Hillman Avenger : Avengers in New Zealand

B Car down under

The Avenger was also assembled in New Zealand, and proved a minor hit on the Kiwi market. Andy Thompson and Shannon Stevenson take up its story.

A large number of Avengers were sold in New Zealand. That is why there are still many of them and other British cars of that era amongst the floods of used Japanese cars on Kiwi roads. Interestingly, the Avenger was sold in New Zealand but never in Australia. This is the case for many other British cars that were sold down under during the 1970s including cars from British Leyland and Vauxhall. New Zealand had stronger trading links then with the UK which was primarily why the Avenger was sold there but not in Australia.

Initially, from 1971-1974, the New Zealand Avengers were built at the Todd Plant at Petone, Wellington. Production moved to the newly built Todd Park Car Assembly Plant between 1974 and 1981 in Porirua, Wellington, using CKD parts from the UK. Alongside the Avenger on the same production line were various Rootes/Chrysler UK products (Hunter, Imp, Alpine), 1970s Mirage, Sigma and Lancer from Chrysler’s Japanese affiliate Mitsubishi, Chrysler Australia products including the Valiant Regal and Chargers and – odd man out – the Datsun 180B! Todds had a contract then with Nissan to build these!

The Avenger sold very well. In 1978 and 1979, the Avenger was in the New Zealand car sales top ten and they were very successful as fleet cars. Avis especially favoured the Avenger and many an Avis advertisement featuring special deals included Avengers.

The Avenger was only ever sold in New Zealand as a four door saloon or five door estate car. Reportedly, only six 2 door Avengers were ever imported into the country. Specifications were very much like British Avengers, although the top of the range luxury models were known as the Avenger Alpine GLS. The Alpine tag was dropped when the Chrysler Alpine was introduced to the New Zealand market.

Model changes were similar to the British built Avengers, although the speedometers went totally metric at the beginning of 1974 to meet legal requirement for all vehicles made after 1973 in New Zealand. The facelifted models entered production at the beginning of 1977 although some Mk1 Avengers assembled in 1976 were registered as 1977 models. At this time, both Avenger and Hunter in New Zealand lost the Hillman marque to become Chryslers.

When Chrysler became Talbot in Europe at the beginning of 1979, the Avenger down under was still sold as a Chrysler as Chrysler Australia models were still being built locally. However, the Avenger finally became a Talbot in July 1980 when the facelifted Talbot Alpine was also released onto the Kiwi market. In 1980, New Zealand got the GLS estate, which only became available in Britain when Chrysler became Talbot, and a unique sport style variant. However, the Avenger derivative, the Sunbeam wasn’t sold at all in New Zealand, although a small number were privately imported.

The Avenger had good rallying record down under. 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 very versatile racing cars.

The Avenger was the last in a long line of Rootes products sold in New Zealand. Production finally ended in early 1981, to be replaced locally by an expanded range of Mitsubishi products.

Story by Andy Thompson

 The whole story

Shannon Stevenson breaks down the Avenger story in New Zealand even further…

In New Zealand, many Avengers were sold. They were built here by Todd Motors as CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits sent over from the United Kingdom, from 1970 to 1980.

  • Hillman Avenger 1970-76
  • Chrysler Avenger 1977-80
  • Talbot Avenger 1980

1970 – The beginning.

The 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, and had been doing this since 1924. Due to the popularity of previous British 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’.

At around this time Todd’s approached Mitsubishi Japan (who had then recently forged links with Chrysler Corp) about assembling and distributing their products in NZ. Coincidentally, Mitsubishi had that year released a model called the Galant, which was lineball in size to the Avenger.

Talks went well between the two companies, and to get Mitsubishi a foot in the door, local production of the Mitsubishi Galant Coupe (Colt Galant, Valiant Galant, Plymouth Arrow depending on market) would begin in 1972.

1970 – No Australia for Avenger?

At around this time also, Chrysler’s Australian arm had a debate over a replacement for the slow selling (in Australia that is) Hillman Hunter. There were two proposals, of which only one would be approved, the Hillman Avenger Saloon and Mitsubishi’s Galant Sedan.

After much consideration (i.e. manufacturing costs, sourcing), the Avenger was rejected in favour of the Mitsubishi Galant, to be sold in Australia under the confusingly lengthy moniker of ‘Chrysler Valiant Galant’ (at that time in Australia, Chrysler used the Valiant moniker as a marque name, rather than just a singular model name. This did not apply to New Zealand).

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 if in Australian hands. As a result, the Avenger was one car, of a number, including many British Leyland and Vauxhall products, sold in New Zealand, and not in Australia.

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.

A rare wilderbeast - 1971's Hillman Avenger TC
A rare wilderbeast – 1971’s Hillman Avenger TC

Assembly of the cars was done initially at Todd’s Petone factory, a facility that had seen better days (it was originally opened in the 1920s). The factory, like many similar had no shortage of employees.

Worker’s unions were rampant, and general New Zealand unemployment was reasonably low at that time. Employees working for Todd’s were of a mixed cultural background, and many were immigrants from other countries with their first NZ job building cars with ‘their bare hands’.

As a few of Todd’s workers actually took some pride in their workmanship, the build quality on the NZ Avengers was said to have been somewhat better than their UK built counterparts, and it now shows. As a result, this is possibly why you can still a fair number of Avengers today on New Zealand’s roads, well over twenty years after the end of production, hiding somewhere in amongst the traffic and carpark swarms of new and used Japanese imports, and other pre-1980 British machinery.

As a matter of fact, it would be possibly unsurprising if there are more active, roadworthy and registered Avengers here, than in the UK! They certainly 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!

1970-1972 – The Avenger’s early Production.

When the Avenger was released here in late 1970, it was available as a four door saloon only, with basic rectangular headlights, in a trim level known as ‘Super’. 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, competing within the government tax protected New Zealand market. Main rivals included the Ford Escort Mk1, Vauxhall Viva, Austin 1300, Toyota Corolla, Datsun 1200 and Mazda 808/RX3 rotary.

To boost appeal for the car, 1971 saw a sporting Avenger enter local production, complementing the ‘Super’ model. Known as the Avenger ‘TC’, this 4 door variant had extra features to normal ‘Avengers’, such as black ‘speed racing’ side stripes, sports hubcaps, full black vinyl interior trim, bright colours and hence the TC name – a 1500cc motor with twin carburettors!

1973 – The Avenger Alpine

Two brothers in Arms - New Zealand's Hillman Avenger Super & Avenger Alpine
Two brothers in Arms – New Zealand’s Hillman Avenger Super & Avenger Alpine

Although the Avenger TC did sell, it was only for a limited time. To replace the TC, at the end of 1972, a new Avenger specification was announced, unique to New Zealand, called the Alpine. Todds conceived this model purely as a sporting/luxury package. Features included a woodgrain dashboard, 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 carburettors were kept!

It was at this time also that Todds released Mitsubishi’s Galant 1850cc coupe into New Zealand. This car, sold in a full model range overseas, including sedans and wagons, was only sold as a coupe to not affect the Hillman Avenger’s sales.

Although the car was in a different market to the Avenger saloons, it meant that the Avenger 2 door was never released here. Apparently however, there are six Avenger 2 doors residing in New Zealand, either bought over by Todds for evaluation, or privately imported. Soon after the Alpine’s release, a number of changes occurred regarding the Avenger’s NZ production. At the beginning of 1974, the 1500cc motor was replaced by a 1600cc version, mirroring the UK Avenger’s engine development. 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.

As well, as New Zealand, run by the late Norman Kirk’s Labour Government, changed measurements from imperial to metric in almost everything, the Avenger and all its Todds Chrysler-Mitsubishi stable-mates went metric, regarding all measurements of distance, speed and general dimensions. Everything was kilometres, not miles.

1974 – Change of Factory.

The largest change at this time would not concern the car itself, but where it was built. Todds decided to replace its ageing Petone plant with a new facility. After much planning, a new ‘fresh piece of paper design’ landscaped and environmentally friendly (for the time) vehicle production facility was built at Todd Park, Porirua, Wellington. This plant would have the potential to produce in excess of 30,000 cars annually (remember that New Zealand at that time had only 3 million people), be flexible with model changes, and was designed in a way that many different cars (from limousine, to minicar to commercial utility!) could be built at any one time.

To celebrate this achievement of Todds, NZ’s AA Motor World ran a large feature article in their December 1974 issue, which promoted the new factory and Todd Motors own products. To show an insight of a car on the Assembly facilities, a yellow Hillman Avenger Super was shown, throughout a series of glossy colour photographs, being transformed from bare metal to a complete car.

The Todd Park facility - Porirua, Wellington 1974
The Todd Park facility – Porirua, Wellington 1974

Upon Todds moving their operations to Todd Park, the local 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 introduced as a lower priced option to the 1600. As well, NZ finally got the five door Avenger Estate for local production. Available here with both 1300cc and 1600cc motors in the ‘Super’ trim level, it soon proved a success. Local car magazines applauded it for its load carrying abilities for a smaller estate.

Interestingly, it was quite possibly the smallest five-door estate available in New Zealand up to that time. Almost all other estates / wagons of the Avenger’s size in NZ (Japanese or UK sourced) sold at the time were three-door. As well, apart from the much larger GM-Holden HQ wagon, it was one of the few estate/wagons available at that time in NZ with a coil sprung rear suspension. Most other wagons (and even saloons) in NZ CKD production used the archaic leaf-spring setups.

More about this Todd Park factory now – It was well, expansive. It had to be, simply to cope with Todds approaches to car model diversification. As mentioned elsewhere, Avengers went down the production line with cars from other manufacturers as well as models from Chrysler itself.

A sampling of Todd's 1976 model range From left to right - Hillman Hunter, Hillman Avenger, Mitsubishi Lancer, Chrysler Valiant 770 and Mitsubishi Galant Coupe
A sampling of Todd’s 1976 model range. From left to right – Hillman Hunter, Hillman Avenger, Mitsubishi Lancer, Chrysler Valiant 770 and Mitsubishi Galant Coupe

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! As it were, a few things did not make sense.

Sometimes, there were twice as many warranty claims on Avengers than what there were for the Mitsubishi Galants, yet they were built on the same line by the same people! Interestingly, there were direct competitors to the Avenger on the line, being that of 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, since Nissan had no local assembly plant of their own in NZ at that time. Other factories used by Nissan included Toyota’s Thames factory, and NZMC’s (British Leyland) Nelson factory. This Nelson factory at that time in fact assembled Jaguar XJ6 Series II’s!

Many people, upon seeing the rows of Datsun 180B’s outside Todd Park in amongst the Chryslers, Hillmans and Mitsubishis initially 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 by then increased somewhat, its sales had not. By early 1976 there were large amounts of Avengers laid up as surplus stock. Literally, there were rows and rows of unsold Avengers, laid up either at Todd Park, or Todd Motors dealers. New Zealand Avenger sales were at an all-time low.

This was partly as the competition to it was intensifying (many manufacturers were updating and releasing new models), and that the Avenger was being looked at by consumers as being an old model (after all, being in production for over five years previously with an unchanged appearance didn’t help!), who were beginning to look more towards Japanese vehicles, taking away the market share from the British in NZ. The 1975 release Ford Escort Mk2 certainly did not help either. Todds themselves may not have helped either by having some ‘in house’ competion in the form of the Mitsubishi Lancer!

As well, with many up and coming 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 what Todd’s did was to look to racing – on national rally circuits. After Todd’s bombed heavily in placings when entering a Mitsubishi-Colt Lancer into the internationally recognized 1975 ‘Heatway Rally of New Zealand’ they decided to enter another of their cars, the low-selling Avenger into the 1976 Rally of New Zealand.

Coincidentally, Avis rental cars were looking for a new small-medium sized car, to be bought in large numbers as their economy car. They approached Todd’s about this and struck a deal, that if Todd’s entered an Avenger in the rally, and it reached a top ten placing, 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 particular rally Avenger to be used however wasn’t any average Avenger, and its driver certainly wasn’t any average driver. The driver who entered 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.

The infamous Andrew Cowan Avenger
The infamous Andrew Cowan Avenger

This particular 1973 Chrysler/Hillman Avenger (UK Registered RHP552M) two door used had a number of abnormal non-dealer fitted options fitted. And yes, it actually followed the rally organizers’ production car regulations – though just barely.

Consequentially, 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, then won the race, without incident, or major battlescars (until the end in Dunedin 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.

As it happened, 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 from them, not losses. Dealer fitted options became popular on the Avenger, 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 actually some talk by Todd’s of actually supplying it in NZ Avengers as an higher priced option to the 1600. Although it would have most certainly benefited the Avenger, it would have drastically hurt the Hillman Hunter’s sales (by this time, the Hunter had already spent nine years in NZ production, and New Zealanders had a fond appreciation of it.).
Therefore, in order to keep the Hillman Hunter selling at its then current profitable rate, the Avenger 1800 sadly did not enter NZ 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. However, it was not only Todd’s advertising the Avenger. Shell Oils used the mentioned-elsewhere Cowan Avenger in their advertisements promoting the reliability and durability of the car, and the fuel (of course). Also, for promotion of AA travel ‘fly-drive’ holidays (domestic flights and rental cars), a Hillman Avenger was used in the background of the advertisements.

And yes, 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 variety. Resultantly, many overseas tourists, holidaymakers and businessmen, visiting New Zealand during the late 1970s and early 1980s saw it by usage of a rental Avenger. Many a national business conference also would have had numerous rental Avengers parked outside, borrowed by businessmen wanting something cheap and economical simply to take them there to and from the airport.

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

Helping this sales boom also was a run-out of old stock. This being as, like elsewhere in the world, the Hillman name was being phased out, and in 1977, after seven long years, the Avenger itself was being updated. Mirroring the Chrysler facelift changes elsewhere in the world, the NZ Avengers received the new front and rear styling (front only for estate), and all-new Chrysler Alpine styled dashboards and single-spoke steering wheels.

The Hillman name, for Avenger and Hunter was no more, being 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.

The Chrysler Avenger GLS (Todd's publicity shot, 1977)
The Chrysler Avenger GLS (Todd’s publicity shot, 1977)

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, possibly for reasons of CKD simplicity, alloy wheels, optional sunroofs and extra driving/fog lights were not fitted at the factory, as they were on their now Scottish built equivalents. Many NZ owners still 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. Mag wheel availability was helped by Chrysler (Rootes previously) using the same 4-stud wheel pattern as Ford.

With the Avenger’s wheels (standard tyres for all 155/70 R13), there was oddity regarding them and the car’s specification. Like many cars of that time, the Avenger used styled steel wheels designed to look acceptable without hubcaps (Most manufacturers, especially Ford, in NZ were doing without them on their cars). With the Avenger, the lower specification models used steel disc hubcaps to cover most of the wheel. On the GLS however, 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 (which by then was seven years old anyway). 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 large gas-guzzling Chrysler Mopar 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. So much so that for the years of 1978 and 1979, it featured consistently in the top 10 of local overall car sales. Although the Avenger was a long time already in production, it was regarded as a proven design. It was simple, and due to its conventional longitudinal inline 4 cylinder and rear drive running gear, the mechanics could actually fix them. Although sometimes, 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 diversify the Avenger’s market further, and create more sales for Todd’s in the fleet and LCV market, a ‘van’ version of the Avenger was introduced, announced in January 1978.

Although not a proper van (unlike the Ford Escort Mk2 or Morris Marina panel-vans, which actually were proper van bodies), by using the existing five door estate body, it was still aimed at the commercial sector of the market. Simplified to the extreme and equipped with the standard 1600cc motor and four speed manual gearbox, it had a wooden floor to replace the standard floor and the back seats, and rear door windows that were fixed, without winders.

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. Although it sold, it most certainly was not as popular as what the proper vans (e.g. Ford Escort van), 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, available in all Todd’s dealerships, its hatchback derivative, the Chrysler Sunbeam, like the Avenger 2 door before it, would never see a NZ showroom. Mitsubishi Motors (sharing Todd Park with Chrysler) had a newly released equivalent being that of the Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback (yes, the twin gear-stick eight speed one, also sold as Mitsubishi Colt), available with either three or five doors.

Because of this, the Sunbeam, nor the Chrysler/Talbot Horizon front-wheel-drive hatchback ever saw New Zealand production. Even so, a few Sunbeams, including a few Lotus models were imported anyway, either for evaluation purposes by Todd’s, or by enthusiasts. Resultantly, 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 than being thrashed around suburban streets by a boy-racer (Yes indeed, there are a number ‘souped up’ Avengers today roaming around in NZ used by keen boyracers). 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 on the heavily taxed NZ market. Although regarded as an ‘old soldier’ by NZ Motor World, it featured prominently in their monthly top-ten sales lists, and was a common-sight amongst NZ urban traffic.

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 decided to thoroughly test five of the most popular small saloon cars available on the New Zealand market. Within it were 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 of, it seemed to come through the demanding consumer tests satisfactorily, although the more common and reliable Toyota Corolla was recommended.

1979 Chrysler Avenger Estate - An old soldier, though good for carrying a bundle.
1979 Chrysler Avenger Estate – An old soldier, though good for carrying a bundle.

1980 – The Talbotization.

Eventually, although it took more than a year after it’s by then Scottish built counterpart to do so, the NZ Avenger did blossom 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.

After all, by this time, Chrysler’s European arm had well become Peugeot’s “bought for US$1” Talbot, and Chrysler Australia Valiants had ceased NZ production the previous year (U.S origin Mopars ended local production before the Avenger existed), ending a direct link between Chrysler and Todds. It was only logical. Although the car was becoming outdated in many ways at the time, (especially as newer designed, front-wheel-drive, CKD Japanese cars began to flood into New Zealand, and squeeze British cars out of NZ), it still sold in reasonable enough numbers for Todds to feasibly build it.

Late 1980 – The end of the line for Avenger.

As it is, the production of a model comes to an ending sometime, and for the Avenger, it was much later than never. Largely unaltered since its 1970 introduction, its departure came a full 10 years later, around the Christmas of 1980, when its designated ‘1980’ production run was finished, to be then replaced by an expanded range of NZ assembled Mitsubishi products. Of all models and variants of Avenger, the NZ grand total of production stood at 26,500 units, which in ratio to NZ’s population, would be one to every resident of Timaru.

Interestingly, it was at this time too that the Avenger’s then main competitors, Ford’s Escort Mk2, Austin’s Allegro Mk3 and Vauxhall’s Chevette were also replaced with more reliable although ‘characterless’ Japanese equivalents in New Zealand. By then NZ was looking to Japan for its cars rather than the UK, and as the Japanese cars were often more modern, reliable and easier to build, there was no looking back. This New Zealand / Japan car dependence still stands to this very day – and will continue – for many years to come.

A Chrysler Avenger 1.6 GLS, shown in typical heavy local traffic conditions!
A Chrysler Avenger 1.6 GLS, shown in typical heavy local traffic conditions!

With the passing of Avenger, was the full severing of Chrysler-Rootes to New Zealand. It was not the final Chrysler Europe product sold here however. The Talbot Alpine (later renamed Talbot SX) survived until 1984, when it looked the odd duckling in Todd’s Mitsubishi dealerships, being the only European amongst a large range of Japanese cars and simultaneously gaining the reputation of being 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.

A footnote – Unleaded fuel.

Finally, as a message to all who may believe Avengers (or any older British car) are incompatible with unleaded fuel. – They are compatible with unleaded fuel, when a fuel additive such as ‘Valvemaster’ is used. A higher octane rated fuel (e.g. 96, 98) is better for the car. My own car (a 1980 Ford Escort Mk2 1.3L) runs superbly on it. As a result, even after the full banning of leaded fuel sales in New Zealand (which was 1996), Avengers (and many other pre 1980 UK cars) are still roaming the New Zealand roads, and hopefully – will do so for many years yet.

A word for British car enthusiasts from outside New Zealand.

To anyone who wants to buy a perfectly good Avenger (or many other older cars, such as British Leyland, British Fords, other Chrysler-Rootes products, and pre 1980 Vauxhalls), just hop on a plane and come to New Zealand. As New Zealanders (and Australians too) generally keep their cars on the road much longer than most Europeans and North Americans (especially as salt here is almost never used on roads in winter), there are many fine examples of pre-1980 cars still roaming New Zealand’s roads. Actually, there is said to be in general two cars to every head of population!

Generally, the prices are cheap (often under $1000 NZD/approx $500 US/300 pounds – for good examples), and hopefully the exportation out will not be much of a problem.


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


  1. A great article… We used to call the Avengers the Toxic Avengers and, while I never had one, several of my friends used to talk about them quite favourably. They never appealed to me as I had a Citroen DS at the time. My step-father had a Hillman Hunter and it wasn’t a bad car apart from the rust.

    I see the Mitsubishi Sigma – Astron 2.6-litre Magna engines are mentioned. We had a couple of these Sigma wagons at work with the high roof and, apart from being a little rough, the engines certainly used to pull like a train. They were,at the time, also starting to appear in the Mitsubishi Cordia, Tredias and Starion with some in turbo form and went like the clappers) as weel as putting up a good fight towing compared to the Holden 202ci Panel vans.

    Incidentally, to the best of my knowledge, the Todd family are no longer involved with Mitsubishi – I think that Mitsubishi Motors bought them out and they the moved on to found Todd Energy of NZL.

    Mitsubishis are reknowned for being smokers but I quite like the current models styling. Definitely some of the better looking cars from Japan…

  2. A useful insight into the history of the NZ Avengers… I knew that the Hunter was built in Iran as the Peykan (I visited the Iran National Motor Co. factory), but didn’t realise that it and the Avenger were produced in New Zealand. Wouldn’t it be nice if the UK still had such trading links with New Zealand now and could renew such an arrangement?

  3. On returning to NZ from UK in 1991 I needed a cheap car, and bought a bright orange Avenger at the Elleslie Car fair, around $1800 as I recall. It had started life as a 1300 so had a low diff, but with somewhat smoky 1600 went like the clappers, blowing away a Jap Turbo something on the Pohuehue climb near Warkworth! She wasn’t paying attention and I nipped past while she “lagged”!!
    The bodywork had one TINY rust hole inside the corner of the boot. The dash and plastics were AWFUL, all curling up towards the sun. Staying with a friend, I backed down his driveway and turned into the road. The overnight rain had filled the tin trim panel under the steering column with water, and my feet got soused, on a fine morning!!
    My friend then sealed the ‘screen with black goo, kerosene and a deft finger.
    We changed the rear shocks and a leaky brake cylinder, both easy & cheap purchases, the latter Chinese!
    Handling was AWFUL on metal = shingle roads, most of the journey being done sideways. The plastic switchgear, overload thingy was a lousy design. When it got hot the plastic softened, the springy bimetal strip opened the circuit, the plastic cooled with the circuit still open, hey no headlights! WUNNERFOOL design! Put in a parallel switch..
    Bought a 2l Mitsi Sigma, sold the Avenger to a young feller, complete with new front brake pads ready to go in.
    His mechanic friend said to leave it until he could supervise, but no, young-un changed them, headed up a metal (sorry shingle) road, hit the picks, locked up, rolled and sans one Avenger! Must have been a great design in the caliper department too!
    Oh, he walked, so that tin-work held up enuff!
    Now we drive Korean….

  4. I bought a 1979 Avenger GLS Alpine model in 1985. Top of the range, NZ assembled. It was red with a black vinyl roof. The seats were the most comfortable I have ever had in any car. I enjoyed ownership and sold it in 1991.

  5. Good summary overall.
    The Hunter was supposed to phase-out in 1972, to be replaced by a “2-litre class” car. this would have been what ended as the Simca-built Chrysler 180, but was originally to be a Humber with a V6 engine, sharing innards with the Avenger. Non-appearance of that car left Todds with an overlapping pair of cars, not very different in size.
    Todds never took the 1250 Avenger, which had poor reviews including poor fuel-economy. but later, when the fuel-crisis prompted changes in the Sales Tax to favour cars under 1300 cc, the Avenger 1300 had gained enough performance to be viable.
    The Avenger Estate had 4 ft between the rear wheel-arches – a great asset as a load-carrier especially for the “van” drivative!
    Avenger (like the Ford Sierra) reverted to a cable-clutch! both suffered regular failures of the plastic fitting where the top-end of hte cable outer met the firewall.
    The Avenger started out with a reversion to what my Dad called “monkey-on-a-stick” throttle linkage, which was awful. They eventually switched to cable, which had given good trouble-free control in Hunters and (in a different style) to Valiants.
    However did Toyota manage to shrug off their rust scandal?

  6. I see The UK Rally Car RHP 552M which belonged to the Chrysler Competition Centre, Humber Road in Coventry was used in the Neew Zealand Rally. I am re-building RHP 551M which is the sister car to RHP 552m and was also one of Des O`Dells creations. Would anyone be able to tell me if RHP 552M was ever shipped back to England. If not does anyone know what happened to it. Noel Gibbons England

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