Hillman Avenger car development: Detroit meets Coventry

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According to former Rootes Group styling Director, Roy Axe, the first formal thoughts on the makeup of the Avenger were recorded for appraisal in January 1963. The idea had been to produce a replacement for the Hillman Minx, which at the time, was Rootes’ best selling car. However, the Arrow project was already in full swing by this time (becoming the Hunter in 1966), meaning that the majority of the company's development resources would be concentrated on this car. The Arrow range would use a large amount of existing components, clothed in a conventionally styled smart suit, and it would be that car that would be used to replace the Minx and Super Minx as well as their badge engineered derivatives.

Despite the new car being pushed aside for the Arrow, company executives still saw a need for a smaller, smarter model in the range. The new car would be produced to bridge the gap between the Imp and the larger range and to fight head on the Ford Cortina, which was selling in increasingly large numbers at the expense of Rootes and BMC. In November 1965, the product guidelines for a new car to meet this challenge were laid down. The ‘B Car’, as it would subsequently be called, would need to be compact, smart, roomy and quick. It would need to offer that little bit more than the opposition because during the boom years of the late 1960s, car buyers' expectations were rapidly getting higher and higher. Rootes also wanted to be in a favourable position to cash in on the advent of the ‘company car’ as a popular way of rewarding employees.

A stylish exterior...

In terms of styling, it was obvious that the designers of the B Car were looking towards Detroit for inspiration, as early styling sketches had revealed the car to be an almost pure slice of Americana. The style might have looked good on paper, but the difficulty imposed by this decision was that of proportioning.

The demands of a compact overall package and maximized passenger compartment meant that short overhangs would be the order of the day, and that being the case, a great deal of thought went into ensuring the car did not end up with an, "over-cabined appearance". Cleverly, the B Car was styled around a shape that was more integrated than past efforts, one that dispensed with the traditional waistline. This meant that the shorter car would not look in anyway stunted in comparison with the Arrow range, which at the time was being prepared for launch.

With the styling scheme narrowed down, several quarter scale clay models were produced in December 1965, which were taken to the company's portable viewing tunnel for "lifesize" evaluation.

As a result of these viewings, the favoured choice was that of the "semi-fast" or "flow-back" roofline that eventually appeared on the production model. The removal of the waist level feature line meant that the top and bottom halves of the car flowed pleasingly into a single curve, but in order to avoid the appearance of "heaviness", side feature lines were incorporated towards the rear.

In January 1966, work began on full-size clay models, which developed the theme of the favoured quarter scale models. Sophisticated modelling techniques were employed to enable the Styling Department to present some highly finished clay mock-ups to the company's management, and on the 16th November 1966, their final approval was given to the model that looked remarkably like the car launched in 1970. One important advance was the use of computers to design the bodyshell – indeed the Avenger was one of the first cars ever to be designed in this way.

...and a modern interior.

The full-size facia mockups used during the design evaluation phase. As can be seen, there was some variation from model to model, as well as some interesting steering wheel designs, that were not followed up.

The interior of the car lagged behind the exterior design, starting in August 1966. The facia design was soon rationalised, so that the initial idea of providing three separate designs was met by using a single sheet metal facia, onto which three individual plastic mouldings could be mounted. The different mouldings would provide suitable differentiation between the planned De Luxe, Super and Grand Luxe models. The rest of the interior was mocked-up, and a full set of tests was performed in order to come to the correct ergonomic solutions. The results of these tests revealed that the best place to site all the major and minor controls would be around the column area, and as a result, the design team set about creating a set of controls to match these ideals. It was important to the design team, that the three trim levels would be suitably different across the entire interior and three interiors were mocked-up to ensure the maximum uniqueness of each model, whilst retaining as much commonality as possible. The interior was subject to a continual programme of improvement, and it wasn’t until 10th November 1967 that management approval was given. Perhaps more than any other UK maker at the time, Rootes gave much consideration to the needs of the female buyer. As a result, the design department employed the services of several fashion consultants during the design of the Avenger's interior. These ladies were employed by the colour and trim studio to predict material trends, and how they could be applied to the interior of the new car. Their findings, which encompassed all aspects of fashion, interior decoration and industrial design, would be used in the formulation of all of the company's subsequent products.

Design - the old and the new

The B Car was quite an ambitious programme for a UK manufacturer of the time. The inward investment from Chrysler in the USA was beginning to bear fruit, and their keenness to expand their European operations was demonstrated by the expansion of the Rootes design facility in Coventry. A lot of work was put in to testing all available suspension and transmission layouts and engine configurations. Much comparative data was produced during the design process in weighing up the pros and cons of flat-four, vee-four and inline-four engines. Cast-iron and aluminium were compared (cost-vs-function) for head and block material. The company's eagerness to try new ideas also extended to the suspension system, and research took place into alternative springing media, such as air and rubber (thanks in no small part to the lead taken by Citroen and BMC). In the end, the layout of the car eventually chosen was a conventional one: costs dictated this to be the case. However, the very fact that Rootes had looked at these ideas showed that the company had not been completely put off new ideas after the problems caused by the Imp.

The Final Countdown

The B Car's layout would be a conventional front mounted in-line 4-cylinder engine and transmission with rear axle mounted on a four-link coil spring suspension. The reasons for this layout were justified in the table below, but it also must be noted that the car it was aimed at competing with, the Ford Cortina was also a very conventional, if impeccably lightweight and well costed motor car.

One
The B Car was being developed with world markets in mind, and such a conventional layout would facilitate the use of locally produced engines and gearboxes. This modular approach to car design would become more widespread in later years.
Two
Costs were an almost overriding factor: in order to follow the modular approach, the simplest of mechanical layouts would need to be employed 

When crashed into a 100-ton concrete block at 30mph, the B Car showed admirable impact resistance, compared to its larger brother, the Hunter. The centre section remained virtually undamaged, whilst the steering wheel movement into the passenger was well controlled, and well within the limits of the test.

The results of this philosophy were that in the end, the B Car would prove to be lighter and altogether cheaper to produce than the Hunter (Arrow). There were less panels in total, they needed fewer welds and there was a significantly smaller amount of sheet metal used in its construction.

The chassis received a great deal of attention during the development of the car, and the four-link rear suspension offered many advantages over the leaf spring system common in the car's many rivals. The rumour that this system was chosen over the leaf spring system because the car's rear end styling revealed too much of the leaf springs is one that has now entered the realms of motoring folklore. Because of the intensive development programme, the front end received much attention too, and as a result, front anti-roll bars were offered as standard on all models. The effects on ride and handling have been well documented in the generally favourable road tests that appeared soon after the car's launch in 1970.

The engines were also all new: the B Car would eventually use the inline-four unit in 1248cc, 1295cc, 1498cc and 1599cc versions. There was also an 1800cc unit for South America. The camshaft was located much higher than the competition’s overhead valve engines, meaning that the push rods for valve operation were as short as possible. Indeed, it was perhaps as close as could be got to an overhead camshaft engine without going all the way. Interestingly, South African assembled models were fitted with a Peugeot unit to meet local content rules.

The Hillman Avenger hits the Streets

n February 1970, the Hillman Avenger was launched to the public, and immediately the press was taken by it's overall competence on the road, and smart contemporary styling. There was a real sense that the car offered the ailing company a shot in the arm, and that under Chrysler's direction, what was the Rootes group would go on and prosper in the emerging company car market. Certainly, the signs were good with the Avenger, as it was quite demonstrably a car for the time, and one that people wanted.

Although the Avenger was very similar in size to the "Arrow" range of cars introduced in 1966, these sold in a higher price class. Also, the larger cars were available as Singers and at the very top as a Humber, all of which were trimmed with wood trim and chrome in a luxury style. In those days visual opulence sold well, with people enjoying the envious glances that such showings of visible extra expense brought.

In contrast to previous Rootes practice, which offered each car as a basic Hillman, upmarket Singer, sporty Sunbeam and plush Humber, the new Avenger was always to be just a basic Hillman. No frills, but a low price and conventional (yet contemporary) technology. As such the car featured a live coil sprung rear axle, a four-speed manual gearbox, four-door saloon body and overhead-valve all-iron engine of 1250 or 1500cc capacity. Compared with the Austin Maxi, a competing product launched the previous year with 5-speed gearbox, front wheel drive, overhead cam engine, hatchback body, independent hydrolastic suspension the Avenger really was a conventional car. Yet it was just right for the British public who were scared of new-fangled technology and it is said used spark plug access and cheap exhaust replacement as the primary considerations when choosing a new car!

The initial road tests were positive, and the Hillman Avenger did carve itself a favourable niche with the motoring press. The initial range of engines offered were the 1250 and 1500cc versions, and trim levels were DL, Super and GL. The Deluxe and Super had a simple dashboard with a strip style speedometer but the GL was equipped with a round dial dash, although the effect was rather spoilt by conical instrument covers that distorted the readings! The GL was one of the first British cars to have as standard brushed nylon seat trim. A high-powered twin carburettor 1500 GT followed in October 1970 with bizarre dustbin lid shaped wheel trims and go-faster sticker tapes down the side of the doors.

Critical acclaim followed the initial launch of the Avenger, and although the car never really competed with the big boys such as the Cortina (who could?) and the Marina, it proved a sizeable hit for the company. According to Graham Robson's book, "Cars of the Rootes Group", the 50,000th Avenger was produced in August 1970, and by the end of its life in 1981, a total of 638,631 Avengers had been made.

During its life, the Avenger (rather like the Morris Marina) suffered at hands of the Cortina, which although similarly sized in Mark Two form, would grow significantly in size with the advent of the Mark Three in late 1970 and the Mark Four in 1976. This led the Avenger to fall somewhat below the centre of the company car market. Although the Hunter was a larger car, this also was handicapped by the fact that its largest engine displaced rather less than the 2Litres that would be found at the top of Uncle Henry's all-conquering Cortina.

The range slowly developed with the announcement of the estate version in March 1972. Deluxe and Super versions were offered, with a choice of 1250 and 1500 engines.

Stripped out fleet models came in February 1972 as well. Called simply Avenger, these didn’t even have a sun visor for the passenger but still offered a choice of 1250 and 1500 engines. At the opposite end of the scale, In September 1972, the GT was replaced by the GLS – an altogether more luxurious car with a vinyl roof and proper Rostyle sports wheels! ‘Motor’ magazine concluded in its road test that: “the GLS must appeal to those drivers who want a refined, comfortable car that is well mannered and not too big”.

A two door version arrived in March 1973, reviving the GT badge with a 1500 model distinguished by a three quarter length vinyl roof but sharing rectangular headlamps with the cheaper models in the range. The 1500 GT was described by ‘Motor’ magazine as “thoroughly enjoyable”. Other two door models were the basic fleet model, a Deluxe and a Super. All the small-engined Avengers lost their front anti-roll bar at this time and in a retrograde step drum brakes replaced the front discs.

A Tiger in the Avenger’s tank…

he fire-breathing 100bhp Hillman Avenger Tiger was aimed at the motorsport market, and in competition form made a fairly respectible rally car. Offered mainly in the famous Sundance yellow paint colour, the Tiger cut quite a dash on the high street, even if it were not quite in tune with the times.

The sporting Avenger Tiger was offered in the mid seventies, the Avenger Tiger I and Avenger Tiger II being announced in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The Tiger was developed by Des O’Dell, boss of Chrysler’s Competition department to generate interest in Chrysler’s motor sport programme and draw customers to Chrysler showrooms. Both versions had a hot 1498cc engine that produced, in standard form, around 90hp (net) or 107bhp (gross) at 6100 rpm, 90lb/ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. 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.

Externally, the Mark 1 was only available in Sundance Yellow, with a broad black stripe, a bonnet bulge, and a rear spoiler – one of the first production cars to feature such a piece of kit. Quarter bumpers and four Lucas fog and driving lamps at the front completed the picture. The first three were white with a blue stripe. Only 100 were built initially but such was the success that a further 100 were built. The Mark 1 models were based around the Avenger Super, which meant that they had rectangular headlamps and a strip style speedometer – supplemented by a pod-mounted tachometer on the top of the dashboard. Restall bucket seats were the only other interior modification.

The Mark 2 versions were based around the Avenger GL and had four round headlights and a fully equipped dashboard with round instruments. The bonnet bulge and four Lucas lamps were gone but in their place was a matt black bonnet.

Much cheaper Exacton alloy wheels replaced the magnesium Minilite wheels. Wardance Red was an option to Sundance Yellow. The Tiger returned 19mpg but could reach 105mph. When the model was dropped in late 1973, 200 Mark 1s and 450 Mark 2s had been built. It is thought just 20 survive today.

In a quest for even more rallying power BRM developed some sophisticated twin-cam 16-valve heads around British and Brazilian Avenger blocks, with up to 205hp available from 2-litres. These cars were campaigned in the UK from 1974 to 1977.

In October 1973, the 1250cc version was extended to 1300cc and the 1500cc version, to 1600cc. The cylinder head design was revised too to improve fuel economy. The automatic option was now the new four-speed Borg Warner BW45 gearbox rather than the previous three speed model. The fleet Avenger was dropped and the GL was offered for the first time with the smaller engine and the two-door bodyshell. A 1300 GT producing 69bhp was also launched. In a fight back against the better-equipped Japanese cars which were rapidly gaining popularity with British buyers, all Avengers gained radial ply tyres, a heated rear window and an alternator.

The 1300 and 1600 Avengers had been slated for a July 1973 launch. However, another of the seemingly endless industrial disputes that plagued Britain’s car industry during the seventies meant that the announcement was delayed until October. Larger engines were built for and installed in what were officially labelled 1250 and 1500 cars in the final weeks of the old model’s production run. Some lucky Avenger buyers in autumn 1973 got more than they bargained for!

October 1974 saw the end of the 1300 GL models but the addition of a 1600GL estate. January 1976 saw the end of the slow selling 1300 GT and in April 1976, the range was rationalised as part of a general ‘value-for-money’ campaign. The GL series was dropped but the Super models were all upgraded to GL levels of trim without any increase in price.

A new Avenger – thanks to Whitehall

The new dashboard brought the interior of the newly badged Chrysler Avenger back up to date in 1976. The interior trim on this model does look rather hard on the eyes however - and the exterior style was not nearly enough modified to compete with new models such as the Ford Cortina IV and Vauxhall Cavalier.

In August 1976, the first and only major change was made to the Avenger. Chrysler had become increasingly impatient with the consistent losses that had been returned by the UK arm of the company. As part of a government backed rescue plan for Chrysler UK, there was a major re-shuffle of models and factories. Without the government’s financial backing, Chrysler had been ready to pull the plug on its British operation meaning no more Avengers and 25,000 lost jobs.

Production of the Chrysler Alpine, using French kits, started in Ryton meaning that the Avenger and moved to Linwood in Scotland – which was where its body panels had been pressed for years! The Hunter, which had been built at Linwood since 1969 (having been pushed out of Ryton to make room for the Avenger) moved to Ireland. The Hillman Imp, which after a long and largely unfulfilled life, died at this time. In the process, the Avenger lost its Hillman badges and became Chryslers. The Hunters were now the sole remaining Hillmans although they too became Chryslers in the autumn of 1977.

A fairly comprehensive facelift, which gave the Avenger a new face and dashboard. In both cases, copying the newly launched Alpine model, which was earning praise across Europe, brought about the new look. From a distance, and head-on, the new grille/headlamp treatment looked so similar that it was possible to confuse the two cars! The dashboard was also frighteningly similar, but again, that was no bad thing, as once again, the interior ergonomics were brought right up to date. One of the Avenger's most individual features - the L-Shaped rear lamps were lost - being replaced by slim horizontal affairs that made the car look a little more modern, if somewhat less unique. However, this modification was done on the cheap. Instead of new rear wing pressings, Chrysler simply fitted rather ill fitting metal caps in the space where the lamps had previously been!

Three trim levels were offered – Deluxe, Super and GLS. The facelift was a success and showed just how intrinsically good was the Avenger.

CAR magazine’s Giant Test which pitched the new Avenger against the Mk 4 Cortina and the Opel based Vauxhall Cavalier said that: “if the rival manufacturers in this Giant Test had made such a transformation to one of their products, they would have ballyhooed it as a new model”.

All the sports models were gone with rallying attention focused on the smaller, but still Avenger-based Sunbeam, released in mid 1977. The Sunbeam would be developed to include two sports models. The Ti featured a 100hp 1600 version of the Avenger Tiger engine. The second version won the World Rally Championship outright in 1980. This was the Sunbeam-Lotus, which developed 160hp from the Lotus 2.2-liter engine; this car was good for 0-60 in 7 seconds and a top speed of 125mph. However, there remained the mystery of the Avenger GT, which disappeared from the catalogues but remained listed for some time in the price lists published by Britain’s motoring journals. It seems as if the face lifted GT was only available to special order to those in the know…

Unfortunately, after this nothing more than oblivion awaited the new Avenger, as Chrysler saw a car that only appealed to the Brits. Exports were negligible to the rest of Europe.

As the UK was the only market that bought the car in any significant numbers it was now on the fringes of the Chrysler Europe range. The Alpine represented the company in the mid-range, and although it was designed in the UK under the leadership of Roy Axe, it was heavily based on Simca hardware and owed little to the engineering talents of the development engineers based in Coventry.

The Avenger was left to wither on the vine with just the odd minor specification change to keep it alive. In August 1977, LS and GL labels replaced Deluxe and Super respectively. The GLS lost its Rostyle wheels in favour of cheaper sports style wheel covers. For 1979, the LS lost its hubcaps and the two door models bit the dust. The Talbot badge appeared in October 1979 for the 1980 model year, the GLS was dropped and all got that rapidly fading style icon the vinyl roof fitted as standard. In March 1980, the GL models got sports style wheel trims and the GLS returned to the range but this time as an 80bhp estate complete with chrome roof rails.

Chrysler's replacement for the Avenger was effectively the three box version of the Alpine that would hit the streets in 1980, and when the company sold their European assets to Peugeot-Citroen in 1978, it was quite clear that there was no future left in the car. Although the Avenger did become a Talbot, its future was inextricably tied to that of Linwood. When Peugeot announced that they were rationalizing their factories, it came as no surprise that among the casualties, Linwood was prominent. Closure came in early 1981, and with it came the death of the Avenger - a car that had performed admirably for the company somehow deserved a better fate…

Avenger in retrospect…

The Avenger undergoes its third marque name change: following PSA's takeover in 1978, all Avengers became known as Talbot Avengers during the summer of 1979.

The Avenger was styled for its time, opened up new markets for Rootes and Chrysler, and was generally what people in the 1970s wanted. There were problems with the car, although most of these could not be aimed at the design, but at the manufacturing. The car's production was too dispersed (Linwood and Coventry are 300 miles apart) and it was blighted with industrial unrest that cost the company countless lost cars, and therefore, sales. Also, the Avenger suffered from below par build quality (this especially affected sales of the Plymouth Cricket badged version in the USA) and poor protection against rust. Instead of using underseal, to save weight electrolysed paint was used to coat the floors. As a result, the front floors could rust out very quickly.

The engine, all iron with a pushrod valve, seemed low-tech but was strong and quiet and could rev to 7000 rpm. They gave good performance and economy and although they became noisy with high mileage rarely failed.

Their inherent toughness came to the fore in the Hunter Arrow series made under license in Iran as Paykan. From the mid eighties, the Avenger engine was used instead of the Rootes 1725 engine. Transmissions were bullet proof. Servicing and repair (bolt-on front wings, for example) were cheap and easy. The design of both engine and suspension was carefully thought out and executed.

The Avenger was a lightweight car with a computer-designed body shell that resulted in the strength and rigidity necessary for good handling. A well-kept Avenger will still delight its passengers with a quiet smooth ride and entertain the driver when the twisty bits loom on the horizon. The larger engined 1500 and 1600 models are even better at high speed as they have a higher final drive ratio.

Avengers were designed and made in Britain in the days when that meant something. All in all, almost three-quarters of a million Avengers were made. The most popular export area (after the US badged Plymouth Cricket) for the Avenger was Scandinavia, where the car was badged the Sunbeam 1250/1300/1500/1600. However, the vast majority were sold in the UK. More than you would think survive today and there is a thriving owner's club dedicated to the Avenger and its Sunbeam sibling.

With thanks to Andy Thompson for his extra information.

There’s more on the Plymouth Cricket / Chrysler Sunbeam and the Hillman Avenger at allpar.com!

 

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