Culture Clash - 1975 Chrysler Centura
In 1968 GM Holden elected to consolidate the number of brands it offered. Vauxhall, Chevrolet and Pontiac were dropped, leaving only Holden. In 1968, the sales-proof Chevys and Pontiacs were replaced by V8 versions of the new HK Holden and the Vauxhall Viva was re-branded as the Holden Torana
This Vauxhall-based Torana was a placeholder model that only lasted two and a half years. The second generation LC arrived in late 1969 and was a uniquely Australian product. In a class first, the carryover 1.2 litre Vauxhall four-cylinder was joined by 2.25 and 2.6 litre Holden Red motor six cylinders. As well as the engine swap, the six-cylinder Torana had a longer wheelbase and front overhang. The six-cylinder Torana was a sales success for Holden. It pioneered the mid-sized six cylinder, filling a gap that had emerged between growing large six cylinders and mid-sized fours.
Ford was the first to come up with a rival to the Torana. In 1971, it shoved the Falcon’s 3.3 and 4.1 litre inline six engines under the bonnet of the new TC Cortina. The economic rationale for the six was simple. A six-cylinder could attract a higher price than a four, because its a bigger engine, but the Australian-made six-cylinder engine was cheaper than the four-cylinder imported from the UK. Unlike the Torana, the Cortina was never meant to have such a large engine. The extra weight in the nose made the Cortina understeer prone, and it was known a lead-tipped arrow. The 1974 Leyland Marina followed exactly the same formula. Take an Australian assembled version of a badly built British medium sedan and drop in the six-cylinder engine from a P76.
Back in 1958, Chrysler bought Ford’s share in French manufacturer Simca. By 1963 they had a controlling share of 64 percent by buying part of Fiat’s shareholding. A year later, Chrysler added the UK-based Rootes Group to its European holdings. Nearly a decade later, this is where Chrysler Australia would go for its mid-sized offering.
Learning from the mistakes Ford made with Cortina in a way that Leyland failed to with the Marina, Chrysler sent Australian engineers to Europe to get involved earlier on in the development process. What started out as a Hillman Hunter replacement aimed at the Ford Cortina grew to the size of an Opel Commodore. The Rootes Group was intending to develop a new V6 engine for this car. Chrysler, meanwhile, would use its own existing Hemi Six and new Hemi Four.
This was great for Chrysler Australia. They were already producing the Valiant Galant, which roughly lined up against the four-cylinder Torana. What they lacked was an intermediate six. A new niche between the Torana/Cortina/Marina and larger Falcon/Kingswood/Valiant/P76 was emerging. The Centura’s 100mm longer wheelbase made it the same size as the new Datsun 240K and Toyota Cressida. Ford and Holden didn’t have an answer for these two. With Colt, Valiant Galant, Centura, Valiant and Chrysler by Chrysler, Chrysler would have a model range unmatched in Australia.
Then Chrysler's US parent started meddling. At the same time as the Rootes Group was working on its new flagship sedan, Simca had just about finished its own mid-sizer with 1.4 to 1.8-litre engines that complied with French tax laws favouring sub-2.0L engines. Chrysler saw these two projects as duplicates and scrapped the Simca. Simca was forced to adopt the Hillman instead. Simca set about watering down the styling to appeal more to French tastes, and the V6 engine was dropped.
Initially, Chrysler engineers intended to shorten the Centura’s drivetrain to place the Hemi as far back in the engine bay as possible so that the front of the engine would sit no further forward than the four-cylinder. The original, more aggressive, British front end was also to be adopted for the Centura However, American management intervened again and scrapped this plan. The six was simply dropped in with the gearbox in the same position as the four. With the engine hanging out the front, the front end had to be stretched out to accommodate it, giving the Centura proportions to match its weight distribution. As well as the engine, the Centura six picked up the Valiant’s front suspension, rear axle, wheels and brakes to cope with the extra weight and power.
To compensate for the nose-heavy weight distribution, Chrysler engineers placed a variable hydraulic pressure limiting valve in the rear braking circuit. It sensed when the car was beginning to nosedive under brakes, and reduced pressure to the rear brakes to prevent them from locking. Despite this, the engine placement had a disastrous effect on handling. Unlike the bodge job Ford Cortina six and Leyland Marina, the Chrysler Centura could have actually worked. Unfortunately, thanks to repeated US-led cost cutting, we ended up with another understeering pig. Evan Green described it as having “all the purpose and gracefulness of a bull in a trotting gig”.
Getting the Centura into production was another challenge. Complete knocked down kits were imported from France in 1973 for assembly in Adelaide. However, various Australian trade unions had placed a ban on their members handling them in protest to French nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean. The kits lay dormant nuclear testing had ceased.
Chrysler eventually managed to start producing Centuras in 1975, and build quality was typically French. When the New South Wales National Roads and Motorists Association secretly bought a Centura from a Sydney dealership for evaluation and found a number of faults. Such faults included a cigarette lighter that didn’t fit in its socket, windscreen wipers that didn’t work, seatbelts that wouldn’t retract, and front indicators that came on when the brakes were applied.
Six cylinder versions of the Centura outsold the four cylinder four to one. On one hand, this was a good thing. The six with all its Valiant parts was cheaper to build, but they could charge more for it. However, rather than drawing in new customers, the Centura Hemi was cannibalising sales from the larger and more profitable Valiant.
The Centura only lasted three years, disappearing when Chrysler Europe went bankrupt and was sold to Peugeot. By this point, Chrysler Australia had already been sold to Mitsubishi. The four cylinder version had already been replaced in 1977 by the Mitsubishi Galant-based Chrysler Sigma. Chrysler Australia had initially hoped that the Centura would be popular enough to justify a locally developed replacement. With sales well short of expectations, there was no chance of this happening.
The 1978 arrival of the Holden Commodore showed that Chrysler had the right idea. The Commodore was the same size as the Centura, and like the Centura, combined a European car with Australian engines. In 1979, it was the most popular car in Australia. If the Commodore is anything to go by, the Centura was a missed opportunity for Chrysler.