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Chrysler of South Africa: from 1910 Maxwell to 2017 Jeep

1962 south african valiant (plymouth)

Chrysler in South Africa: the early years

In the Plymouth Bulletin, Fred Schnetler wrote that the future Chrysler’s first presence in South Africa came with imported Maxwells in 1910. That continued with Chryslers when the company changed.

Daredevil Gerry Bouwer broke several intercity speed records in Chrysler cars, taking a 1928 Chrysler 72 from Cape Town to Cairo, through the bush country, in just 93 days. With his wife, he drove from London to Cape Town in the same car, in just 40 days — in the days before highways and, in many areas, before paved roads.

The first Plymouths showed up in 1928 — pricier than the Ford and Chevrolet, because they were imported (until 1941), while competitors were locally assembled; but the Plymouth’s durability made it popular. South Africa had few paved roads, and the intense heat would knock out cars with less well engineered cooling and oiling systems.

Early cars made in South Africa by American companies had few changes, according to Alan Schikkerling; the main difference was the steering wheel and pedals, which had to be moved for right hand drive.

In the Plymouth Bulletin, Neil Lith, formerly managing director of the Sigma Motor Corporation in South Africa (the successor to Chrysler South Africa), wrote that, in 1941, an assembly plant was built in Cape Town by Bill Atkinson, Bert Oates, and Len Oates. The plant made military materials from 1942 to 1945. A second assembly plant, owned by Atkinson & Oates and McCarthy, was built in Durban in 1947.

south african dodge

Fred Schnetler pointed out that the South African products used locally sourced glass, paint, tires, batteries, and upholstery — which is why South African produced vehicles, down to the cheapest Plymouth, had real leather upholstery.

American cars were becoming more expensive, due to their large size and devaluation of the British pound (South Africa was in the Commonwealth), so both plants started to build British and European cars in 1950. These included Rootes, Peugeots, Standards, and Triumphs. In 1958, Chrysler production was exclusively at the Atkinson Oates plant in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town.

In 1960, Chrysler Corporation took up 50% ownership of the Cape Town plant and changed the name to Chrysler South Africa (Neil Lith was Managing Director for some years leading up to 1962, when he became Managing Director of the Bus Bodies Group in Port Elizabeth.)

Chrysler South Africa quickly put the Valiant into production, selling it the DeSoto Rebel and Valiant (prior imported models had also been sold as Dodge Lancers); the Plymouth name was dropped. R and S series Valiants were V200 models, the same as American specification V200s; like the American cars, the first ones were labeled on the firewall, “Valiant, a Division of Chrysler, Detroit, Michigan.”

Thanks to Brendan Milne of Durban, Natal Province, RSA for the extensive shipment of articles and ads sent to Mike Sealey.

1961-1968: Full lines and record sales

by Mike Sealey

Chrysler South Africa went through some fairly major changes between 1961 and 1964. In 1961, they sold Plymouths and Valiants, Dodges, Darts and Lancers, and DeSotos, Diplomats and Rebels. It also appears that they sold trucks under the Dodge, Fargo, and DeSoto names. Chryslers and Imperials were not officially marketed in South Africa in the early ’60s but could be ordered.

1962 south african valiant

South Africa’s Car magazine ran small blurbs on a ’64 New Yorker 4 door hardtop delivered to an unnamed private owner in November ’63 (their January 1964 issue), and a ’64 Imperial LeBaron 4dr hardtop "imported specially for a customer in Pretoria" (their March 1964 issue).

To give an idea how the number of Chrysler makes and models were pared down between 1963 and 1964, compare this blurb from a January 1964 full-line ad:

"Chrysler South Africa, Cape Town. Manufacturers of Dodge, Valiant and Simca Cars and Dodge Trucks."

...with this line from a May 1964 ad for the Parts Division:

"Always insist on Mopar parts for your Dodge, Plymouth, DeSoto, Valiant, Lancer, Rebel or Simca cars; and for Dodge, DeSoto and Fargo trucks."

The cars were still similar to their American counterparts, but for the right-hand-drive driving position and other minor details (e.g. the 1964 Signet was only sold as a 4 door sedan, which was not sold in North America; it used the US Valiant body, with bucket front seats, and might be called the missing link between the US Signet and Australia’s AP6 Regal sedan.)

A topline four-door compact wasn’t a Chrysler exclusive in South Africa. Brendan also sent info on the Rambler Rogue four door sedan and station wagon. The Rogue was the sporty version of the American in the US, and was only offered as a hardtop or a convertible. The South African Rogue was assembled in South Africa by Nissan.

There was a major cutback in 1964, because the South African government decreed that all manufacturers would have fewer models — so that, if each were to focus on one or two body styles in a smaller number of trim levels, it would become profitable to assemble locally. They seem to have also at least considered closing off automakers with too small a market share.

Rambler was threatened with closure after only selling 315 cars in South Africa in 1964; AMC took manufacturing rights away from long-time local partner Stanley Motors (who also assembled Hillmans and Peugeots, and who retained Rambler dealership rights in Natal) and started their own operation, American Motors South Africa (Pty) Ltd., which, at least in the beginning, shared Nissan/Datsun’s assembly plant in Pretoria.

It doesn’t look as if the small number of models policy lasted very long in South Africa, which is known to have gotten Barracudas, Marlins and Javelins (and I believe Mustangs and perhaps Camaros/Firebirds) in later years, but it seems to have had a chilling effect on makes with lower sales numbers in the policy’s earliest years.

by the allpar staff
(parts based on Mike Sealey’s work)

The Valiant was the top-selling car in South Africa from 1966 to 1968 — outselling Volkswagen’s popular, cheaper 1500 model as well as any other vehicle sold in the country. When Valiant’s 11,862 sales overcame all competitors, it was the first time in twenty years an American car was the best-selling car in South Africa.

Pretoria built South African Chrysler Valiant car

Valiant duplicated its feat in 1967, and again in 1968, when Valiant sales hit an all-time high of 15,026 — 1,436 units more than the second-best VW 1500. Needing more space, Chrysler SA bought a 147 hectare site in Silverton (close to Pretoria, and sometimes referred to as the Pretoria plant) and, in 1968, moved all its assembly operations to the new plant.

South Africa tightened its local content rules, requiring vehicles to have domestic-production engines to be considered locally made. One dealer installed the 383 engine into his Valiant Chargers instead of the LA 318 or 340, because it was, like the 225 slant six, made locally; this avoided a hefty set of duties.

After 1968, the Valiants switched from the United States design to gain unique South African characteristics — except for wagons, which were deemed Valiant Safari. The Valiant 100 was renamed Rebel, while the Signet was called the Regal. The Dart was also sold, as the Valiant VIP.

Australian models, which could not easily use the LA-series V8 designed for the Valiants, made do with the 225 Slant Six in performance tune. The base Super 225 was essentially the American design, with 145 hp; the Formula S model used a two barrel carburetor and pushed out 165 hp; while the Charger Power 225 had higher compression and a four-barrel carburetor, and made a respectable 192 hp (all figures are gross), which brought it up to 273 V8 standards while providing better balance through its lighter weight. Around 1971, a Valiant Charger was brought out, essentially a Plymouth Duster with a Dodge front clip.

In 1972, South Africa switched over to Australian bodies, probably to lower engineering costs; both countries required right-hand-drive. However, the Australian Hemi engines were not brought over, due again to local content rules; all had the slant six, with no V8 engine (in Australia, the 340 was used on some luxury models). The Australian Chrysler by Chrysler was sold as the Dodge SE, replacing the VIP.

Between the South African Barracuda (apparently) ’64-’69 US/Canada equivalent other than RHD and no V8 option) and the Australian-sourced Charger, there was an earlier Valiant Charger based on the North American Plymouth Duster/Dodge Demon 2dr coupe. The Duster and Demon were parts of the Valiant and Dart lines respectively.

One reason for the Valiant’s sudden fall from grace in South Africa may have been the switch to the Australian bodies, which were styled to look larger than they were. The switch took place in 1972; the oil crisis hit in 1973, and sales dropped rapidly. Chrysler eventually responded with less-reliable Hillmans — the Hillman Vogue (sold as a Chrysler) and the Hillman Avenger (sold as the Dodge Avenger, then as the Chrysler Avenger) — and with the Mitsubishi Galant, sold, inexplicably, as the Dodge Colt. The Colt would eventually push Valiant completely out of the picture, but by then, Valiants were no longer made (at least under that name) in North America.

Chrysler South Africa in the 1970s (by Troy Nassar)

Pretoria BarracudaIn August of 1976, Chrysler introduced the Colt 1600 GL and Colt 2000 GS, based on the Mitsubishi Galant. Three months later, Chrysler ceased South African operations.

It was at this time that SIGMA was born. There’s a misconception by non-South Africans that Chrysler’s SA unit was taken over by Mitsubishi, but it wasn’t. SIGMA was formed when Chrysler merged with Illings, which was owned by the huge mining and industrial conglomerate, the Anglo-American Corporation.

Illings had its start in South Africa producing International Harvester products and began producing Mazda products in the late 1960s. Chrysler owned 25% of SIGMA with Anglo-American owning the remainder. Production of the Mazda Capella was moved from the Motor Assemblies plant in Durban (owned by Toyota SA) to Silverton, which changed name from Chrysler Park to Sigma Park.   The International Harvester pickups were dropped. The wildly successful Mazda 323 began production six months after SIGMA was formed, and eventually production of Mazda pickups moved to Silverton.

SIGMA continued to produce some Chrysler products. The Avenger and Vogue continued for half a year until they were dropped to make room for the Mazda 323 on the production line. The Valiants and the SE continued, being replaced in March, 1978 by the “Chrysler L” and “Chrysler SE” based on the Australian CL. The enormously popular “Colt Galant” was introduced in September, 1977. The big Dodge D-series pickups continued until early 1980, when it, and the Valiant-based models were dropped.

Sigma acquired the Peugeot-Citroen franchise in early 1979, and there was a brief, failed merger with Leyland in late 1978. Sigma became “Amcar” in 1981/82, and in 1985 it merged with Ford’s South African operations to form SAMCOR, which marketed Ford, Mazda, and a few Mitsubishi commercial vehicles until the 1990s, when Ford took over the operation.


barracudaThese photos of a 1967 Valiant Barracuda are courtesy of Brendan Milne of Durban, South Africa, and made their way to us via Mike Sealey. We’d know it as a 1966, with a 1966 VIN, but the title is for 1967. Note in back the "VALIANT" lettering and the "BY CHRYSLER" emblem in the lower right. The "BY CHRYSLER" emblem appears to be the same as that used on the ’63 DeSoto Rebel.

1967 Chrysler Valiant Barracuda rearJim Dora wrote: "The odd part is that the car has turn indicators on the fenders, the same ones that all of the US models received in 1968. You probably know that those were year-only pieces. My question is whether Chrysler knew of the upcoming government safety regulations."

The body plate would read "Chrysler South Africa Party Ltd." if the paint hadn’t worn off.

1967 Valiant Barracuda front

inside the Chrysler Valiant Barracuda


south african barracuda engine

Rebels (Mike Sealey)

All Rebel information has been moved to a separate page - click here to read it.

The Valiant story (by David Hughes)

The Valiant range of cars were introduced into the RSA starting in 1960. They used the American design until 1971 (from 1968-1971, using the Dart design); starting in 1972, Australian-design Valiants were produced.

By 1965, the Valiant had become the country’s best seller, beating the Ford Cortina and Volkswagen Beetle by a good margin. This was one reason why Chrysler moved its plant from Elsie’s River to Silverton, selling the original plant to Leyland. (Rootes had already taken over the old Stanley Motors factory and started to produce Peugeots there.)

The Valiant was an extremely popular family car, and until the 1990s was a a regular sight on South African roads. The old Valiant also was extremely popular throughout the 1960s and 70s with the police as cruisers (usually the base Rebel model) and with the taxi operators, and was still widely used in some communities in the late 1990s. A sad spinoff of the taxi operator scenario was a high theft rate of private cars to be used as taxis and spares for them.

The model range included:


V200 series and Barracuda (most US Plymouth and Dodge variants rebadged)

LATE 1960s-1980

Rebadged Darts to 1971, from then to the end, Australian Valiants badged as Rebel, Regal, and VIP — including the second generation Barracuda built in RSA from 1967-1971. Station wagons were badged as Safaris, pickups as Drifters.

The Chrysler SE was introduced in 1978, and was based on the Australian Valiant CL and CM; they used a slant six with a four-barrel Carter AFB, not the Australian Hemi Six or American 318 V8. The Chrysler SE had major suspension and trim changes and body shells were made in South Africa; they were not (as we wrote earlier, before Fanie Gerber corrected us) simply rebadged Australian Valiants. These cars were not badged as Valiants.

For what it’s worth, I own a 1973 VJ Regal sedan and a rebadged 1970 Dodge Monaco 383 (known as alternately as a Chrysler 383 or New Yorker, depending what mood took Chrysler SA’s fancy over the 4 years the car was built here). 

Mike Sealey

The A-bodies for the South African market were the Valiant (which may have originally been marketed as a Plymouth, unlike most of the export market), the Dodge Lancer, and the DeSoto Rebel. Larger cars appear to have been typical of the rest of the world, except it appears that bottom-line models such as the Plymouth Plaza and Dodge Seneca may not have been sold there as Brendan is not familiar with these models.

At some point about 1964, Chrysler ZA put all its chips on Valiant, as I’ve seen Valiant articles from this point on but not Dart. (The Rebel name reappeared on the entry-level Valiant about ’68.) The Valiant is credited today with being the car that popularized the use of the automatic transmission in South Africa, a position that started about 1964 with the aggressive marketing of the Torqueflite. Valiant sales multiplied at an amazing rate through the 1960s, and for most of the decade the Valiant was either the most popular car in ZA or was outsold only by the VW Beetle.

While the South African Valiant line was generally much closer to the North American models than the Australian Valiants (at least until the South Africans adopted the Australian VH platform, or as the South Africans called it the "fastbody", in the early ’70s) there was one Australian body style Chrysler South Africa adopted early on, that being the station wagon or estate (known as "Safari" in both countries, probably to the dismay of Pontiac’s South African unit).

Chrysler stopped making Valiant and Dart station wagons in North America after the ’66 model year. Australia used this body a year or so longer in their VC Valiant, the Safari (like the AP5 and AP6 Safaris that preceded it) being closer to the American Valiant than the sedans. The picture I have of a VC Safari shows the US station wagon body with taillights from the US ’64 Valiant! Not sure what the situation was in South Africa during the period between the discontinuation of the North American Valiant/Dart wagon and Australia’s introduction of the VE Safari, but it was about this time that Chrysler South Africa started running a model year behind North America, and this may have bought them time until the VE could come out.

It appears from the pictures I have seen that South Africa used the VE/VF/VG Safari body with a North American front clip. The pictures show what is definitely a Dart front clip with Valiant badging, which would make this a VIP wagon. I haven’t seen pics of the ’68-’72 Valiant-based Rebel or Regal in a Safari, but I assume these models probably exist as well.

Mogie Pillay wrote:

I wish to add that the Dodge Lancer was also badged as a Valiant, just to complicate things. The Valiant range was introduced in 1963 there but the detailing appeared more akin to the US models than the Australian Valiants. In fact for the first few years until the early 70s there appears to be significant differences with the Australian models and the model that appears common appeared in about 1973 as the Valiant Charger which replaced the Barracuda. The VIP model introduced around 1970 appeared based on the Australian model but I do recall detail differences. The Charger was not available there with the "performance" 6 pack engines, only the standard slant 6 engines. The Valiant Rebel/Regal introduced around 1976 was also identical to the Australian model.

Chrysler 383 (by Mike Sealey)

The Chrysler 383 started around 1970; it was a rebadged Dodge Polara (or Monaco). The hubcaps appear to be those used on Newports of the same time period, as does the "Chrysler" script on the C-pillar. The "CHRYSLER" block lettering on the hood appears to be that used on the hood of the domestic 1966 Chryslers. The car was spotted at "Cars in the Park" in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

DeSoto Diplomat (Mike Sealey)

Longtime Chrysler stylist and historian Jeff Godshall was kind enough to send me color photocopies of a ’62 Diplomat brochure printed in Afrikaans. (Interestingly enough, he didn’t get this from Chrysler, but from a vendor at the recent National DeSoto Club national meet in Frankenmuth MI...)

Pics show an airbrushed ’62 Dodge Dart 440/Phoenix sedan with "Diplomat" script atop the fender blade on the front door as seen on a ’62 Plymouth Belvedere or Savoy. The place where the "Dart 440" script would go on a US car is blank, although there is an emblem on the front fender that looks like a DeSoto version of the ’62 Dart hood crest. The dash appears to be a mirror of the LHD dash but instead of one of the B-body instrument clusters uses what looks like a ’62 Lancer unit (this was Australian practice as well, and presumably what was done on all RHD B-bodies).

The hood shows block "D E S O T O" lettering, apparently on a single casting with a bar underneath connecting the letters. This looks like it may have been used on an earlier car, possibly ’50-’52 Diplomat trunk lid lettering, or it may be something smaller. No views of the rear end were provided, and the only difference between this and the domestic Dodge from this view are probably DeSoto script and amber turn signals. The full wheelcovers are not a design I recognize from anything else, mostly plain in style with a Forward Look emblem in the middle. Possibly these are from the Australian Chrysler Royal (I was able to decipher a reference to 6.70x15 tires, as opposed to the 14" tires used on the domestic car).

Chrysler Corporation lineup in South Africa, 1968-1976 (courtesy Troy Nassar)










The current state of older Chryslers in South Africa

Brendan Milne. Most older Chrysler products are getting pretty scarce these days (except cars from late 60s through 70s: Valiants, Monacos, 383s, etc). Most American cars in general were favored by the locals as taxis and as such were not well maintained as well as being used over very rough roads - so survival rate was low. If you want one of these cars here you have to take what you can get.

My 1958 Diplomat has the same plate as do all RHD cars I’ve looked at. All RHD cars seem to use the same dash panel (1957-59). The only LHD cars I’ve seen have been Chrysler New Yorkers, a 1956 and a 1959 - probably privately imported. Virtually all the cars I’ve seen here have been four door sedans.

2013 chrysler south africa adRandy Knox. I was in South Africa and Namibia (2013). Namibia is a spectacular place, about 25% bigger than Texas but with 2.2 million residents.   In South Africa, Chrysler competes with Ford, GM, and all the Japanese, Korean, and European brands, and some Chinese brands, with SUV-type vehicles being the car of choice for many. The Chrysler brand does not appear to hold much of the market but Jeep, particularly the Wrangler, seemed to be everywhere.

Chrysler imports all their vehicles in RHD format. The import duty and VAT makes the cars very expensive. Dodge is represented by only the Journey, and Chrysler by the 300C and Grand Voyager, but Jeep has the entire product line of Grand Cherokee, Patriot, Wrangler, Compass, and SRT Grand Cherokee.  The Jeep Club South Africa shows that there are Jeep nuts in South Africa too.

In Namibia I saw a lot of Jeep vehicles, primarily the older Cherokee (Liberty), Grand Cherokee, and Wrangler, in about equal numbers. Empirically, I’d say Jeep products sell well in Namibia. The standard of living is relatively high, given that the biggest employer and major source of export income is the diamond business. Namibia’s dealer network is serviced out of South Africa.

In South Africa a traffic light is a robot, a parking lot is a car park, and a gas station is a garage. In Namibia, that same gas station is a filling station, a parking lot remains a car park, and a traffic light is just that. I absent mindedly referred to a garage as a gas station and was sarcastically reminded that they use liquid fuel.

For more information, visit Chrysler’s South African Web site and the Plymouth Bulletin — much of the information for this page came from the March-April 1984 issue.

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