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The Chrysler - Hillman Avenger in New Zealand

hillman avenger and alpineHillman and Chrysler Avengers sold well in New Zealand. From 1971 to 1974, they were built by Todd Motor Industries in Petone, Wellington, from British knockdown kits. Production moved during 1974 to a new “Todd Park” plant in Porirua, north of Wellington.

Over the years, Todd Park also built, on the same assembly line, the Hillman Hunter and Chrysler Alpine; Mitsubishi Mirage, Sigma, and Lancer; Chrysler Australia products including the Valiant, Ranger, and Charger; and, odd man out, the Datsun 180B.

In 1978 and 1979, the Avenger was in the New Zealand car sales top ten; Avis especially favoured the Avenger and many an Avis advertisement featured them.

The Avenger was built in New Zealand as a four door saloon (sedan) or five door estate car (wagon); allegedly, six two-door Avengers were imported. The cars were much like British Avengers, with the top of the range renamed to Avenger Alpine GLS (the “Alpine” name was dropped when the Chrysler Alpine was introduced to New Zealand); and the speedometers went totally metric at the end of 1973 to match local laws.

Hillman Avenger

Facelifted models entered production at the beginning of 1977, although some older-style Avengers made in 1976 were registered as 1977s. At this time, both Avenger and Hunter in New Zealand lost the Hillman marque to become Chryslers.

Even after Chrysler became Talbot in Europe in 1979, the New Zealand Avenger was sold as a Chrysler. It finally became a Talbot in July 1980, when the facelifted Talbot Alpine was released onto the Kiwi market. In 1980, New Zealand was reported to have gotten the GLS estate and a unique sport style variant.

Avenger pen set

The Avenger had good rallying record; the Scottish champion rally driver Andrew Cowan raced a two door Avenger 1800 (Brazilian engine) to victory in the 1976 Heatway Rally of New Zealand. Twenty years after production stopped, Avengers were still being used widely for racing in New Zealand, drivers finding them to be versatile racing cars.

The Avenger was the last in a long line of Rootes products sold in New Zealand; in early 1981, it was finally replaced by Mitsubishi cars.

The whole story of the New Zealand Avenger cars

Hillman and Chrysler Avnegers were built here by Todd Motors from 1970 to 1980.

1970 – The beginning.

new zealandThe Avenger was released in the UK in January 1970. Todd Motors were the suppliers and assemblers of all Chrysler and Rootes products to New Zealand, since 1924 (before Chrysler Corporation but not before the Chrysler car, which was first made by Maxwell). Due to the popularity of previous Rootes products in New Zealand, it was natural that the Hillman Avenger would follow into local production. Production duly commenced in late 1970, initially of a single 4 door saloon variant named ‘Super.’

Todd’s also approached Mitsubishi Japan (who had recently forged links with Chrysler Corp) about assembling and distributing their products in New Zealand; Mitsubishi had just released the Galant, which was similar to the Avenger. Talks went well between the two companies, and imports of the Mitsubishi Galant Coupe (Colt Galant or Plymouth, Arrow depending on market) began in 1971, followed to local production in 1972.

1970 - No Australia for Avenger?

At around this time also, Chrysler’s Australian arm had a debate over a replacement for the Hillman Hunter. There were two proposals, the Hillman Avenger Saloon and Mitsubishi’s Galant sedan — a four-door version of the coupe already sold in New Zealand.

crash testing the hillman cars

The Avenger was rejected in favour of the Mitsubishi Galant, to be sold in Australia under the confusingly lengthy moniker of ‘Chrysler Valiant Galant.’ Over time, this Galant would be modified to the Australians’ own tastes, to the point that, after a 1977 redesign (renamed Chrysler Sigma), it was enlarged, built like a tank, and had an optional oversize ‘boat-anchor’ 2.6 litre Astron 4 cylinder under its bonnet. This car was eventually replaced by the wide-body Mitsubishi Magna.

One could only have imagined then how the Avenger would have turned out in Australian hands.

Avenger production at Petone

As mentioned elsewhere, NZ Avengers were sourced in CKD kits from the UK, although they did have some specific local content fitted to them (e.g. wiring, trim materials) and some local specification.

The cars were assembled at Todd’s Petone factory; opened in the 1920s, it had seen better days. Due to high employment, Todd’s mainly hired immigrants from other countries with their first NZ job building cars with ‘their bare hands.’

second-generation cars

At least a few of Todd’s workers took some pride in their workmanship, so the build quality on the New Zealand Avengers was said to have been somewhat better than their UK built counterparts; and you can still a fair number of Avengers today on New Zealand's roads, well over twenty years after the end of production. It would be unsurprising if there are more active, roadworthy and registered Avengers here, than in the UK. They did not rust like the Japanese cars of that time did. At present, a day does not pass without one seeing at least ten Avengers either on the road or in car-parks, this many years after they ceased production!

When the Avenger was released here in late 1970, the only engine available was a 1500cc OHV unit, the largest available for it at the time. Initial sales of the car were average, although it soon built up a positive reputation with buyers. However, it had plenty of rivals, including the Ford Escort Mk1, Vauxhall Viva, Austin 1300, Toyota Corolla, Datsun 1200, and Mazda 808/RX3 rotary.

To boost appeal, a locally-developed sporting Avenger was launched in 1971, complementing the ‘Super’ model. Known as the Avenger ‘TC’, this four door variant had black side stripes, sports hubcaps, locally-made sports seats, full black vinyl interior trim, bright colours and (giving it the TC name) twin carburetors.

1973 – The Avenger Alpine

To replace the TC, at the end of 1972, a new Avenger was announced, unique to New Zealand, called the Alpine. Todds conceived this model as a sporting/luxury package. Features included heavily padded cloth seats, the four round headlight grille and vinyl roof, similar to the UK market GL and GT models. Essentially this car was seen both by Todds and the general public as a Valiant Regal in minature. And yes, the twin carburetors were kept.

Todds also brought Mitsubishi’s Galant 1.6 liter (bolstered to 1.85 liters in 1975) into New Zealand, sold only as a coupe so as not to affect the Hillman Avenger’s sales; it meant that the Avenger 2 door was never released here, though six were either brought over by Todds for evaluation, or privately imported.

At the beginning of 1974, the 1500cc motor was replaced by a 1600cc version, mirroring the UK Avenger; the only exterior change was switching from a rectangular Hillman grille badge to a round one. To coincide with this, the Borg-Warner 4 speed automatic was introduced as an option. With this transmission, an additional Alpine was released, the GLS, which had more standard features to the original, including heated rear window and wood capped doors.

At some point during the run, the Alpine lost its twin carbs and shared the single carb 1.6 with the Super.

During 1973 and into 1974, car sales reached a record 100,000 units a year; local plants could not meet demand, so importers convinced the government to provide more licences for fully assembled cars from overseas. Todd’s Avenger imports included a new top version, the GLS, which had more standard features than the Kiwi assembled Alpine, including cloth trim (added later to the Alpine), heated rear window, and wood capped doors. The UK cars were first imported with the 1.5-litre engine, with three-speed auto option; but 1974 imports had the 1.6 and four-speed automatic option. They also had fully colour-matched interiors in colours such as blue and purple (New Zealand cars had beige or brown vinyl with white headliner and black dashboard and door hardware) and most had metallic paint including blue and purple. The coloured dash crash padding in the UK cars quickly faded in the strong Kiwi sun.

1974 - Change of Factory.

After much planning, a new ‘fresh piece of paper design’ landscaped and environmentally friendly (for the time) assembly plant was built at Todd Park, Porirua, Wellington. This plant would have the potential to produce over 30,000 cars annually (New Zealand at that time had only 3 million people), and be flexible with model changes so that many different cars (from limousine, to minicar to commercial utility!) could be built at any one time.

building a Hillman Avenger in New Zealand

To celebrate, NZ’s AA Motor World ran a large feature article which promoted the new factory and Todd Motors own products. They showed a yellow Hillman Avenger Super being transformed from bare metal to a complete car.

When Todds moved to Todd Park, the Avenger range was expanded somewhat. As there was a public demand for smaller engines, due to the 1973 fuel crisis, the UK Avenger’s shorter stroke 1300cc motor was launched as a lower priced option to the 1600.

As well, NZ finally got the five door Avenger Estate for local production, with both 1300cc and 1600cc motors in the ‘Super’ trim level. It was a success; local car magazines applauded it for its load carrying abilities for a smaller estate. It was quite possibly the smallest five-door estate available in New Zealand up to that time; almost all the others were three-door. Apart from the much larger GM-Holden HQ wagon, it was one of the few estate/wagons at that time in NZ with a coil sprung rear suspension, rather than archaic leaf-spring setups.

The Todd Park factory was well, expansive. It had to be, simply to cope with Todd’s approaches to car model diversification. Avengers went down the production line with cars from other manufacturers as well as models from Chrysler itself. Because of this production line assortment, it would possibly be unsurprising if a few Avengers coming down the line had a few Datsun or Mitsubishi mechanical parts fitted to them by mistake!

There were even direct competitors to the Avenger on the line, Mitsubishi’s Lancer, and later, Mirage and Celeste Coupe. There was much in-house fighting between the Avenger and some of Todd’s own other products!

*Todd Motors had a special contract with Nissan to assemble the 180B at Todd Park, bolstering Nissan’s local assembly. Some people, upon seeing the rows of Datsun 180Bs outside Todd Park in amongst the Chryslers, Hillmans, and Mitsubishis, had a suspicion that the 180Bs were there for destruction testing purposes by Todds! It did shock many to discover that the cars were actually being built there, and then being sold as a direct competitor to Chrysler's Hillman Hunter and Mitsubishi Galant!

1975 – Low sales

Although the Avenger’s range in New Zealand had increased somewhat, its sales had not, and by early 1976 there were large amounts of Avengers laid up as surplus stock. There were rows and rows of unsold Avengers at Todd Park and Todd Motors dealers. New Zealand Avenger sales were at an all-time low.

This was partly as the competition to it was intensifying, and the Avenger was being looked at by consumers as being an old model (over five years with an unchanged appearance didn’t help!); and Japanese vehicles were taking away the market share from the British in New Zealand. Todds themselves may not have helped by having some ‘in house’ competition in the form of the Mitsubishi Lancer! With all the releases in New Zealand of Mitsubishi products, there may even have been rumours that the Avenger would be dropped from New Zealand production. On the positive side however, it was easy for Todd’s to import the Avenger CKD packs. In the ships, they only took up 2.5 cubic metres of space!

1976 – A blaze of rally publicity

Something had to be done about this decline, and Todd’s looked to racing on national rally circuits. After Todd’s bombed heavily when entering a Mitsubishi-Colt Lancer into the 1975 ‘Heatway Rally of New Zealand’ they decided to enter the low-selling Avenger into the 1976 Rally of New Zealand. Coincidentally, Avis was looking for a new small-medium sized car, to be bought in large numbers as their economy car. They approached Todd’s and struck a deal, that if Todd’s reached a top ten placing in the rally, they would then buy Avengers for rentals and use them actively in their own promotional advertising. Todd’s accepted this and as a good measure, Avis sponsored the rally car.

The driver was the widely renowned Scottish rally champion Andrew Cowan (the winner of both London-Sydney rallies - 1968 and 1977), and the Avenger bought over from the UK specially for the event certainly wasn’t the usual machine that the general public could buy from their town's local Todd Motors garage. This particular 1973 Chrysler/Hillman Avenger (UK Registered RHP552M) two door used had a number of abnormal non-dealer fitted options fitted. It did follow the rally organizers’ production car regulations – though just barely.

This explosive combination of Andrew Cowan and heavily modified Avenger did wonders for Todd’s, and the Hillman Avenger’s reputation in general. Within the 1976 Heatway race itself, held in the South Island of New Zealand during one of the coldest NZ winters on record, the Cowan Avenger literally blasted all the other competitors into the dust (read snow). It flew though the course and won the race, without incident or major battle scars (until after the end, when Andrew buckled the roof while standing on it for a celebratory photoshoot). Andrew Cowan quickly became a national hero, and the Hillman Avenger, as humble as it otherwise was, began to be noticed.

1976 – The Avenger’s sales then rise.

The Avenger’s general reputation in New Zealand rose dramatically. New car buyers soon couldn’t get enough of them, and as it was a rally winner and heavily promoted as one, it started selling like hotcakes in Todd’s showrooms up and down the country. It quickly became a sales success, and Todd’s were making profits. Dealer fitted options became popular, one in particular being after-market style, though factory fitted, alloy rally mag wheels.

As the winning Andrew Cowan Avenger used a Brazilian made 1800cc motor, there was some talk by Todd’s of actually supplying it in Avengers as an higher priced option. It would have most certainly benefited the Avenger, but it would have drastically hurt the Hillman Hunter’s sales (by this time, the Hunter had already spent nine years in New Zealand production, and New Zealanders had a fond appreciation of it.). To keep the Hillman Hunter selling at its then current profitable rate, the Avenger 1800 sadly did not enter kiwi production.

Helping the sales boom was heavy media advertising of the car by Chrysler-Todd’s, often in most popular newspapers and magazines. Within a few were Andrew Cowan himself, and his Avenger, giving his personal recommendations to the car.

Shell Oils also used the Cowan Avenger in their advertisements, and AA used it to promote ‘fly-drive’ holidays.

As Cowan’s Avenger had won the 1976 Rally of New Zealand, Avis fulfilled their Avenger purchase offer to Todd’s. From the end of 1976, up until the end of New Zealand Avenger production, many Avengers were purchased by them, usually of the budget Avenger Super 1300cc Saloon. As a result, many overseas visitors during the late 1970s and early 1980s saw New Zealand by using of a rental Avenger.

1977 - A change of manufacturer’s name and looks.

Helping this sales boom also was a run-out of old stock, as the Hillman name was being phased out; and in 1977, after seven long years, the Avenger itself was being updated. Mirroring Chrysler facelift changes elsewhere in the world, the NZ Avengers received the new front and rear styling (front only for estate), and new Chrysler Alpine styled dashboards and single-spoke steering wheels. The Hillman name was replaced with Chrysler, appearing as a badge on the bonnet and a pentastar in the centre of the grille on both. Depending on model and maybe even customer preference, Chrysler Avenger front grilles were either moulded grey or black in colour. All models had rectangular headlights.

With this change in looks and marque came a reconfiguration in models. The Avenger range for 1977 was much slimmer, comprising of: Avenger 1.3 GL, Avenger 1.6 LS (estate), Avenger 1.6 GLS and the Avenger 1.6 GLS Auto.

As one can see, there was a vast change in model names. Most noticeable was the GLS, replacing the Alpine. Dropping the Alpine tag was just as well, especially as Todds were about to release the unrelated Chrysler Alpine 1442cc hatchback in NZ. Unlike the previous 4 headlight Alpine, the GLS used the same frontal treatment as the other Chrysler Avengers.

Unfortunately, alloy wheels, optional sunroofs and extra driving/fog lights were not fitted at the factory (though they were in the UK), though many owners fitted them as add-ons. There were no sporting models, although new Avenger owners soon took care of that by modifying their own cars, often by ticking Todd’s option lists in full, modifying the motor themselves to get more from it, and fitting mag wheels, which was helped by having the same 4-stud wheel pattern as Ford.

Standard tyres for all were 155/70 R13. Like many cars of that time, the Avenger used styled steel wheels designed to look acceptable without hubcaps, which were falling out of favor. With the Avenger, lower specification models used steel disc hubcaps to cover most of the wheel; but on the GLS, no hubcaps were used at all! Fortunately, mag wheels were options, although those hubcaps, for how Plain-Jane they were, did suit the cars.

All of the Avenger’s changes were welcomed by the local motoring magazines of the time. AA NZ Motor World especially thought so, by saying that the restyling executed was clever, and gave a smooth new look to the car. The Alpine-like dashboard was especially commended, although not for its ‘Europeanization’, which included the left-hand horn and indicator stalk, or the passenger side bonnet release – on a right hand drive car!

With the change of name to Chrysler, and even well before in fact, there seemed to be more purchases from people with a tradition of previously buying Chrysler products (e.g. Dodge, Australian Valiant Rangers) who wanted something smaller, more economical, although still Chrysler related.

Even with this change of styling and identity, the Chrysler Avenger continued the sales boom brought on in part by the previous Hillman Avenger’s rally win. For 1978 and 1979, it featured consistently in the top 10 of local overall car sales.

The Avenger was a long time already in production, but it was regarded as a proven design rather than outdated. It was simple, and due to its longitudinal 4 cylinder and rear drive, the mechanics could actually fix them (though some needed fixing more times than what the owner would have actually preferred). People were buying them on reasons of economy and practicality (especially with the estate versions), although more often than not, it was as it had both ‘British Character’, and an American name-badge.

1978 - An Avenger Van?

To create more sales for Todd’s in the fleet and LCV market, a ‘van’ version of the Avenger was announced in January 1978. Although not a proper van, using the existing five door estate body, it was aimed at the commercial market. Simplified to the extreme, with the standard 1600cc motor and four speed manual gearbox, it had a wooden floor and the back seats, and rear door windows that were fixed, without winders.

This version gave Todd dealers and aftermarket upholsterers an additional sales opportunity. At the time, passenger cars could only be bought with a 60% deposit with the balance to be repaid within a year - beyond the means of many potential buyers. But 'commercials' could be had for 25% down and paid off over three years. The Avenger 'van' - and many rivals like it - had to leave the showroom with just two front seats and a fixed load platform but it was a simple job for any aftermarket upholsterer to supply and fit a rear seat trimmed to match the factory-fit upholstery and such aftermarket mods were perfectly legal.

As it was the only two-seater Avenger ever in production, it could have had some major sales potential, had it not been sold simply as only a low profile commercial model by Todd’s. It most certainly was not as popular as the proper vans were.

Soon after the ‘van’s’ introduction, a few running changes were made in Avenger production, the most notable being fitment of electronic ignition (allowing the Avenger to start mostly without protest), and plasticised sill protectors.

1979 – There are no Sunbeams!

Although by 1979 the Avenger was a NZ top seller, its hatchback derivative, the Chrysler Sunbeam, like the Avenger 2 door before it, would never see a NZ showroom. Mitsubishi Motors had a newly released equivalent, the Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback (yes, the twin gear-stick eight speed one, also sold as Mitsubishi Colt). Because of this, the Sunbeam and Chrysler/Talbot Horizon never saw New Zealand production.

Even so, a few Sunbeams, including a few Lotus models were imported anyway. It would be more than likely today in NZ to see these cars raced carefully at a classic car race meeting or treated like an owner’s soul-mate in an enclosed garage rather than being thrashed around suburban streets by a boy-racer (there are a number ‘souped up’ Avengers today roaming around in NZ).

It was also in 1979 that Chrysler in Europe was renamed as Talbot. Although European Avengers were Talbot-badged, the New Zealand Avenger stayed as a Chrysler for the meantime, most likely as the Australian Valiants were still being produced by Todd’s.

1979 - The Avenger is still selling well.

Even after nine years in production, the Avenger was still selling in reasonable numbers. Regarded as an ‘old soldier’ by NZ Motor World, it was still in their monthly top-ten sales lists. Avis NZ simply couldn’t get enough of them, and they featured prominently within their campaigns, an example of which being for their ‘Bizweek’ specials, exclusively featured in which was the Chrysler Avenger 1.3 4 door GL, claimed by them to give up to 40mpg.

As sales of small sub-1600 cars were at an all-time high in 1979 (due to that fuel crisis) the NZ Consumer magazine thoroughly tested five of the most popular small saloon cars: the Chrysler Avenger 1.3 Ford Escort 1.3, Vauxhall Chevette 1.3, Austin Allegro 1.3 and the Toyota Corolla KE30 1.2. Although the Avenger was almost the oldest design, it seemed to come through the demanding consumer tests satisfactorily, although the more common and reliable Toyota Corolla was recommended.

1980 - The Talbotization.

More than a year after its by then Scottish built counterpart to do so, the New Zealand Avenger did change from a Chrysler to a Talbot. This marque name-change (the third one!) occurred in April of 1980, partly through its designated '1980' CKD production run, when the face-lifted Talbot Alpine 1442cc hatchback replaced the former Chrysler Alpine locally. Chrysler Australia Valiants had ceased NZ production the previous year, ending a direct link between Chrysler and Todds. It was only logical.

Late 1980 - The end of the line for Avenger.

Largely unaltered since 1970, the Avenger left around Christmas of 1980, when its designated 1980-model-year production run was finished. The New Zealand production total stood at 26,500 units, or one for every resident of Timaru.

The Avenger’s then main competitors, Ford Escort Mk2, Austin Allegro Mk3, and Vauxhall Chevette were all replaced with Japanese equivalents. New Zealand still relies on Japanese cars.

The Talbot Alpine (later renamed Talbot SX) survived until 1984, the only European amongst a large range of Japanese cars and possibly the most maligned car ever sold here.

Always the working-horse (and it still is), the Avenger has brought years of enjoyment and agony to its owners who have either bought or been given them. A few are seen on the rally/race (read classic rallying and race) circuits, while most of the others are still daily-drivers, used by people from students to older folk and enthusiasts.

New Zealanders (and Australians too) generally keep their cars on the road much longer than most Europeans and North Americans, partly because salt is almost never used in winter, so there are many fine examples of pre-1980 cars still roaming New Zealand’s roads. Generally, the prices are cheap, and exporting cars out is possible.


Wheels Magazine – April 1970, February 1981
NZ AA Motor World – Various issues 1970-1980
NZ Identicar 5 – Braynart Autodeal – 1987
Assembly, New Zealand car production 1921-1998 – Mark Webster, Reed Books, 2002
100 Years of Motoring in New Zealand - John McCrystal, Hodder Moa Beckett, 2003 The Dog and Lemon guide – 2004 Edition

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