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Hillman Avenger

Hillman Avenger Published: 30th Nov 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
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Hillman’s Avenger always had its priorities in the right places and should have saved this once great British car maker if it wasn’t starved of development

Small cars don’t make money for their manufacturers, just ask, British Leyland or Rootes – except that you can’t… because they both went bust! The Mini reportedly lost £5 on each car sold from launch while the Imp crippled the company financially so much that even the mightily Chrysler Corporation couldn’t turn a dollar with it.

When the American giant took a major shareholding in Rootes Group in 1964 it was horrified to discover there was nothing new on the drawing board – much like Donald Stokes when his Leyland concern took over BMC (in 1968 and immediately instigated the Morris Marina). Coincidentally, the Avenger was pitched at the same mid-sized fleet market but, unlike the Morris Minor-based Marina, the Avenger was an all new design – and it showed.

As Ford had discovered many years before, it didn’t pay to be too innovative with car design, so Chrysler bosses wanted a simple family car to get the dealers’ tills ringing again by 1970, with workstarting on the car as early as 1966. Like the soon-to-be-launched Morris Marina, plus Vauxhall’s HC Viva and Ford’s Escort, the Avenger boasted an orthodox rear-wheel drive layout yet despite the simple underpinnings (which shared little with the larger Arrow range), road testers at the time praised the Avenger’s handling, putting it ahead of rivals like the Morris Minor-derived Marina and the similar leaf-sprung Ford care of its live rear axle being suspended by far more sophisticated coil springs.

Styling-wise, the Avenger boasted a curvy American-style ‘Coke Bottle’ waistline, made popular at the time by the soon to be replaced HB Viva. Initially the Avenger was only available as a four-door saloon, in DL, Super and GL trim with 1250 and 1500cc power but a 1500 GT quickly arrived and soon asserted itself as fine sporting saloon thanks to that well developed suspension which provided a good base for production saloon car racing.

All the pundits agreed that the Avenger was one of the best family cars in its class. Practical Motorist put it thus, “An honest rather than brilliant family car… has all the attributes of a top selling car and deserves to succeed”. An estate arrived in 1972 with the benefit of heavy-duty rear springs and one of the longest load platforms in its field making it a hugely practical and likeable family hack although, apart from the two-door saloon range surfacing in a year later, and now larger 1300/1600cc engines for ’74, development soon stagnated due to cash constraints.

Enter the tiger

The one exception was the rebirth of the Tiger. Launched in 1972, the Tiger version of the Avenger was designed to compete with the likes of Ford’s Escort Mexico and RS2000 and was built by Chrysler’s Competitions Centre. The 1500cc GT engine was modified with an upgraded cylinder head and twin Dell’Orto carburettors. It produced just under 93bhp and road test figures at the time showed a 0-60 time of 8.9 seconds and a top speed of 108mph, which put the car on par with the Escort RS2000, in terms of performance but with four-door convenience. They are now highly collectible although not up to Ford fanaticism. The ultimate Avenger though had far more pedigree when BRM was contracted to produce an exotic 16-valve, aluminium, cylinder head, for an 1800cc version produced for the Brazilian version, the Dodge Polara, but very few 1800 Avengers (either pushrod or twin cam) ever reached motorsport.

Chrysler played neat trick by badging Avengers as Plymouth Crickets for the US market. However, the gas-guzzling American buyer didn’t really take to them, reliability problems and rust also hindering the car’s image. Ironically just as it was game over for the Cricket in the States, the 1973 fuel crisis was taking hold – just when sales of small European cars boomed…

Too little too late

Six years after launch, a facelift to the old timer coincided with a name change, with the car now badged as the Chrysler Avenger. With the aid of our Government, a budget was set to save the car from extinction. Styling changes included a new frontal treatment, with a slightly blander corporate look. Meanwhile, the once stylish ‘hockey stick’ rear light clusters were dropped in favour of a less adventurous strip of lights. And as money was so tight this was done by simply making unsightly end caps for the extremities of the wing. And it showed.

Come 1979, the fi nal name change for the now rapidly dated car saw it badged as the Talbot Avenger, following the 1978 takeover of bankrupt Chrysler Europe by Peugeot. The car fi nally bowed out in 1981, when Peugeot closed the ill-fated Linwood factory. But like John Steed, this Avenger was a survivor. In Argentina, it continued in production until 1988, initially badged as the Dodge 1500. Then, in 1982, Volkswagen bought the car’s tooling (when Chrysler pulled out of the South American market), and produced the car as the Volkswagen 1500.

Just under a million were made in 11 years – a decent tally but not enough to save the old Rootes Group. The chief reason why the car sold so steadily was its overall competency – as one road test put it, a “Happy enough family saloon”.

Why we like them…

The Avenger was a no nonsense fleet and family ferrier albeit one that was a cut above the rest. Put one in a magazine group test and it would either win or come a close second usually because they performed and handled so impressively and it’s as well to remember that the Avenger was a big success on race tracks in Group 1 (‘showroom’) racing in the hands of development driver the late Bernard Unett – Chrysler’s own ‘Norman Dewes’ of his day. Yet the Hillman appealed to all types of owner. One DIY monthly, Popular Motoring, reckoned that the Avenger was arguably the easiest car to maintain and service at home. “A handy car” added Autocar back in 1976… and for many that’s all they wanted from a set of wheels.

Who can blame them for owning such a good dependable steed? Just don’t fit a sunroof because this Avenger wasn’t designed for such natty headgear as some owners sadly discovered to their cost…

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