A large number of Avengers were sold in New Zealand. That is why there are still many of them and other British cars of that era amongst the floods of used, imported Japanese cars on Kiwi roads.
Interestingly, the Avenger was sold in New Zealand but never in Australia, which instead got the four door sedan version of the Mitsubishi Galant badged as a Chrysler. This is the case for many other British cars that were sold down under during the 1970s including cars from British Leyland and Vauxhall. New Zealand then had stronger trading links with the UK, and levied a much lower import duty rate on Commonwealth-made car assembly kits than on Japanese and European kits.
Initially, from 1971-1974, the New Zealand Avengers were built at the Todd Motor Industries Plant at Petone, Wellington. Production moved for 1974-1981 to the newly built Todd Park plant in Porirua, north of Wellington, using knockdown-kit (CKD) parts from the UK.
The same production line built the Avenger and, depending on the year, the Rootes/Chrysler Hunter and Alpine; the Mirage, Sigma, and Lancer from Chrysler’s Japanese affiliate Mitsubishi; and Chrysler Australia products including the Valiant, Ranger, Regal, and Charger and – odd man out - the Datsun 180B! Todds had a contract then with Nissan to build these.
The Avenger sold very well. In 1978 and 1979, the Avenger was in the New Zealand car sales’ top ten, and they were successful as fleet cars. Avis especially favoured the Avenger, featuring them in ads and providing special deals.
The Avenger was only sold in New Zealand as a four door saloon or five door estate car — except for six reported two-door Avengers imported in. Specifications were much like British Avengers, although the top of the range luxury models were known as the Avenger Alpine GLS. The Alpine tag was dropped when the Chrysler Alpine was brought to New Zealand.
Model changes were similar to the British built Avengers, except for making the speedometers totally metric during 1973 to meet legal requirements. Facelifted models entered production at the beginning of 1977, although some Mk1 Avengers assembled in 1976 were registered as 1977 models. At this time, both Avenger and Hunter in New Zealand were rebadged from Hillman to Chrysler.
At the start of 1979, Peugeot, having purchased Chrysler Europe, renamed the lineup “Talbot.” The Avenger remained badged as a Chrysler in New Zealand until the facelifted models were released in July 1980. That year also saw the launch of the rare GLS estate, and a unique sport style variant. The Avenger-derived Sunbeam wasn't sold in New Zealand, though a small number were privately imported.
The Avenger had good rallying record down under. The Scottish Champion rally driver Andrew Cowan raced a two door Avenger 1800 (Brazilian engine) to victory in the 1976 Heatway Rally of New Zealand. Twenty years after production stopped, Avengers were still being used widely for racing in New Zealand, drivers finding them to be very versatile racing cars.
The Avenger was the last in a long line of Rootes products sold in New Zealand. Production finally ended in early 1981, to be replaced locally by an expanded range of Mitsubishi products.
In New Zealand, many Avengers were sold. They were built here by Todd Motors as CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits sent over from the United Kingdom, from 1970 to 1980.
At around this time Todd’s approached Mitsubishi Japan (who had then recently forged links with Chrysler Corp) about assembling and distributing their products in NZ. Coincidentally, Mitsubishi had that year released a model called the Galant, which was lineball in size to the Avenger. Talks went well between the two companies, and to get Mitsubishi a foot in the door, limited imports of fully assembled units began in 1971; and local assembly of the Mitsubishi Galant 1.6L Coupe (Colt Galant, Valiant Galant, Plymouth Arrow depending on market) would begin in 1972.
After much consideration (i.e. manufacturing costs, sourcing), the Avenger was rejected in favour of the Mitsubishi Galant, to be sold in Australia under the confusingly lengthy moniker of ‘Chrysler Valiant Galant’ (at that time in Australia, Chrysler used the Valiant moniker as a marque name, rather than just a singular model name. This did not apply to New Zealand). Over time this Galant would be modified to the Australians own tastes, to the point that, after a 1977 redesign (renamed Chrysler Sigma), it was enlarged, built like a tank, and had an optional oversize ‘boat-anchor’ 2.6 litre Astron 4 cylinder under its bonnet! This car was eventually replaced by the wide-body Mitsubishi Magna.
One could only have imagined then how the Avenger would have turned out if in Australian hands.
As a result, the Avenger was one car, of a number, including many British Leyland and Vauxhall products, sold in New Zealand, and not in Australia.
A rare wilderbeast - 1971's Hillman Avenger TCAssembly of the cars was done initially at Todd’s Petone factory, a facility that had seen better days (it was originally opened in the 1920s). The factory, like many similar had no shortage of employees. Worker’s unions were rampant, and general New Zealand unemployment was reasonably low at that time. Employees working for Todd’s were of a mixed cultural background, and many were immigrants from other countries with their first NZ job building cars with ‘their bare hands’.
As a few of Todd’s workers actually took some pride in their workmanship, the build quality on the NZ Avengers was said to have been somewhat better than their UK built counterparts, and it now shows. As a result, this is possibly why you can still a fair number of Avengers today on New Zealand's roads, well over twenty years after the end of production, hiding somewhere in amongst the traffic and carpark swarms of new and used Japanese imports, and other pre-1980 British machinery. As a matter of fact, it would be possibly unsurprising if there are more active, roadworthy and registered Avengers here, than in the UK! They certainly did not rust like the Japanese cars of that time did. At present, a day does not pass without one seeing at least ten Avengers either on the road or in car-parks, this many years after they ceased production!
1970-1972 – The Avenger’s early Production. When the Avenger was released here in late 1970, it was available as a four door saloon only, with basic rectangular headlights, in a trim level known as ‘Super’. The only engine available was a 1500cc OHV unit, the largest available for it at the time. Initial sales of the car were average, although it soon built up a positive reputation with buyers. However, it had plenty of rivals, competing within the government tax protected New Zealand market. Main rivals included the Ford Escort Mk1, Vauxhall Viva, Austin 1300, Toyota Corolla, Datsun 1200 and Mazda 808/RX3 rotary.
To boost appeal for the car, 1971 saw a locally-developed sporting Avenger enter local production, complementing the ‘Super’ model. Known as the Avenger ‘TC’, this 4 door variant had extra features to normal ‘Avengers’, such as black ‘speed racing’ side stripes, sports hubcaps, locally-made high-back ‘tombstone’ sports seats, full black vinyl interior trim, bright colours, and, providing the TC name, a 1500cc motor with twin carburetors!
Two brothers in Arms - New Zealand's Hillman Avenger Super & Avenger Alpine
It was at this time also that Todds released Mitsubishi’s Galant 1.6l coupe into New Zealand. This car, sold in a full model range overseas, was sold only as a coupe to avoid hurting Hillman Avenger’s sales. Although the car was in a different market to the Avenger saloons, it meant that the Avenger 2 door was never released here. Apparently however, there are six Avenger 2 doors residing in New Zealand, either bought over by Todds for evaluation, or privately imported. (The 1.6L was replaced by a restyled, larger, 1.85-litre Galant coupe in 1975.)
Soon after the Alpine’s release, a number of changes occurred regarding the Avenger’s NZ production. At the beginning of 1974, the 1500cc motor was replaced by a 1600cc version, mirroring the UK Avenger’s engine development. To coincide with this, the Borg-Warner 4 speed automatic was introduced as an option. The only exterior change with the new engine was a round rather than rectangular Hillman badge in the centre of the front grille. At some point during the run, the Alpine lost its twin carbs and shared the single carb 1.6 with the Super.
During 1973 and into 1974, car sales in NZ reached a record 100,000 units a year, and the local assembly plants could not meet demand; so the importers convinced the government to allocate additional import licences for fully assembled cars from overseas. Todd’s Avenger imports included a new top version, the GLS, which had more standard features than the Kiwi assembled Alpine, including cloth trim (added later to the Alpine), heated rear window and wood capped doors. The UK cars were imported initially with the 1.5-litre engine, with three-speed auto option but 1974 imports had the 1.6 and four-speed auto option. They also had fully colour-matched interiors in colours such as blue and purple (NZ cars had beige or brown vinyl with white headliner and black dashboard and door hardware) and most had metallic paint including blue and purple. The coloured dash crash padding in the UK cars quickly faded in the strong Kiwi sun.
To celebrate this achievement of Todds, NZ’s AA Motor World ran a large feature article in their December 1974 issue, which promoted the new factory and Todd Motors own products. To show an insight of a car on the Assembly facilities, a yellow Hillman Avenger Super was shown, throughout a series of glossy color photographs, being transformed from bare metal to a complete car.
Upon Todds moving their operations to Todd Park, the local Avenger range was expanded somewhat. As there was a public demand for smaller engines, due to the 1973 fuel crisis, the UK Avenger’s shorter stroke 1300cc motor was introduced as a lower priced option to the 1600. As well, NZ finally got the five door Avenger Estate for local production. Available here with both 1300cc and 1600cc motors in the ‘Super’ trim level, it soon proved a success. Local car magazines applauded it for its load carrying abilities for a smaller estate.
Interestingly, it was quite possibly the smallest five-door estate available in New Zealand up to that time. Almost all other estates / wagons of the Avenger’s size in NZ (Japanese or UK sourced) sold at the time were three-door. As well, apart from the much larger GM-Holden HQ wagon, it was one of the few estate/wagons available at that time in NZ with a coil sprung rear suspension. Most other wagons (and even saloons) in NZ CKD production used the archaic leaf-spring setups.
The Todd Park facility - Porirua, Wellington 1974More about this Todd Park factory now – It was well, expansive. It had to be, simply to cope with Todds approaches to car model diversification. As mentioned elsewhere, Avengers went down the production line with cars from other manufacturers as well as models from Chrysler itself.
A sampling of Todd's 1976 model range
From left to right - Hillman Hunter, Hillman Avenger, Mitsubishi Lancer, Chrysler Valiant 770 and Mitsubishi Galant Coupe
Because of this production line assortment, it would possibly be unsurprising if a few Avengers coming down the line had a few Datsun or Mitsubishi mechanical parts fitted to them by mistake! As it were, a few things did not make sense. Sometimes, there were twice as many warranty claims on Avengers than what there were for the Mitsubishi Galants, yet they were built on the same line by the same people!
Interestingly, there were direct competitors to the Avenger on the line, being that of Mitsubishi’s Lancer, and later, Mirage and Celeste Coupe. There was much in-house fighting between the Avenger and some of Todd’s own other products!
*Todd Motors had a special contract with Nissan to assemble the manual 180B at Todd Park, supplementing their normal production. The Todd built 180Bs were distinctive as they were painted in the same colours as Todd's own models. Many people, upon seeing the rows of Datsun 180B’s outside Todd Park in amongst the Chryslers, Hillmans and Mitsubishis initially had a suspicion that the 180Bs were there for destruction testing purposes by Todds! It did shock many to discover that the cars were actually being built there, and then being sold as a direct competitor to Chrysler's Hillman Hunter and Mitsubishi Galant!
This was partly as the competition to it was intensifying (many manufacturers were updating and releasing new models), and that the Avenger was being looked at by consumers as being an old model (after all, being in production for over five years previously with an unchanged appearance didn’t help!), who were beginning to look more towards Japanese vehicles, taking away the market share from the British in NZ. The 1975 release Ford Escort Mk2 certainly did not help either. Todds themselves may not have helped either by having some ‘in house’ competion in the form of the Mitsubishi Lancer! As well, with many up and coming releases in New Zealand of Mitsubishi products, there may even have been rumours that the Avenger would be dropped from New Zealand production. On the positive side however, it was easy for Todd’s to import the Avenger CKD packs. In the ships, they only took up 2.5 cubic metres of space!
The particular rally Avenger to be used however wasn’t any average Avenger, and its driver certainly wasn’t any average driver. The driver who entered was the widely renowned Scottish rally champion Andrew Cowan (The winner of both London-Sydney rallies - 1968 and 1977), and the Avenger bought over from the UK specially for the event certainly wasn’t the usual machine that the general public could buy from their town's local Todd Motors garage.
The infamous Andrew Cowan Avenger
This particular 1973 Chrysler/Hillman Avenger (UK Registered RHP552M) two door used had a number of abnormal non-dealer fitted options fitted.
And yes, it actually followed the rally organizers’ production car regulations – though just barely.
Consequentially, this explosive combination of Andrew Cowan and heavily modified Avenger did wonders for Todd’s, and the Hillman Avenger’s reputation in general. Within the 1976 Heatway race itself, held in the South Island of New Zealand during one of the coldest NZ winters on record, the Cowan Avenger literally blasted all the other competitors into the dust (read snow). It flew though the course, then won the race, without incident, or major battlescars (until the end in Dunedin when Andrew buckled the roof while standing on it for a celebratory photoshoot). Andrew Cowan quickly became a national hero, and the Hillman Avenger, as humble as it otherwise was, began to be noticed.
As the winning Andrew Cowan Avenger used a Brazilian made 1800cc motor, there was actually some talk by Todd’s of actually supplying it in NZ Avengers as an higher priced option to the 1600. Although it would have most certainly benefited the Avenger, it would have drastically hurt the Hillman Hunter’s sales (by this time, the Hunter had already spent nine years in NZ production, and New Zealanders had a fond appreciation of it.). Therefore, in order to keep the Hillman Hunter selling at its then current profitable rate, the Avenger 1800 sadly did not enter NZ production.
Helping the sales boom was heavy media advertising of the car by Chrysler-Todd’s, often in most popular newspapers and magazines. Within a few were Andrew Cowan himself, and his Avenger, giving his personal recommendations to the car.
However, it was not only Todd’s advertising the Avenger. Shell Oils used the mentioned-elsewhere Cowan Avenger in their advertisements promoting the reliability and durability of the car, and the fuel (of course). Also, for promotion of AA travel ‘fly-drive’ holidays (domestic flights and rental cars), a Hillman Avenger was used in the background of the advertisements.
And yes, as Cowan’s Avenger had won the 1976 Rally of New Zealand, Avis fulfilled their Avenger purchase offer to Todd’s. From the end of 1976, up until the end of New Zealand Avenger production, many Avengers were purchased by them, usually of the budget Avenger Super 1300cc Saloon variety. Resultantly, many overseas tourists, holidaymakers and businessmen, visiting New Zealand during the late 1970s and early 1980s saw it by usage of a rental Avenger. Many a national business conference also would have had numerous rental Avengers parked outside, borrowed by businessmen wanting something cheap and economical simply to take them there to and from the airport.
The Chrysler Avenger GLS (Todd's publicity shot, 1977)
With this change in looks and marque came a reconfiguration in models. The Avenger range for 1977 was much slimmer, comprising of: Avenger 1.3 GL, Avenger 1.6 LS (estate), Avenger 1.6 GLS and the Avenger 1.6 GLS Auto.
As one can see, there was a vast change in model names. Most noticeable was the GLS, replacing the Alpine. Dropping the Alpine tag was just as well, especially as Todds were about to release the unrelated Chrysler Alpine 1442cc hatchback in NZ. Unlike the previous 4 headlight Alpine, the GLS used the same frontal treatment as the other Chrysler Avengers.
Unfortunately, possibly for reasons of CKD simplicity, alloy wheels, optional sunroofs and extra driving/fog lights were not fitted at the factory, as they were on their now Scottish built equivalents. Many NZ owners still fitted them as add-ons. There were no sporting models, although new Avenger owners soon took care of that by modifying their own cars, often by ticking Todd’s option lists in full, modifying the motor themselves to get more from it, and fitting mag wheels. Mag wheel availability was helped by Chrysler (Rootes previously) using the same 4-stud wheel pattern as Ford.
With the Avenger’s wheels (standard tyres for all 155/70 R13), there was oddity regarding them and the car’s specification. Like many cars of that time, the Avenger used styled steel wheels designed to look acceptable without hubcaps (Most manufacturers, especially Ford, in NZ were doing without them on their cars). With the Avenger, the lower specification models used steel disc hubcaps to cover most of the wheel. On the GLS however, no hubcaps were used at all! Fortunately, mag wheels were options, although those hubcaps, for how Plain-Jane they were, did suit the cars.
All of the Avenger’s changes were welcomed by the local motoring magazines of the time. AA NZ Motor World especially thought so, by saying that the restyling executed was clever, and gave a smooth new look to the car (which by then was seven years old anyway). The Alpine-like dashboard was especially commended, although not for its ‘Europeanization’, which included the left-hand horn and indicator stalk, or the passenger side bonnet release – on a right hand drive car!
With the change of name to Chrysler, and even well before in fact, there seemed to be more purchases from people with a tradition of previously buying large gas-guzzling Chrysler Mopar products (e.g. Dodge, Australian Valiant Rangers) who wanted something smaller, more economical, although still Chrysler related.
Even with this change of styling and identity, the Chrysler Avenger continued the sales boom brought on in part by the previous Hillman Avenger’s rally win. So much so that for the years of 1978 and 1979, it featured consistently in the top 10 of local overall car sales. Although the Avenger was a long time already in production, it was regarded as a proven design. It was simple, and due to its conventional longitudinal inline 4 cylinder and rear drive running gear, the mechanics could actually fix them. Although sometimes, some needed fixing more times than what the owner would have actually preferred… People were buying them on reasons of economy and practicality (especially with the estate versions), although more often than not, it was as it had both ‘British Character’, and an American name-badge.
To diversify the Avenger’s market further, and create more sales for Todd’s in the fleet and LCV market, a ‘van’ version of the Avenger was introduced, announced in January 1978. Although not a proper van (unlike the Ford Escort Mk2 or Morris Marina panel-vans, which actually were proper van bodies), by using the existing five door estate body, it was still aimed at the commercial sector of the market. Simplified to the extreme and equipped with the standard 1600cc motor and four speed manual gearbox, it had a wooden floor to replace the standard floor and the back seats, and rear door windows that were fixed, without winders.
This version also gave Todd dealers and aftermarket upholsterers an additional sales opportunity. At the time, government regulations deemed passenger cars could only be bought with a 60% deposit with the balance to be repaid within a year - beyond the means of many potential buyers. But 'commercials could be had for 25% down and paid off over three years. The Avenger 'van' - and many rivals like it - had, by law, to leave the showroom with just two front seats and a fixed load platform but it was a simple job for any aftermarket upholsterer to supply and fit a rear seat trimmed to match the factory-fit upholstery and such aftermarket mods were perfectly legal.
As it was the only two-seater Avenger ever in production, it could have had some major sales potential, had it not been sold simply as only a low profile commercial model by Todd’s. Although it sold, it most certainly was not as popular as what the proper vans (e.g. Ford Escort van), were.
Soon after the ‘van’s’ introduction, a few running changes were made in Avenger production, the most notable being fitment of electronic ignition (allowing the Avenger to start mostly without protest), and plasticised sill protectors.
It was also in 1979 that Chrysler in Europe was renamed as Talbot. Although European Avengers were Talbot-badged, the New Zealand Avenger stayed as a Chrysler for the meantime, most likely as the Australian Valiants were still being produced by Todd’s.
As sales of small sub-1600 cars were at an all-time high in 1979 (due to that fuel crisis) the NZ Consumer magazine decided to thoroughly test five of the most popular small saloon cars available on the New Zealand market. Within it were the Chrysler Avenger 1.3 Ford Escort 1.3, Vauxhall Chevette 1.3, Austin Allegro 1.3 and the Toyota Corolla KE30 1.2. Although the Avenger was almost the oldest design of, it seemed to come through the demanding consumer tests satisfactorily, although the more common and reliable Toyota Corolla was recommended.
1979 Chrysler Avenger Estate - An old soldier, though good for carrying a bundle.
Although the car was becoming outdated in many ways at the time, (especially as newer designed, front-wheel-drive, CKD Japanese cars began to flood into New Zealand, and squeeze British cars out of NZ), it still sold in reasonable enough numbers for Todds to feasibly build it.
Interestingly, it was at this time too that the Avenger’s then main competitors, Ford’s Escort Mk2, Austin’s Allegro Mk3 and Vauxhall’s Chevette were also replaced with more reliable although ‘characterless’ Japanese equivalents in New Zealand. By then NZ was looking to Japan for its cars rather than the UK, and as the Japanese cars were often more modern, reliable and easier to build, there was no looking back. This New Zealand / Japan car dependence still stands to this very day - and will continue – for many years to come.
With the passing of Avenger, was the full severing of Chrysler-Rootes to New Zealand. It was not the final Chrysler Europe product sold here however. The Talbot Alpine (later renamed Talbot SX) survived until 1984, when it looked the odd duckling in Todd’s Mitsubishi dealerships, being the only European amongst a large range of Japanese cars and similtanously gaining the reputation of being the most maligned car ever sold here.
A Chrysler Avenger 1.6 GLS, shown in typical heavy local traffic conditions!Always the working-horse (and it still is), the Avenger has brought years of enjoyment and agony to its owners who have either bought or been given them. A few are seen on the rally/race (read classic rallying and race) circuits, while most of the others are still daily-drivers, used by people from students to older folk and enthusiasts.
A word for British car enthusiasts from outside New Zealand. To anyone who wants to buy a perfectly good Avenger (or many other older cars, such as British Leyland, British Fords, other Chrysler-Rootes products, and pre 1980 Vauxhalls), just hop on a plane and come to New Zealand. As New Zealanders (and Australians too) generally keep their cars on the road much longer than most Europeans and North Americans (especially as salt here is almost never used on roads in winter), there are many fine examples of pre-1980 cars still roaming New Zealand’s roads. Actually, there is said to be in general two cars to every head of population! Generally, the prices are cheap (often under $1000 NZD/approx $500 US/300 pounds – for good examples), and hopefully the exportation out will not be much of a problem.
Rootes Group cars including Singer, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, SIMCA, Chrysler Europe, and more!