Opinion : Chrysler UK – an opportunity missed

Chrysler Avenger

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.

Hillman Avenger Liftback

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

Chrysler Hunter

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.

Chrysler Sunbeam

Latest posts by Graham Ariss (see all)

26 Comments

  1. Avengers were a nice drive. The estate was a great workhorse. Does anyone have any pics of the planned Avenger van? Sounds fascinating.

  2. As previously said on this website by Graham, Chrysler UK was hamstrung by the poor management from the US. The Avenger could have been a big seller, in fact it was perfect for the US market had it been built better – it’s poor manufacturer leading to the Plymouth Cricket being dropped. The 70s however were a re hard time in UK industry, with much meddling by unions – some genuine requirements to make the workers life better, others rather silly just to poke the bear. Chrysler UK really had no chance in this hostile environment – the same happened at BL and Vauxhall and Ford imported to survive. It is a shame as the Avenger was a good seller down in South America.

  3. My old company had a 1972 Avenger 1500 Estate which was basic to say the least (no radio, rubber flooring / vinyl seats) but it was quite fast on the open roads. That pic above of the orange Hunter looks like a later GT or GLS model? I see it sports Rostyle wheels and twin Humber Sceptre headlamps

    • It’s a very late model Chrysler Hunter Super. The final year’s models were badged Chrysler, featured the 1725cc engine only, and came in DL or Super spec, which was upgraded to a level simiar to that of the GLS a few years earlier.

      • Thanks for that info Jonathan. Obviously using up stocks of twin headlamps & grills from the Sceptre.

        As mentioned previous, in 1975 I visited the Peykan plant in Iran to film the CKD Hunters being built. Most taxis in Tehran were Peykan’s. Good times…

      • I think that was the picture from the last brochure, when the Avenger was moved to Linwood and Hunters were being built from kits in Ireland, where they were sold into the UK fleet market, pitched at Fleet customers who were suspect of the Alpine and wanted a Saloon and Estate.

        If I recall, they were DL and GL with the single carb alloy headed engine, 4 speed with no overdrive (actually I don’t think the options went much beyond metallic paint as with the 180/2Litre, probably as they were built for stock rather than order). Got the GLS nose and Vinyl roof but spec was still DL / GL inline with the Cortina L / GL trim, again I assume because it was better to offer a competitive price to fleet customers than a trim upgrade.

  4. ‘Moved from Ryton to Linwood, then moved back, and removed, then recovered and moved again’???. Consuming all resources on logistics and reorganizing, on strikes; building tools and scrapping them; is this how all English brands exasperatingly strangled themselves. Better search systematically, who were, there & there, in the process of milking by dispersion all the money of Rootes, afterwards of Chrysler, then from Government, of British Leyland, then of BMC, of BMW, from Government again, of British Aerospaces , and from selling to Saic.
    Eventually, there is a group of people, or an organism that coordinated that group, in order to benefit from every “wrong step” of the management. Find who tickled the pride of the noble managers, to pick-up a fraction from each&every
    Money do not vanish in the wind; the money went all to a certain “shadowed institution”, during all those decades!!
    Watch out, nowadays the milkman milkers are excruciatingly rich, horrifyingly not willing to be exposed, and unfairly disposed to punish searchers.
    If only names of persons will be revealed, search deeper to which association, or independent agency, or lodge, or sort of, these persons were part of.
    As I said, money does not grow in trees, hence they aren’t blown off by winds; money come from reserves(!) and money go to milkman + milkman & co.
    Keep in mind: those persons did not want to collaterally destroy the automotive industry, they only wanted the money, Isn’t it pathetic ?

  5. Is it an urban myth that the V6 was based so closely on the Ford Essex block that it was scrapped because of potential legal action by Ford over the design?

    • Have to wonder as well. OTOH the Rootes V6 was to displace around 2.0-2.5-litres compared to the Essex V6’s 2.5-3.0-litres (to as much as 3.4-litres in certain markets), also interested to know how the Rootes V6 differed over the Essex V6, such as whether it remained OHV or planned to feature OHC / Twin-Cams (as was envision with the Avenger engines) as well as planned to be all-alloy or signficantly lighter over the Essex V6 given the initial displacement.

      • The V6 was OHV, was 2.0 and 2.4 and shared much of its architecture, ie valve train, combustion chamber with the 1.3 / 1.6 Avenger engine. For the simple reason that it would use much of the same tooling in its manufacturing.

        The OHC / Twin Cams were things that came forward for consideration long after the V6 was abandoned, but had it been around it could have potentially evolved in the same way.

        Also interesting if it was possible for a 2.6 / 3 Litre derived by using the tooling for the big block engine that became known as the Brazilian block after it was also dropped in the UK with demise of the UK end of the 180 / 2 Litre.

        • Interesting, aside from featuring OHVs the V6 was roughly to the Avenger engine what the Fiat 130 V6 was to the Fiat 128 SOHC?

          Its connection to the Avenger engine as opposed to the Essex V6 gives a bit more clarity in terms of what the V6 was potentially capable of evolving into. that said would be interesting to compare the 2-litre V6 with the Brazilian block 2-litre Avenger engine. Not sure if the former stacks up favorably against the latter short of the 2-litre being slightly enlarged to 2.25-litres (via the 1.5-litre Avenger engine).

          • The Avenger was originally launched as a 1250 /1500 car, the “Brazilian” block engine was pitched in at 1800 to fill the gap with the V6 engines and provide the base “Hillman 1800” entry point in the new premium car and probably would have gone into premium Avengers had production started at Stoke. The 2 Litre capacity was part of the growth capacity in the engine, exploited by the competition dept with the later BRM headed twin cam race engine, so they were not planned and never were destined to be around at the same time.

            The V6 was too heavy for the Avenger and probably would have been too expensive, however the 1800 was attractive to the South American market to compensate for the low octane fuel.

            It was probably tooling from the abandoned V6 which was utilised in the 73 model year on increase to 1300 / 1600 of the small block engine.

          • Would the Rootes V6 have still been too heavy for Chrysler UK’s larger Avenger estate-derived Alpine proposal (slotting above the planned possibly Twin-Cam versions of 1.8-2.0-litre Brazilian block engines) or would it have only been suitable for larger RWD applications like the 180 and Tagora? Additionally was dieselization planned within the design of the Avenger engine as a possible replacement for the 1.9-2.0-litre Barreiros diesel?

            Using the 69-100 hp 1.6-litre Avenger/Sunbeam unit as a rough guide, it appears a hypothetical 2.4-litre V6 would have a potential output range of 103.5-150 hp (likely detuned to around 120 hp in standard spec). A similar guesstimate of the 100 hp 1.6 Sunbeam Ti spec engine with a 2-litre displacement meanwhile would potentially put out up to 125 hp, with a 3-litre V6 featuring a potential output range of 129-187.5 hp (possibly detuned to around 150 hp in standard form).

            While a 2.7-litre V6 derived from the 78-105 hp 1.8-litre Brazilian block Avenger engine (which via the 100 hp 1.6-litre Sunbeam Ti was potentially capable of 112 hp) would feature an output range of 116-157.5 hp (potentially as much as 169 hp – likely detuned to around 135 hp as standard), albeit none of the above taking into account the potential power losses in order for the engines to be compliant with various emissions standards.

            That is not even mentioning the potential figures for a 2-litre version of both the Vizard-tuned 130 hp non-turbo 1.6 and 155 hp “Turbo Tiger” 1.6-litre Avenger engines, let alone their 3-litre V6 equivalents. A 2-litre V6 turbo might have made sense in markets like Italy had it been possible.

          • Nate

            The Alpine project was launched after the decision to have common products between UK and France so it was intended to be a replacement not only for the Arrow but the Simca 1500 after the failure of the 160/180/2 Litre, at the time the French market was not interested in V6 engines.

            By this time also the V6 was long dead, so it was make do and mend and the way forward was the existing 4 cylinder engines and a production-ised version of the BRM engine.

            I recall that a dealer was offering a “Gazelle” Sunbeam, which used the competition department bits on a 2 Litre OHV Bralian block engine and it was recorded as 160 hp at the rear wheels. Which was as much as a stock Lotus gave at the crank. However with full competition spec it gave 260 hp and at least one full power version was prepared as a road going car for a PSA director.

          • It is a shame Chrysler opt to have BRM develop the 160 hp 2-litre Avenger Twin-Cam overlooking their rather mixed record on road-going engines* as opposed to having Cosworth develop it instead, who by that point not only worked with Ford on various projects but also General Motors via the all-alloy 2-litre Twin-Cam 16-valve EFi engine used in the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega as well as the 2.4-litre Twin-Cam 16-valve version of the Opel CIH engine used in the Opel Ascona 400 and Opel Manta 400.

            “Then there was the time in the early 70s that Chrysler-UK’s motorsport department couldn’t make the 16-valve Avenger BRM engine work, and took a head along to Cosworth to ask for advice. Keith helpfully looked at the head, squinting at the chamber and ports from every angle, grinned, then roared with laughter, and suggested that the engine should be junked. Chrysler UK didn’t like what they were told, but the fact is that the engine never worked properly, and it was eventually junked.”

            *- BRM’s work with their tuned version of the Lotus Twin-Cam engine is outweighed by both the poorly-developed Avenger-BRM Twin-Cam and 60 hp 750cc+ Reliant-BRM OHC engine projects, perhaps the latter two could have been salvaged had a BRM under effective management been able to secure more funding along with the services of Tony Rudd before the latter jumped ship to Lotus in 1969. Not sure if BRM were involved in any other road-car projects.

            As for the Chrysler UK’s Alpine proposal and the Rootes V6 engine. Despite the former appearing after the latter was abandoned, seem to recall some favorably comparing the existing Simca-derived Alpine with the mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier whose J-Car siblings across the Atlantic did make use of the General Motors 60-degree V6 engine.

          • I could not see an all iron v6 sitting well in a transverse layout working very well, it may have worked in a rear drive variant.

            However mid 70s was not a time to market such an engine, the V6 Cortina was hardly a fast seller.

            I think Cosworth were too locked into Ford at the time to front an engine for Chrysler.

          • Would have to agree it remains a question whether the Rootes V6 had a similar capability to be mounted both longitudinally and transversely as was the case with the GM 60-degree V6, Ford themselves had to develop the 60-degree Ford Vulcan / SHO V6s to slot into US-market FWD cars instead of utilizing the aging Cologne V6.

            Cosworth’s work with GM during the 1970s does roughly coincide with BRM-Avenger project and working with Chrysler on the Avenger Twin-Cam might have just about been feasible in better circumstances in comparison to other alternatives.

            Lotus meanwhile during this period were likely more motivated by having others make use of their Lotus Slant-Four then developing existing engines / projects from other carmakers (prior to the DeLorean and Lotus Carlton), which while ultimately benefiting the later Lotus Sunbeam and making the notion of a Lotus Avenger precursor a fascinating prospect also lets not forget ruined Jensen-Healey (whom Lotus used as guinea pig / sacrificial lamb to test their then underdeveloped engine).

            The Jensen-Healey story also incidentally ties back to Chrysler Europe via a proposal to replace the underdeveloped Lotus engine with a Simca Type 180 block featuring a 16-valve Twin-Cam head developed by Ricardo, which in turn leads back to Matra whose work included a Poissy OHC proposal as well as its own 16-valve head for the Simca Type 180 in the 180 hp Matra Murena 4S project (which may or may not be connected to Ricardo’s own project with Jensen-Healey).

            Question is would Matra (in spite of its pre-existing ties to Chrysler Europe) have been a suitable alternative to develop the Avenger Twin-Cam over Cosworth, Lotus or BRM?

    • It sounds like an Urban myth, the V6 was closely related to the Avengers 4 cylinder engine from which it shared parts and was a 2.0 Litre / 2.4 Litre.

  6. I had a 1500S estate as my first company car. It was comfortable, performed well and swallowed endless merchandise for my job as manager of a group of shops. It was followed by an automatic 1500S (actually 1600 engine as fitted to the run-out model) saloon when I changed jobs. Sometime after my late husband inherited a 1250GL estate as a company car, slow but very comfortable. All three were trouble-free, needing only standard services.

  7. The Avenger and the Hunter were reliable, simple cars that sold steadily during their long lives and certainly never had the same sort of criticism British Leyland cars had in the seventies. Both were popular as police cars in the seventies, and the Hunter became well liked as a taxi due to its durable engines and easy maintenance/

  8. I sold retail used quite a few of these back in the late 1979/80/81 and they never really gave any problems, Avenger had a precise gear change albeit hissy and the Hunter with its hand brake by the door sill took a while for people to get used too but the biggest enemy was rust especially the front wings of the Hunter above headlight and top by B pillar, all of the mud would trap and no one then used a pressure cleaner to do their cars!. Some funny colours then and I quite enjoy revisiting them on repeats of The Sweeney and The Profesionals!!

    • You right about the colours, my Father had a P reg “Jaffa” Orange Hunter GL, sold with extra discount to employees, I recall my father saying it was a colour they had tried out in the market, with I guess little success hence why they were pushing them to employees.

      It was the last Hunter he had, apart from the awful colour I recall door seals whistling at anything above 60 mph and on a hot day the rear window were so stiff you would pull winder grip off the glass. I guess symptoms of the tooling getting tired and tolerances opening up and or the relentless cost cutting impacting on quality. Only positive over the previous Arrows he had, was that it did not need its water pump changing what seemed like every other weekend. Think I could change an Arrow water now, from all the times I watched my dad do it.

      Nobody was sad to see it go, the Alpine S which replaced it felt like the Starship Enterprise compared with the Hunter. I remember as a 12 year old not being able to rationalise how a car with a mere 1442 cc could blow the 1725 Hunter away so completely in performance, the virtues of cross flow head and twin choke carb then a mystery to me, so it seemed to be some form of French “Black Magic”.

  9. I think we are looking back at the Avenger with rose tinted spectacles. It was rare for any model to beat 30mpg, when BL competitors would do 35+. There was also the notorious problem of the fuel tank rusting out, due to moisture trapped between the tank and the boot floor – a problem shared with the Marina. Avengers and sunbeams were also well known for the bulkhead cracking, allowing the clutch cable to pull though, and to fail to operate the clutch. So not a totally trouble free car.
    In general, Chrysler Europe suffered from a very “busy” range; where the Avenger was half a size up from the Sunbeam and half a size below the Hunter, which in turn was half a size below the Chrysler 180.
    And why did they develop a new engine for the Avenger? If they had spent the money instead on fixing tappet and ignition problems on the North-South Simca 1300/1500 engine, they could have benefitted from economies of scale. An OHV engine was in any case becoming rather old fashioned by 1970; by this time, Austin, Ford, Triumph (via Saab) and Vauxhall had all launched OHC fours.

    • Were any cars really that good in the seventies? Fair enough, the Japanese offered reliable cars that were cheap, but the rust protection was never very good, and only the seriously well off could afford a Mercedes. OTOH a lot of Fords were company cars that could be traded in by MOT time, so the driver knew after three years, he was getting a new car, so Joe Bloggs at the used car lot wasn’t an issue when he bought some hard driven Cortina. OTOH these cars were simple to fix.

    • The rust protection was worse on Chrysler era cars and the build quality on Linwood built cars seemed worse. Also by 1981 the Avenger was an elderly design and was struggling to get into the Top 20 best sellers. Yet the Hillman era cars were usually mechanically reliable and the car had a loyal following among used car buyers.

Add to the debate: leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.