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Goodbye to our last cheap V8: Chrysler Australia's biggest hits and misses over its nearly 60-year history

Chrysler has many cherished models in its back catalogue, with nearly a century's worth of classics like the Valiant and 300C.

Chrysler has exited Australia again, along with the 300 sedan that was the sole torch bearer for the 96-year-old brand as well as this country’s last affordable V8 muscle car.

Australia remained the last bastion of right-hand-drive Chryslers in the world, with only around 30 unsold 300C Luxury and 300 SRTs remaining in stock. Better get in quick.

So ends an era that first saw Chryslers (as well as sister brands Dodge, Plymouth and De Soto) assembled in Australia as far back as 1928, beginning with Adelaide-based coachbuilder TJ Richards and Sons, until that was purchased by the Chrysler Corporation in 1951 to form Chrysler Australia.

The new entity struggled against the mammoth popularity of the early Holdens, being lumbered with expensive, dated American designs featuring outmoded pre-war engineering.

It wasn’t until the suave US Valiant from 1962 that Australians started resonating with Chrysler, while a tie-up with Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) in 1971 introduced quality economy models like the locally-assembled Galant that buyers flocked to. By 1980, Chrysler’s ailing US arm sold its Australian business to MMC, creating Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited (MMAL) that still exists today.

The last Australian-made and sold Chrysler – the CM Valiant – rolled off the now-MMAL-owned Adelaide production line in 1981, but ­– buoyed by the success of Jeep XJ Cherokee in 1994 – the Chrysler badge made a comeback, starting with the underwhelming Neon small car in 1996, innovative Voyager people mover a year later and faddish retro-pastiche PT Cruiser in 2000.

Chrysler remained present in Australia for the next quarter of a century, enjoying its strongest showing by far with the return of the famous 300C nameplate in 2005, right up until the its discontinuation this month.

Even with that 15-year hiatus in the ‘80s to mid ‘90s, that’s 12 consecutive decades of Chrysler representation in Australia that’s coming to an end, nearly matching Ford and beating Holden, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Volkswagen and most other brands.

To commemorate Chrysler’s passing in Australia, here are the highs and lows of a very unique carmaker.

HITS

Valiant and Charger (1962-1981)

The VH Valiant was introduced in 1971. The VH Valiant was introduced in 1971.

After a decade of selling overgrown, over-priced and outdated American behemoths, Chrysler Australia was facing certain oblivion until it launched the Canadian-made but Adelaide-assembled Plymouth Valiant in January 1962.

More stylish and powerful than the similarly-sized Holden and Ford Falcon, it sold strongly enough to warrant popular localised versions from 1963, culminating in the big all-Australian VH Valiant in 1971. However, while Chrysler miscalculated by making it too large for our tastes, a short two-door coupe offshoot in the style of the Ford Mustang and known as the Charger was a highlight – for its first few years, anyway. The R/T E38 and E49 were amongst the fastest-accelerating Aussie cars of all time back in their day.

Hey Charger! Hey Charger!

Eventually, Australians gravitated towards smaller and more fuel-efficient models and the Valiant was left to largely wither, ending the year after Mitsubishi bought Chrysler Australia from its near-bankrupt US parent in 1980.

Today, the Valiant is regarded as a key player in the halcyon days of the Australian car industry.

Galant/Sigma (1971-1980)

The Sigma’s success paved the way for Mitsubishi’s take over. The Sigma’s success paved the way for Mitsubishi’s take over.

Now all but forgotten, it’s impossible to overestimate the impact of the Adelaide-assembled Galant and later Sigma, starting with the humble GA Galant range from 1971. Australians lapped up its pleasing design, Japanese reliability, sporty driveability and low running costs, giving Toyota, Nissan (as Datsun) and others a massive fright.

But it was the bar-raising third-generation of 1977 known here as the GE Sigma that bestowed Chrysler Australia its sweetest ever success, far exceeding sales expectations and garnering critical acclaim as our most popular four-cylinder car. It was truly a sensation, and a far cry from the failure that was the Centura from just two years ago.

Immediately rendering the ageing Valiant obsolete, and – by association – Chrysler Australia, the Sigma’s success paved the way for Mitsubishi’s take over. Post-Chrysler, the Adelaide engineers turned the Japanese 1983 Sigma replacement into the wide-bodied TM series (for Tonsley Park – the suburb that was the local headquarters) Magna of 1985, setting the template globally for medium-sized family cars, as replicated by the Toyota Camry to this very day.  

A bit of old-school Chrysler Australia inspiration and ingenuity changed the face of motoring worldwide forever.

300 (2005-2021)

The 300 will say goodbye to Aussie showrooms this year. The 300 will say goodbye to Aussie showrooms this year.

Perhaps the only lasting positive legacy of Chrysler’s doomed partnership with Daimler as DaimlerChrysler (1998-2007), the 300 continued a hallowed naming convention from the company’s mid-20th Century glory days, but also came to redefine the brand for the New Millennium.

Using Mercedes-Benz engineering knowhow, the 2005 300C struck a chord with Australian luxury car and performance sedan buyers alike, who responded to the bluff, American gangster-era styling, rear-drive proportions and muscle-car power in the SRT V8 grades. 

The 300C appeared on the scene in 2005. The 300C appeared on the scene in 2005.

Though space inefficient, the big Chrysler also helped bury the once-great Ford Fairlane, attracting a strong following at a time when large sedans were conspicuously out of favour with SUV-obsessed consumers.

The 2011 redesign (known simply as 300) didn’t quite hit the same heights as the 300C, but it did outlast both the Falcon and the Holden Commodore as our final affordable V8 sedan. A true end-of-an-era moment.

MISSES

Royal (1957-1963)

The Royal’s front and rear looked mismatched to the outdated centre section. The Royal’s front and rear looked mismatched to the outdated centre section.

Even in the post-Chrysler Mitsubishi years with the 1985 Magna, the Adelaide engineers will always be famous for making a silk purse from a sow’s ear – a skill started with the 1957 Chrysler Royal.

Based on a drab 1953 Plymouth P25 Cranbrook and Cambridge models that are now long lost to history, the AP1 (for Australian Production 1) Royal was an all-Aussie facelift with a strange new nose and equally oddball tail grafted on, as well as the unique wagon and ute offshoots the rest of the Chrysler world also never saw.

The problem was that the Royal’s front and rear looked mismatched to the outdated centre section, the ancient engines were way off the pace and pricing was too high to lure Holden buyers away, meaning sales tanked.

Improvements in time came too late, Chrysler Australia was in deep financial trouble and only the stroke of luck that was the smaller Plymouth Valiant, brought in from Canada as a last-ditch replacement, saved the brand in this country. A Royal mess in more ways than one.

VIP and Chrysler by Chrysler (1969-1971 and 1971-1976)

Chrysler by Chrysler was the brand's answer to the Ford Fairlane and Holden Statesmen. Chrysler by Chrysler was the brand's answer to the Ford Fairlane and Holden Statesmen.

Two daft names were applied to stretched versions of the humble Valiant family sedan over seven years and two generations, in a futile effort to reel in the runaway success of the Ford Fairlane luxury car.

Incredibly, Chrysler made the same mistake twice in the VIP and its Chrysler by Chrysler successor in that it did not sufficiently differentiating them visually from their Valiant Regal donor models, meaning that only a keen eye could spot the extended wheelbase and extra (garish) trim. There were pitifully few takers as a consequence.

In contrast, the earliest Fairlanes cleverly concealed their Falcon origins very craftily, which Australians rewarded Ford by making it the number one local luxury car for three decades on the trot. The nameplate lived on for 40 years, compared to just seven for the Adelaide experiment.

It’s a shame, really, because Chrysler did go to a fair amount of trouble and expense reengineering the VIP and CxC in the areas you couldn’t really see. Nowadays, they’re ultra-rare, and ultra-expensive too as a result.

Chrysler Sebring (2007-2011)

The Sebring was far from a success. The Sebring was far from a success.

The 2000s provided some challenging products from Chrysler, with names like PT Cruiser and Crossfire set to test the recall in even those with the most robust memories. Yet one model failed more spectacularly than any other.

Perhaps it was encouraged by the ongoing support for the evocative 300C in this country, but in the dying days of DaimlerChrysler calamity, Chrysler Australia decided that the Sebring might make lightning strike twice and possibly revive the fast-receding medium-sedan segment.

That certainly happened 30 years earlier when the Mitsubishi-designed GE Sigma saved the brand from obscurity, but in 2007 the Sebring barely made a ripple with consumers. And little wonder too, given the sedan’s awkward styling, awful interior plastics and raucous powertrain, though – to be fair – it was well specified and keenly priced.

There was also a world-first choice of either an aesthetically challenging folding hardtop or soft-top convertible options, but – again – the issues inflicting the hapless sedan were only exacerbated in the heavy and even ungainlier open version.

In the research for Sebring information, we were shocked to learn that the model ran over four years in Australia, though only the latter body style was offered for the final year. Not Chrysler’s finest moment.