Chrysler’s attempted Australian invasion of the UK
The history of Australian Chrysler cars in Britain has its roots in America – a truly multi-national tale! The story starts in the pre-war era when Walter P Chrysler started to expand his rapidly growing American company across the world.
By the early 1930s, Chrysler had set-up an importation and assembly operation near the world-famous Royal Botanical Gardens, on the banks of the River Thames in Mortlake Road, Kew, Surrey. There were two companies. Chrysler Motors Limited imported Chryslers and Plymouths including the ‘Airflow’ models which were named after Aerodromes and Surrey towns. Dodge Brothers (Britain) Limited imported and assembled Dodge and De Soto chassis. These were all right-hand drive (RHD) and included Canadian-built cars as well as American models. Canadian parts incurred less duty as a result of Canada being in the British Commonwealth.
In June 1964, Chrysler bought a stake in the British Rootes company, makers of the Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and Humber cars. Part of the deal was a decision to combine the British Chrysler car and Dodge truck operations with those of the Rootes Group. Early in 1965, Rootes bought Dodge Brothers (Britain). Kew closed in 1967 and assembly of the Dodge truck range was moved to the Commer plant in Dunstable. In 1967, Chrysler further consolidated its position in Britain by taking control of the Rootes Group.
Assembly of north American Chryslers finished at Kew in the mid-1960s. There had always been parallel imports of Canadian RHD Dodge, De Soto, and Plymouth cars, including the Canadian ‘Plodge’, an amalgamation of the Dodge Kingsway, De Soto Diplomat and the Plymouth Fury.
The last RHD Canadian Chrysler cars were officially imported to Britain in the 1966 model year although a trickle of imports may have continued into 1967. Canadian imports were handled in Canada by Chrysler International in Windsor, Ontario, and then through Chrysler International in Belgium which was in charge of European imports. Until 1969, when Chrysler International had set-up an office in Bowater House, Knightsbridge, London, British imports were handled by the Kew companies.
Mirroring the South African Chrysler subsidiary, limited imports of RHD models from north America continued to Britain until the end of the 1969 calendar year. The last north American RHD Chrysler products were 1969 models built at the American Hamtranck plant and were badged as Plymouth Barracudas in the UK and Australia and as Valiant Barracudas, assembled from CKD kits and with six-cylinder engines only, in South Africa.
For the 1967 model year, Chrysler International decided, as would Ford for 1967 and Chevrolet/Pontiac for 1969, that its Australian subsidiary would provide RHD cars worldwide. The exception was South Africa which produced its own versions of North American Chrysler cars.
Chrysler International SA in Belgium appointed Chrysler Motors Ltd. to be the European concessionaires, and Warwick Wright Ltd. to be the British distributors of the new Australian cars. Warwick Wright also sold the last of the North American RHD Plymouths, the Barracudas in Britain promoting them with rather catchy advertisements in the motoring press.
The Barracudas offered in fastback and convertible models, the former being the less costly at £2746 in October 1968 rising to £2809 for the 5200cc V8 in October 1969. The Barracudas came to Britain with the fold-down rear seat offered in America, giving the cars truly phenomenal luggage capacity when used as two-up tourers!
America’s cars win over Australia
Australia’s big Chrysler’s were versions of what in America were marketed as compacts – the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart. The Plymouth Valiant, introduced in 1959, was a major success in the United States. Not surprisingly, Chrysler saw the Australian market, which was getting more affluent and wanted cars to match its own wide open spaces rather than the European-sized vehicles previously popular down under, as a great opportunity for the Valiant.
The first ever Valiant to land in Australia was a single example of the Q Series imported in 1960 for evaluation – which, after being sold on, was wrapped around a tree! The Q proved difficult to engineer for right-hand drive because the slant of the engine prevented a simple gearbox move.
In January 1962, Chrysler created the R, a locally-assembled version using mainly American components. Its 3700cc slant six engine put out twice the power (145bhp vs 75bhp) of the popular General Motors Holden, yet cost only about 10% more. Just over 1000 R Series Valiants were made before the S Series took over two months later. This model had a larger petrol tank, improved brakes and a three-on-the column manual transmission. Ten times as many S Series as R Series were made – Chrysler seemed to be on course for a repeat of the American Valiant success story.
The AP5 (Australian Production 5) took over in 1963, with a more conventional look and a cleaner front end. Chrysler put serious investment into its Tonsley Park, Australia plant to allow the cars to be made instead of just assembled down under.
Although the AP5 was based on the equivalent American model, it was much more Australian than the R and S Valiants. General body designs were shared with the 1963-1966 American Valiants but the Australian cars had a slightly different roofline and grille and trim differences. At the start, all were 3700cc six-cylinder four-door saloons but a station wagon, a V8 engine and a luxury-trimmed Regal version were soon added to the range.
Chrysler couldn’t build enough AP5s to meet demand; a total of 49,440 were sold in 22 months. In March 1965, the AP6 was introduced, largely the same as the AP5 but with the automatic Torqueflite transmission now being column-shifted.
The Valiant’s speed advantage over the domestic competition was evaporating, as the car became heavier and its competitors introduced more powerful engines. Chrysler fought back by introducing the American 4500cc V8 in the AP6 Regal body. This model had a premium price, a top speed of 107mph and a 17 second quarter mile time. With its improved performance, Chrysler again had a car which dominated the market.
The AP6 was superseded by the cleanly styled VC series in 1966. Surprisingly, the AP5 and AP6 have never been referred to as the VA and VB! The VC model shared the same doors and structure as the AP6, but the Australian designers added a new nose and tail to give the impression of a much longer car. The VC offered the first long wheelbase Valiant spin off, which were known as either the ‘V.I.P.’ or Regal. This derivative continued through the VE, VF and VG Series.
Australian Chryslers come to Britain
Around this time, several large Humbers were fitted with American or Canadian Chrysler V8s instead of the standard British-built Six. This was part of a project to see if the big Humbers could remain competitive in the luxury market. The plans were not too successful and the age of the base Humber, by then ten years old, did not encourage serious investment to make the project a runner. The idea of replacing the Humbers with ready made luxury cars from Australia had a certain logic to it that appealed to the Rootes and Chrysler management teams.
The Australian Chryslers were announced in time for the October London Show in Autocar magazine, 16 October 1966. It was the Valiant VC that Chrysler decided to sell in Britain.
The October 1966 Motor Show featured a white 3690cc Aussie Chrysler Valiant Medium four-door Station Wagon with the Torqueflite automatic transmission. A manual three-speed was available for those who really wanted one.
Also on show were a Valiant Regal four-Door Saloon again in white and with the same drivetrain as the Station Wagon. Topping the stand were a Valiant Premium four-door Station Wagon in green and a Valiant Premium four-door Saloon in gold both with 4500cc V8 and Torqueflite transmission. The Station Wagon produced by Chrysler Australia was dropped from the post-1966 US range.
Prices in Britain of the Australian Chryslers with tax went from £1795 to £2545. These were not cheap cars, competing on price with Jaguars. Engine choice was the 3690 cc (225 cubic inch) Slant Six with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes and the 4500cc (273 cubic inch) V8 with automatic transmission only.
Motor tested a VC Valiant Safari Wagon with the 3.6-litre Six in its 17 December 1966 issue, and quoted a top speed of 92.8mph and 17.7mpg overall fuel consumption. Sale price was £1945 the same more-or-less as the Jaguar 420 Auto.
The cars were not universally available across the extensive Rootes dealer network which, in the 1960s, comprehensively covered the whole of Britain. Instead, specialist Rootes Group dealers sold Aussie Chryslers on a shared commission basis with Warwick Wright, similar to the Ford set-up for Aussie imports. The result of this was that the cars remained very much in the shadows as they didn’t get the full backing of a national distribution network.
However, Rootes and Chrysler persevered with their plan to top out their range with the Australian machines. During 1967, a more limited range was imported to Britain – the VE Valiant Saloon and Estate Car and the Regal Six. The VE model was based on Chrysler’s new 1967 American A body with a 108in wheelbase up by 2in on its predecessor. The Australian cars combined Plymouth Valiant midsections with a Dodge Dart-like front design.
Again, the saloons had a uniquely Australian roofline. The roof’s trailing edge overhung a complex-curved concave rear screen slightly reminiscent of the contemporary Michelotti-styled Triumph range. Rear end design was, as in the VC design, totally Australian as well.
The 1968 models were the VE models again and were shown in the Rootes all-car brochure with just the V8 engine option listed. By this time the large Humbers had gone out of production so the Valiants were now really expected to act as the flagships of the Rootes line up. Autocar magazine quoted a 106mph top speed, 0-60mph in 11.3 seconds and 18mpg typical fuel consumption for the Valiant saloon. Pricing was still high when compared to Ford and Vauxhall’s domestic range toppers and was way above the market in which the now dead Humbers had competed. By October 1968, the British range had been slimmed down to a six-cylinder Valiant Saloon and Estate.
The Valiant VF was introduced to Australia in early 1969 with the 4500cc V8 being replaced by its close relative, the 318 cubic inch. The VF’s heavier bulk countered the increased power and the VF ended up being only a little faster than its smaller predecessor. However, a hardtop coupe was introduced as part of the VF series. This was made up of the Valiant front end (VFs and VGs had front and rear design unique to Australia) on the US Dodge Dart body. It used the Dodge’s longer 111in wheelbase.
At the 1969 London Show there were no Australian Chryslers on show although the Valiant saloon and station wagon were still listed in the price lists. Instead, Rootes Motors Limited (Dodge Division), the successor to Dodge Bros (Britain) Ltd did exhibit the American Dodge Challenger 2-Door HT with a 318 cubic inch V8 engine, the Charger R/T two-door Notchback HT, with a 440 cubic inch V8 and the Plymouth Sport Fury four-door HT with 383 cubic inch V8. Chrysler International SA of Knightsbridge showed the Chrysler Imperial Le Baron 4-Door HT with 440 V8, Chrysler 300 2-Door HT with the 440 V8 and a Chrysler 300 Convertible with the 440 again. Warwick Wright continued to advertise the RHD Plymouth Barracuda.
The 1970 VG Regal Saloons and Estates – all Automatics and with Australian 4473cc Hemi-Six engines – were sold in Britain. The VG series brought new power but not a new look to the Valiant range. The VG gave way to the Australian designed VH in 1971, the VH also being offered in Britain. Though only slightly longer, the VH was five inches wider and designed to look even larger.
Although an Australian design, the American influence was clear both in the way the car looked and the way the VH was engineered, with a relatively simple suspension system and large, unstressed engines designed for long distance cruising rather than short bursts of activity on small congested roads.
Enter the Charger…
In 1962, Valiant had stood for performance in the Australian market. By 1971, it had become a conservative and rather staid family car. Enter the Charger… Built on a shorter wheel base, with a clean, sporty look, it was 130 kg lighter than any Valiant sedan but it still had room for five. The VH Charger 770, with a 5210cc V8 engine was, according to some sources, offered for sale in Britain but never appeared in the weekly price lists published in British motoring magazines. However, it did feature on the company’s 1970 Motor Show stand.
The long-wheel base models in the VH, VJ and VK series were known as CH, CJ and CK. These long-wheel base models were known as the ‘Chrysler by Chrysler’ and were loaded up with luxury items unseen in Australian made cars. They were available as a four-door saloon or as a two-door hardtop and looked like stretched Valiants. They were introduced as a replacement for Chrysler Australia’s previous ‘top-of-the-range’ offering, the Dodge Phoenix, which was imported to Australia as a CKD kit and assembled using some Australian Valiant parts.
The total range of VH (and CH) body styles offered to Aussie buyers was huge. There was the short-wheel base two-door (Charger), long-wheel base four-door and two-door (CH), standard-wheel base four-door sedan, long-wheel base two-door hardtop, short and long-wheel base station wagons and utility (pickup). Britain only got to see a limited selection – the Charger, the CH and standard-wheel base Saloon and Station Wagons.
For the 1972 Model Year, the VH was again available in Britain, in Saloon and Estate Car versions with automatic transmission only. The Charger was still not officially listed but again made an appearance in October 1971 at the annual London Motor Show. For 1973, the Valiant range featured in Chrysler’s all model range brochure ‘Chrysler Showtime’. Seekers of American-style motoring, but with the steering wheel in the right place, had a choice of a V8 5900cc CH Saloon, a V8 5210cc VJ Regal Estate and a V8 5210cc VJ Charger Coupe. The VJ Valiant Regal Saloon was also offered with a 4300cc six cylinder engine, an engine also listed for a while as an option on the Charger. All had automatic gearboxes.
Recognition at last…
For the 1974 model year, the big Chryslers were given their own brochure in the same format as the rest of the Chrysler line up in Britain – recognition at last! The ’74 brochures featured each Chrysler car in a different location in Britain – a mix of car sales and tourist brochure! The Aussie Chryslers were photographed in Windsor. They also featured in the full range brochure for 1974. A full range was even shown at the 1973 London Motor Show – a metallic blue Regal saloon, a bronze Regal station wagon, a metallic green Charger and a maroon CH.
The 1974 models were again the VJ Valiants, available as the Regal Saloon with Automatic Transmission and the 203bhp 4342cc six on a 111in wheelbase, the Regal Estate Car with the 230bhp 5210cc V8 on a 115in wheelbase, the Charger with the same 5211c.c. V8 engine but on a 105in wheelbase and the CH saloon with the 255bhp 5900cc V8 with the same wheel base as the estate. All had automatic gearboxes. Although called CH, it is likely that the car imported could have been a CJ as, by this time in Australia itself, the CH had been superseded by the CJ. However, it could have also been unsold 1973 stock…
The cars were not exactly fast sellers and some commentators suggest that 1973 stock was sold in 1974. Certainly, prices in October 1973 put the cars into play alongside some extremely talented opposition and way above the top-of-the-range cars offered by Ford and Vauxhall although considerably cheaper than BMWs and Mercedes-Benz.
The cars were not that well equipped when their high prices were taken into account – only the CH had a radio and air conditioning as standard along with that mandatory seventies style statement the vinyl roof! It also had an American-style split bench front seat, covered in brocade nylon fabric! However, windows, aerial and seats were electrically operated – very American!
The others in the range belied their home market role as regular Australian family cars – they all had sticky vinyl covered high-back bucket front seats, standard heaters rather than air conditioning and no radio. The Charger certainly looked the part with its 6.5in wide sports wheels.
The 1974 Valiants were also the first Chrysler cars sold in Britain featuring Chrysler’s at that time unique transistorised ignition system which did away with points. The next Chrysler to feature this in Europe was the French built Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1307.
No Australian Chryslers were displayed at the 1974 Motor Show. During 1975, the models on sale in the UK were the VK Valiant Regal Saloon and Estate Automatic with the six cylinder 4342cc, the Charger Automatic with the 5211cc V8, and the CH (probably a CJ) Saloon Automatic with the 5900cc V8. Interestingly, about this time a blue CH featured in two episodes of the infamous ITV cop show ‘The Sweeney’. In one it was the steed of a pair of charming Australian con men and in the other a particularly nasty hoodlum’s motor.
The Regals and Charger were dropped from the British market in the summer of 1975 with the CH lingering on until the end of the year. By 1975 prices had become much more competitive – probably to get rid of the outstanding stocks held by Chrysler UK! A 4.3 litre Regal saloon cost just £2767 in June 1975 – less than the four cylinder 2-litre Ford Granada 2000XL at £2826, the Rover 2200SC at £3036 and even Chrysler’s own 2 Litre at £2807. The Regals were even cheaper when compared to the six cylinder Vauxhall Ventora at £3042 and Triumph 2500TC at £3153. There weren’t a huge number of massive coupes on the market – even so the V8 Charger at £2868 massively undercut Ford’s V6 Granada Ghia Coupe at £3878. Mercedes-Benz and Jaguars were double the Aussie cars prices.
The most expensive way for British buyers to get hold of an American-sourced V8 Chrysler engine used in the Australian cars was to buy one of the exclusive Bristol cars, produced in tiny numbers in the West Country. The 5900cc engine was used in the Bristol 412 and 603; the latter also used the 5211cc version for a time.
Why the British didn’t give a xxxx for Australian Chryslers…
The Australian Chryslers did not sell very well in Britain. The high fuel consumption, especially in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, was a real turn off for Brit drivers facing a 50mph speed limit and the threat of fuel rationing. Until their final years, the Valiants were priced as luxury cars but they were not sophisticated enough to compete in that market.
They had a fairly crude suspension system, with torsion bars up front but leaf springs and a live axle at the back. Steering was by recirculating ball which combined with the relatively soft spring rates made the cars a bit of hand full to drive quickly on Britain’s small and twisty roads. They depreciated heavily and spare parts were difficult to get. And, to cap it all, they were never really marketed strongly by Chrysler.
In Australia, the Valiant continued. In 1976 the CL Series was launched with the same wheel base as the VH,VJ and VK – the shorter models were dropped. The CL series Charger disappeared in 1978, taking with it much of the Valiant’s sales. The last sports model Valiant was the CM series Valiant GLX. The GLX had substantially upgraded suspension referred to as Radial Tuned Suspension. A Valiant was rumoured to have been sent to America to have the suspension tuned further; it was returned with Chrysler saying it handled better than any large car they had managed to produce!
Sales of the Valiant CL and CM models declined. They were designed to look bigger than they were, which might have gone down well in America but not in Australia. By the end of the 1970s, Australian buyers wanted large interiors but smaller exteriors.
All through the Seventies, Japanese manufacturers were all over the planet really biting into western car markets. Australia had been hit earlier than most by the Japanese onslaught because of its close proximity to the Land of the Rising Sun. Chrysler fought back by assembling in Australia a product of Mitsubishi, its Japanese affliate. The Valiant Galant was nothing more or less than a 1970 Colt Galant, offered in Japan with a choice of 1400 or 1600 engines! It was not a major success but the Sigma, a Mitsubishi with a Chrysler badge introduced in the mid-1970s, sold really well.
The Sigma cashed in on the move by Australian fleet owners towards more economical four cylinder cars. Adding a 2600cc engine – small by traditional Australian standards – helped consolidate its runaway success pushing the full-size Valiant out of the limelight. Quality problems also seemed to afflict each new version of the Valiant and, to cap it all in a country where performance in motor sport was a major part of a car maker’s image, there was insufficient factory support for the all-important brand-building racing programme.
Nothing came of talk in the late 1970s of bringing American K-cars (Plymouth Reliant/DodgeAries) into Australia to breathe new life into the company’s sales at the top end of the market. A proposed Valiant N Series and a high-line Diplomat variant, which had a front end styled very much in the idiom of Chrysler’s European grille, didn’t make the production lines.
Sigma sunrise…Valiant sunset
In an echo of Chrysler’s withdrawal from Europe and the sale of its operations to a European firm, by 1978, Mitsubishi Australia – an Asian-Pacific firm – were half owners of the Valiant factory. After 1978, Valiant under bonnet engine and chassis number plates had ‘Mitsubishi’ on them and referred to the ‘Chrysler’ name as being used ‘under license from Chrysler America’. The Japanese company took full ownership in October 1980 and dropped the Chrysler name from all but the Valiant series. In August 1981, the last Valiant rolled off the production line. It was the last car built in Australia to bear the Chrysler name.
That wasn’t the end of the story as far as Britain was concerned. In April 1983, the British Mitsubishi importers started shipping over Australian-built Sigmas badged as Lonsdales. The idea was to get round the voluntary ten per cent cap on Japanese car imports to Britain. Saloon and estates were offered with a choice of 1600, 2000 and 2600 four-cylinder engines. This was not a success and, by May 1984, the cars were badged Mitsubishi Sigma, remaining on the market for just another year.
When Valiant production ended, the ex-Chrysler Australia engineers were lost. Their whole world had changed with the end of the traditional big cars they had spent years refining. Eventually they concentrated on designing the Mitsubishi Magna.
Rather than working out ways of reducing the size of American cars to fit Australian tastes, they stretched and widened a front-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Sigma to give it the interior room that Australians wanted. The result was a success story that was adopted by Mitsubishi head office in Japan and is now exported round the world as the Diamante. From February 1991 to late 1996, this car was sold in Britain as the Mitsubishi Sigma in saloon and estate versions, both with a 3000cc V6 engine.
Article written by Andy Thompson. Pictures supplied by Graham Arnold.