Customer without a cheque-book

An Unusual 3,000-Mile road-test of the Chrysler Alpine-S

When I received from John Rowe an invitation to visit some of the newly-constituted Chrysler factories and to take away for a month’s road-test a Chrysler Alpine-S, I began to think of the comparatively recent history of Chrysler. How they took over the Rootes Organisation in 1967. Which was rather sad, inasmuch as Rootes-mobiles possessed that little extra that other medium-sized and priced cars lacked—it always seemed to me that the doors of a Sunbeam-Talbot 90 were thicker and closed that much better, the equipment of a Humber Super Snipe was more lavish, the instrumentation, upholstery and decor of a Singer Gazelle more complete, than in similar cars bearing other maken-ames. How Chrysler themselves fell on hard times, in spite of having the Hillman Avenger to sell, which was as close a competitor as any to the contemporary Ford Cortina. How Chrysler has made a remarkable recovery, aided by a Government subsidy of up to £72.5 million, in the past year; it was for journalists to experience the new determination that has carried them to this position that the visits were organised.

Before I deal with that, I am reminded of how Chrysler International was thriving, twelve years ago. Then it was making things like the Chrysler New Yorker, the Dodge Dart and Polara and the Lancet, and the Chrysler Valiant compact etc. It had already linked with Sinica. It had its headquarters in Geneva, its Regional Sales Office for the Western Hemisphere in Bowater House in London, and its Latin American Regional offices in Panama City. Dodge trucks rolled out of the long-established premises at Kew. Startling, how even a giant can tumble . . .

Now Chrysler UK is on the mend. It was to emphasise this that John Rowe, who has looked after such publicity since the Rootes days, put on his impressive visitations. First, the journalists were taken to Linwood, to see how the one-time Imp factory has been converted for the production of the 1977 Avengers. Sadness again here, for those who, like myself, enjoyed the cheekiness of the little Imp and its variants, a car which in spite of its willing light-alloy engine in the boot, its splendid gearbox and its good road manners, came too late to make more than the merest dent in VW Beetle sales in this country.

However, nostalgia plays but a minor part in Big Business and our job was not to dream of the past but admire the manner in which Chrysler contrived to install the body assembly equipment from Ryton at Linwood in the short space of five weeks, and erect a new enclosed receiving dock connecting the power-train plant with the trim and final-assembly shop in time for Avenger production. Chrysler are also spending well over £2.2 million on a new 7-stage body phosphate and electrocoat paint system with a capacity of 1,750 units per week on a single shift and elsewhere are spending £1 million on foundry re-equipment, as well as £7 million elsewhere on improvements at Luton and Dunstable— those millions again!

I was unable to do the Linwood part of the programme, so instead of being flown down through a thunderstorm in a chartered Viscount, I drove to the De Vere Hotel in Coventry in the BMW for the reception and dinner, where we were addressed by that cheerful Canadian, George Lacy, who was recently appointed Managing Director and Chief Executive of Chrysler United Kingdom Limited. He outlined to us the morrow’s scheme for each of 50 selected motoring writers to take away a brand new Alpine, just as if they were customers. This long-duration road-test idea isn’t new. I have experienced it in the past from Fiat, Citroen, BMW and others, and it originated with BMC and the Mini Minor. It cuts two ways. Although it is true that one becomes acclimatised to a car after long usage and is thus likely to overlook shortcomings which would stick out all too obviously on shorter acquaintance, the longer a car is on test, the more its reliability is in question. Consequently, a manufacturer who is prepared to institute a test of considerable duration presumably has faith in his product. Although Chrysler were hedging their bets by making this a month’s trial instead of a sixor twelve-month test, they introduced the novel aspect of using completely new, untried Alpines for the job. And when Mr. Lacy, in a splendidly humorous address, asked us “To be sure to call me, should a car break down,” I thought how the atmosphere at Chrysler has changed since the days in the 1960s, when I was testing a Valiant. That car developed an electrical “short” that discharged its battery, late at night, while I was at a club film show. John Sprinzel offered me a lift back to London, where my BMC 1100 was parked, so I left the defective Chrysler Valiant in the pub car park, naturally locking it up before so doing. And I still remember clearly the wrath of the Chrysler-man when I told him of this next day and his rudeness as he realised that I had possession of the key of his precious motor car—the only Valiant ignition key in the country, apparently!

All that is in the past, and here I was, last October, about to exchange (temporarily) BMW for Alpine. First, there was a walk-about in the Ryton plant, just outside Coventry, where these cars are made. The industrial feat of changing-over the Avenger to the Alpine production equipment in a matter of 161 days is quite staggering. It included planning and designing new plant, obtaining it from the supplier, dismantling the old equipment, and installing the new, the latter part of this formidable operation occupying a mere six weeks. John Haig, Director of Manufacturing Engineering for Chrysler UK, proudly calls it the biggest task of its kind in the history of the Automotive Industry. The cost will be £11 million—those millions yet again!

The Ryton factory, formerly a Sunbeam-Humber refuge, was seen to be very spacious (there are 1 3/4-million sq. ft. of it), with ample scope tor upping output to some 1,000 Alpines a week, and it is well lit and contrived. I was reminded, too, that the Chrysler Alpine is very definitely a Common Market confection, for the power-pack and body panels come from Poissy, near Paris and the car’s equipment includes SEVMarchal lamps, Veglia instruments, a Tudor battery, Michelin tyres, etc.

It was raining after the factory visit ended, so a colleague kindly chose my Alpine-S for me. It seems that RAC 59R was a better one than he picked for himself, as I hear it stalls in traffic and acts as a reservoir to help combat a return of the drought . . .

As I left Coventry for home in my new motor car the odometer read just 9 miles. Misreading a badly placed signpost at the ring-road, I found myself committed to enter the Whitley plant, where Chrysler UK research is carried out. On the correct route again, I came upon a somewhat symbolic sight—an Imp apparently abandoned on the grass verge…

I decided to run-in this new Chrysler possession at 50 to 60 m.p.h., keeping the engine speed down to around 3,000 r.p.m., and I was also careful not to let the machinery slog. Initial steering stiffness drew attention to the fact that this Alpine is a Simca-like front-drive car, so forthwith I cast thoughts of rear-engined Imps and of how the Chrysler dealers contrive to sing the praises of f.w.d. Alpines and r.w,d. Avengers in the same showroom, from my mind. Initially I found two things that were disconcerting. The oil-gauge needle was hard over against its stop and I did not know whether this signified no pressure, or too much pressure—actually, this is a rather endearing aspect of the Alpine, because if the needle is hard over to the right, all is well. The other odd thing was a pinching of my right foot as I turned the rather thick, rubber-clad steering wheel. It was caused by the column being exposed, as on a toy car, instead of being encased in a tube; but once bitten, you remember this. Anyway, most cars feel inferior for a time, after a BMW . . . At least the Alpine’s fuel tank was full, which it almost certainly would not have been, had I been a customer with a cheque-book.

This Alpine-S was immediately put to work and the more miles I drove it, the more I liked it. It lacks a little in refinement, both in interior decor and noise levels, but it is very easy to drive, carries a very big load uncomplainingly, and has a crisp external appearance, although the 13 in. wheels, shod with Michelin ZX tyres, look rather too small for the body shell above them. The gears change nicely with a handy, quite long lever, there is a complex but good means of directing cool air into the car, and the heater, controlled initially by a rotary facia-knob, gives me just about enough heat, although not promising too well for the winter. The brakes have a spongy feel and a long pedal travel, but are otherwise adequate, the front-wheel-drive did not make its presence known except by good traction, once the initial steering stiffness had worked off, and there is a full, easily read instrumentation and warning-lights system, facia illumination controlled by big knurled knob inset below the facia. The dash lighting shows up the four knobs for the various services and the positions of the heater-quadrants. This Chrysler is a five-door car but so spacious is the ordinary boot that rear-seat folding was not resorted to in my usage of this roomy car. The minor controls include triple control-stalks, of which the direction-indicators one cancels too quickly, and a n/s bonnet-release, quite beyond the reach of the driver, for the very heavy rear-hinged bonnet, this release lever fitting flush with the scuttle-side. The car, I was pleased to find, had a very good Chrysler CP5 radio. The headlamps are powerful and give a good spread on undimmed beams.

RAC 59R was put to hard usage, taking me into Staffordshire from Wales and back again to Coventry and to Worcester, over its first weekend, and it was then driven very fast to London almost before it was run-in. It seemed to be giving just better than 33 m.p.g. of 4-star and later a check over a big mileage that included driving on the M40 and M4 Motorways, on which this Alpine-S would be very ready to exceed its 70 m.p.h. at 4,000 r.p.m. if Mr. William Rodgers, the Transport Minister, would allow it, gave a commendably thrifty 33.3 m.p.g. A 13-gallon tank ensures a very useful range of 425 miles or more.

We had been asked to have these Chryslers serviced, still acting as customers, at between 800 and 1,200 miles. I used the car to cover the VSCC Welsh Weekend and 1,373 miles had been run before this work was expeditiously carried out by Francis’ Garage in Llandrindod Wells. As far as I know nothing untoward was found and before this the oil-level on the invitingly placed dip-stick showed no departure from its correct reading.

Since then the Alpine has been used to visit the Earls Court Motor Show, to make another journey to and from London from Mid-Wales, and for countless shorter journeys, and it has just brought me back from a Wales-London-Cambridge-Wales trip. It has been a good servant, starting quickly, idling as it did from the beginning at 1,200 r.p.m., and using no oil to date, in a mileage, as I conclude these notes, of 3,346. Apart from an occasional squeak from the clutch pedal and a driver’s door that has taken to sometimes jumping for no apparent reason onto its safety-catch (it has a tendency not to shut properly if slammed, bouncing partly open, which aggravates this fault, cured by pressing down the cill-button), and no rubber on the accelerator pedal (perhaps there isn’t intended to be one), this Alpine has been notably trouble-free. Oh, but the Veglia clock loses time. Vision for the driver is good but a ghostly experience is to find the brake lights reflected in the rear window, at night. The screen wipers have 2-speed and a manual-flick action and door pulls and handles are well contrived. A rather shallow well ahead of the gear lever is supplemented by a lockable facia well and under-facia shelf. This Alpine has been a most serviceable familysaloon. If I were a real customer I would have paid the reasonable price of £2,719 for a normally equipped “S” or I could have invested £3,040 in a luxury-fitted-out “GLS” Chrysler Alpine. Both these models have the 1,442 c.c. engine that runs safely to 6,500 r.p.m. and gives a top speed of around 100 m.p.h.—W.B.