The Chrysler ownership of the Rootes Group should go down as one of the lowest moments in UK automotive industry – it was as big a missed opportunity as when BMW thought it could turn the Rover Group into a world-beater.
We should not underestimate the commitment that Chrysler showed to Rootes. The Chrysler Avenger and what was to become known to us as the 180/2-Litre in the UK were clean-sheet designs, owing nothing to earlier Rootes cars. The detailing and engineering were world-class, for just like the Japanese cars that were starting to find a place in the global market, they made the most of the limits of the simple technology the market demanded.
An example of this detailing was how the Avenger Estate variant used the more compact Panhard Rod to control its rear axle rather than the cheaper top links which the saloons used so as to ensure the estate had a low fully-flat floor. Proposed LCV Avenger variants were to utilise cheaper, simpler and more suitable for extreme variations in load, leaf springs.
Chrysler UK’s global ambitions
Chrysler’s strategy was that Rootes would not only become the basis for taking on Ford and GM in the European market, but also the source for its global compact vehicles, with which it needed to fight the Japanese and European manufacturers that were expanding into global markets. This is what justified the move to clean sheet designs and away from the ‘make do and mend’ approach which had been the way of so much of the post-war British car industry.
So a plan was formulated which would see both cars evolving into multiple variants, most of all the Avenger which would be a platform for a coupe, vans, pickups and a compact variant (below) that would appeal to both to the younger and second-car segments of the market.
Such a car would not actually need to be very much smaller than the Avenger. Ford had shown both BMC and Rootes with the Anglia that, while people saw an advantage in a small price, they did not see great advantage in a car being much smaller than an a BMC 1100/1300, especially if the technology to make it so, impacted on reliability and running costs as it had in the Imp and Mini.
The solution it quickly resolved was to take the front end of the Avenger two-door, make a modest reduction in the wheelbase and deliver most of the saving in length by eliminating the saloon’s rear overhang. Access to rear load area would be the cheap to build, engineer and tool for lifting glass rear window as used on the Imp. As a former Engineer of formally of BMC, Leyland, Chrysler and eventually Peugeot design teams once said to me, ‘Chrysler’s planned to sell an awful lot of Avengers, however, they had not factored into their plans, their British workforce’.
Sales fail to meet expectations
At the time the Arrow (above) was being built at Ryton, Linwood was only half occupied by a track for the Imp, the car’s poor sales and the factory’s poor productivity having long ago killed any hope of the originally envisaged second Imp track. The history of rolling out the Imp had taught the UK management that trying to introduce and ‘debug’ a new product with engineering in Coventry and production at Linwood was not something that they should try to do, so it was decided to move the well understood and bedded in Arrow to Linwood alongside the Imp and bed the Avenger in at Ryton.
Then when the new premium car came, the plan was to move the Avenger to the two tracks at Linwood, where extra capacity would allow for the derivative Coupe, Vans and the compact lift-back, so the premium car could be built at Ryton. This was where the plan fell apart, first the development and tooling of the Avenger blew its budget apart. (It’s alleged that, when one of the Senior Engineers of Concorde, was asked how they managed to underestimate its development by so much, he said: ‘If we had told them how much we really thought it would cost, they would not have let us do it.’ That could equally apply to so many British cars of the era, not just the Avenger, but you can add Stag, Marina, SD1).
Then the Unions took the shortest of short-term views at both Linwood and Ryton, and used even the smallest of changes resulting from the introduction of the Avenger and the move of the Arrow as justification for some financial compensation. The end result was that, no matter how successful the Avenger was and the Arrow would remain, they had no hope of ever delivering a return on their investment.
Chrysler pulls the plug
So, in 1970 Chrysler, pulled the plug on their investment plans for the UK. This is why 180/2-Litre was orphaned off to Simca and the V6 production line and tooling was ripped out to re-tasked, sold or scrapped. The UK operation soldiered on, tasked to return to profitability before it would receive new investment, which it never succeeded in doing, and it was not until the Government rescue package in 1975 that any significant investment was made. The UK Government was eager to keep Linwood open, not only did it provide work in a region hit hard by the collapse in the shipbuilding industry, but was also the only reason for keeping the Ravenscraig blast furnaces running.
In those post-Fuel-Crisis years, the supermini market was the fastest-growing segment and a segment that the British-built Imp and Mini were not able to satisfy, so whilst the UK Government was not willing to give Chrysler any more money than absolutely necessary, it was willing to assist with the funding of a new small car to replace the Imp. The solution was to pick up the original plan, bringing the Alpine to Ryton and moving the Avenger to Linwood where it would built alongside a supermini derived from the Avenger. While little material work had been undertaken at Whitley on the Rootes-derived vehicles in the last five years, a proposed hatchback based on a marginally enlarged Avenger Estate platform to replace the Arrow had again been taken forward by Simca on its own mechanicals. There were, however, Imp-engined Avengers, but with little objective other than to demonstrate the economic advantages of a high compression OHC all-alloy engine.
The Imp engine had never been part of the original liftback plan, the expectation in those pre-Fuel-Crisis days was that the market would size up to 1300cc plus and the Avenger OHV engine was cheaper to build and considerably less troublesome for its customers. The casting for the Imp engine being done at the Linwood foundry would have been replaced by the need to cast all the additional aluminium gearbox casings that the Avenger used. However, in the reality of mid-1970s Britain, the Avenger was not going to be anything more than a modest seller, so the Government wanted a solution to keep the Imp engine in production and the foundry at Linwood going. That’s why, while it may have made more sense to build an 1100cc derivative of the Avenger’s OHV engine (outsourcing the gearbox casings to a third party nearer to Stoke where they were machined and assembled), the Government funded (a somewhat bodged) enlargement of the Imp engine to 930cc. No doubt its installation in the Sunbeam benefited from the previous running in the Avenger.
- Read more: Chrysler Sunbeam development story