Perhaps one of the most cherished British cars of the 1970’s, the Hillman Avenger, as far as people have told me, is one of those cars people always had a love for. From a distance it may look a bit regular, but up close it’s the pride of many people’s hearts.
The Hillman Avenger entered sales in 1970, and was the first and only car to be developed by Rootes after their takeover by Chrysler in 1967. The idea of the Avenger was to combine British and American styles to create the perfect family car for Europe, with its styling being based heavily off the semi-fastback designs of Ford and Chevrolet. Indeed many people compare this car to the likes of the Ford Escort and the Morris Marina, but that was very much the style of the early 1970’s in terms of small family cars. The car was also the first British car to be manufactured with a one-piece plastic grille in place of previous chrome, a tradition which has now become somewhat the norm.
Power wise, the car was fairly mundane, being powered by a 1.2L Inline-4 engine with rear-wheel transmission. However, the car’s main party piece was its handling and oodles of space inside, capable of seating a family of four without much trouble. In an interesting move however, the car was not marketed in badge-engineered form with other Rootes Group companies, which had a usual tradition of making their higher market versions badged under the Singer marque. The car however was made available in GT form with the Avenger Tiger, a harp back to the Sunbeam Tiger sports car. This machine went on sale in 1972 and was fitted with a 92hp 1500GT engine with improved cylinder heads and twin Weber Carburettors. Top speed of these mighty machines was a formidable 108mph and a 0-60 of 8.9 seconds, an admirable opponent to the Ford Escort, but an incredibly thirsty machine.
However, the most important thing for the Rootes Group was to get the car selling. At the time the company was facing a huge downturn financially due to the Hillman Imp, which had forced the company to place itself into the hands of Chrysler of stability. As such, Hillman promoted the car heavily in Europe, being sold initially under the Sunbeam brand. The car did sell very well, locking horns with the likes of the Ford Escort and the Vauxhall Viva, but Chrysler wanted to be a step higher than the competition. In a bold move, the company sold the car in the United States from 1971 as the Plymouth Cricket. This was the first time a Rootes Group car had been purpose built for the American market, with engine power upped to a 1.5L and a variety of US Safety Legislation implemented such as side marker lamps and front disc brakes. However, the Cricket was not a major success in the US, and was discontinued in 1973 in spite of there being a demand for small cars during the Oil Crisis.
In Europe however the car was still a major seller, being built at 4 different factories in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, England, Tehran, Iran, Wellington, New Zealand, and at the controversial Linwood Factory in Scotland alongside the troubled Imp. In 1976 the car was given a major facelift, with large square-block headlights and a slightly more angular body. At this point the Hillman brand was killed off after a long, slow ride into oblivion. With the demise of the Hillman company, the Avenger was now branded as the Chrysler Avenger. Throughout its production life though this plucky British car continued to be sold across the globe under a myriad of marques. In South Africa, it was dubbed the Dodge Avenger, in Argentina the Dodge 1500, in Brazil it was the Dodge Polara, in Uruguay it was sold only in pickup form as the Dodge 1500 Pickup (although these were known for splitting in half at random intervals).
However, in spite of selling heavily, Chrysler in Europe was still losing money heavily, and thus in 1979 handed over the reigns to Peugeot. At this point the car was dubbed the Talbot Avenger, and remained in production with very few changes until Peugeot ended production in 1981, closing the Linwood Factory at the same time.
This however wasn’t the end of the Avenger, as from 1980 Volkswagen acquired Chrysler’s international shares in their Argentinian production, and thus continued to build the Avenger as the Volkswagen 1500. The car continued to maintain a similar bodyshape, but with another boxy facelift. 260,000 of these very obscure spin-offs were built until 1990, when the 1500 was replaced by the Gacel/Senda, bringing about the end to the last Hillman product, 20 years in the making.
Today the Hillman Avenger, like many cars of that period, are scarce. Whilst many rusted away, others became victims of the scrappage scheme. As such, the one’s you’ll find today are in the careful hands of enthusiasts, with a love for their lovely machine. It may have come from an obscure background, but today it’s a cult classic!