If you’re a regular reader of this site, there’s a good chance you know about the rivalry in Australia between Ford’s Down Under operations vs. General Motors’ local representative Holden. It’s a war that was waged at the legendary Bathurst 1000 race and on the showroom floor until both companies stopped building cars here in the late 2010s. But in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was another challenger to this duopoly, just like in America. Chrysler had its own antipodean operations too for a long time, and just as it was in the U.S., it had to innovate and be a little bit quirky to try and compete with the two big players. If you think Chrysler had some oddball stuff over Stateside, wait until you read about some of what we had Down Under.
G’day again, Autopians! Today we will be taking a look at Chrysler Australia Limited, or CAL, and some of the models it released in the 1960s and ‘70s. For US readers, I am sure some of these cars will seem like an alt-universe to what you’re used to from Chrysler in that era. And like that era, CAL produced many unusual cars that are still well-loved today and some are landmarks of Australian vehicle production.
CAL was always significantly lower in the sales charts than Holden or Ford. At its peak, it commanded just 15% of the market in 1970. This is in comparison to Ford at 25% and Holden having over one-third of the market in that same year.
You could say CAL mirrored AMC in this regard during the period: Always short on funds, often receiving hand-me-down tooling from America and having to really stretch its engineering abilities to get the job done by recycling parts in a surprising fashion compared to the near-annual refreshes and larger-scale frequent platform changes the booming U.S. market would experience.
An example of this cut-price engineering and resourcefulness is the Valiant Charger itself.
The VH Valiant range was due to be released in 1971, marking the first real departure from the U.S. Dodge/Plymouth models for something more uniquely Australian. Still based on the A-body platform shared with the Dodge Dart and original Plymouth Valiant, the VH range was longer and wider than what came before and approached B-bodies in size, such as the Plymouth Satellite. A $22 million budget was allocated to develop a sedan, station wagon, ute and luxury sedan and coupe (source Great Ideas In Motion, Gavin Farmer). Mechanically they remained the same as the previous series, this was more about increasing the size of the cars to bring them to match Ford and Holden.
The designs for the proposed five-body range were locked in November 1969 at a meeting with the head office in Detroit. The head of CAL, David Brown (no relation to tractors nor Aston Martins) asked about potentially adding a sixth body, a short-wheelbase coupe in the vein of the original Plymouth Barracuda and Ford Mustang. After being shown some styling prototypes, this was approved the next month and $2 million of the $22 million budget was allocated to this.
With this scant $2 million, Australian chief stylist Brian Smyth along with a team including International chief stylist, Bob Hubbach (who later went on to design the 1994 Dodge Viper GTS Coupe and 1995 Chrysler Atlantic Concept) designed the Valiant Charger and had it production-ready for release a mere two months later than the rest of the range that had already been styled and engineered nearly two years earlier.
Along with a simple yet effective ad campaign, the Charger was an immediate success, becoming up to 50 percent of CAL’s annual sales at times and helping keep the Australian operation afloat for a few more years. (I might write a future article on the development of the Charger; the methods they used to save money and still engineer a desirable car are legendary.)
Whether this regular operating-on-a-shoestring financial position was a symptom or a cause, some of the nameplates that CAL brought to the market in the late 1960s and into the 1970s were a bit odd, and while not offensive to conservative sensibilities like the original 1971 Dodge Demon, they certainly raise some questions as to what CAL’s marketing department was consuming recreationally, presumably in some swanky, Mad Men-esque suites while wearing ever-wider lapel suits and the pointiest leather shoes available.
Among the more unusual nameplates or models put to the Australian market from CAL:
Chrysler by Chrysler – From the first Valiant released to Australia as a CKD-assembled vehicle in 1961 until Mitsubishi took over the CAL plants and continued to build Valiants under license from 1979 to 1981 when the “Last Barstard” (sic) left the Tonsley Park factory, Aussie Vals often featured a badge on the rear stating they were “by Chrysler.”
Whilst this made some sense for the first few years, as the advertising of the period from CAL put the Valiant name out front-and-center, with Chrysler Australia Ltd with the Pentastar down in the bottom corner and so having “by Chrysler” on the rear of the car would help Aussies identify the parent manufacturer.
Why they continued this for 13 years until the range simply became badged “Chrysler” is maybe evidence of the lack of sobriety in head office, but it gets stranger.
The range from CAL started with Dodge as the nameplate for their most stripped-out of utes. These bargain models had no chrome bumpers or grilles; those pieces were instead painted silver in what can’t have been that much of a cost-saving overall. The rest of the normal range had Valiant for the basic ute and then Valiant + whatever trim level (Ranger, XL, Regal, Regal 770, SE, etc.) depending on the year and what body style you were there was some logic that was easy enough to follow.
With Ford Australia adding new front and rear sheet metal and a longer wheelbase to their Falcon to create the local Fairlane range in 1967 as a new entry in the luxury segment and Holden responding via a long-wheelbase Premier the following year, CAL needed a spruced-up Valiant to take on this emerging new market niche. Initially, it began with the 1968 VE-model Valiant VIP, and then followed into the VF and VG series of cars.
For reasons unknown, from 1971 to the end of CAL’s participation in this segment in the mid-’70s, the name was changed. No longer would this be a “Valiant” by Chrysler VIP, it would be a “Chrysler by Chrysler.”
Whether they were simply ahead of the curve on future oxymorons such as “ATM Machine” or “PIN Number,” or had no idea that to most rational humans this recursive naming convention would give the reader concerns about the cognitive abilities of said executives is also lost to the mists of time.
Available as both a long-wheelbase sedan and hardtop, they really went for the old ‘slap some chrome everywhere’. The hardtop, as predicted by the Australian team back in 1969 didn’t sell that well in Australia.
As an added bit of strangeness, via CAL’s export program, there were small numbers of Chrysler by Chrysler sedans that made their way to Japan. How a vehicle approaching the dimensions of a 1968 Dodge Charger was ever considered a viable business case for Japanese export beggars belief, but then, again there was the effort from Mazda/Holden in the Roadpacer which was probably more bonkers.
It’s also no secret that Aussies love a beer or three. Our beer consumption per capita peaked at 140.3 liters (37 U.S. gallons) per year in 1974.
Arguably also the peak of ‘70s fashion, the Valiant Charger Sportsman was a limited-edition of 399 with a unique paint job and also featured an interior so lurid it’s amazing they didn’t require a handlebar-moustache and gold chain as a prerequisite for buyers. Other than the Ford Landau Coupe it’s probably the closest we got to a factory pimpmobile in Australia.
I suppose they went with Sportsman because Pantsman didn’t make it past the committee.
Equipped with the 265-cubic-inch (4.3-liter) Hemi Six, the biggest of the Hemi Six range and with either a four-on-the-floor manual or floor-shift auto I’m yet to find a wilder Australian-produced factory special based on the interior alone. Blasting “Evie” (Parts 1, 2 & 3, possibly the first 11-minute song to reach #1) on your aftermarket 8-track whilst driving one of these would have to be peak mid-’70s Australiana.
This limited-edition Charger also had my all-time favorite car review written about it by Tony Curtis for Wheels Magazine in January 1975. Part fever dream it’s a real triumph of parody that cuts through the fantasy of owning a sporty coupe post-’73 oil crisis with the cold light of day.
The next special-edition Charger after the Sportsman. Now a bit of an insulting term online, it was a typical stripe-and-spoiler package to move some VK Chargers. Not quite as lurid as the Sportsman outside nor inside, they came in Amarante Red or Alpine White and were the only Aussie Valiant to come with body-colored bumpers.
This was one of the last special editions, unusual in that it spanned the Charger, Ute and the short-lived Panelvan that CAL only made for a short time and was very much late to the surf-van party created by the Holden Sandman ute and panelvan and fought by Ford with the Sundowner range of Escort and Falcon panelvans and even a trimmed-up Ford Transit. The name was meant to evoke images of the open road, however, with the skinny tires of the day that lacked grip in any conditions under a heavy right foot it would not be hard for the vehicle to resemble the modern-day definition.
Here’s a video too:
No, nothing like the Mirthmobile from Wayne’s World, this was CAL’s performance Valiant sedan from 1969 to 1972. Kitted out with period boy-racer trimmings like racy decals and stripes, blacked-out bonnets and trim, dash-mounted tachometer in the VF model and typically loud colors with lurid names such as the now unfortunately-named Isis Yellow, Thar She Blue and Riding Hood Red. They began CAL’s entry to the youth market ahead of the release of the Australian Charger in 1971. The name was also revived for a 50th-anniversary limited-edition Chrysler 300C in 2019.
The name given to Aussie Valiant Station Wagons from 1963 to 1971. Whilst not a particularly off-the-wall name even for the time, it does seem a little out of place for such a conservative, middle-of-the-road wagon from the period when CAL kept everything straight-laced. I suppose someone at CAL was a Beach Boys fan.
This was a U.S. Dodge nameplate in the late 40s and early 50s, so it’s not a huge surprise that CAL recycled this moniker. Why it ended up on the higher-spec Valiant Utes (as in, you were wealthy enough to option front disc brakes, a heater or maybe a radio) from 1965 to 1971 is a bit of a head-scratcher when it was originally used on post-war business coupes and convertibles Stateside.
As an aside, we later worked out that Cactus is probably a base-model Dodge ute, it’s not always clear from the VIN on the early models with the production lists pre-1971 also not being accessible. Evidence for Cactus being a Dodge includes there being no door switches for the interior light (rubber delete grommets still intact), the rear bumpers have definitely not had any chrome on them before, and the most permanent evidence is the fact that the inner roof structure only has provision for a driver’s side sun visor. That’s right, they didn’t even bother spot-welding in the mount for the passenger side that is out-of-sight under the vinyl headliner!
Using ‘“Town & Country” on later special-edition Utes that were dressed up with Vinyl roofs, carpeted interiors and formal stripes later on make far more sense to me from a naming standpoint.
Yes, we had our own LeBaron as a special edition for 1978. As befitting the name, this was a classed-up CL model Valiant Regal of which only 400 were built, and among the first Aussie Chryslers to receive a radial-tuned suspension. A bit of an odd name choice in that we didn’t get Imperials in any great numbers on our shores. No word on if they had any owners with a penchant for a short skirt and a long jacket.
CAL had many sub-brands under its wing through the Detroit office’s acquisitions over the 60s and 70s. These included Rootes Group marques such as Humber and Hillman. Another name that’s been a bit tainted by later developments (thanks Larry Flint), the Hustler was a boy-racer version of the Hillman Hunter which famously won the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon at the last moment when the leading Citroen collided with a spectator vehicle. Now Hustlers (let alone Hunters) are almost extinct and you’re lucky to see one even at a major car show.
Their advert was rather exciting, with snazzy music with a bit of an old-school-heist vibe and some bloke whispering features like “radial-ply tires” and “four-speed box.”
By the early ’70s, the mid-size car market was becoming a booming sector in Australia. Holden had good success with the Vauxhall Viva-based Torana, and Ford with the Cortina. CAL rightly wanted to get in on some of this action, and so a deal was made to utilize Chrysler Europe and import Simca/Chrysler 180 vehicle bodies from France. Once in the country, they would either be sold with a 2L inline-four-cylinder (also from Simca) or have the 215 or 245 ci Hemi six dropped into their lengthened nose.
Complicating matters was a ban by dockworker’s unions in Australia in 1973 on French products, in protest to the French nuclear testing in the Pacific. This lasted two years, and as a result, the Centura’s entry into the market was delayed and CAL was late to the party once again. The Centura was not a sales success and the model was dropped in 1978 due to this and due to Peugeot purchasing a bankrupt Chrysler Europe.
With the Hemi six, the Centura’s handling is best described as a ‘lead-tipped arrow’, due to the extra weight being quite forward of the front axle. A similar problem did plague the early six-cylinder Cortinas, to be fair.
Due to their lightweight chassis and many already having been factory-fitted for a Hemi six, they were popular with drag racers as they offered a nearly 200kg weight reduction over a full-size Valiant. The rear differential, the relatively strong and modifiable Borg Warner 75 unit was a popular item for hotrodders and owners of sixties Mustangs, with Centuras often bought in the 90s just for their rear axle and then scrapped which has made them relatively uncommon now.
From the steadily declining sales, industrial disputes and Chrysler USA’s money problems in the late ’70s, CAL’s operations were sold to Mitsubishi in 1980. The Valiant was still produced until 1981 when that line was closed to make room for more Mitsubishi products. CAL only managed a best result of 3rd place in the outright standings in the ‘72 Bathurst 500-mile race (on a shoestring budget compared to the other two), which also served to keep mainstream attention fixed on Holdens and Fords.
The quirky engineering and focus on tough six-cylinders whilst also offering big V8 cruisers has kept a loyal fanbase over the decades. Likely the biggest single-brand car show in Australia is Chryslers on the Murray which is held in Albury-Wodonga every March and sees about 1,000 cars attend.
Through this event and the old online-forum era I have strong friendships with other Chrysler enthusiasts across Australia, and the camaraderie back in the earlier days was exceptional. I once traded fuel tanks with someone who lived over 1500km away and had never met, using friends we knew in-between to transfer the tanks between towns and hand-over to the next person to continue the journey at no cost.
I am seeing echoes of this in the Suzuki Mighty Boy/Alto fanbase, another underdog vehicle with passionate owners who are willing to help anyone in need even at their own personal cost to keep the cars running.
As a Valiant owner, I used to get picked on by some of the older car enthusiasts in town. Back in the mid-2000s, for them, it was Holden, Ford, or nothing. Now with the prices of all classics rising and good examples of any classic metal being harder to find, I am now fielding questions from some of the same people who now are becoming interested in these cars as classic Holdens and Fords get priced further out of reach. Truly, this is democracy manifest.
As always, if there is something about Aussie car culture you’d like to know more about, let me know in the comments!
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.