Chrysler Australia

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Chrysler Valiant VK "Charger"
Chrysler Valiant VK "Charger"

Until recently, the Chrysler name had not been used commercially in Australia since 1981. But for more than 50 years Australians had been buying Chrysler's for almost every purpose a vehicle could used for, from towing the family boat to racing around circuits and charging across the country.

Chrysler Australia was a subsidiary of the U.S. Chrysler corporation, a giant multinational concern started by the remarkable Walter P. Chrysler.

Walter P. Chrysler, a former railway worker, made his reputation working for Buick, then took over the Maxwell Motor Company which was heavily in debt. Soon afterwards he bought the Chalmers company and, in 1924, launched a completely new car called Chrysler.

This six cylinder model had a number of engineering refinements including four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Chrysler cars came to Australia during the 1920's and, in 1935, 18 independent agents formed Chrysler-Dodge-De Soto Distributors (Australia) Pty Ltd.

The distributors used their combined strength to purchase and market Plymouth, Dodge and De Soto vehicles. The company acquired a controlling interest in T.J. Richards & Sons, a highly successful Adelaide based body building company which had been the main competitor for Holden's body builders since 1922. For several years T.J. Richards had designed and fitted bodies to locally made Chrysler vehicles. For the 1937-38 selling season, T.J.Richards beat Holden's to the punch by producing Australia's first all steel sedan body.

For several years T.J.Richards had designed and fitted bodies to locally made Chrysler vehicles. For the 1937-38 selling season, T.J.Richards beat Holden's to the punch by producing Australia's first all steel sedan body. During World War 2 Chrysler-Dodge-De Soto Distributors manufactured munitions and aircraft components.

Most of the skilled workforce remained when the firm returned to motor vehicle production in 1945. The company was entirely owned by Australians until June 1951 when Chrysler Corporation bought a controlling interest and Changed the name to Chrysler Australia Ltd. A vigorous expansion plan followed, and inspired by the success of Holden, Chrysler Australia aimed at producing a range of cars and light commercial vehicles with 90 percent local content.

While this plan was being implemented, the company continued assembling and partly manufacturing a range of six cylinder and eight cylinder Royal and Dodge Phoenix vehicles, based on U.S. designs. Toward the end of 1958 Chrysler Corporation acquired a 30 percent interest in Simca Automobiles of France, thus enabling Chrysler Australia to import and assemble a range of Simca cars.

Chrysler Australia is best known, however, for the Valiant, which was introduced in January 1962. The Valiant was a sensation - and it arrived at just the right time. In the early 1960's Chrysler's operation had been looking shaky with its range of big American cars continually losing ground to the all conquering Holden(GM). Simca sales had tapered off, and with the release of the Ford Falcon, Chrysler's problems became worse.

The response came in early 1961 when company officials devised a plan to assemble a US-designed compact six-cylinder car in Australia. To get the new model released as soon as possible, the firm imported just over 1000 US-built R Series Valiant sedans. These were assembled in the Mile End plant in Adelaide, and when they hit the showroom floors in early 1962 the response left no doubt that Australians were going to fall for the new brand in a big way.

By the time the R Series went on sale (it sold out within days) Chrysler had imported a large number of S Series sedans and local assembly had already begun. Chrysler assembled 10,000 Valiants in 1962, lifting its registration figures for the year by 146 percent, but the company still could not meet the demand. This spectacular introduction was the start of a twenty year story which saw Valiant's fortunes snowball for a while and then slide in dramatic fashion.

The 1962 Valiant was slightly dearer than the equivalent Holden or Falcon models, but it was bigger and far more powerful. It immediately won a reputation for being a superior performer and its popularity led Chrysler into a $36 million expansion plan to build over 50,000 units a year. with local content increasing progressively. Construction of the Tonsley Park manufacturing plant began in 1963, and by May of that year, the 'Australian Valiant' sedan was introduced.

With high local content and a design adapted for local conditions, this 'AP5' Valiant strengthened the brand's position. The Australian Valiant AP5 station wagon followed in November 1963. In March 1964 the first Valiant was completed at the new plant, and in April it was announced that the $36 million expansion program had been doubled to $72 million.

In 1965 Chrysler took over Rootes Australia and acquired that company's Melbourne, Australia, manufacturing and assembling facilities. In 1967 Chrysler's Lonsdale engine plant opened and the company gained third place in the national sales chart, with 13.5 per cent of the new vehicle market. Local content kept rising in leaps and bounds. It went from 1962's minor assembly work on the R and S Series to 65 per cent in 1965 and an average of 95 per cent in 1967. By that year some models had as much as 97 per cent local content.

The mid to late 1960's were halcyon times for Chrysler Australia because the company could not satisfy demand despite regular increases in production. By this time was the eleventh largest company (of any kind) in Australia and the second largest exporter of cars. 1969 was Chrysler's best year with 42,654 Valiants sold.

Net profit was a record $7,225,931 and total Chrysler Australia Ltd sales stood at 66,948 units. Most people in 1969 thought that Chrysler's great automotive success would continue into the 1970's, but it was not to be. A series of misfortunes, fuel crises, quality control problems, unpopular models and blunders saw the Valiant lose sales during the early 1970's.

The marque then slipped further and further down the list of best sellers, despite such trump cards as the mighty Charger sports coupe. Many problems were sorted out and the company became the local pioneer of such features as electronic ignition and computer aided fuel management. It also produced the fastest accelerating Australian production car ever made, the awesome E-49 Charger.

But the fightback came too late as public confidence was down, and with reduced sales combined with an ailing US parent company, the funds needed to retool for new models were no longer available. In retrospect it seems one major mistake was that Valiant prices were held back in the late 1960's to meet Holden and Ford head-on.

When this happened, people seemed to stop considering the car 'a cut above' its opposition. By 1977 Valiant was still producing a variation of its six year old VH model. Sales that year slumped to 17,500 units. Nevertheless, the company was making good progress in the smaller-car field.

The US parent company had bought into the vehicle division of the Japanese Mitsubishi company and in 1971 Chrysler Australia arranged to assemble Mitsubishi's Galant. The Galant wore a Valiant badge and succeeded brilliantly in Australia, giving Chrysler the share of the small-car market it had failed to win with the Simca and Hillman.

Chrysler expanded once again, this time to manufacture the Sigma, a local version of Mitsubishi's Japanese Galant model. The factory continued producing Valiants in ever diminishing numbers but with higher standards of equipment and finish. Small car sales went from strength to strength and in 1978 Sigma became the top selling four-cylinder vehicle on the market. Despite this success, Chrysler Australia Ltd ran into severe financial problems.

In the US the Chrysler Corporation had run into even harder times and was on the brink of being closed. Former Ford president Lee Iacocca took charge of the US Chrysler Corporation during the late 1970's and set in motion some drastic measures to keep the company afloat.

These included selling off almost all of Chrysler's overseas interests, including the Australian operation. Ninety-nine percent of the equity of Chrysler Australia Ltd was acquired by Mitsubishi, and in October 1980 the name was changed to Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd. The last Valiant was produced in August 1981.

By that time 13 model series had been released with a total of 565,338 units built. During 1962 the original R Series had been replaced by the S Series. This was followed by the AP5 (1963), AP6 (1965), VC (1966), VE (1967), VF (1969), VG (1970), VH (1971), VJ (1973), VK (1975), CL (1976), and finally the CM (1978). Of these the VJ was the biggest seller, with 90,865 units built. The least successful model was the final design, the CM, selling only 16,005 units in three years.

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