irresistible. And boy, do I have a beauty for you this time: the Australian Chrysler Centura, described by one commentator as the worst car ever foisted on the Australian motoring public. Curiously enough, when it first appeared the motoring press seemed to fall in love with it, but the punters disagreed.

I never came across any mention of this car during my recent look at Australian motoring, but discovered it in the December 2004 issue of Collectible Automobile, an excellent bi-monthly American magazine with well-researched and well-written articles. Despite its title, it sometimes includes cars which are interesting sidelines to motoring history, rather than being seriously desirable to most collectors. The Centura is one of these, and is probably so little-known to most people (even younger Australians) that the story may be worth telling. If it isn't, that won't stop me.

It all began in Coventry in the mid-60s when Rootes designers were planning a replacement for the Humber Sceptre, which at the time was a variant on the Hillman Super Minx. Chrysler had just moved into Europe by buying Simca (who were in need of a successor to the ageing Simca 1500) then set about taking over the Rootes Group. So the French and British engineers got talking and decided the new Sceptre would accept a French engine and could fill both their requirements. Project management was moved to France and the result was the Chrysler 180 - later to become the Chrysler 2-litre. Introduced in 1970, it was a moderately successful car praised for its performance, space and comfort and criticized for its slightly “old man” looks and heavy steering.

Chrysler CenturaWe now move to Australia, where the 1970s oil crisis was badly affecting sales of the most popular and profitable full-size cars. Holden responded quickly with the Torana, in short-nosed 4-cylinder and long-nosed 6-cylinder versions. It resembled a typical mid-size mid-60s Opel but, bizarrely, was based on the HA Viva platform. Ford also shoehorned a 6 into the Mk III Cortina (in image terms, having a 6-cylinder car in your model range was the “must have” equivalent of a V8 in the States). But Chrysler Australia had a mid-size problem. The new Hillman Hunter inherited from the Rootes take-over proved unpopular and had been discontinued. A collaboration with Mitsubishi meant they could offer a version of the 1.6 Galant, but they had nothing between that and the big Valiant (an American “compact” but full-size in Australian terms). In 1972 a Chrysler 180 was brought over for evaluation and deemed unsuitable for local conditions, but a year later, in desperation, an engineering team went to France and set about converting the 180 to their needs. (Rootes-Chrysler.co.uk wrote: “When the company launched the Chrysler Centura in March 1975, it was indeed a seriously revamped 180!”)

Laurence Roe wrote: I did my fitting and turning apprenticeship with Chrysler Australia in the 1960s, mostly making dies. I decided to see the world in 1970, and ended up working at Chrysler's factory in Linwood, near Glasgow. My first day in the die manufacturing shop I was shown a large collection of dies with red rings painted around many of the screw holes. The red rings painted around many screw holes were to indicate non-metric screws. They said they kept running out of them.

I was told that the dies were for a new model of car that was to have been produced in France and the UK, but the dies were not to be used, since an identical set had also been made in France. Since the British were about to join the EU, the tariff barriers would disappear, so there was no point in having 2 factories producing the car for the same market, so the French factory had got the nod. That car was what ended up later being imported into Australia from France. No idea what ever happened to the second set of dies which would have cost heaps to make.

The 6-cylinder Chrysler Hemi engine was considered essential to meet performance demands and local content requirements, but it was a bit longer than the existing power units. One solution was to shorten the drive train to accommodate it. The resulting prototype was a well-balanced, good-handling car. The other solution was to leave the drive train alone and push the engine forward. The central section of the nose and bumper had to be pushed forward to make room.

This produced a very nose-heavy car with marked understeer and poor rear traction. But Chrysler management, possibly influenced by the successful Cortina, liked the more aggressive look and went for that option despite the engineering reservations. They saw it as a car aimed at “soft” urban users, not driving enthusiasts.

With a limited budget, the styling effort was restricted to the necessary nose and bonnet changes, round headlamps to comply with Australian requirements, and a revised rear panel with large tail lights (although to save cost and complication the inner sections mounted on the boot lid were non-functional). The rear body had to be beefed up with heavier panels to deal with flexing caused by the Hemi's torque.

As the production start-up approached, the French government got a bit naughty and started nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific. In response, the Australian unions refused to handle French imports, so initial supplies of Centura components were stranded on container ships or on the dockside for several months. Rumors of early Centuras being corroded by sea air before they were even built may be just stories. Or may not.

When the ban was lifted, Centura engines were put in at the Chrysler plant in Tonsley Park and the new car was announced in two forms: Centura 4 and Centura 6. The lower model was almost pure Chrysler 2-Litre, but with drum brakes at the rear as opposed to the discs of Euro-spec models. It used a French differential and the French overhead cam 1981cc engine with twin barrel Weber carburetors. The 2.0 litre version was initially available as a basic model or as a sports model which included a sports exhaust system: 4-into-2-into-1. The four cylinder models lacked the vented disc brakes of the sixes and some had a 4-stud wheel pattern as opposed to the sixes 5-stud pattern.

The Centura 6 was a different kettle of fish altogether. An Australian Chrysler Valiant Hemi engine, Australian Borg-Warner gearbox and differential were installed at Tonsley Park. The big engine was available in 3.5-litres (140bhp SAE) or 4.0-litres (165bhp SAE) versions mated to either a 3 or 4 speed manual gearbox or an automatic box. Air conditioning was offered as an option 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 V8 318cubic inch powered prototypes but the body lacked the rigidity to cope with the torque.

The two trim levels were XL (the cheaper model) and GL (with vinyl roof, fancy hub caps, mock wood dashboard trim, clock, and rev counter standard).

When the car was finally released in March 1975, it got rave reviews in the motoring press as the best Chrysler ever, more powerful, spacious, comfortable and refined than its rivals. The road testers were even enthusiastic about its handling, possibly because they were a bunch of mad buggers and enjoyed wrestling with it. Potential buyers saw it differently.

The basic body, never cutting-edge in terms of styling, was already five years old, and the nose job made it look quite a bulky car, rather than a clearly downsized alternative to the Valiant. The steering was heavy. The nose ploughed outwards in corners, the rear axle kicked and spun its tires under hard acceleration, and a rear brake limiter system was needed to keep the light back end under control. It also needed power-assisted steering, but the French engineers, who had apparently been obstructive from the start about “their” baby being messed around, dragged their heels on this or any other modifications. Build quality was bad (the Australian engineers blamed the “dreadful engineering” of the basic Anglo-French body design for poor tolerances and assembly problems, but local quality control was also lacking). Oh yes, and they hated that Gallic dashboard, poncy little dials with fuel and temperature gauges where the speedo ought to be. Chrysler themselves may have been luke-warm about the car, because it was never promoted as vigorously as it might have been.

Chrysler KC CenturaIn April 1977 the slow-selling KB was replaced by the KC (identifiable mainly by additional fine vertical bars in the grille and other minor trim changes) which addressed many of the shortcomings. But like other cars before and since, it couldn't overcome the poor initial public perception and the misgivings about build quality. The plans called for 12-15,000 cars a year, but in 3 years they built just under 20,000, so it was a pretty significant market failure and may have contributed to Chrysler's eventual decision to sell out to Mitsubishi, who took over the No. 3 spot in Australia.

The model

I used a tatty French Dinky Chrysler 180 for this nose-and-tail job. Some original body details, like the creases in the upper flanks, are maybe not quite as crisp or well-emphasised on the Dinky as they might be, but it did the job. The nose was re-shaped with filler and the grille is a carved block of plastic with photo-etch brass strips, foil and a black wash. The paired headlamps sit in two 4mm holes drilled in a bit of brass measuring just 4.5 x 9 mm, and words cannot describe my foolish pride at producing two of these surrounds in only 3 attempts. The rear lights are plastic with clear red lacquer. The rear panel is Humbrol aluminum, because matt aluminum foil didn't look sufficiently different from the bright chrome surround, but it looks a little bit rougher than foil would have.  Painting the body to look like a lemon was purely incidental. I did remember to convert the dash to RHD, but forgot to add the front number plate before taking the photos. Sorry.

My Net searches didn't produce front and rear photos which were clearly of the same car, so I suspect I may have a KB grille and KC rear trim, but you get the general idea. For better or worse, they did actually manage to produce something that looked distinctly different from the European car, particularly when you see one with metallic bronze paint, white vinyl roof and a coachline which gives a more emphatic Coke-bottle look. In other words, a Mark III Cortina.

There is nothing in the world of motoring that doesn't have its fans and there are still people out there who love their Centura's straight-line performance and accept its other failings.

chrysler centura model

chrysler centura and chrysler 180 cars

The feedback (from Leslie-John Newman)

At the time Chrysler Australia were selling Hunters, all the big three manufactures [Holden,Ford, Chrysler] had been caught out with the sudden popularity of Japanese cars. The Hunter and to a lesser extent the 4 cylinder LJ/LC Toranas and 4 cylinder Cortinas/Escorts were perceived as lacking in comparison to the Japanese competition in terms of reliability and the many "extras" such as heaters, radios, carpet, comprehensive tool kits which came as standard on the Japanese cars but which had to be purchased [where available] as an extra on the Hunters and Toranas etc. Also at the time, as I recall, it was widely known by the Australian public that Chrysler Australia was in serious trouble, as was Leyland Australia, and nobody was willing to buy a Hunter least it become an orphan down the track. And whilst there may have been some anti-French bias to the Centura's origins, I suspect the real reason Centuras didn't sell was because buyers had the same fears about them becoming orphans if Chrysler Australia folded, as they had with the Hunter. That and the fact that Chrysler Australia wasn't well regarded as a producer of quality cars. The Sigma sold well and saved Chrysler Australia, for a while at least, simply because Chrysler were very careful to promote the Sigma as a fully imported Japanese car and therefore no quality control issues etc. Incidentally, the Hunter, despite its detractors, was a very good car [ I had three of them over the years] the problem was, like the Centura, Chrysler dealers hated them and didn't put much effort in to trying to sell them.

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