The Chrysler 180 might not have been a stellar seller in Europe, but it had enough potential to be considered as a suitable basis for a new mid-sized saloon down under. Sadly, politics may have had a hand in its undoing. Here is the Chrysler Centura development story – the Australian Leyland P76 rival you’ve probably never heard of.
The multi-cylinder Centura also makes for an interesting comparison with the Australian Morris Marinas, which also boasted multi-cylinder engines.
Chrysler Centura: C Car down under
The Chrysler 180 was imported into Australia and rebranded as the Chrysler Centura to try and feed the growing demand for more realistically-sized cars to fight the growing influx of Japanese newcomers. The company also needed a competitor for the popular Holden Torana, which had started life as an upgraded, lightly restyled, re-engined Vauxhall Viva.
However, as Chrysler was seen as a domestic Australian producer at the time, it was decided that the 180 would need to undergo a certain degree of localisation to fit into that market. When the company launched the Chrysler Centura in March 1975, it was indeed a seriously revamped 180.
It is traditional to put large engines into small cars in Australia, and the Centura was true to local form. The entry-level model in the range was the 2.0-litre, but the upper models were altogether larger, explaining the need for the re-styled front end…
Chrysler Centura: Hit by trade embargo
The European version of the Chrysler 180 only differed from the Australian Centura at the front, where it had two rectangular headlights as opposed to four round ones sitting either side of a bulbous grille. There are rumours that the Centura front end was originally designed for the abandoned British Sunbeam 2000 version of the car.
Sadly, Australian-French relations were at an all-time low at the time of the Centura’s launch, and its announcement coincided with a trade embargo due to the French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Just before the cars started to arrive, the French were conducting nuclear tests in the South Pacific, and the Australian Waterside Workers Union introduced a ban on the handling of French products.
Australia’s newly-elected Labour Government were sympathetic (or didn’t want to upset the Unions) so the Chrysler bodies were left on the wharves until 1974 when the tests stopped (for a while). As result of all that ‘sea air’ many Centuras started rusting before they were built. This tarnished the car’s reputation before it even had a chance to get established. Spending several months in crates on the quayside had done little for the cars’ longevity.
Model range details
Centura engines were put in at the Chrysler plant in Tonsley Park and the new car was announced in two forms: Centura 4 and Centura 6. The lower model was almost pure Chrysler 2-Litre, but with drum brakes at the rear as opposed to the discs of Euro-spec models.
It used a French differential and the French overhead cam 1981cc engine with twin-barrel Weber carburrettors. The 2.0-litre version was initially available as a basic model or as a sports model which included a sports exhaust system: four-into-two-into-one. The four-cylinder models lacked the vented disc brakes of the sixes and some had a four-stud wheel pattern as opposed to the six’s five-stud pattern.
The wheel style of the cheaper Centuras was used for the European 1979 and 1980 1610 and 2 Litre models.
The Centura 6 was a different kettle of fish altogether. An Australian Chrysler Valiant Hemi engine, Australian Borg-Warner gearbox and differential were installed at Tonsley Park. The big engine was available in 3.5-litres (140bhp SAE) or 4.0-litres (165bhp SAE) versions mated to either a three- or four-speed manual gearbox or an automatic box.
In true Australian style, they were simple, rugged cars. Air conditioning was offered as an option and high-backed bucket seats were standard across the range but, other than that, the interior was all but identical to the European cars. The factory experimented with V8 318cubic inch powered prototypes but the body lacked the rigidity to cope with the torque.
There were two trim levels available across both series:
- Centura XL
Cheaper model with no fake wood trim, rev counter, clock or vinyl roof
- Centura GL
Luxury model with vinyl roof, elaborate hubcaps and mock wood dashboard trim. Clock and rev counter standard.
The Centura was produced in two versions – the KB announced in 1975 and the KC model introduced in 1977. The two series were differentiated by trim and option choices.
What became of the Chrysler Centura?
Centuras were extremely light in the rear and suffered a little in the handling department. The major attraction was – and still is for Australian petrolheads – the straight-line performance. In Australia today, the Chrysler Centura is seen as a bit of a classic as well as being popular with hot rodders who often upgrade their cars with an American V8 engine.
Written with reference to the excellent French Chrysler 180 website, where the pictures are also sourced from. Thanks to Andy Thompson for the huge amount of extra information added to this page.