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Hillman Avenger

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Hillman Avenger

The Hillman Avenger was a rear-wheel drive small family car originally manufactured under the Hillman marque by the Rootes Group from 1970–1976, and made by Chrysler Europe from 1976–1981 as the Chrysler Avenger and finally the Talbot Avenger. The Avenger was exported to North America and sold there as the Plymouth Cricket.

The Avenger was initially produced at Rootes' plant in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, England, and later at the company's Linwood facility near Glasgow, Scotland.

1970: Hillman Avenger

Introduced in February 1970, the Avenger was significant as it was the first and last car to be developed by Rootes after the Chrysler takeover in 1967. Stylistically, the Avenger was undoubtedly very much in tune with its time; the American-influenced "Coke Bottle" waistline and semi-fastback rear-end being a contemporary styling cue. However, from an engineering prospective it was rather conventional, using a 4-cylinder all-iron overhead valve engine in 1250 or 1500 capacities driving a coil spring suspended live axle at the rear wheels. Unlike any previous Rootes design, there were no "badge-engineered" Humber or Singer versions in the UK market. The Avenger was immediately highly praised by the press for its good handling characteristics and generally good overall competence on the road and it was considered a significantly better car to drive than rivals like the Morris Marina. Initially, the Avenger was available as a four-door saloon in DL, Super and GL trim levels. The DL and Super could be had with either the 1250 or 1500cc engines but the GL was only available with the 1500 cc engine. Since the DL was the basic model in the range, it featured little more than rubber mats and a very simple dashboard with a strip style speedometer. The Super was a bit better equipped, featuring carpets, armrests, twin horns and reversing lights, though the dashboard was carried over from the DL. The top-spec GL model featured four round headlights (which was a big improvement over the rectangular ones from the Hillman Minx that were used on the DL and Super), internal bonnet release, two-speed wipers, brushed nylon seat trim (previously never used on British cars), reclining front seats, and a round dial dashboard with extra instrumentation.

Not only was the Avenger's styling totally new, but so were the engine and transmission units, which were not at all like those used in the larger "Arrow" series Hunter. Another novelty for the Avenger was the use of a plastic radiator grille, a first in Britain and at 4 ft 6 in (137 cm) wide claimed as the largest mass-produced plastics component used at this time by the European motor industry. The Avenger was a steady seller in the 1970s, in competition with the Ford Escort and Vauxhall Viva. Chrysler wanted the Avenger to be a "world car", and took the ambitious step of marketing the Avenger as the Plymouth Cricket in the U.S. Complaints of rust, unreliability, plus apathy towards small cars amongst buyers in the U.S., saw it withdrawn from that market after only two years.

Introduction of body & trim variations

In October 1970, the Avenger GT was added to the range. It had a twin-carburettor 1500 cc engine, four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission (also optional on the 1500 DL, Super and GL). The GT featured go-faster stripes along the sides of the doors and dustbin lid wheel covers, which were not unlike those found on the various Datsuns and Toyotas of the 1970s. The basic fleet Avenger was added to the range in February 1972. It was offered with either 1250 or 1500 cc engines (the latter available with the automatic transmission option). The fleet Avenger was very basic: it did not have a sun visor for the front passenger, and the heater blower had just a single speed. In October 1972, the Avenger GT was replaced by the Avenger GLS, which came with a vinyl roof and Rostyle sports wheels.

In March 1972, the five-door estate versions were introduced, in DL and Super forms (both available with either 1250 or 1500 cc engines) and basically the same specifications as the saloon versions. However, 'heavy-duty springing' was fitted and the estate had a maximum load capacity of 1,040 lb (470 kg), compared to 840 lb (380 kg) for the saloon. The two-door saloon models were added in March 1973, with all engine and trim options of the existing four-door range. Styling of the 2-door was similar to the 4-door, but the side profile was more subdued.

The car was extensively marketed in continental Europe, first as a Sunbeam. It was without the Avenger name in France, where it was known as the Sunbeam 1250 and 1500; later the 1300 and 1600. Some northern European markets received the car as the Sunbeam Avenger.

Both engine sizes were upgraded in October 1973. The 1250 became the 1300, while the 1500 became the 1600, with nearly all the same previous trim levels except for the basic fleet Avenger, which was discontinued at this point. The GL and GT trim levels were now also offered with the 1300 engine and two-door saloon body.

1971–73: Plymouth Cricket for North America

The car was essentially an example of badge engineering and Plymouth made few changes to it. Only the 4-door saloon and 5-door estate variants were ever offered, due to the 2-door Avenger being unavailable at the time. It had 9.5" front disc brakes and 8" rear drums. Brochures included a cartoon cricket.

A Chrysler Plymouth press release dated 30 June 1970 stated that the Cricket was going to be shown to the automotive press for the first time in November 1970. The first shipment of 280 Crickets from the UK arrived in the U.S. on 20 November 1970. Another press release issued on 23 February 1972 stated that the "station wagon" version was going to début in early spring of 1972.

Differences from the Avenger

The 1500 cc engine was offered on the Plymouth Cricket, the 1250 being a little underpowered for American tastes. Side parking lights were added, and front disc brakes were standardised; these were originally optional in the UK. The single carburettor / manual choke combination was standard. From 1972, the single carburettor / automatic choke combination, dual carburettors, and air conditioning were all options.

Due to American federal laws regarding headlight design, all Cricket models regardless of trim level used the round four headlight grille of the "GL" and "GT" model Avengers.

Demise of the Cricket

The Cricket was discontinued midway through the 1973 model year, despite the gas crisis of 1973 seeing a sharp increase in demand for small cars and despite the fact that Dodge began to see real success with its similarly-sized Dodge Colt, built by Mitsubishi Motors.

The Cricket name lived on in Canada, however, as Chrysler Canada replaced the British-built Cricket with a rebadged Dodge Colt in mid 1973 model year. The Cricket's version of the Colt GT was called the Cricket Formula S. For the 1975 model year, the Plymouth Cricket was rebadged as the Plymouth Colt. Thus began Chrysler Canada's dual marketing system, selling the Colt as both a Dodge and a Plymouth. The later Plymouth Arrow was similarly sold as a Dodge Arrow.

The last British-built Crickets were actually imported into the U.S. in the later part of 1972 but were sold until mid-1973 as "1973" models. This was because U.S. safety and emission laws became effective based on the calendar year the car was manufactured in or imported in, as opposed to the model year. Chrysler used this loophole to continue selling what were essentially 1972 cars through 1973 as 1973 models.

1972: the Avenger Tiger

Named to evoke memories of the Sunbeam Tiger, the Avenger Tiger concept began as a publicity exercise. Avenger Super 4-door cars were modified by the Chrysler Competitions Centre under Des O' Dell and the Tiger model was launched in March 1972. Modifications included the 1500 GT engine with an improved cylinder head with enlarged valves, twin Dell'Orto carburettors and a compression ratio of 9.4:1. The engine now developed 92.5 bhp (69.0 kW) at 6100 rpm. Suspension is also uprated, whilst brakes, rear axle, and gearbox are from the GT.

A distinctive orange colour scheme (although described as "yellow") with a bonnet bulge, rear panel and side stripes was standard, set off with "Avenger Tiger" lettering on the rear quarters.

Road test figures demonstrated a 0–60 mph time of 8.9 seconds and a top speed of 108 mph (174 km/h). These figures beat the rival Ford Escort Mexico, but fuel consumption was heavy. Even in 1972, the Tiger developed a reputation for its thirst.

All Avenger Tigers were assembled by the Chrysler Competitions Centre and production figures are vague but around 200 of the initial Mark 1 seems likely.

In October 1972, Chrysler unveiled the more "productionised" Mark 2 Tiger. The Avenger GL bodyshell with four round headlights was used. Mechanically identical to the earlier cars, the bonnet bulge was lost although the bonnet turned matt black, and there were changes to wheels and seats. These cars went on at £1350. Production was around 400. Red was now available as well as red, with black detailing.

1976: a re-badge to Chrysler and a facelift

The Avenger was rebadged as a Chrysler. It also gained a comprehensive facelift which included a new frontal treatment and a new dashboard. Both treatments looked similar to those of the Chrysler Alpine. The greatest change was at the rear where, on the saloons, the distinctive "hockey-stick" rear lamp clusters were dropped in favour of a straight "light-bar" arrangement. The top of the former "hockey-sticks" had body-coloured metal in their place, whilst the fuel cap was moved from the rear to the right hand side of the car.

Three trim levels were available, LS, GL (known as 'Super' in certain markets) and GLS—the GLS being only available in a high-compression 1.6 L form.

1979: Talbotization and the end

Towards the end of the 1970s, the Avenger was being increasingly outclassed by the new generation of modern front-wheel drive hatchbacks such as the Volkswagen Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Fiat Ritmo/Strada, although this was less of a problem following the launch of the Horizon hatchback in late 1977. In 1978, Chrysler Europe went bankrupt and was taken over by Peugeot, which rebranded Chrysler models as Talbots. The Avenger and Sunbeam survived, rebadged once again, although unlike newer Talbot models such as the Horizon, they retained the Chrysler "Pentastar" badge, instead of the Talbot logo featuring a letter "T" inside a circle. Production continued until 1981, when Peugeot closed the Linwood production plant and concentrated all British production at the Ryton plant, which was in use until the end of 2006, by which time it had been making Peugeot cars for 21 years.

Not all was bleak during this time; the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus enjoyed further development and won the World Rally Championship for Talbot in 1981.

1977: the Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback

In 1977, a hatchback variant was introduced, known as the Chrysler Sunbeam. This was based on a shortened version of the Avenger's floorplan, and was intended to compete in the lower "supermini" class. It also shared doors with the 2-door Avenger. Initially three engines were available: a 928 cc Hillman Imp-derived unit and 1300 and 1600 Avenger units. A sporty "Ti" version was soon introduced, also with a 1600 engine.

The model's name was a revival of the Rootes Sunbeam marque, which had recently been killed off along with the final Sunbeam model, the Rapier.

In 1979, Chrysler unveiled the Sunbeam Lotus at the Geneva Motor Show. Developed in conjunction with Lotus with rallying in mind (because none of the existing models were competitive) and utilising a 2200 cc Lotus engine, the road-going version of the rally car was not actually ready for deliveries to the public until after the Peugeot buyout (see below), and thus became the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. At first, these were produced mostly in Lotus' then tobacco-sponsorship colours of black and silver, although later models came in a turquoise and silver scheme.

Sunbeam specifications

Capacity 927–2172 cc
Power 42–155 hp (31–116 kW)
Max. speed 128–200 km/h (80–120 mph)
Acceleration 0–62.5 mp/h: 22.2–8.3 seconds

Avenger and Cricket in motorsport

Despite the humble underpinnings, the Avenger was a successful car in motorsport; it was a frequent strong achiever in the British Touring Car Championship owing to the "tuneability" of its engine. The road-going version, the 4-door Avenger Tiger, is now a sought-after classic car.

  • In the U.S., driver Scott Harvey was known to have rallied a Plymouth Cricket to win the Press on Regardless Rally of 1971.
  • Northern Ireland based Robin Eyre-Maunsell was a works driver for the factory Avenger rally team, run by Des o'Dell, and won the British Group 1 Rally Championship in 1975 and 1976.
  • The late Bernard Unett won the British Touring Car Championship using Avengers in 1974, 1976 and 1977.
  • Scottish rallydriver Andrew Cowan won the 1976 Heatway Rally of New Zealand in a Hillman Avenger 2-door in 1976, fitted with the expanded 1800 cc Brazilian Dodge 1800/Polara engine.

Gallery

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