Australian Performance: Chrysler Valiant Charger

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Once again, Australia was the recipient of its own unique muscle car, this time from Chrysler.

Despite the "Charger" in the name of the Chrysler Valiant Charger, this is not a simple rebadging, and the car has no relation to the American Dodge Charger. No, the Australian Mopar muscle car is actually a distant relative of the Plymouth Barracuda, but not in the sense that they actually shared a platform or any design elements. Rather, the Charger and the Barracuda show what happens when two cars with a common ancestor evolve apart in different markets.

Many Australian cars are surprisingly similar to American cars, and this one is not without some similarity, but you'd have to admit, it's a bit different from the 'Cuda. The story of both cars begins back in 1959, with the introduction of the Plymouth Valiant. It was a year when the American automotive industry was beginning to move away from the bigger cars which had characterized the decade, and compacts were starting to sell surprisingly well. The Valiant was small, fairly cheap and was introduced at just the right time to take advantage of the trend.

It sold well in America, and Chrysler decided to try it out in Australia as well, but this presented a problem. The slant-six engine had it difficult to simply convert the car to right hand drive, so it was decided that a tweaked version of the design with the steering wheel on the right would be built wholly in Australia. This began in 1962, but by '63 Chrysler Australia had already designed a version based on the original and incorporating many of its design cues, but better suited to the local market. This new design would debut in 1964, and this was the same year that Plymouth would decide to sell a performance version of the Valiant, known as the Barracuda.

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For 1965, Chrysler Australia recognized the performance potential of the platform and offered a V8-powered Valiant. This was fine for a couple of years, but when the Mustang-powered GT debuted in 1967 and the Holden Monaro in 1968, the V8 Valiant just didn't seem as special anymore. So in 1971, Chrysler developed a fastback coupe version of the Valiant, which would actually bear a stronger resemblance to the original Barracuda than the larger contemporary model. The Charger would even keep the Valiant as part of its name for its entire production run, while the Barracuda had dropped it after its first year.

Considering the fact that you could walk into an American Plymouth dealership and buy a 'Cuda with a 426 HEMI in it in 1971, the Valiant Charger is somewhat mild by comparison. It was offered only with a choice of six-cylinder engines in its first year, and when V8 option was offered, it wasn't exactly the monster that the 426 was. That said, the car was much smaller and lighter than its American counterpart, more in the style of pre-1967 American pony cars. Moreover, these were pretty powerful six-cylinder engines for the time. In the most powerful R/T trim, the Charger made 280 horsepower, which got bumped up to 302 in 1972.

The Charger might have evolved into a more serious performance machine, but even before the blight of the energy crisis, Australian muscle cars were dealt a serious blow. A 1972 article published in the Sydney Sun-Herald under the title "160mph Super Cars Soon" called attention to homologation cars being developed by the Big Three for competition at Bathurst, and noting that these would be the fastest Australian cars on the road. Of course, any Australian with the money could have bought a 174mph Ferrari 365 GTB4 that same year, but the idea of that kind of speed also being cheap led to massive public outcry.

This in turn led to big talk from politicians on subjects like banning all vehicles able to travel at over 130mph, in what would become known as the "supercar scare". The Charger R/T was attacked by politicians, as were the plans for a V8-powered competition version of the car. Chrysler would build the V8 Charger anyway, but they had withdrawn from the Bathurst race entirely, and since the V8 Charger was therefore not a homologation car, nobody seemed to take notice. The Charger stayed in production until 1978, but after 1972, Chrysler was trying to keep a low profile and the performance aspect of the car went into a decline.

Muscle cars in America underwent a similar decline in 1974, and the Charger actually ended up outliving its American counterpart. Thanks to bad timing and bad politics, the Charger never got to achieve its full potential. This is a shame, but then Chrysler is always free to try again, and we encourage them to do so.

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