The Hillman Avenger was an ambitious ground-up new car for the Rootes Group, benefiting from the development resources of parent company Chrysler.
In many ways, it should have been as successful as the Ford Escort – and yet it wasn’t. The Avenger’s lack of ultimate success wasn’t down to the product, reckons Keith Adams.
Hillman Avenger: forever the underrated
The Hillman Avenger is one of those cars who’s tale doesn’t get told enough. While rivals, such as the Ford Cortina and Morris Marina are forensically re-examined on a regular basis, this solid British saloon tends to get overlooked. That’s perhaps because it was never replaced at the end of its life, perhaps because its undoubted motor sport potential was never reached and perhaps because, in a rapidly-changing world, this capable saloon was left behind by more capable and flamboyant rivals.
Whatever the reason, it’s time to reverse some of that and pause to reflect on this fine saloon. Launched in the UK and Europe in 1970, the Hillman Avenger was arguably the first Rootes Group car to benefit from a serious injection of time, resource and youth from parent company Chrysler. The US giant had gained a significant stake in Rootes since 1964 (following a failed attempt to buy into Leyland Motors in 1962), and the Arrow project was the first to benefit from the Chrysler cash. But this was an existing project, very much designed and conceived by the people who brought us the Minx, Rapier and Imp.
It would be the Avenger – and its sister the Chrysler 180/2 Litre – that would be born under Chrysler. That meant it was influenced, designed and engineered from the outset as a UK car to be built by the Americans. In 1966, and as the Chrysler B Car entered its clay model stages, Chrysler execs were being flown into Coventry and the American money was pouring in, rapidly changing the mindset of all of those who worked there. And that’s why the Avenger, especially in its earliest iterations on the drawing board, was such a flamboyant-looking thing.
Watch the Pathe video
The aftermath of its launch
I’ll not go into too much detail about the convoluted production process. The Avenger was typically Rootes – in that it saw a lot of transportation of sub-assemblies before production. Originally, it was built at Ryton using a Linwood-pressed body and powered by a drivetrain made in Stoke in Coventry. In later life, assembly moved to Linwood, as part of the Government bail out, but the drivetrains continued to railed up from the Midlands. No wonder it didn’t have a great resistance to rust.
Instead, let’s concentrate on the market that the Avenger found itself in at launch in February 1970. The Ford Escort and Cortina Mk2 were considered rivals, as was the Vauxhall Viva HB. But, Escort aside, the domestic opposition looked tired. As for the recently-formed British Leyland’s offerings in this market, there was the Austin and Triumph 1300s.
So, this stylish Coke Bottle with distinctive hockey stick rear lights hit the market at a sweet time. Okay, so February has never been a good time to launch a new car, but whether Chrysler knew it or not, it would beat its 1970s sparring partner, the Morris Marina to market by almost a year. Even the Cortina Mk3 – a similar Coke Bottle design – would be beaten to market by the new Hillman by more than six months.
Although not many people appreciate it now, the Hillman Avenger was a clean-sheet design that was new from from the ground up. The platform was new, as were its overhead-valve 1250 and 1500cc engines. In an era of make-do-and mend, as well as interminable facelifting, this was a refreshing change for the British car industry. In 1970, things looked exciting for Rootes in the UK – there was a thrusting dynamism coming from above, and a follow-up model on its way in the form of the Chrysler 180.
The fast Avengers
The Avenger Tiger was Hillman’s answer to the Ford Escort RS. Built in limited numbers, the Tiger I and Tiger II were developed by Des O’Dell, boss of Chrysler’s Competition Department to generate interest in Chrysler’s motor sport programme. Race on Sunday, sell on Monday, as they say. Both versions had a tuned 1498cc engine that produced, in standard form, around 90bhp at 6100rpm and 90lb ft torque at 4200rpm.
The engine differed from the standard Avenger GT unit in that it had a big valve, ported cylinder head fed by two Weber 40DCOE carburettors. Suspension was standard Avenger apart from heavy-duty rear dampers and lowered front springs. Today, despite there being only 20 or so left, they’re seriously undervalued – and underrated – the story of the Avenger’s life.
Like all Avengers, the Tiger drove far better than you might think, given its lack of a footprint in modern car culture.
Britain loses out to France
In the sunlight of the early 1970s, Chrysler was aiming to be a European powerhouse. As well as taking control of Rootes, it had also done the same at Simca in France and Barrieros in Spain. And by 1970, it was looking to rationalise the three and create a product plan that would suit all corners of its European outpost. However, in the background, the UK was doing itself out of being central to Chrysler’s plans – the unions had exploited the company’s need to put the new car into Ryton and Stoke, severely affecting the Avenger’s profitability. That soured the US parent’s view of Rootes and, as a consequence, it pulled all significant investment in the UK to try and bring the workforce into line.
That had a serious knock-on effect on future model development, with France, not the UK, taking the technical lead. Chrysler UK didn’t give up without a fight – the C6 project was originally conceived in the UK to be a more upmarket rear-wheel-drive model. It was to be based on a widened version of the Avenger estate model’s platform and powered by uprated twin-cam engines via a five-speed gearbox. Fashions were changing, though, and the European market was rapidly moving to front-wheel drive.
Chrysler took the view that the it would struggle to sell a RWD model in this market sector across Europe, and FWD was still a tough sell in the UK. British Leyland hedged its bets with the split Marina/Allegro strategy – and, for a short time, it looked like Chrysler might do the same with a FWD C6 for Europe and a RWD one for the UK. But something had to give, and Simca’s FWD 1100 range was taken as the technological basis for a model range over and above the Avenger’s still-recent RWD platform – meaning what was to become the Chrysler Alpine was underpinned by Simca and not Rootes.
A little help from friends in high places
And that was that. With Chrysler making the shift away from RWD, it lost interest in the Avenger, cancelling the coupe and hatchback versions along the way, and leaving it to fight on with its increasingly UK-centric two- and four-door saloons and five-door estate.
The Avenger’s meaningful development was over – except it wasn’t. By the time the Alpine was heading for production at Ryton, the company’s finances were in a perilous state – and, in a situation similar to BLMC’s 1974 bailout, Chrysler went cap in hand to the Government, asking for financial aid. As part of the agreed terms of £162m state intervention in December 1975, Chrysler would introduce a new British-made supermini.
It also used some of that Government money to give the Avenger a facelift. As CAR said at the time, it was a fairly far-reaching update of the Avenger, that had it been launched by anyone else, ‘it would be ballyhooed as an all-new model.’ We’re not sure in retrospect that view looks particularly accurate, although the new front-end styling and interior certainly brought it more up-to date. But the world was moving on, and the Avenger wasn’t keeping pace.
In July 1977, Chrysler rolled out the Sunbeam after one of the shortest gestation periods for a UK volume production car in the post-War period. But it was far from an all-new car – under its smart suit, Chrysler’s supermini was all-Avenger. Good job they had still that hatchback version on ice from a few years before.
Watch Bruce Forsyth try to flog the Avenger
Conclusion: death by a thousand cuts
The Avenger faded into obscurity from that point to the end of days in 1981, when it died with Linwood. By then, the aged saloon and its hatchback relative were well past their sell-by dates anyway, and even the great George Turnbull, who was running Talbot (nee Chrysler) UK by that time, couldn’t see a future for the Scottish factory’s products. Unlike the Cortina, Marina and Cavalier, the Avenger wasn’t replaced as such and its classic following is limited as a consequence.
Over the years, the Avenger was sold far and wide. It was retailed as the Plymouth Cricket in the USA, as well as being assembled in New Zealand. You could also buy it in Argentina as the Dodge 1500 and in Brazil as the Dodge 1800/Polara (above). And just to prove that it wasn’t just British Leyland that delivered brand confusion in spades, in Europe, the Avenger was sold as a Sunbeam.
Thing is, the Avenger was a car that drives far better than most people give it credit for. It’s a tidy handler with nice steering, a comfortable ride and, as you can read in a head-to-head, it beats the Morris Marina hands down. You might say that an electrified wheelchair can beat a Marina hands down, but the Marina seriously outsold the Avenger, so it can’t have been all that bad at everything.
So, there you have it – the Avenger is gone, but definitely shouldn’t be forgotten. Designed from scratch to reboot Hillman into a thrusting part of the Chrysler empire, and originally planned to be extended into a more upmarket five-door hatchback with twin-cam engines and a five-speed gearbox, but soon it was retired to the sidings to be overtaken by its cost-cut French half-cousin. It was left to whither on the vine, and whimpered its quiet death in 1981.
Should we care today? Yes, because it was probably Rootes’ last gasp as a volume carmaker, and a rather good one at that. Time to raise a glass to this most underrated part of British automotive history.
- The cars : Talbot-Matra Murena (M551) development story - 12 January 2021
- Concepts and prototypes : Rover Oden/Land Rover Pathfinder (1992-1995) - 11 January 2021
- The cars : Matra-Simca Rancho development story - 11 January 2021