A Road-Test Report on the Latest Hillman—The Rootes Group’s Great Gamble
THERE WAS so much advance publicity for the Hillman Avenger that I thought it must either be the family car of the century or a Ballyhoo-car. It turns out to be a bit of both. Driving a Super 1500 I felt, with my plastic picnic box, like a Tupperware salesman* as I tried to assess this new car which, rumour says, is Rootes’ last gamble to survive engulfment by Chrysler. Disappointingly Honor Blackman didn’t come with any of the Press Avengers. But plenty of supporting publicity told me I was in a four-door saloon (all Avengers sensibly have four doors) with a powerful fresh-air heater (2-speed fan) made at Delanay Gallay’s S. Wales factory, using such exciting materials as Noryl, sisal-reinforced polyester, nylon, Polypropylene, PTFE, ABS, acetal resins, etc. (it gives a powerful cold air blast from universally-adjustable facia vents set towards the centre and lots of hot air, rather insensitively delivered), that I was sitting on a seat (comfortable and giving good support) made of British Vita Vitaprene and Vitaphram mouldings, that the rather too-plain interior trim was of Vitabond, and that at the Geneva Show the Avengers would be launched on export markets as the Sunbeam 1250/1500, in the hope of maintaining Rootes’ record performance last year of earning £57-million in foreign exchange.
Suitably impressed, I drove along, thinking that in the lightness of its controls this Hillman Avenger was like Vauxhall’s original Vivas and would make a good ladies’ car. It is aimed at a market somewhere between the Escort/Cortina, Viva/Victor, 1100/1300 categories, and wins on pricing, for those so hard up that they welcome a saving of £15 to £20 on an £800 car. Our readers will be advised to consider only the bigger-engined versions, the 1250 being mostly inferior, or only fractionally better, in performance than its rivals, and thirstier. In spite of rumblings to the effect that the new Hillman might have a light-alloy o.h.c. inflated Imp engine and i.r.s., it has nothing of the sort. It is almost as conventional as cars have been since Panhard made the Benz Ideal antiquarian. But it handles well, cornering with a flat understeer unless really provoked. It has remarkably light steering with somewhat dead, gentle return action, geared 3 5/8 turns, lock-to-lock. I wondered if this lightness, even for parking, had been achieved by under-tyring (but no, the Avenger has 5.60 x 13 tyres, the Escort and Viva 5.50 x 12s), and whether Dunlop Gold Seal C41s give quite the best road clinging. The clutch is light if rather sudden, the non-spring-loaded gear-change very light and extremely pleasant, but with somewhat long lever movements; reverse is safely beyond 1st. The driving position is good but the cocked-up rear end of the Axed-styling destroys rearward vision (Rootes seem conscious of this for they had fitted outside mirrors) and appearance is better from the front than the rear. The screen pillars are rather obstructive.
It is debatable whether the ride is better or worse than a Ford provides but the back axle, although located by four links and denied the cart-spring charleston, suffers badly from coil-spring capers. This sets up pronounced body shake, the axle dances over bad surfaces, and this is the Avenger’s weak aspect. Road noise and engine zizz intrude, too. Bottom gear is of the pull-my-caravan-up Honister Pass kind; top gives 17 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. The push-rod 86.1 x 64.3-mm. engine gives 63 b.h.p. at 5000 r.p.m. Performance isn’t scintillating but you can get over the legal speed in 3rd, revving to 5,700, and the speed shops will no doubt quickly improve on that, encouraged by the no-nonsense handling qualities of the Avengers. The brakes, also light, give good progressive retardation in traffic but the pedal went down in a manner which diminished confidence when driving fast in the Super 1500. On this model instrumentation is simplified but the Grand Luxe has four main dials. All I had to worry about was an oblong 100-m.p.h. speedometer, with the traditional k.p.h. readings in small digits, flanked by thermometer and fuel gauge. A r.h. stalk controls lamps dipping, flashing, turn-indicators and horn blowing, and two unusual big Bakelite turn-switches poke out from the steering column nacelle, absolutely to hand, that on the left working the wipers, that on the right the lamps, while you prod the left one for screen-washers ; these odd controls look as if they control electrical equipment, which is exactly what they do. The seat squabs do not recline on the standard Super 1500 and further evidence of shillings-saving is found in single-speed wipers, absence of vanity mirrors and only one coat hook and roof lamp, on the n/s. There were Rootes safety belts, a Triplex Zebrazone toughened screen and a good Rootes Radiomobile radio. The awkward ignition key also locks the steering and is matched by a manual choke. The boot takes 10.3 cu. ft. of luggage, the sloping lid needing one of the two keys to open it. The bonnet is released from outside the car and has to be propped up. There are recessed internal door handles and slide-locks, lift-up external handles. The body has fixed quarter-lights and is vented.
My intention to take the Avenger over part of a Six Days Trial route in wild wet Wales and conscientiously check petrol and oil consumption before our printing deadline was frustrated when the engine began to die after 190 miles while I was caught in the customary traffic tangle on Putney Bridge (over which the Minister of Transport should be made to drive every rush hour until he has got it sorted out). Thereafter a drink of BP did nothing to cure the malady and the Avenger took on the role of a Brighton veteran in respect of performance. Rootes Press Service, with its usual efficiency, traced this to a split diaphragm in the Zenith-Stromberg carburetter and soon had the car restored to normal but too late to adhere to the intended test schedule. Checked over a shorter distance, fuel consumption came out at 27.7 m.p.g. (The tank is said to hold 9 gallons.) After 800 miles the consumption of Shell engine oil, which Rootes recommend, was nil, and them can be no excuse for not thoroughly lubricating an Avenger every 5,000 miles, for Castrol have already issued a chart for it, available by sending a postcard to their Chart Library at High Road, Cowley Peachey, near Uxbridge, Middlesex.
The Avenger has an under-facia lidded cubby and BMC-type wells on the doors in the front compartment. There are also shallow trays by the central hand-brake lever, and the usual rear shelf. The Lucas lamps light the way well after dark.
The Hillman Avenger is, then, a useful addition to the family-car market, to existing members of which it bears a close resemblance. It is unexciting, rather cheaply trimmed, but handles safely and is certainly ripe for some souping-up. Its light controls and excellent gearbox are its best aspects, the hammering ride over by-roads from the over-stiff rear-end its worst characteristic. Prices range from £776 for the 84 m.p.h., o-6o in 19.8 sec. 2250 de luxe, to £913 for the 87 m.p.h., 0-60 In 16.2 sec. Grand Luxe 1500, inclusive of belts and p.c. Extras include radio, radial-ply tyres, reclining seats, servo brakes, metallic paint, etc.—W. B.
* A big fleet order for Avengers has been placed by the Tupperware Co.