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The Chrysler - Hillman Avenger in New Zealand

by Shannon Stevenson – with contributions by Andy Thompson and Graeme Roberts

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The Avenger was a mainstay of Chrysler's New Zealand lineup from 1970 to 1980, assembled and distributed by Todd Motors.

1970 - A new model in a long line of Rootes products
For over a half century, Todd Motors were the licensed suppliers and assemblers of Chrysler and Rootes products in New Zealand. Todd Motors were an integral part of the Todd Corporation, a group specializing in oil based energy research operations, aviation, automotive and marine product distribution, and community and land development.

Their automotive assembly operations, which began in 1923, were largely based at a factory set up at Petone, near Wellington. Initially Wolseley and Oakland vehicles were distributed, before settling on Chrysler products. Rootes products followed, in 1928.

The smaller Rootes cars were well regarded in New Zealand, a key model of note being the small Hillman Minx. Due to the popularity of previous British Rootes products in New Zealand, it was natural that the Hillman Avenger would follow into local assembly, to replace the Minx, fitting below the Hillman Hunter range.

New Zealand assembly of the Avenger commenced in July 1970, initially of a single 1.5 litre 4 door, named 'Avenger Super'. The first examples generally seen were two press vehicles of Todds, carrying the registration number plates FK9032 and FK9034 respectively, which appeared in print advertising, followed by examples encountered in shopping displays and dealership showrooms.

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Sold in New Zealand, Not Australia
Soon after the first Hillman Avengers hit New Zealand's highways, Todd Motors approached Mitsubishi Japan about distributing their products in NZ. While they had a limited presence with their Colt fastback, it was behind a smaller distributor. At this time Mitsubishi had released the Galant, a vehicle similar-sized to the Avenger. Talks went well, and a decision was made to introduce the Mitsubishi Galant coupe (Colt Galant or Plymouth, Arrow depending on market), complementing Todds existing Australian Chrysler Valiant range, and the British Rootes Avenger and Hunter ranges. Imports of this model began in 1971, leading to assembly in 1972.

Like Todd Motors in New Zealand, Chrysler in Australia were interested in the Hillman Avenger, and the Mitsubishi Galant. After consideration of manufacturing costs and sourcing, Chrysler Australia chose Galant. The Avenger never appeared on the Australian market, becoming one of a number of vehicles that were available in New Zealand, and not Australia.

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The Avenger in CKD assembly
The Kiwi Avenger was assembled from CKD (Completely-Knocked-Down) kits sourced from the United Kingdom, then a favoured trading partner to New Zealand. This was done to lower government taxes on the car, and to foster local employment. Throughout the 1970s Government protection was placed on the New Zealand motor industry, and tariffs were placed on new vehicles imported built up.

The Avenger CKD kits, which took up 2.5 cubic metres of space in a ship's hold, consisted of the body shell, mechanicals and certain detail pieces. Smaller items, particularly glass, tyres, wiring and trim were made locally by component suppliers, often within the wider Wellington region.

Unlike the UK market at launch, a single Avenger model was offered upon release, 'Super', offered with the Avenger's 1.5 litre OHV engine and four-speed manual transmission, stopped by front disc/rear drum brakes. Rectangular headlamps, shared with the Australian Chrysler Valiant VG and VH series, were fitted, set into a black plastic grille with a vertical centre badge.

Bold paint colours were offered with pin stripes available. Features of the vinyl trimmed interior included armrests, an interior light, integrated plastic door pockets and a horizontal look dashboard with 'rising sun strip' speedometer. Reflecting the Avenger's internal designation as 'B-Car', chassis coding for all Todd Motors Avenger assembly runs started with B.

Sharing assembly lines with Avenger were the Hunter and Valiant. A key assembly difference at Petone was Todd Motors approach to rustproofing. Where the UK market Avengers used electrically charged primer and paint on the under-body, Todd Motors gave the Kiwi Avengers paint dips below the window-line, further electro-coating the floors and under-seal. Other New Zealand factors, including the lack of road salt in winter, and dry climates in certain areas, meant that the Kiwi Avenger body-shells could last over several decades of sustained use – a number were being used as daily transport in the 1990s and even into the early 2000s.

The Avenger quietly settled into the New Zealand new car market, building a reputation with buyers. Within the small-car sector of the market were a number of British rivals, namely the Ford Escort Mk1, Vauxhall Viva and Austin 1300. Japanese models were beginning to become a presence, examples being the Datsun 1200 and Toyota Corolla. A key selling point of the Avenger over its sales life was the interior and boot space over a number of its similar-sized rivals.

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

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1972 - The Avenger Alpine
While the TC stood out on the Todd Motors showroom floors, the model was a limited run exercise. In November 1972, the TC was replaced by another Todd's conceived variant, the Avenger Alpine.

This model was planned in the later months of 1972, as an upmarket package, with elements taken from the UK Market GL and GT models. Features included a dashboard with wood inserts, a round gauge instrument panel, cloth seats, the UK market Avenger GL's 4-headlamp grille, and vinyl roof. Inherited from the TC for the Avenger Alpine's initial assembly runs was the twin carburetor setup.

Concurrent to the Avenger Alpine's introduction, Todd Motors began to focus on the Japanese Mitsubishi range, beginning with the Galant 1.6 coupe (1.85 litre from 1975 onwards) entering New Zealand assembly, on the same line as the Avenger and Hunter. Until 1977 this model would be sold by Todds in coupe form only, to not have a direct effect on Avenger and Hunter sales. In practice, the two-door coupe body-shell proved to be no handicap, the 1973 sales figures more than quadrupled the 1972 sales figures of 256 for this model.

The presence of the Mitsubishi Galant coupe was a key factor for the absence of the Avenger two door models in Todds showrooms. Although a small number of Avenger two-doors reached New Zealand roads and race circuits, these were generally private imports.

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1973-74 - Running Changes, and UK imports
With Alpine settled into Kiwi Avenger assembly, a number of running changes soon appeared.

Early in 1974, the Avenger's 1.5 litre engine was replaced by a 1.6 litre version, mirroring the UK Avenger’s engine development. The Super's engine developed 69 bhp, while the twin carburetor Alpine engine developed 81 bhp. Coinciding with this engine upgrade, the grille badge changed from vertical rectangle to round, with 'Avenger' written in stylized script.

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With the 1.6 litre's introduction, the Borg-Warner 45 4-speed automatic was introduced as an option.

With this transmission, an additional upmarket Avenger was released, the GLS, which had further standard features to the original, including a heated rear window, remote control door mirror, and wood capped doors. A key external giveaway of the GLS was the vinyl roof cut, which at the rear extended to cover part of the boot-lid.

During 1973 and into 1974, car sales reached a record 100,000 units a year; local plants could not meet demand, therefore importers convinced the government to provide more licences for fully assembled cars from overseas. For Todd Motors and the Avenger, there were a number of GLS versions imported built up. Initial imports were 1.5 litre with 3-speed automatic transmission, 1974 imports 1.6 litre with 4-speed automatic transmission. These vehicles 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 often quickly faded in the strong Kiwi sun.

The Avenger Alpine would later lose a carburettor, thereafter sharing the single carburettor setup with the 1.6 Super.

A further change was to metric instruments, keeping in line with the New Zealand Government's metrication policy. It was during this time Todd Motors marketing material referred to the Avenger as a Chrysler rather than a Hillman. While 'by Chrysler' badges would appear on the Rootes models, the Hillman badge held pride of place on the bonnet.

For the half year from September 1974 to February 1975 the Avenger gained a top ten placing in New Zealand's new car sales list, at ninth place with 1542 units sold, outselling Todd Motors Valiant range. The top seller in this time frame was the Avenger's GM rival, the Vauxhall Viva HC, at 2657 units. While British and Australian cars were the preferred choice for New Zealand motorists in 1974 – the United Kingdom and Australia enjoying a preferential sales tax over other countries in New Zealand at this time – Japanese manufacturers would soon make inroads into the New Zealand market.

1974 - Change of Assembly plant
The largest change at this time would not concern the Avenger itself, but where it was assembled. In 1974, after years of planning from a 'clean sheet', Todd Motors replaced its aging Petone plant with a larger landscaped facility at Porirua. The Porirua plant which employed over 1000 people in 1974, had the potential to produce in excess of 30,000 cars annually and be flexible with model changes. Assembly lines were developed in a manner that several different types of vehicle could be built at any one time.

With the new facility, the paint facilities were upgraded – all vehicles now going through a full immersion electro-coat system, prior to the application of paint and under-seal. Paint processes, which included metallic colours, were a key point in Todd's advertising material, however over time some colours fared better than others when holding up to New Zealand's much varied weather conditions.

To celebrate Todd Motors new factory, AA Motor World ran a feature article in their December 1974/January 1975 issue, promoting the factory and the cars assembled. To show an insight of a car on the assembly facilities, a yellow Hillman Avenger Super 1.6 litre was photographed, transformed from bare metal to complete car.

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1975 – Expanding the Kiwi Avenger lineup
With Todd Motors shifting to Porirua for vehicle assembly, the plant's assembly line flexibility meant that further new models were able to be introduced. For Avenger, this was two additional models that became mainstays of the lineup until the end of production.
The first model was an additional Avenger Super, using the shorter stroke 1.3 litre engine, developing 57 bhp. This model was introduced as a response to the energy crisis that was happening at the time, and to fit a Government imposed sales tax threshold for smaller engined vehicles.
It did not take Todd Motors much to introduce this Avenger into New Zealand, due to specifying the 1.3 litre engine in orders of CKD packs for the Avenger Super. Running gear aside, the other specifications were unchanged from the 1.6 Super. The car was praised by motoring journalists for this.
The second model was the station wagon, marketed by Todds as 'Avenger Estate'. Offered in general with the 1.6 litre engine and 4-speed manual transmission – a 1.3 version and 1.6 litre automatic were listed in 1976 AA Motor World price guides – this model proved a logical extension to the Avenger range, as a fleet and family hold-all, praised for its load carrying abilities for a smaller model. Unlike a number of rivals at this time in New Zealand, the Avenger Estate offered a 5-door layout, and a coil-sprung rear suspension.
Avenger's Oriental showroom stablemates
When at Petone, the passenger models sharing the lines with Avenger were the Hillman Hunter 4-door and Estate, Chrysler Valiant and Charger coupe, and Mitsubishi Galant coupe – a mix of British, Japanese and Australian vehicles. With the Todd Motors move to the Porirua plant, further models were introduced for local assembly – the plant assembling cars, commercials, and David Brown tractors.
Mitsubishi had a range of models sold internationally. One of note was the Mitsubishi Lancer, a model similar in size to Avenger which had gained a reputation in long distance rally events, and available in several body styles. This model duly reached New Zealand assembly for 1976 in its 4-door form. While this model could have replaced Avenger, Todds opted to retain Avenger – the Mitsubishi Lancer a rival from within the showrooms.
Further to the Chryslers and Mitsubishis, Todd Motors were assembling an 'odd man out' unrelated to either model lineup, and not sold through their dealerships. This was the Datsun 180B, for which Todd Motors had a special contract to assemble on their lines, due to Nissan's New Zealand distributors not having their own dedicated assembly plant. This arrangement continued until 1978, when Nissan's New Zealand distributors built their own assembly plant at Wiri, South Auckland.
The increase in the Todd Motors model lineup was a direct contrast to ideas of the New Zealand Labour Government of the time – one aim being to curtail the amount of passenger car ranges in New Zealand.
1976 – A competitive small car market sector.
By 1976 the Avenger models covered a wide sector of New Zealand's small car market – a market, which due to the then ongoing energy crisis and taxation categories favouring smaller engined models, became a competitive one of several key rivals.
A number of rivals were Japanese – Toyota Corolla KE30, Datsun 120Y, Mazda 808 – the Mazda 808 AA Motor World magazine comparison tested with Avenger - and smaller Honda Civic hatchback, all newer designs than the Avenger. The National Government, who had entered power in New Zealand late in 1975, were actively encouraging stronger trading links with Japan – the automotive industry was a target, which combined with the UK altering their own tariffs, making CKD vehicle shipments to New Zealand more expensive, made Japanese vehicles more of a feasible proposition for the local assembly firms, and the consumer.
UK rivals, present on the New Zealand market included the 1975 released Ford Escort Mk2 and Austin Allegro, with Vauxhall Chevette following in 1976. Like the Avenger, most of these were available in multiple body-styles and trim levels. Larger models entered the Avenger's market sector, the Ford Cortina and Morris Marina becoming available locally in 1.3 litre versions.
Like Avenger, most of these rivals were longitudinal front engine-rear wheel drive. However, a shakeup soon arrived in New Zealand's small car market, an acceptance of transverse front-wheel-drive layouts amongst the manufacturers – compact engine packaging, and extra interior space. This was a key element of the Honda Civic, Austin 1100/1300 and Allegro, let alone the smaller Mini.
Within Todd Motors own lineup the Mitsubishi Lancer and Galant coupe were proving themselves in the marketplace with their reliability. Assembled on the same lines as Avenger, it was further found that these were a more straightforward product to assemble, and had half the warranty claims on average that the Avenger had.
Further issues concerned spare parts supply across the new car market. With New Zealand's geographical isolation this meant that parts not made in New Zealand could take weeks to receive from other parts of the world – often resulting in hundreds of popular models parked on fields pre-delivery, waiting for smaller parts to be fitted, either outside the factory or at dealerships.
1976 - Rally the supercar Sunday, sell the economy car Monday
To provide a spark to the Avenger's sales, Todd Motors looked to motorsport - on New Zealand's leg of the World Rally Championship (WRC), known at this time as the "Heatway Rally of New Zealand". Where a Mitsubishi Lancer was used in 1975, it was decided to use the Hillman Avenger for 1976. While Avengers, Hunters and Imps had appeared on the Heatway before, these were generally privateer entries.
This rally was held in several stages, over 1600km in the lower regions of the South Island in the middle of winter. Winter in New Zealand in 1976 was one of the coldest years on record, the event including night stages.
It was at this time Avis rental cars' New Zealand arm were looking for a new small-medium B-segment sized car, to be purchased for their fleets as an economy car - essential for keen holidaymakers and businesses on a budget.
A deal was struck between Todd Motors and Avis - If Todd Motors entered an Avenger in the 1976 Heatway Rally of New Zealand, and it achieved a top ten placing in group one, they would buy Avengers for their fleet. The Avis logo duly appeared on the bonnet of the Avenger entered.
The driver, and the Avenger, were not average examples of their calibre. This was Scottish rally car driver, Andrew Cowan. Cowan had spent many successful years behind the wheel of Rootes models in rally circles, one win of note the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon in a Hillman Hunter. He spent several years straight in Mitsubishis winning the Australian Southern Cross Rally, and went on to winning the 1977 London-Sydney in a Mercedes-Benz, before, among other accomplishments, becoming the head of Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe.
Cowan's Avenger 2-door, RHP552M, was a different machine from the Avenger Super and Alpines on the local Todd dealer forecourts, built into rallying form by Chrysler's competitions works department and sent out from England for the event.
Under RHP552M's bonnet was the enlarged 1.8 litre version of the Avenger's engine, as fitted to the Brazilian Avenger, the Dodge 1800, at Sao Paulo, developing 180bhp in rally form. Twin Weber carburetors were fitted, which were quoted as being the size of lawn mower engines. A free-flow exhaust was fitted, and on its alloy wheels were 'late bake' tyres said to be tenacious enough to take the car up the side of a twice-iced Nissen hut in Omakau, Central Otago. While one could not order these options for the Avenger from their Todd Motors dealer - an issue raised at the press conferences before the event - the car's modifications fitted inside the FIA WRC regulations. Complementing the Avenger, support crew vehicles were Chrysler Valiants.
The mix of renowned rally driver and modified Avenger had a positive outcome as far as Todd Motors were concerned. RHP552M, in a field of over one hundred, a mix of local and international talent - 59 not making the finish line - flew its way through the rally, blasting a path through the snow and ice to leave a trail for the other competitors, and getting support from spectators in the process – a number of whom wrapped up warm to view the rally in the cold evenings. The only issues with RHP552M and its run was a broken alternator, which Cowan and his navigator worked around, and at the finish, where Cowan climbed onto the roof, buckling it slightly in the process.
It was not just a top ten placing as Avis had hoped – Cowan won the Heatway, and he and his Avenger appeared within news items and sponsorship advertising in New Zealand print media. An order of Avengers was duly made and delivered to Avis.
Cowan's win was further referenced in Todd Motors advertising material - focusing primarily on the Avenger's reliability and strength, as per quoted by Cowan, and advertising for Shell Oil. To fit in with the race theme, promotional advertising featured Avengers sporting optional 5-slot alloy mag wheels. For all models, 155/70/R13 radial tyres were now a standard feature.
Influenced by Cowan's Avenger, product planners even expressed an interest in the 1.8 litre Brazilian engine being offered in New Zealand, however this did not see fruition.
The Avis Rental Cars Avenger link continued, with 1.3 models forming a mainstay of their fleets until the early 1980s. The first experience of an Avenger for a number of New Zealanders and international travellers were with these cars, and throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s many saw New Zealand by rental Avenger.
While Cowan's Avenger and its Heatway win was an influence on the Avenger in New Zealand, Todds did not repeat the approach for 1977.
1977 - Still the Hillman
For 1977, the Avenger was the 10th top selling passenger car range in New Zealand with 2166 units sold. While Todd Motors by 1977 promoted the model as 'Chrysler Avenger', the reality was that this model used the older Hillman Avenger panel stock and fittings, made obsolete on the UK home market when Avenger was face-lifted there in late 1976. CKD supplies of Hillman Avenger panel stock lasted throughout 1977, the last new models rolling off Todd dealer forecourts in early 1978. A milestone was reached in April 1977, when the 20000th New Zealand assembled Avenger rolled off the line.
While the Avenger's time for change would come, 1977 was a busy period for Todd Motors products in general. Several new models entered New Zealand assembly at Todd Park; the Chrysler Alpine hatchback, the Mitsubishi Celeste coupe, a facelifted Mitsubishi Lancer and the Mitsubishi Galant Sigma 4-door, replacing the former Galant coupe.
While the Todd Motors Mitsubishi lineup was expanding, a scaling down began with their Chrysler lineup, the Valiant Charger coupe ending its New Zealand assembly run in 1976. The Chrysler Alpine would soon prove to be the final all new Chrysler designed model to be introduced by Todd Motors.
The Avenger Van
Introduced later in the Hillman Avenger's run was the Avenger Van, aimed at the New Zealand commercial fleet sector.
This was not a purpose built body, in the manner of the Ford Escort 45 and Morris Marina vans, rather an enterprising use of the Estate body-shell – sans rear seats and rear door window winders, with a flat wooden floor from the front seats to the rear tailgate, a cargo barrier bar separating the load from the front seats. Unless one looked inside there were no visual clues over the standard Estate version.
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.
1978 - A new look and brand name
For February 1978, a new Avenger arrived. With over seven years of Hillman Avenger sales, and the CKD stocks assembled, the Chrysler Avenger facelift appeared in Todd Motors showrooms, known internally as 'Avenger Series 7', with the initial 1978 assembly run chassis-coded as 'BM'.
Reflecting the Avenger's UK market update in late 1976, the Kiwi models received the new frontal grille with pentastar, larger headlamps, wrap-around indicators, revised front fenders, larger bumpers, and horizontal 'light-bar' tail-lamps on the 4-door models.
There were external differences to the UK counterparts. All New Zealand models, regardless of trim, used the silver grille with chrome surrounds fitted to UK market GL and GLS models, and bumpers utilizing rubber inserts. A basic chrome hubcap design as per the UK market LS, lacking trim rings fitted to the previous Hillman models, were fitted on lower specification models, while styled steel wheels sans hubcaps were fitted to the GLS.
4-door models now had further usable boot space, due to the relocation of the fuel filler from the rear to the right of the car. Inside was the new dashboard, and single-spoke steering wheel, modeled from the Alpine. Front seats fitted to all models were low-backed, without headrests. These were now softer and reshaped for back support, and re-positioned to assist with legroom front and rear.
With the change in looks and marque came a reconfiguration in models. The New Zealand Chrysler Avenger range for 1978 consisted of three core models, selected from the wider choice offered in the UK market.
The standard Avenger (known in the initial 1978 assembly run as Super, from August 1978 as GL) in Chrysler form was now only offered with the 1.3 engine. While the entry level model with the small engine, this was not the base model that it first appeared. Features of this car, which often did not appear on several of its rivals at its price - included a heated rear window, reversing lamps, hazard flashers, high/low horns, and a full instrument cluster, including an array of warning lights, tachometer, and water and oil gauges.
The upmarket Avenger was now the 1.6 GLS, replacing previous Avenger Alpine and GLS models. Offered with a choice of manual and automatic transmissions and the options of cloth or vinyl seats, the key external identifier over the GL was a standard vinyl roof – which like previous Hillman Avenger GLS models, extended past the boot-lid. To 'brighten up' this model, a chrome rear vision mirror, chrome side window surrounds and wheel trim rings were fitted.
There were further external differences that the Kiwi GLS had to its UK counterpart, notably the presence of vinyl coverings on the B-Pillars, the absence of auxiliary lights, and the use of styled steel wheels, in lieu of wheel-trims or Rostyle wheels.
The third model was the Avenger Estate. While the badging on the rear may have said 1.6 'Super' or on later cars 1.6 'LS', the car was generally marketed as "Avenger Estate". While this car came with the 1.6 litre engine and manual transmission, it was offered in a lower level of interior trim to the 4-door counterparts, offering vinyl seats, and a simplified instrument cluster, however a rear window wiper - unusual on a New Zealand assembled car at the time - was offered. This specification reflected the estate in a working role, aimed at fleet and families. The Avenger Van was also updated to Chrysler form.
There were further changes mechanically helping power and economy. The cooling system now had an electronic heat switched fan, and engine compression ratios were rejigged to line up with improved gearing. A new 'high torque' camshaft was fitted to the 1.6 litre engine. Air intakes were now thermostatically controlled.
A road test was conducted on the Chrysler Avenger for AA Motor World for their June/July 1978 issue. They liked the facelift, and saw that the Avenger was a competitively priced package, with regard to its size and features within. They were not taken with the ride, that they felt had not been improved from the earlier Hillman models.
With the updates, there were a number of anomalies. Glove-boxes were not fitted; a parcel tray and door side pockets were seen as appropriate for this purpose, and there were Estate models without reversing lights, in spite of rear light clusters allowing for them. The headlamps, unlike the Hillman's, were purposely designed. AA Motor World found out in the mid 1980s that these were not a cheap item to replace if broken – one quote being at around NZ $500. While the dashboard was considered an improvement over the Hillman models, drawbacks included a left-hand indicator stalk, and passenger side bonnet release – this due to design standardization with left-hand-drive versions for other markets.
While there was not a dedicated performance version of the Kiwi-market Chrysler Avenger, one was able to order performance parts through Todd Motors. One source was the UK Chrysler Competition Centre – an address for special tuning and performance parts appearing in the owner's handbook. It was not unheard of for Todds, at a price, to bring in examples of the Brazilian built 1.8 engine block (as per fitted to the Brazil market Dodge 1800/Polara) for the most keen of Avenger owning rally drivers.
In August 1978, further running changes took place on the Chrysler Avenger, by this time chassis-coded 'BN'. Initially badged as 'Super', the 1.3 model's designation was renamed to 1.3 GL. For the Estate models, 1.6 LS replaced 'Super' badges. A mechanical change was the addition of electronic ignition.
Avenger yes, Sunbeam, Horizon no
While the Chrysler Avenger was an established B-Segment car in the New Zealand market, seen Todd Motors dealerships across the country, and on highways from Cape Reinga in the north, to Bluff in the south, the related Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback, like the Avenger two-door before it, did not see the New Zealand new car price lists.
A Sunbeam was brought into New Zealand for evaluation by Todd Motors, and AA Motor World ran articles on the model. While considered, the reality was that Mitsubishi had a new three-door hatchback model on its way to Todd Motors showrooms for 1979, the front-wheel-drive Mirage. While the Sunbeam never appeared in the New Zealand new car listings, a small number were privately imported, including Lotus versions.
During 1979, a longer wheel-base 5-door Mitsubishi Mirage was added. The Chrysler rival to this was the Horizon hatchback. A Horizon was evaluated, however the Mitsubishi Mirage won out.
This was a depiction of the increased acceptance of Japanese models in the New Zealand market - due to economics of sourcing and a growing reputation for quality and reliability over the British and European counterparts once traditionally considered. The Japanese influence on New Zealand's automotive industry became greater in the coming years. The New Zealand public still held high regard for British models – the top selling cars sold in New Zealand in 1979 were the Ford Cortina and Escort.
1979 – Fleet popularity in New Zealand's small car market
While changes occured on the UK market with Chrysler Europe's operations bought out by Peugeot-PSA, and a rebranding exercise during 1979 to Talbot, it was 'business as usual' for Todd Park and the Chrysler Avenger. Already nine years on the market, the Avenger sold in a competitive sector of mostly newer designed rivals, to private and fleet buyers alike.
One fleet buyer of note was Avis. Years after Andrew Cowan's Heatway rally win and the related Avis deal, Avengers were a key element of their fleets, appearing in their advertising material – "Bizweek specials" being an example. In June 1979, centred around the Chrysler Avenger was one of the largest fleet deals struck in New Zealand automotive history up to that time. The deal, between Todds, their Christchurch dealer Cooper Henderson and Avis Rental Cars, valued at NZ $4.1 million dollars, involved 525 Chrysler Avenger 1.3 GL, 40 Mitsubishi Mirage hatchbacks and 11 Mitsubishi Sigma automatics. At this time, fleet sales were important to car distributors in New Zealand, taking up 75% of the new car market.
In October 1979 results were printed in New Zealand Consumer magazine of an in-depth 5000km test on five popular small 1.3 engined cars on the New Zealand market – Chrysler Avenger, Ford Escort, Austin Allegro, Vauxhall Chevette and Toyota Corolla (KE30). Tests included handling, braking, fuel consumption, roominess, convenience, assembly, performance, parking, service and warranties. While the Consumer Institute were taken with the Avenger's interior space, comfort and internal features, they were not taken with the gear changing, power or economy – seeing only 29.34mpg rather than figures quoted in advertising of 20% more. Of the models tested, the Toyota Corolla was considered the most recommended.
While the Chrysler Avenger returned for 1980, the same could not be said for certain other Chryslers sold by Todds. The Chrysler Valiant and Hunter, both mainstays since the 1960s in various forms, ended New Zealand assembly during 1979, the Valiant thereafter a limited Australian import until 1981. The Commer PB van, by 1979 in Dodge Spacevan form ceased New Zealand sales, to be supplanted in 1980 by the Mitsubishi L300 van. Further changes appeared with the heavy Commer and Dodge commercials, giving way to Mitsubishi's Fuso commercials.
By the end of 1979 Todd Motors lineup sourcing had changed considerably. When the Avenger entered New Zealand assembly, the models alongside it were either British and Australian. By late 1979 Japan was the key source – Avenger and Alpine hatchback the last European sourced passenger models Todd Motors assembled locally.
1980 – Retaining the Chrysler identity
By 1980, Chrysler Europe's lineup was rebranded to Talbot, built by Peugeot-PSA. Furthering its own automotive portfolio, Todd Motors for the 1980s became the distributor for Peugeot in New Zealand.
While the Alpine hatchback gained Talbot badging when updated to 1510 form in New Zealand, the same could not be said for Avenger – for 1980 Todd Motors kept the Chrysler identity. Although listed as Talbot within the price lists by the likes of AA Motor World from August 1980 onward, the model was marketed by Todd Motors as 'Chrysler Avenger' – 1980 brochures stating that the car was a product of Chrysler International.
While the Chrysler name stayed in place on the bonnet along with the pentastar on the grille, the 1980 New Zealand Avengers, chassis-coded as 'BQ', gained a small number of external cosmetic changes, differentiating the 1980 models from the 1978-79 counterparts, and the UK market Talbot Avenger.
At the front, the black grille from the UK market LS appeared on all models, replacing the silver grille. Black body-side moldings were fitted, and window blackouts appeared – a blackout further appearing between the light-bar tail-lamps on the 1.3 GL. The hubcaps of the 1978-79 GL 4-door and LS Estate models gave way to the GLS' styled steel wheel approach. Unlike the UK market 1980-81 Talbot Avenger, the vinyl roof was only standard on GLS models, which for New Zealand, stayed in the 4-door bodystyle. Due to legal requirements introduced in 1979, rear seat-belts were fitted to all models except the van.
By 1980, the Avenger had celebrated a decade of New Zealand sales, and in that time Todd Motors had released a number of newer designed Mitsubishi models competing in the Avenger's market – alongside in the show rooms in 1980 were several small Mitsubishi's – the Lancer EX, Celeste coupe, and Mirage hatchback models.
Although an older design by 1980, there were elements in the Avenger's favour. One was the presence of the Estate model, a bodystyle traditionally popular in the small-medium sectors of the New Zealand passenger car market. The similar sized Mitsubishi Lancer EX was never developed in this format.
A most crucial element concerned the Avenger's place on the New Zealand market in terms of its sales price, in comparison to rivals. In January 1980, at NZ$7595, the Avenger 1.3 GL undercut almost all other 1.3 litre 4-door models in its target market – notably the Austin Allegro, Datsun 120Y Sunny, Ford Escort, Mazda 323, Toyota Corolla and Vauxhall Chevette, and Todd Motors own smaller Mitsubishi models.
Due to a higher tax bracket on engine sizes, the GLS 4-door and 1.6 LS Estate were of a higher price, at at NZ $8485 (automatic versions cost NZ $9125) and NZ $8785 respectively, however these cars still undercut most of their 1.6 litre rivals - the GLS automatic undercut the Ford Cortina Mk4 in 1.6 litre base model form - while the Estate's few five-door 1.6 litre rivals, and rivals using smaller engines usually cost several hundred, if not thousands of dollars more.
The Avenger Van was priced lower than the Estate equivalent, at NZ $7595, undercutting the smaller engined Ford Escort van by several hundred dollars. What this depicts, was that government taxes were a dominant feature of new passenger car ownership in New Zealand at the time, when the basic feature of rear seats was factored into the equation, defining car vs commercial. Prices jumped upward during 1980 due to inflation, however the Avenger stayed a price competitive model.
Late 1980 - The end of the line
The Avenger had a long run in New Zealand, ending in September 1980, when allocated CKD packs were finished. Final stocks left the Todd Motors dealerships by early 1981, coinciding with the removal of Avenger listings, under the 'Talbot' section from AA Motor World's new car pages.
While further assembly packs could have been ordered, this would not have proved feasible for the longer term, factors including the higher costs at this time with imports from the UK to New Zealand, the Talbot Avenger itself ceasing production due to the closure of its Linwood, Scotland factory in 1981, and the increased proliferation in New Zealand of advanced rivals in the Avenger's sector of the market.
When the final Chrysler Avenger drove off the Todd Park assembly lines, it signalled an end of Todd Motors association with Rootes products. It was not the final Chrysler Europe model for Todds – the Talbot Alpine 1510, later renamed Talbot SX, remaining on sale in New Zealand until 1984. While the Talbot Solara 4-door version never reached New Zealand, the Alpine/SX was almost joined by the larger Talbot Tagora – the production of this model ceased in 1983 while Todd Motors were evaluating the model for possible local release.
While Chrysler had divested of a majority of their own international operations, Todds maintained contact, evaluating examples of Chrysler's 1980s US domestic models, notably the minivan, for possible sale in New Zealand. Todd dealerships continued to carry Mitsubishi, Talbot and Chrysler branding.
The Avenger's replacement for New Zealand on the Todd Motors assembly lines came not from Chrysler, but from Mitsubishi, initially by means of the Lancer EX introduced later in the Avenger's run - Estate buyers having to settle for the larger bodied Mitsubishi Sigma 1.6 litre. Unlike the Avenger's decade long run, Todd Motors replaced these cars within two years with newer models, notably by the Mirage and Tredia 4-door's, and a restyled Sigma station wagon. By 1984, Todd Motors Mitsubishi models were nearly all complete redesigns from what they had offered in 1980, and the constant rate of refinement with these cars would help ensure Todd Motors a near market leadership as a producer of vehicles in New Zealand.
Todd Corporation later divested from car assembly to focus on their energy producing concerns, vehicle operations bought outright by Mitsubishi Motors in 1987.
The approach of a British/European designed car replaced in local assembly by a Japanese product was not confined to the Avenger. Key rivals, the Ford Escort and Austin Allegro were replaced locally by their assemblers with the Mazda 323 based Ford Laser and Honda Civic 2nd generation respectively. The Vauxhall Chevette continued into 1981, when this car was replaced locally by the Isuzu based Holden Gemini. Medium sized British models, notably the Ford Cortina, Austin Princess and Morris 1700 (formerly Marina) further gave way to Japanese designed models assembled by their New Zealand distributors in 1982-83.
By this time, New Zealand was looking to Japan for its vehicles. A main reasoning for this was economics of sourcing, particularly with New Zealand being closer geographically to Japan than the United Kingdom, and Japan's trading partner status. Many of the Japanese vehicles sold in New Zealand in the 1980s were new designs, developed for different market niches – Todd Motors' Mitsubishi lineup, particularly from 1980 onward were key examples of this. Japanese models, to this day, are a key element of New Zealand's new car market.
Of all models and variants of Avenger, the New Zealand grand total of production stood at 26,500 units, averaging between 2000 and 3000 in certain years. Over 20000 of these were of the early Hillman shape, due to that model's longer assembly run. While this amount may seem small, the reality was that New Zealand's population in 1980 was 3.1 million, and new passenger car sales at this time averaged 70,000-75,000 per year.
The Avenger since 1980
The Avenger, for years after the last Chrysler left Todd Park, continued for generations of New Zealand motorists as 'dependable' transportation – for families, enthusiasts, businesses - particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were a ubiquitous sight on New Zealand's roads – regular 'Warrant of Fitness' checks ensuring their road-worthiness.
More than likely in the 1980s if one photographed a Kiwi traffic scene, it was second nature to find an Avenger somewhere within it. Enthusiasts took to the model, a number soon modified for racing circuits and gravel rally tracks across New Zealand.
Naturally, like all vehicles over time, there was an attrition rate. Mechanical breakdowns and rust issues could occur if not kept in check, rust in particular affecting vehicles in areas of New Zealand with strong salty sea breezes. As an age related matter, certain interiors were known not to stand up well to New Zealand sunlight, with vinyl cracking, and fabric drooping or un-stitching after years of constant use.
Values of Avengers over the years have altered. In the 1990s with the proliferation of cheap used Japanese imported vehicles arriving in New Zealand with the relaxation of vehicle tariffs, values of the older British models dropped, one at this time being able to generally purchase an average condition Avenger for under NZ $1000. Decades later, due to a general interest of the older British vehicles from enthusiasts in New Zealand, and even abroad, values for surviving examples have increased again.
While a fair number of Avengers disappeared from New Zealand roads, these did not all find themselves at the wreckers yards, dumping grounds, abandoned in paddocks or at demolition derbies – there were a number of New Zealand Avengers that would go on to have second lives overseas.
Throughout the 1990s visiting Russian seafarers discovered that New Zealand was a place to find vehicles that would be of interest to them, and colleagues back home – low purchase cost and mechanical simplicity the key selling points. The Avenger and Hunter, amongst a number of 1970s British models were considered ideal candidates and when ashore in New Zealand, seafarers would buy the cars, often from dealers, to take home with them on their ships. In 1992 alone, over 500 older vehicles left the Port of Nelson bound for Russia, this practice further occurring at seaports across New Zealand.
In 1996 New Zealand banned the use of leaded petrol. Although the Avenger, and counterparts from its time were tuned to run on leaded petrol, lead substitute products were introduced for the older models to use the unleaded petrol.
In 1998, the final four New Zealand car assembly plants closed, due to the Government eliminating import tariffs on vehicles. This included Todd Park, where a number of the workers that had been assembling Avengers, Hunters and Valiants in the 1970s, were by 1998 still employed there, assembling Mitsubishi Lancers and Galants. Todd Park has since been re-purposed; a tertiary institution has used the administration areas, the assembly plant used for logistics and storage facilities.
The Avenger is now seldom seen in daily traffic on New Zealand roads, and the examples that are running are generally keenly owned by enthusiasts – classic car, modifiers, and racers alike, a majority younger than their vehicles. There is support for the model from car clubs and online forums – online auction sites being an additional source for the finding of parts. A number of Avengers form parts of private classic vehicle collections, and automotive museums throughout the country.
The Avenger name returned to the New Zealand market in the late 2000s, when Chrysler introduced the medium sized Dodge Avenger. The name brought back memories to the invited press at the Dodge's launch of the Todd Motors assembled Chrysler Avenger, although the lack of vinyl roof option was jokingly lamented.
An Avenger formed part of an anniversary – in 2015 the city of Porirua celebrated its 50th year, and pride of place on display in an exhibition at the Pataka Art + Museum, as a representation of Porirua's former car industry, was a 1979 Chrysler Avenger 1.6 GLS, nicknamed "Little Red".
The Avenger, as one of the last Rootes and Chrysler Europe cars in New Zealand, played a part in New Zealand's motoring heritage. The surviving examples of their breed will hopefully keep roaming the roads of the North and South Islands, and keep its memory alive for many years yet.
References include:
Chrysler Avenger Owners Handbook - Chrysler United Kingdom, 1977
Wheels Magazine (Australia) - April 1970, February 1971, February 1981
NZ Identicar 5 - Braynart Autodeal – 1987
NZ AA Motor World - Various issues 1970-1985
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
New Zealand Consumer Magazine – issue 166 – October 1979
The New Zealand Rally – Celebrating 25 years – 1997
The University on the Hill: The History of Todd Park – Neil Penman, Penmanship Press, 2005
New Zealand Car (Volume 7, No 4) – February 1993
Chrysler Avenger Brochure – Todd Motors, 1980

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