The Failed Plymouth Born Again as a Volkswagen – in Argentina
By Andy Bannister
The Cricket was Chrysler Corporation’s rather unusual small car contender at a time when the Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega and AMC Gremlin were all vying for buyers in a new and booming segment of the US market.
Unlike that trio it was a much smaller import, designed and built by Chrysler’s recently-acquired subsidiary in England.
Made in Coventry in the British Midlands, the Cricket moniker was unique to North America. Given the English connection it surprisingly wasn’t titled after the game of cricket, but instead took its name from the somewhat noisy family of insects.
Back home in UK, the car was called the Hillman Avenger, and it was exported to Europe under the Sunbeam badge, one of the many owned by the Rootes Group. It was that long-standing but ailing family-owned company which Chrysler, in its brave era of global expansionism, took over to create a ready-made European division (around the time it also acquired Simca of France).
Chrysler in the US had previously sold small quantities of Sunbeam-badged Rootes products like the Arrow and Alpine, but this was the first – and last – time it applied one of its own badges to a British car sold in its North American home market.
The Cricket was a 1500cc four door saloon, later also offered as a usefully roomy five-door station wagon. It differed significantly in concept from its home-grown competitors as well as other rivals like the VW Beetle.
For some reason, the two-door version of the car was never imported, despite the popularity of such cars in the US, and the Cricket itself only lasted from 1970 to 1973, being withdrawn – after around 40,000 sales – just at the moment fuel prices began to soar after war broke out in the Middle East.
Despite being in many ways an attractive little car, the Cricket suffered from that classic British syndrome of being underdeveloped and consequently not nearly as reliable as it should have been.
This was especially noticeable as Plymouth’s sister Dodge division was importing the Colt – based on the Japanese Mitsubishi Galant – which turned out to be a great success and led Chrysler to become reliant on Mitsubishi for all its small car offerings for many years.
Whilst the Cricket quickly faded into obscurity, its alter-ego, the Avenger, carried on for years in Britain and sold well against Ford’s Escort, GM’s Vauxhall Viva, with many examples going to company fleets.
Its line-up even featured some quite nice sporty models including the hot Avenger Tiger, derived from a popular rally version of the car and covered in spoilers and matt black paint.
Chrysler UK, however, lurched from crisis to crisis and was only saved from going bust by British Government intervention. In 1976 the Hiillman badge was unceremoniously dumped and changed to Chrysler, as part of a facelift which featured big headlamps, a pentastar on the front grille, and dull new rectangular taillights to replace the car’s very distinctive curved originals.
Production was shifted to Scotland to make way at Coventry for the European version of the front-wheel-drive Plymouth Horizon hatchback.
By this time the design was nine years old but it still appealed to many traditionally-minded consumers and was selling steadily even in 1983 when Peugeot decided to pull the plug on its ill-fated Scottish factory as a prelude to ditching the disastrous Talbot marque altogether.
That was by no means the end of the story, however. Chrysler had also decided in early 1970s that the Avenger was the perfect car to grow sales in South America, and for some years it was made in two-door form in Brazil.
There it was sold until 1981 as the Dodge Polara, borrowing the name (but nothing else) from the lumbering US model of the time.
It was further south still, in Argentina, that the design made its last and strangest stand.
Just as Chrysler’s European operations had been sold off to Peugeot, in Argentina Volkswagen took over the company’s assets and inherited a car known as the Dodge 1500. This was another locally-made Avenger, this time offered in four-door and estate car models (called the Rural on the domestic market).
Far from phasing out this model and replacing it with one of its own designs, however, VW Argentina noted the car’s popularity, which ranged from middle-class city dwellers to the taxi driving fraternity, and decided to keep the orphan in production a little longer.
Ironically, the car which Americans had found too unreliable was by then seen as one of the most dependable cars on the Argentine market.
After continuing to use the Dodge badge for a while, Volkswagen finally decided to append its own name to the car, even though it had no VW design or mechanical input – an unusual step at the time for the German company, which carefully cultivated its image and engineering pedigree.
Argentina at the time was a closed market where a rag-bag of ancient designs were still cobbled together by offshoots of Fiat, Ford and Peugeot, so the new VW 1500 actually looked quite modern in such company. It continued to sell well right up until its demise in 1990.
Fast forward nearly 40 years from the launch of the Cricket and one noticeable fact is that Chrysler in the US – a much-reduced company from the multinational of those heady days of the early 1970s – once again badly needs a small car in its line-up, with no suitable home-grown product to fill the gap.
It seems unlikely that whatever they eventually come up with will have as colourful a life as the humble Cricket.
COPYRIGHT Autosavant.net – All Rights Reserved