The Hillman Avenger was assembled in New Zealand and proved to be a minor hit on the Kiwi market. It remained in production for more than a decade and lives on in classic circles to this day.
Shannon Stevenson gives an incredibly detailed account of the car and its subsequent development in this story, which covers the car and its assembly by Todd Motors in the ‘Shaky Isles’, across the other side of the world from where it was conceived.
The Hillman Avenger in New Zealand
For more than a half century, Todd Motors was the licensed supplier and assembler of all Chrysler and Rootes products in New Zealand. Todd Motors was an integral part of the Todd Corporation, an organisation specialising in oil-based energy research operations, aviation, automotive and marine product distribution as well as community and land development.
Its automotive assembly operation, which began in 1923, was largely based at a factory set up at Petone, near Wellington. Initially, Todd Motors specialised in distributing Oakland and Wolseley vehicles, before settling on Chrysler products. Rootes products followed in 1928. The smaller Rootes cars were strong family favourites in New Zealand. One star that shone brightly in Todd Motors’ line-up throughout the 1950s and 1960s was the Hillman Minx. Indeed, such was the model’s popularity that Todd Motors had launched an indigenous, New Zealand-only version of the car called the Humber 80. Due to the popularity of previous British Rootes products in New Zealand, it was natural that the Hillman Avenger would follow into local assembly, fitting below the Hillman Hunter range.
Local assembly of the Avenger duly commenced in July 1970, initially of a single 1.5-litre four-door, named the Avenger Super. The first examples generally seen by the public were two press vehicles of Todd Motors, carrying the registration number plates FK9032 (below) and FK9034 respectively, appearing in print advertising, followed by examples encountered in shopping displays and dealership showrooms.
The Avenger name was not new to Rootes in New Zealand and had previously been used on a Commer bus chassis powered by the TS3 two-stroke diesel engine.
1970: Sold in New Zealand and not Australia
Soon after the first Hillman Avengers hit the highways of the North and South Islands, Todd Motors approached Mitsubishi Japan – a company with which Chrysler was at the time establishing international links – about assembling and distributing its products in New Zealand. While Mitsubishi already had a limited presence in New Zealand with its small Colt fastback, it was behind a smaller distributor. At this time Mitsubishi had released the Galant, a vehicle of similar size to the Avenger. Talks went well between the two companies, and a decision was made to introduce the Mitsubishi Galant coupe in 1972 – complementing Todd’s existing Australian Chrysler Valiant range and the British Rootes Avenger and Hunter ranges.
Like Todd Motors in New Zealand, Chrysler in Australia was interested in the Hillman Avenger and the Mitsubishi Galant. After considerations of manufacturing costs and sourcing, Chrysler Australia chose the Galant. The Avenger never appeared on the Australian market, becoming one of a number of vehicles being available in New Zealand, and not Australia.
The Avenger’s assembly at Petone
The Kiwi Avenger was assembled from CKD (Completely-Knocked-Down) kits sourced from the United Kingdom, at the time a favoured trading partner of New Zealand. This was done to lower Government taxes on the car and to help foster local employment. In the 1970s, Government protection was placed on the motor industry, and punitive tariffs were normally 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 bodyshell, mechanicals and certain detail pieces. Smaller items, particularly glass, tyres, wiring and trim were made locally by component suppliers, particularly in the wider Wellington region. Unlike the UK market at launch, a single Avenger model was offered upon release, the Super offered with the Avenger’s 1.5-litre overhead valve engine, mated to the four-speed manual transmission, and stopped by disc/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. The vinyl-trimmed interior was offered standard with armrests, an interior light, integrated solid 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 acrylic enamel paint on the underbody, Todd Motors gave the Kiwi Avengers paint dips below the window-line, further electro-coating to the floors and underseal. Further New Zealand factors, including the lack of road salt in winter, and dry climates in certain areas, meant that the Kiwi Avenger bodyshells could last over several decades of sustained use – a number were still on the roads 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 key British rivals, namely the Austin 1300, Ford Escort Mk1 and Vauxhall Viva. Japanese models were beginning to become a presence, notable examples being the Datsun 1200 and Toyota Corolla. A key selling point of the Avenger, which would continue throughout its sales life, was the interior and boot space over a number of its similarly-sized rivals.
1971: Avenger TC is launched
The Avenger’s appeal was boosted in late 1971 with the introduction of an additional model to the Super, known as the TC. This model had a deliberate sporting focus, involving bright colour schemes, black ‘speed’ stripes, blacked out window surrounds and a black vinyl interior trim with high-backed seats. Wheel decoration was by the sports style hubcaps of the UK-market Avenger GT.
While the features depicted made the car ‘look’ fast, the TC model designation had a genuine mechanical ‘go faster’ meaning attached to the 1.5-litre engine – twin carburettors.
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 gave way to another Todd Motors’ 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. Alpine features included a dashboard with wood inserts, a round gauge instrument panel, cloth seats, the UK-market Avenger GL’s four-headlamp grille and vinyl roof. Inherited from the TC for the Alpine’s initial assembly runs was the twin-carburettor setup.
Concurrent to the Avenger Alpine’s introduction, Todd Motors began to focus on the Japanese Mitsubishi range, beginning with the Galant coupe entering New Zealand assembly, on the same line as the Avenger and Hunter. For the first few years Todd Motors marketed the Galant in coupe form only, to not have a direct effect on Avenger and Hunter. In practice, the two-door coupe bodyshell proved to be no handicap for the Galant model – 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 Todd’s showrooms. Although a small number of Avenger two-doors reached New Zealand roads and race circuits, these were generally private imports.
1974: Running changes and Alpine GLS
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 69bhp, while the twin-carburettor Alpine engine developed 81bhp. Coinciding with this engine upgrade, the grille badge changed from vertical rectangle to round, with ‘Avenger’ written in stylised script.
With the 1.6-litre’s introduction, the Borg-Warner 45 four-speed automatic was introduced as an option. With this transmission, an additional Alpine 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.
A further 1974 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. Although ‘by Chrysler’ badges appeared, the Hillman badge still held pride of place on the front left hand corner of the bonnet.
The changes assisted in the Avenger’s sales, by this time several years on the market. 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’ flagship Valiant range. It was not Todd Motors’ top-selling model, this was the Hunter at 2120 units. The absolute top seller in this time frame was the Vauxhall Viva HC, at 2657 units, outselling the Ford Cortina. 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 – the Japanese manufacturers would soon begin to cast a larger spell of influence over the New Zealand motorist.
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 decided to replace its ageing Petone plant, with a new facility. The Petone plant had served the company well over several decades, but had became too small for its expanding automotive operations. A further issue was the proposal of a highway running directly through the middle of the plant.
A new landscaped vehicle production facility was developed, and built at Porirua, near Wellington, the site being named ‘Todd Park’. This plant, which employed over 1000 people in 1974, would have 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 – from limousine, to mini-car to commercial utility – 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 the 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 documented being transformed from bare metal to complete car.
1975: Expanding the Avenger range
With Todd Motors’ move to Porirua for vehicle assembly, the plant’s assembly line flexibility meant that further new models could be introduced. For the Avenger, this was two new models for 1975 that would become mainstays of the line-up until the end of production. The first model was an additional Avenger Super, using the shorter stroke 1.3-litre engine, developing 57bhp. 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. Aside from the running gear, the other specifications were unchanged from the 1.6 Super models. The car was praised by motoring journalists for this.
The second model was a new body style – the Avenger Super Estate. Offered in general with the 1.6-litre engine and 4-speed manual transmission – a 1.3-litre version and 1.6-litre automatic were listed in AA Motor World’s 1976 price guides – this model proved a logical extension to the Avenger range, as a fleet and family holdall, 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 four-door and Estate, Chrysler Valiant and Charger coupe and Mitsubishi Galant coupe (above) – 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, rapidly growing as a car manufacturer at this time, had a range of models sold internationally, already proven for their reliability. A model that impressed Todd Motors was the Mitsubishi Lancer, a model similar in size to Avenger which had gained a reputation in long distance rally events, and could be had in several body styles. This model duly reached New Zealand assembly for 1976 in its four-door form. Although this model could have replaced Avenger at this time, Todd Motors opted to retain Avenger – the Mitsubishi Lancer effectively a rival from within the showrooms.
Further to the Chrysler and Mitsubishi models, Todd Motors was assembling an ‘odd man out’ unrelated to either model line-up, and not sold through Todd Motors’ 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 an assembly plant of their own at Wiri, South Auckland.
The increase in the Todd Motors model line-up 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 from Japan – Datsun 120Y, Mazda 808 and Toyota Corolla KE30 – a model AA Motor World comparison tested with the Avenger – and the smaller Honda Civic hatchback, all newer designs than the Avenger. The National Party, which had come to power in New Zealand in late 1975, was actively encouraging stronger trading links with Japan – the automotive industry was a target, which combined with the UK altering its own tariffs, made CKD vehicle shipments to New Zealand more expensive and, in turn, 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 Austin Allegro and Ford Escort Mk2, with Vauxhall Chevette following in 1976. Like the Avenger, most of these models could be had 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 the Avenger, the majority of these rivals were longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive. However, a shakeup would become apparent in the small car sector in New Zealand, this being the looming acceptance of transverse front-wheel-drive layouts amongst the manufacturers – which resulted in compact engine packaging and extra interior space. This was already a key element of the Honda Civic, Austin 1300 and Allegro, let alone the smaller Mini.
Within Todd Motors’ own line-up 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 frequently take weeks to get across 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.
Rally the supercar Sunday, sell the economy car Monday
To provide a spark to the Avenger’s sales, Todd Motors looked to motor sport – on New Zealand’s leg of the World Rally Championship (WRC), known at the time as the Heatway Rally of New Zealand. A Mitsubishi Lancer was used in 1975 – albeit not reaching a desired placing – but it was decided to use the Hillman Avenger for 1976. While Avengers, Hunters and Imps had appeared on the Heatway before, they were generally privateer entries.
This rally was held in several stages, over 1000 miles in the lower parts of the South Island in middle of winter. Winter in New Zealand in 1976 was one of the more colder years on record and to make this event more interesting, there were 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 businessmen 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, Avis would buy Avengers for its fleets. The Avis logo duly appeared on the bonnet of the Avenger entered.
However, the driver and the Avenger in question, were not average examples of their calibre. This was Scottish rally 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 five years straight in Mitsubishis winning the Australian Southern Cross Rally and went on to winning the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon in a Mercedes-Benz, before, among many other accomplishments, becoming the head of Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe.
Cowan’s Avenger two-door, RHP552M, was a different machine from the Avenger Super and Alpines on the local Todd dealers’ forecourts – this Group One rally-spec version was built by Chrysler’s Competitions 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, which developed 180bhp in rally form. Twin Weber carburettors were fitted, which were quoted as being the size of lawnmower 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 New Zealanders could not order these options for the Avenger from Todd Motors’ dealers – an issue raised at the press conferences before the event – the car’s modifications were fully compliant with the relevant FIA WRC regulations. Complementing the Avenger, support crew vehicles were Chrysler Valiants.
The mix of renowned Scottish rally driver and modified Avenger had a positive outcome as far as Todd Motors were concerned. RHP552M, in a field of over one hundred and with 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 – many of whom would wrap up warm to view the rally in the cold evenings. The only issues with this Avenger and its hard run was a broken alternator, which Cowan and his navigator could work around, and at the finish when 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 Rally, was commended for his sportsmanship and he and his Avenger appeared within news items and sponsorship advertising in New Zealand print media. Avis was true to its word – an order for Avengers was made and delivered. Cowan’s win was further referenced in Todd Motors’ advertising material – focusing primarily on the Avenger’s reliability and strength, as quoted by Cowan. To fit in with the race theme, promotional advertising featured Avengers sporting optional five-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, but this did not come to fruition. The Avis Rental Cars Avenger link would be a continuing one, with 1.3-litre models forming a mainstay of the company’s fleets until the early 1980s. The first experience of an Avenger for a number of New Zealanders and international travellers was 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 were an influence on the Avenger in New Zealand, Todd Motors did not repeat the approach for 1977.
1977: Still the Hillman
For 1977, the Avenger was the tenth top selling passenger car range in New Zealand with 2166 units sold. Although by 1977 Todd Motors was promoting the model as the Chrysler Avenger, the reality was that this model used the older Hillman Avenger panel stock and fittings, made obsolete on the UK home market once Avenger was facelifted 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 20,000th 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 four-door, replacing the former Galant coupe.
While the Todd Motors Mitsubishi line-up was expanding, there was a scaling down starting to occur with their Chrysler line-up, the Valiant Charger coupe ending its New Zealand assembly run in 1976. As it would turn out, the Chrysler Alpine would soon prove to be 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. Unless one looked inside there were no visual clues over the standard Estate version.
The reasoning behind this model was for Todd Motors to get around strict post-Energy Crisis purchase laws put in place by the New Zealand Government at this time. For a new vehicle in the mid-1970s, hire purchase laws required a 60% deposit, with 12-month terms. For commercial vehicles – including cars with an opening rear tailgate and no rear seats fitted, classifying them as ‘commercial’ – this was different, with a 25% deposit and a three-year term being permitted.
This loophole was taken advantage of by almost all New Zealand assemblers with Estate models in their line-ups – the Vauxhall Viva and Chevette, Ford Cortina, Toyota Corolla and Datsun 120Y being examples. Honda Civic and Vauxhall Chevette hatchback models could be had in this form as well. Few vehicles of this approach are now left in New Zealand – either long disappeared from New Zealand’s roads, or later retrofitted with rear seats, adapted to their intended family role.
1978: A new look and identity for Avenger
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 front grille with Chrysler’s Pentastar badge, larger headlamps, wrap-around indicators, revised front wings, larger bumpers and horizontal ‘light-bar’ tail-lamps on the four-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 utilising rubber inserts. A basic chrome hubcap design of the type found on the UK market LS, lacking trim rings fitted to the previous Hillman models, was fitted on lower specification models, while styled steel wheels without hubcaps were fitted to the GLS.
Four-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, modelled 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 this change in looks and marque came a reconfiguration in models. The New Zealand Chrysler Avenger range for 1978 comprised 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 and from August 1978 as GL) in Chrysler form was now only offered with the 1.3-litre engine. Although 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 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 the previous Alpine GLS, extended past the boot lid. To ‘brighten up’ this model, a chrome rear vision mirror and wheel trim rings were fitted. Unlike older Alpine models, a single-carburettor setup was used.
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 driving lights and the use of styled steel wheels, in lieu of wheeltrims 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 the Avenger Estate. This car came with the 1.6-litre engine and manual transmission, but was offered in a lower level of interior trim to the four-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 Estate-based Avenger Van was also updated to Chrysler form.
There were further changes mechanically to help improve 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 by AA Motor World for the June/July 1978 issue. The magazine liked the facelift, and saw that the Avenger was a competitively priced package, particularly with regard to its size and features within. The magazine was not taken with the ride, which it felt had not been improved from the earlier Hillman models.
With the Chrysler Avenger’s new features, there were a number of anomalies. Gloveboxes were not fitted; a parcel tray and door side pockets seen as appropriate for this purpose, and there were Estate models that did not have reversing lights fitted, in spite of the 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 was due to design standardisation 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-litre engine block (as 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-litre model’s designation was renamed to 1.3 GL. For the Estate models, 1.6 LS replaced Super badges. A running change was the addition of electronic ignition.
Avenger yes, Sunbeam and Horizon no
By late 1978 the Chrysler Avenger was a popular B-segment car in the New Zealand market. While Avengers were seen in Todd Motors’ dealerships across New Zealand, 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 wheelbase five-door Mitsubishi Mirage was added. The Chrysler rival to this was the Horizon hatchback. A Horizon was sent to New Zealand and evaluated by Todd Motors, but 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 which were 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: A relevant player in New Zealand’s small car market
While changes afoot were occurring with Chrysler Europe’s operations bought out by Peugeot-PSA, and a resultant 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 was selling 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. This deal, between Todds, their Christchurch dealer Cooper Henderson and Avis Rental Cars, was valued at NZ $4.1 million dollars and 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’s Consumer magazine of an in-depth 5000km test on five popular small 1.3-litre engined cars on the New Zealand market: the Austin Allegro, Chrysler Avenger, Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla (KE30) and Vauxhall Chevette. Tests included handling, braking, fuel consumption, roominess, convenience, assembly, performance, parking, service and warranties. While the Consumers’ Institute was taken with the Avenger’s interior space, comfort and internal features, it was 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 would return 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 remaining a limited Australian import until 1981. The Commer PB van, by 1979 in Dodge Spacevan form, ceased New Zealand sales that year, to be superseded in 1980 by the Mitsubishi L300 van. Further changes appeared with the heavy Commer and Dodge commercials, these giving way to Mitsubishi’s Fuso commercials.
By the end of 1979, the sourcing of Todd Motors’ line-up had changed considerably. When the Avenger entered New Zealand assembly, all models alongside it were either British and Australian. By late 1979, Japan proved to be the dominant source – Avenger and Alpine would become the last European-sourced passenger models Todd Motors assembled locally.
1980: Keeping the Chrysler name
By 1980, Chrysler Europe’s line-up was rebranded as 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 French-sourced 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 decided to retain 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 the Chrysler Avenger – brochures for 1980 stating that the car was a product of Chrysler International.
While the Chrysler name stayed in place on the front-left of 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 their 1978-79 counterparts and the UK market Talbot Avenger.
At the front, the black grille from the UK-market LS appeared across the line-up, replacing the silver grille. Black body-side mouldings were used along the sides, and window blackouts appeared on models where vinyl roofs were not fitted – a blackout further appearing between the light-bar tail-lamps on the 1.3 GL. The hubcaps of the 1978-79 GL four-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 four-door body style. Due to legal requirements introduced in 1979, rear seatbelts 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 showrooms in 1980, were several small Mitsubishis: the Lancer EX, Celeste coupe and Mirage hatchback models. Although a dated design by 1980, there were elements in the Avenger’s favour. One was the presence of the Estate model, a body style traditionally popular in the small-medium sectors of the New Zealand passenger car market. The similarly-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 to 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 four-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 four-door and 1.6 LS Estate were of a higher price, 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 even rivals using smaller engines – usually cost several hundred, if not thousands of dollars more.
The Avenger Van was priced lower than its Estate equivalent, at NZ $7595, undercutting the smaller-engined Ford Escort van by several hundred dollars. What this illustrates is 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, but the Avenger remained a price-competitive model.
Late 1980: the end of the line for Avenger
The Avenger had a long run in New Zealand, ending in late 1980, when the allocated CKD packs were finished. Assembly of the car ceased in September, with final stocks leaving Todd Motors’ dealerships in 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, particularly with the Talbot Avenger itself soon ceasing production due to the closure of its Linwood, Scotland factory and the increased proliferation in New Zealand of newer-designed 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, remained on sale in New Zealand until 1984. While the Talbot Solara four-door version never reached New Zealand, the Alpine/SX was almost joined by the larger Talbot Tagora – the production of this model ceasing in 1983 while Todd Motors was evaluating the model for possible local release.
While Chrysler had divested itself of a majority of its 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 – with 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 four-doors and a restyled Sigma Estate. 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 Motors would later withdraw from car assembly and leave the parent company to focus on its energy producing operations – its vehicle operations were 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 Austin Allegro and Ford Escort were replaced locally by their assemblers with the second-generation Honda Civic and Mazda 323 based Ford Laser and 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. The main reason 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 line-up, particularly from 1980 onwards, was a key example of this.
A further reason that became apparent once the Japanese models entered local assembly was that the Designers developed the vehicles from the drawing board to be easier to assemble. This was particularly prevalent with the Mitsubishis from the beginning, which proved in practice to have lower warranty claims than the Avenger. 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 20,000 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 only 3.1 million, and new passenger car sales at this time averaged 70,000 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. There were enthusiasts that 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 the 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 – at this time, an Avenger in average condition could be purchased 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.
Another life in Russia
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 were 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 some of its contemporaries 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 who had been assembling Avengers, Hunters and Valiants in the 1970s, were still employed assembling Mitsubishi Lancers and Galants. Todd Park has since been re-purposed: a tertiary education institution has used the administration areas and the former assembly plant is used for logistics and storage facilities.
The Avenger is now little 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 number of whom are younger than the 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 of the Todd Motors-assembled Chrysler Avenger to those members of the motoring press who attended Dodge’s launch, 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 fiftieth 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 Chrysler Europe cars in New Zealand, played a part of New Zealand’s motoring heritage. Hopefully, the surviving examples of their breed will keep roaming the roads of the North and South Islands and keep its memory alive for many years yet.
Written with reference to:
- 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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