Thursday March 23, 2017
To many people of my vintage age (i.e. born the year of the Mini Clubman) those pictures of Howard Hargate’s Avenger Super in the Lancaster Insurance Pride of Ownership at the Practical Classics Restoration Show in March 2017, will prompt countless memories. The Hillman Avenger is an uber-1970s car, one forever to be associated with Spangles, Wimpy bars, packets of Vesta Chow Mein and, in my case, Sussex Constabulary patrol cars. My grandparents lived near Brighton, and on every trip along the A27, we always seemed to spot an Avenger poised to catch any speeding Dolomite Sprint owner.
The Hillman Avenger was not just a highly agreeable form of transport; it was also the last car to be designed by the Rootes Group. Its purpose was to bridge the gap between the Imp and the Arrow range and provide a rival for the Vauxhall Viva HB and the Ford Escort. Cost and practicality dictated that the Avenger was to be a conventional RWD saloon, with a choice of either 1,250cc or 1500cc engines all encased in the then fashionable coke bottle styling.
The car described by Rootes as a ‘price fighter’ was launched in early 1970, starting with the De Luxe (£766 10d and not a lot as standard) and progressing to the Super (£811 4s 9d and front door pockets). For the senior sales representative and anyone who delighted in owning a colour television set and a wardrobe of Engelbert Humperdinck style suits, only the Avenger GL – for ‘Grand Luxe’ – would suffice. The price was a fairly steep £903 2s 2d, but then the GL decadence of reclining front seats, quad headlamps, nylon upholstery and two-speed wipers was never going to be cheap. Incidentally, as a mark of how distant the early 1970s now seem, side indicator repeaters were a £2 12s 3d extra across the range!
Autocar found the 1250 Super to be ‘a good sensible family car with a lot to be said in its favour’ and the Avenger did find favour as practical everyday transport. For the press-on driver, there was the Avenger GT – as distinguished by its all-important go-faster stripes - and March 1972 saw the launch of the Tiger. With its four (!) auxiliary lamps, alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, Sundance Yellow paint finish and a 107bhp 1.5-litre engine with twin Weber carburettors here was a car to put even the Escort Mexico in the shade. Seven months later it was superseded by the Tiger II, which came with a choice of two colours, and few motorists could have resisted a Wardance Red Avenger decorated with a matt black bonnet all for just £1,350.
The Tiger was never going to be a common sight on British roads – I can remember seeing only one during the 1970s – and it was more likely that you might encounter a Special Edition version. The Sunseeker and the Top Hat were both clearly based around the idea that what motorists really wanted was an Avenger Automatic decorated with groovy vinyl roofs and proudly exuberant paint schemes. They also provided an incentive for any owner to progress up the corporate ladder, as by 1972 the entry level model was devoid of air vents, a rear ashtray, a second sun visor and any form of adjustment for the front passenger seat.
Chrysler had owned a majority share in Rootes since 1967, and by 1976 the Avenger carried the Pentastar badge. Three years later, the Peugeot takeover of Chrysler’s European operations resulted in Avengers being sold as Talbots until the end of UK production in 1981, but this was not quite the end of the story. From 1971 onwards the Avengers was manufactured in Argentina as the Dodge 1500/1800, and after Chrysler sold its operations to VW-Audi in 1980, the range was re-badged as the ‘Volkswagen Dodge’. Later versions were known as the VW 1500 and production continued until as recently as 1991.
Back in the UK, the Avenger deserves to be respected as a prime example of the right car for its intended market launched at exactly the right time. And, for countless Britons they were part of the fabric of everyday life, whether you were taken to school in a GL or gonged by a Super on the A23 – ‘I was travelling at a mere 30 officer!’.