Hillman Avenger

No fewer than eight carmakers slapped their badges on this Cortina-alike. That's why anoraks love it, says Sean O'Grady
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Chrysler's Dodge division is trying to revive the Avenger name for its latest compact saloon. They are presumably hoping that memories of the much-maligned Hillman Avenger, one of the archetypal cars of British motoring in the 1970s, have faded sufficiently for their funky new car not to become associated with poor build quality, rust and some naff, naff seat fabrics.

Wrong. This car nut, for one, has vivid and actually fairly fond memories of the Avenger, flawed as it was. The original was launched in 1970, and was clearly yet another carmaker's attempted answer to the successes of the Ford Escort and Cortina; conventional engineering clothed in highly styled bodywork.

The Avenger was the product of what had by then become Chrysler UK, the American giant – then still very much in its pomp – having bought out the very British Rootes Group a few years previously.

Presumably, Chrysler kept the Avenger nameplate among a few other assets when it sold the whole of its European operations to Peugeot in 1978. So what was so great about the Avenger?

First, that name. Wonderfully evocative; you almost thought that, yes, here was a car that might one day avenge years of humiliation at the hands of foreign manufacturers. It also reminded buyers of the popular TV series of the time, starring Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg, and still a cult classic. An exciting name can help a mediocre car to sell, just as a bad car's shortcomings can be disguised under a fine name. At any rate, it made my adolescent heart beat just a little faster.

Second – and equally cosmetic, I confess – were the Avenger's L-shaped rear lights, which resembled a couple of sausages curling around the bootlid opening. Few cars, then or since, have been quite so audacious in their design, and the lights were a definite trademark; what is nowadays called a "far away design signature" by marketing types, so that even at night on a motorway you could tell that the car in front was an Avenger.

About half way through the car's production run they deleted those lights and gave the Avenger a much more ordinary look form the back. It was never quite the same again.

Third, there was the "Coke bottle" styling. The Life on Mars Mark III Cortina has made this cool again, but to my eyes the Avenger's take on this late 1960s/early 1970s vogue was more delicate and graceful. Oddly enough, the new Dodge Avenger and one or two other (mainly American) designs have started to revive those kicked-up waist styling cues, so that the new Dodge Avenger looks a bit like the original Hillman Avenger. (The New Avengers was also a TV show, but we won't go there just now.)

Last, but not least, the Avenger has the great advantage for classic-car enthusiast of being an extremely anoraky sort of car. This is because the changing fortunes of its parent companies and the diverse markets it was sold and manufactured in blessed the car with many different identities. Originally, you see, it was a Hillman because that great old badge still had some value. Then, in the mid-1970s, the Chrysler parent, impatient with its loss-making adopted British child, abolished the Hillman brand, so our car became the Chrysler Avenger. Then, when Peugeot took over, it looked into the Rootes back catalogue and we got the Talbot Avenger. When Chrysler had the bright idea of selling this economical sub-compact in the US after the 1973 oil crisis, the company christened it the Plymouth Cricket. And it also decided that its South American operations could assemble the car too, so all over Argentina you'd see these Dodge 1500s and, because Volkswagen took over Chrysler's South American factories, you could also see Avengers wearing a VW badge on the grille. In Europe, the car was sold as a Sunbeam, and in Brazil it was called Polara. Fascinating, no?

The last Avenger rolled off the production lines at Linwood in Scotland in 1981, and when the car went, that factory went with it. They carried on making odder and odder versions of it in South America for another decade. About 600,000 were made in Britain, with another 200,000 overseas.

Not that many survive, but those that have resisted corrosion (the usual cause of death) are picking up in value. A mere £1,200 will find you a very good example, while the "performance" Avenger Tigers go for much more – £5,000 or so for a prime one, which seems a lot.

I'd like a 1972 model in a nice aquamarine, thanks. A very cheap way to become a very stylish Avenger.

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