Raise a glass to : 50 years of the Hillman Avenger

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

Chrysler Avenger 1978

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.

Plymouth Cricket rear view

Keith Adams

27 Comments

  1. Like BL with the Marina and Vauxhall with the HC Viva, Chrysler UK was completely wrong footed by Ford and the Avenger ended up in no mans land between the Escort and Cortina. The fact Chrysler carried on selling the old Hunter alongside it only confused matters more. A real shame because as noted the Avenger was a far better engineered product than the Escort or Marina.

    • We have to remember though that the sizing up of the Cortina mk3 was very touch and go in its early years, because it left Ford weak in the 1300 fleet car sector which is where the Marina and Avenger got traction was as it was where the centre of gravityvwas in the fleet market in 1971. Ford’s success was in sizing that market up to 1600 cc but that took them over a year and a lot of investment in marketing and discounts. They also only just got away with it, had the oil crisis happened a year earliar we would probably look on the Cotina mk3 as how Ford blew its fleet dominance.

      The 1500 Arrows were replaced by the Avenger, had it gone as planned the Hillman, Sunbeam and Humber derivatives of the C car would have replaced the 1725 Arrows in 1971. However the decision in 1970 to pull the C Car from the UK and that this market sector which was almost all fleet sales, would not accept a French import, so it was necessary to keep the Arrow in production as the Avenger was simply not big or special enough to appeal to this sector of the market.

      The Alpine as originally envisaged as an Arrow replacement, being based an a widened and lengthened Avenger estate platform, would have been similar to the SD2 in concept, as a premium mid sized hatchback to compete with the high line variants or the Cortina and offer features such a 5 speed gearbox and twin cam engines to offer a quality over quantity alternative to the Consul / Granada. offer.

      • The Mk3 Cortina had 1.3,1.6 and 2litre Engines from day 1. The shaky start for Mk3 was down to a crippling strike that hit Dagenham just as the car was launched and early build quality issues. In 1972 the Cortina sold close to 300,000 units in the UK – one of its best years. As for the oil crisis argument?- Well it didnt happen then did it!

        • @ Paul, Ford had seen Vauxhall introduce a new, bigger Victor in 1967 with engines up to 2 litres, so upsized the Cortina to compete. While new car sales did fall following the energy crisis and the 1974-75 recession, this didn’t have much effect on the Cortina as it dominated fleet sales and Ford introduced a luxury 2000 E version that probably attracted buyers from bigger luxury cars. By 1976, when the Mark 3 was retired, the Cortina had one in eight new car sales.

          • The Mk3 Cortina wasn’t actually any longer than the Mk2 or Mk1, though it was wider

            And it also replaced the Corsair, which was a big brother to the Cortina and surprisingly longer than even the Mk4 and Mk5

  2. Chrysler Europe, like BL ended up with a very duplicated engine range

    The existing Rootes engine in the Hunter – 1500 and 1725
    The new Avenger engine – 1250/1300 and 1500/1600
    The Sinca Poissy engine – 1100 – 1600
    The new Simca 180 engine – 1600 – 2200

    And just as the B series engine stayed in production alongside the E series, the Hunter kept its Rootes engine until the end!

    • You missed out the Brazilian block 1800 / 2 Litre engine derivative of the Avenger engine.

      However this was not how it should have been, had Chryslers plans of the late 60s come into reality, you would have had two independent companies with the following power units

      Roots – 1250 to 1600 small block,1800 large (Brazilian) block 4 cylinder; 2litre and 2.4 litre V6. A range of engines developed with maximum commonality to minimize tooling snd manufacturing costs..

      Simca 1000 to 1442 ohv engine (Poissy) and 1600 to 2 Litre OHC engine.

      This made sense because the markets Roots had traction in favoured lazy engines with a focus on ease of maintenance where as the markets Simca had traction in where taxed on engine capacity so favoured engines with relative high power outputs for a given capacity.

      However it was the decision to pull investment from the UK in 1970 and with it the UK derivatives of the C Car due to mounting loses and little hope of profitability that led to the Arrow continuing in production, the large (Brazilian) block and V6 engine also not happening in UK.

      The Poissy 1600 engine was again another short sighted cost saving measure, it came about because it required less investment to stretch the 1442 engine out, than invest in new engine mounts and other tweaks for the ohc engine to enable it to be put in the Alpine / Solara (even though they had had an 1800 ohc engined Alpine running well enough that the development team at Whitley was using it as a pool car in 1975).

      • Hello Graham,
        I am from France and have been very interested in the development of C6 project (I wrote a book ”Les Simca 1307/1308 Solara de mon père”, published by ETAI Paris)
        When working on this book I found some informations about the C8 project, the 3 box project based on the Avenger platform, developed in Whitley. Have you more informations about it ?
        I am also very interested in the 1800 OHC engined Alpine (Have you more informations, pictures ?)
        I know there was some developments scheduled ; the Long Range Plan of june 1977 shows a C6 with a 2 liters US Power Train forecasted for MY 1983. and later, after the take over by PSA they imagined the C6 with the 2.0 Douvrin Engine (Also mounted on Citroen CX and Renault 20 TS)
        Last I Found pictures of a reskin C6 with logo 2.0 on the back, pictures taken in the yard of Whitley
        I would be very happy to hear from you about these topics.

  3. Hi Keith.

    Thanks Keith for celebrating this cars 50 years with this article, but a couple of points and conclusions I do not agree with.

    1. When the car moved to Linwood body assembly moved as well from Ryton, unlike the Arrow which was pressed initially and built by PSF in Oxford (and Rapier which always was and why it was not promoted heavily by Chrysler), the Avenger was always pressed in Scotland at Linwood and assembly moved from Ryton with the switch to the facelifted versions to replace the Arrow as part of the Government bail out.

    The power train continued at Stoke, the result was that the alloy casings for the gearbox were cast (along with the Imp and Sunbeam 1.0 litre engine) and shipped to Stoke in Coventry, which were machined and assembled into gearboxes before being put back on a train to Linwood.

    2. The ending of effective development of the Avenger and its immediate planned derivatives occurred in 1970 and is reflected in the pulling of the C car (160,180, 2 Litre) from the UK, a project that until then had been a UK led project with Simca just allowed to provide trim and an Engine to suit French and other markets i.e. Italy that were taxed on capacity.

    In 1970 Chrysler UK operation faced the reality that the Unions had exploited the situation of the company needing to put the new car into Ryton and Stoke as well as move the Arrow to Linwood, that the company was never likely (nor ever did) make a return on investment, no matter how many cars they ever sold. The result was that the US parent pulled all investment in the UK to try and bring the workforce into line.

    Subsequent move to fwd product with Simca leading the engineering as Chrysler Europe was spun off the development of the Alpine which started out as a UK proposal to replace the Arrow with an Avenger (estate) based derivative. However Simca also facing similar viability issues with declining margins on it products could also not get investment from its US parent to replace its midrange car. As with the C Car the parent company required them to cooperate but this time Simca came to the table with far more credibility than its UK partner and so influence than with the C Car.

    However even then the decision was reached that the new car would be a hatchback only, but that the UK (and the traditional Roots markets) would not accept a car of this size being fwd, however the French (and the traditional Simca markets) would not accept a rwd car (there was to be a lot of finger pointing a couple of years later when Fiat launched a rwd mid sized car). So the plan was that the UK versions of the car would be rwd and the French versions fwd. Both versions would however be pitched up market from the larger manufacturers offerings, with something very similar to what the Lancia Beta turned out as and the SD2 was planned to be, including twin cam engines, 5 speed gearbox etc (well they got it to rust almost as well as a Lancia Beta).

    However declining economic situation in UK and later France, and the US executives on short 3 year expat contracts on both sides of the channel, eager to show results asap to secure promotion on their move back to the US, focussed almost entirely on cutting costs at expense of everything else, meant the investment in rwd platform was very soon canned along with 5 speed gearbox, twin cam engines etc etc. They result was they ended up with little more than a reskin of the Simca 1100, not out of a well considered strategy to move to fwd, but because of a death by a 1000 cuts.

    • Excellent insight, as always, Graham. I’ve amended the paragraph about production and will have a look at incorporating these observations in the conclusion 🙂

    • I’m reluctant to be critical of anything to do with Rootes, which was my Alma Mater and which set me on the path of a satisfying career, but at the same time truth cannot be overlooked. My experience at Chrysler Canada with the Avenger, badged as the Plymouth Cricket, was fairly short-lived, but although I liked the car I cannot not ignore the circumstances which drove the Chrysler sales organizations in USA and Canada to ditch the Cricket in favour of the Mitsubishi small car equivalent, badged as Dodge/Plymouth Colt. My experience was that Chrysler North American management — at all levels including dealers — saw small cars as a necessary evil and therefore took fright at any difficulties associated with them. The Colt, while not perfect, was initially sold side-by-side with the Cricket, but proved significantly less troublesome. I’ll cite three complaints against the Cricket:.

      1. Water leaks caused by poor panel fits. In fairness to Rootes, the rumble I got from former fellow-apprentices etc in Coventry was that such problems were because production people from the USA forced Rootes to adopt a different method of body-component- jigging. The method was proven in North American production, and presumably cost-saving, but for whatever reason — maybe too hasty introduction – it created, at least initially, major headaches for the Rootes body engineers and production people.

      2. Trim problems, particularly in the Northern U.S. states and in Canada, causing material cracking at sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures. Sometimes dash panel trim, more frequently the headliner — typically, an owner would get into his/her car, which had been parked overnight outside, close the door, and vibration/pressure change would cause the headliner material to split, collapse and land on the heads and shoulders of driver and passengers. Not something that would endear a car to the customer. Again there may have been Chrysler cost-cutting pressures here, leading to the specifying of an inferior material; I do not remember similar problems with earlier Rootes cars, e.g. Arrow/Hunter and Minx. And, generally,it was not a condition encountered with Colt.

      3. Driveability problems with both the single and twin ZenIth-Stromberg CD carburettors. Whereas these carburettors had been relatively trouble-free — indeed delightful — on earlier models such as the Series V Alpine, on Cricket, as required by North American emissions regulations, they were non-adjustable with automatic mixture-enrichening (“choke”) for cold starts. Again, in fairness, driveability problems were rife in many cars — North American designed and built among them — but, as it happened, the Colt did not exhibit the same degree of problem as the Cricket.

      There were other problems with Cricket adding to the decision to drop it from the North American market.
      As Keith makes clear, Avenger was an attractive promising car, but such serious shortcomings — maybe influenced by Chrysler’s reportedly heavy-handed control of what had been Rootes — caused it to fail in the critical, and potentially very lucrative, North American marketplace.

      • My Father told me before he died that they knew in Coventry that the export of the Avenger to the US was going to be a disaster. Because during the design process they had done some evaluations of the car in the US, and come up with set of changes, which included not only compliance, but revision of trim materials and a beefed up front end, to cope with American roads and kerbs.

        However the 1970 focus on cutting costs to the bone meant that changes were restricted to the minimum changes required to make the car compliant to US legislation. The result was a car that was simply not robust enough to deal with the life of cheap car in the US.

  4. I did all my driving lessons in an Avenger in the mid 70s. It was a 3-door model with the half-vinyl roof which I don’t think any other manufacturer ever copied.

    As a complete beginner I found the Avenger easy and comfortable to drive and learn in; definitely better than some other models which I encountered in later years.

  5. When the Avenger launched it looked very modern & stylish to me compared to 1960’s Rootes products.

    My first employer had a 1972 1500 DL Estate which had the familiar dashboard & gear stick as shown here. It was quite fast and had good acceleration but boomy at motorway speeds. I recall the vinyl seats and chrome hubcaps… those were the days. The twin headlamp cars looked decent.

    • Maybe the Plymouth Cricket version should ‘ve been manufactured in Americas as well. It would be possible to had bigger engines fitted and also fine tuned for the local (USA & Canada) markets

    • Thanks for finding that advert Keith. I first learned of the Hillman Avenger because of that advert which I saw at the cinema when I went with a group of school friends to see the Paul Newman film ‘Winning’.

    • Lol I love when advertising companies grab onto another product to sell something. I don’t think we would have seen Stead in one!

  6. Talking of the Dodge 1500, a derivative of it was made in Uruguay in the shape of an Avenger derived pickup – only problem was a major lack of rigidity which meant it tended to split in half. Avenger was also built in Iran and South Africa – an early example of a World car sold in every continent.

    • the “Eniak Durango” (the name still survives on Dodge Trucks / utes :like the recent re-use of the Avenger name 2004 – 2014)

  7. In some respects it is surprising the Avenger managed to do as well as it did given the circumstances around Chrysler and the resultant lack of further development it received, not even meriting a 4-door saloon / 5-door fastback Talbot Sunbeam style rebody.

    Seems such a waste the Avenger never received the development it deserved, be it the Avenger estate-based UK C6 Alpine proposal to replace the Arrow, SWB Avenger Liftback, R429 Avenger Coupe (including 4-door version), 5-speed gearbox, 1.8-2,0 Brazilian block and 2.0-2.4-litre+ Avenger-based V6s as well as Twin-Cam and a Liftback specific entry-level 1.1-litre version.

    The above together with it being alleged the Avenger platform was capable of being converted to FWD during the development of C6 (potentially extending the basic platform’s production life a bit longer), means Chrysler UK’s original plans were rather sound and deserved to succeed in better circumstances.

    The only thing missing from the above would be diesel options and an Avenger-based direct sportscar successor to the Sunbeam Alpine, unless it was planned for the R429 Coupe or the regular Avenger to spinoff a 2-door roadster / cabriolet bodystyle. .

    As for Simca / Chrysler France while they were thriving compared to Rootes / Chrysler UK, it is perplexing to see how they expected to survive without a 6-cylinder engine at the higher end of the range for the 180 and later Tagora to sit above the 4-cylinder Type 180 engines.The Type 180 engines themselves drew inspiration from the BMW M10, which not only formed the basis of the M30 6-cylinder but also experimental M10-based V8 and V12 prototype engines.

    That and the Poissy engines needing to be toleranced much better like they were under PSA later on along with a possible OHC conversion (as was developed by Matra) In addition to handicapping themselves by not stubbornly sticking to having the C6 Alpine / Solara be able to fit the Type 180 engines.

    • It is shame that the avenger was never really developed. It was a good looking motor, had a good platform and an adaptable and strong engine. The Sunbeam showed a glimpse of what could have been. A five door hatch with a good looking Sunbeam body would have taken on the mid 70s opposition, even in rwd form, while the Avenger based alpine would have meant commonality of parts.

  8. Avenger was very popular rally car in Finland. Latest famous driver is (ex-) WRC -driver Jari Matti Latvala, who started his rally career with Avenger. His original rally-Avenger is now back in original condition after long restauration process.

    Few technical details:

    Engine: 1598 cc
    Carburettors: 2x Weber 40DCOE
    Power: 130 hp
    Suspension: Bilstein shocks, coil springs front and rear
    Gearbox. 4 speed manual, diffrent gear rations, all syncro
    Rear Diff Gear ratio: 4.375
    Wheel size: 13″
    Brakes: Front, disc brakes with 2 -piston calibers, Rear: drum brakes with adjustable shoes
    Competition weight: 781 kg

    https://www.latvalamotorsport.com/

  9. Failure in America aside, and the ADO16 wasn’t well received in America either, the Avenger did what its mostly British buyers wanted, provide a mostly trouble free ownership experience at a reasonable price and with conventional suspension and rwd to please more conservative buyers. The Avenger certainly never gained the same sort of contempt as the Allegro did and was seen as honest, unexciting transport, although in Tiger form could easily take on an Escort Mexico.

  10. Don’t forget that the Avenger ended its life as a Volkswagen – in Argentinia at least. When VW took over Chryslers Argentinian subsidiary, they kept producing the Avenger-derived Dodge 1500 and renamed it Volkswagen 1500 in 1982. I think production ended in 1990

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