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Chrysler UK - United Kingdom: A History of Chrysler in Britain

The history of Chrysler cars and commercials in the UK goes back to Maxwell, and the setting-up by Walter P. Chrysler of his own company. Maxwell, which transformed into Chrysler, had an importation and assembly operation near the Royal Botanical Gardens, on the banks of the River Thames in Mortlake Road, Kew, Surrey.

Canadian Valiant bound for sale in England

Chrysler Motors Limited imported Chryslers and Plymouths (e.g. the "Airflow" models which were named after Aerodromes and Surrey towns), and Dodge Brothers (Britain) Limited which imported and assembled Dodge and DeSoto chassis. These were all right hand drive (RHD) and included Canadian-built cars as well as US-built, the Canadian parts incurring less duty as a result of being in the Commonwealth. Imports included the Canadian "Plodge" (Plymouth based Dodge and DeSoto) Dodge Kingsway, De Soto Diplomat, and Plymouth Fury.

Jim Benjaminson wrote that the first Plymouth PA officially sold in England appears to have been a 1932 model, while the first announcement of Plymouth’s upcoming arrival was in 1930. The cars were often renamed to match London suburbs, so that the Plymouth became the Chrysler Kew or Wimbledon, the DeSoto a Richmond or Kingston, and the Airflow a Croydon. The Dodge truck became a Surrey. Dutch writer Frank Van der Heul said Plymouth was renamed because the name was not well thought of, being associated with drunken sailors.

The vehicles were all right-hand-drive, based on American pressings, with standard or special export engines. The latter were downsized to reduce taxation; with one model having a shorter-stroke six.

Dodge cars and trucks were imported or assembled by Karrier; Dodge commercial trucks were made in Kew and other places for some time.

Canadian imports were handled in Canada by Chrysler International in Windsor, Ontario, and then through Chrysler International in Belgium which was in charge of European imports.

Chrysler International containers

At the 1965 London Motor Show, the Chrysler advertisement in the show catalogue had the familiar Pentastar, and "VALIANT, PLYMOUTH, CHRYSLER, DART, DODGE, IMPERIAL" emblazoned on it (note the separation of Valiant and Dart). On the Chrysler Motors stand stood:

  • a Chrysler Imperial Le Baron 4-Door Hardtop, LHD with 440 V8, posibly US-sourced
  • a Plymouth Fury III V8 4-Door Saloon RHD with 318 V8
  • a Plymouth Barracuda 2 Door HT LHD with the 273 V8
  • a Plymouth Valiant 200 4-Door Saloon, RHD with the 225 inch Six and the 3-speed Torqueflite as with the others.

On the Dodge Brothers Stand next door were:

Assembly at Kew was phased out in the late 1960s, as Chrysler attained control over Rootes Group and invested in modernizing Rootes’ vehicles and facilities.

AMCs were also sold in England; until the Javelins and Gremlins, converted to RHD in England, the AMCs were badged as Ramblers. The Rambler name was finally dropped in the UK with the 1976 Matadors, possibly the last use of the Rambler name worldwide. After 1976, Matadors were North American-sourced. Over the years, AMCs were imported from the USA, Canada, and from their Belgian assembly plant in LHD form. Renault ran the Belgian plant, which exported throughout Continental Europe. Chrysler UK took over from AMC after a short gap when the importation of AMC cars and Jeeps finished, conversions of the latter being undertaken to RHD with a chain-drive system.

UK Barracuda

For the 1967 Model Year, Chrysler International had decided, as would Ford for 1967, and Chevrolet/Pontiac for 1969, that the Australian subsidiary was to provide RHD cars worldwide, save for South Africa which had its own versions of the cars. Thus, the 1966 model year was the last time right-hand-drive Chrysler cars were imported from Chrysler. Chrysler International also consolidated imports, moving them from the separate Kew companies to its office in Bowater House, Knightsbridge, London, in 1969.

Chrysler International SA in Belgium appointed Chrysler Motors Ltd. to be the Australian-import concessionaires, and Warwick Wright Ltd. to be the distributors. The Australian imports were announced in time for the October London Show in Autocar magazine, 16th October 1966. They were all of the VC Valiant series, and the models imported initially were a medium and premium saloon (the latter with a V8), a medium and premium Safari estate car, Regal Highline saloon (automatic), and Regal Highline Safari.

Prices after tax went up from £1795 to £2545, which was about the cost of a Mustang. Engines were to be the 3690 cc Six (225 slant six) and 273 cid V8, with automatic transmission only. Motor tested a VC Valiant Safari Wagon with the six, and quoted a top speed of 92.8 mph, and 17.7 mpg. Sale price was £1945, around the same as the Jaguar 420 automatic; a lot of money, yet Jaguars were always a value then! Specialist Rootes Group dealers sold Aussie Chryslers on a shared-commission basis with Warwick Wright, similar to the Ford set-up.

At the October 1966 Motor Show were the Valiant Medium 4-door station wagon in white with 225 in Six, Torqueflite automatic transmission with manual 3-speed to order, Valiant Regal 4-door saloon in white with the 225 Six and auto transmission with manual to order, Valiant premium 4-door station wagon in green with 273 V8 and Torqueflite, and the Valiant premium 4-door saloon in gold.

Chrysler containers

Several large Humbers were fitted with Chrysler V-8s instead of the standard British-built Six as an experiment. In the end, the Aussie end of the Corporation were appointed to be sole suppliers of big RHD V-8 cars. After the big Humbers were dropped by Rootes in 1968, the new Humbers were based on the Hillman "Arrow" series, a family-size saloon upgraded. Lovely as they were, Rootes could not have competed in that segment of the market with such anachronistic designs.

For the 1967 and 1968 model years, only the VE Valiant Saloon and Estate Car were imported (the Regal Six may also have been brought in). Autocar magazine quoted 106 mph Top Speed, 0-60 mph in 11.3 seconds, and 18 mpg typical fuel consumption for the Valiant saloon.

The 1969 models included the VF Regal 770 saloon and estate car, and the related VIP. The Valiants did now show up for the London Auto Show, but Rootes Motors Ltd. (Dodge Division) exhibited the Dodge Challenger with the 318 V8, the Charger R/T with 440 Wedge V8, and Plymouth Sport Fury 4-door hardtop with the 383 V8. Chrysler International SA of Knightsbridge, near Harrods’, was exhibiting the Chrysler Imperial Le Baron 4-door hardtop with 440 V8, Chrysler 300 two-door hardtop with 440 V8, and a Chrysler 300 convertible with the 440.

Also shown were 1969 Plymouth Barracudas (sold as Valiant Barracudas in South Africa). The prototype right hand drive car, #25, was imported in early summer 1968, advertised by Warwick Wright Motors Limited, a Rootes Group-owned dealership chain. Chrysler already owned a strong interest in Rootes, and would eventually buy the rest of the company; they sold it to Peugeot along with the profitable Simca for a substantial amount.

The 1970 VG and 1971 VH Regal saloons and estates, all automatics and Australian Hemi-Six engines, were sold. The VH Charger was sold as well, though it did not appear in the Weekly Price Lists [Graeme Roberts added, “Autocar tested a 318 V8 Charger 770 in 1971 or 1972, more or less as assembled in New Zealand with a 265 six.”]. The words “160 BHP” featured prominently in the badging of the VG Regal saloon.

For 1972, the VH was again available in Saloon and Estate Car versions, automatics only. The CH Chrysler by Chrysler model was launched in April 1973 but remained in the 1974 Price Lists.

For 1973 and 1974, the VJ Valiants were available in Regal Saloon automatic form with the 265 Hemi-Six of (4.5 liters) as before, the Regal estate car automatic with the 5210 cc 318 V8, the Charger automatic with the 318 V8 and either the CH or CJ saloon Automatic with the 5900 cc 360 V8.

It is interesting to note that the Aussie Centura KB was launched in March 1975, since this was a British design — a smaller version of the Hillman Avenger which was sold in Europe as a Sunbeam, and in the USA as the Plymouth Cricket. The Chrysler 180 and 2 Litre were built by Chrysler's French subsidiary, Simca, though the 180 was the only UK version available initially. Simca exported parts to Chrysler Australia by way of reverse-trading in 1973, though the first models were not sold until 1975. They were 'Australianised' with the imported 2 Litre (1981 c.c.) Four, the Valiant Hemi-Six of 3.5 Litres and the 4-Litre Six, replaced by the KC model in 1977. The 2 Litre was the first car I remember as a young man starting-out on a carrier as being automatic-only, which I gathered at the time was not necessarily what punters wanted. This seems to have been the one-and-only attempt by Chrysler International to effect an exchange of auto parts.

During 1975, the known models on sale in the UK were the VK Valiant Regal Saloon Automatic with the 4342 c.c. Hemi-Six, Charger Automatic with the 5211 c.c. V8, and the allegedly model CH [it must have been the CJ] Saloon Automatic with the 5900 c.c. V8.

Based on their absence from the June 1976 Price Lists, I believe that the VK models marked the end of importation into the UK. In 1975 Chrysler UK Ltd. was launched to replace Rootes; former Hillmans and such were re-badged as Chryslers. The Chrysler name was later dropped after PSA Group bought them out, to be renamed Peugeot-Talbot, and vehicles in showrooms were available to be re-badged as Talbots, a famous name from the past. In the end, Talbot survived only on commercial vehicles which disappeared to become either Peugeot or Citroen commercials or MPVs, or if made by the collaborative ventures, a Fiat or a Lancia. The last Talbot-badged car was a Sunbeam Hatchback — not one of the former Chrysler UK's design successes.

Why did the Aussie Chryslers not sell in any great numbers, and why no later than 1976? The reasons are plentiful: fuel consumption being more and more important, depreciation, lack of spare parts, exchange-rate fluctuations, pricing a non-luxury car in the luxury market. There is still a thriving Owners' Club, and I congratulate them on their achievements with regard to tying-together owners for the purposes of meeting, spare parts, etc.

North American cars were sold at a luxury car price, with extras as standard. I believe that Aussie Chryslers were bought by the various High Commission staff as well as the various State Government officials based in London; all State Governments had offices near the High Commission in the Strand/Aldwych, central London.

After an absense in the 1970s, Chrysler re-entered the market in the 1980s with a new facility near Dover, Kent which was set-up to import the successful Jeep Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, Wrangler 4x4s, and later the Dodge Viper, Plymouth Prowler, Chrysler Voyager, and the Chrysler Neon. They also sold a few Chrysler brand cars, such as the New Yorker, for those who wanted a luxury car with difference.

The present day situation

By 2010, after ten years of ownership by Cerberus and Daimler, Chrysler barely existed in the United Kingdom, selling just the Grand Voyager minivan (starting at $42,100 with a 2.8 liter diesel; a 3.8 liter gas engine was optional, but both had automatics).

Fiat, however, proposed to sell its Lancia lineup under the Chrysler name, converting existing Lancia dealers over. Possibly ignoring that long term plan, Chrysler’s own Web site, Chrysler posted “Vision 2011″ on their web site:

2011 promises to be one of the most important years ever for Chrysler as we take the brand to all new heights. We will be introducing two new products to the Chrysler range, which will cement our aims to deliver stylish cars now with best in class capability.

In February 2011, the Vision 2011 graphic included part of a Chrysler 200 tail-light, but only one car was shown on the site: the Grand Voyager, starting at £27,495, with an advertised 30 mpg combined (39 highway). Three models were offered — all VM 2.8 diesel-powered (161 hp / 265 lb-ft), all with six-speed automatics.

furthering luxury

Notes from David Hayward

A few years ago I saw at a local car show a rather odd looking Barracuda...it turned out to be serial #25, built at the Hamtrammck Plant. It was registered in August 1968 and imported by Warwick Wright Limited, Chysler International's British distributors [based in central London and owned by Rootes]. The car was the first right hand drive Barracuda, #24 off the line and virtually hand built with different rear end trim from the production cars. It was shipped to London and may have been the 1968 London Motor Show car. It had the 273 V-8. This was the pre-production version of the last US RHD Chryslers until the PT Cruiser, although a question mark arises as to whether the 1970 Dodge Monaco was RHD or converted for SA.

Auto show listings and price lists

Chrysler ads in CAR magazine, 1956-1963

  • June 1956: Chrysler New Yorker, DeSoto Diplomat and Firesweep, Plymouth Savoy
  • May 1957: Plymouth Savoy, Dodge Kingsway and Custom Royal, DeSoto
    Diplomat and Firesweep
  • October 1957: Chrysler Saratoga, Plymouth Savoy, Dodge Kingsway Custom Royal and Suburban, De Soto Diplomat and Firesweep
  • June 1958: Chrysler Windsor, DeSoto Diplomat and Firesweep, Dodge Kingsway Suburban and Custom Royal, Plymouth Plaza Savoy and Suburban
  • June 1959: Chrysler Windsor, De Soto Diplomat and Sportsman and Firesweep, Plymouth Belvedere and Suburban
  • June 1960: Chrysler New Yorker and Valiant, De Soto Diplomat and Suburban and Firesweep, Dodge Pioneer and Polara, Plymouth Belvedere
  • June 1961: De Soto Diplomat and Rebel, Dodge Lancer and Pioneer, Plymouth Belvedere and Valiant
  • June 1962: De Soto Diplomat and Rebel, Dodge Lancer and Plymouth
    Belvedere and Valiant
  • June 1963: Chrysler Valiant and Dodge 330

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