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Rootes in the USA - Cricket, Sunbeam, and Other Captive Imports

by Jan Eyerman

Click here for an in-depth look at Rootes and Chrysler's European operations.

Somewhat ironically, 1971 was Rootes/Chrysler UK's second best year in the USA (1959 was marginally better). Chrysler had abandoned the old "imported Car" dealer network in 1967 and tried to sell Sunbeams through Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge dealers. This did not seem to go well, the cars were definitely second class and were usually given to the youngest, most inexperienced sales people - I know, I bought a 1969 Sunbeam Arrow new from Manhattan Dodge. This was not a problem as I knew what I wanted and knew the car better then anyone at the dealer! I had contacted several of the old "Imported Car" dealers-including "Long Island City Imports" (run by ex-Rootes people... it was across the street from the old Rootes warehouse in Long Island City) and none of them could get me a car!

In many ways the marriage of Chrysler and Rootes was a bad match - Chrysler had always prided itself on its excellent engineering while Rootes outsourced most of its components and styling (Raymond Loewy did a lot of work for Rootes). Rootes had trouble meeting US safety and emissions laws - in 1968 they imported almost no cars. Chrysler's policy was to achieve low emissions with the minimum of "hang on" technology - everything was supposed to be done through better engineering of the various systems. Rootes did not have the in-house engineering talent to do that - they relied on their individual component suppliers for that - so they could not integrate the emission controls. The 1969 Rootes imports barely made it - 7.5% CO and 750 ppm hydrocarbons, while most other Chrysler products were substantially cleaner then that (less than 7.0% CO and 700 ppm hydrocarbons).

I visited some Chrysler dealers in the fall of 1970 and in early 1971 to look at and test drive Crickets; the dealers in the New York area only had one or two cars and said they were having a hard time getting Crickets. Consumer Reports magazine did not give the Cricket a good rating and recommended buying a Valiant instead. I did own one several years later and it proved to be an excellent car - but suffered from poor assembly and Lucas electrical equipment.

The ill-fated R car

There was a Chrysler project to create a US built car to compete with the Pinto and Vega-it was code named the "R" car and was to use the Rootes 1725cc engine. The project was cancelled and the Cricket was imported instead. I do not know any details except that the code name was "R" car (possibly standing for Rootes?) and it was going to use the 1725 engine.

The R car would probably have been a winner if Chrysler had built it; it was supposed to be a four door (beating both Vega and Pinto) and the Rootes 1725cc was very reliable. The weakness of the Rootes engine lay with the fuel system (Stromberg) and the electrical system (Lucas). Substituting US made components would have done wonders for the reliability.

Kristian Jonsson wrote:

  • Maybe you have got the "prejudice about Lucas" disease. I have been dealing with many of the ignition system we had in European cars from that period and they are more or less similar. Called Lucas, Marelli, Bosch. etc.

    The Stromberg (and S.U.) is quite a fuel-efficient construction, and if it is adjusted cleverly it is super. [Often the problem is] bad adjustment. Maybe it is too sensitive. Changing the rubber diaphragm now and then is necessary.

    I have been dealing with the 1725 engine for 20 years and I would call them average. There are some weak points. The Avenger engine is much stronger. Take 150 bhp out of the 1725 engine and you have to be careful. Take 180 bhp out of the Avenger engine and it is no problem.

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