Playing David to Avo's Goliath

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Just as Chrysler have to play third string to Ford and British Leyland in the overall British car market so it is in the performance world. Here the Pentastar brand has to operate on a considerably lower budget than those allowed to its main rivals at Abingdon and Aveley. As we reported last month, Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operation is now fully operational at the modern factory in Essex. While BL Special Tuning have expanded into the old competition department premises out in Berkshire. Incidentally they were a little upset over our remarks in the December issue but, apart from pointing out that ST do provide support vehicles for rallying and rallycross, the content of that Matters of Moment seems fair to me. The Chrysler people have reduced the number of staff working on the competition and road conversion side, though they still work in the same building, which forms part of the old Rootes complex at Humber Road, Stoke, Coventry.

As both Ford and BL have had easily their share of editorial space in Motor Sport, we decided this month to visit this enthusiast’s corner set aside amidst the endless production lines and building complexes which abound on the Stoke site. In fact, I wondered whimsically if the factory might at some date have a preservation order put on it by the National Trust as a reminder of days gone by… but Chrysler money has put a lot of new equipment in, especially a production line to make Hillman Avenger engines.

The Customer Competition Centre is a compact unit sited on the end of an engineering block access to which is provided through the Number Five Gate. The security staff are reasonably courteous, so long as one doesn’t make the author’s classic mistake of arriving in an Escort, wearing a Ford rally jacket! If you are intending to take parts away with you, do not forget to obtain some sort of receipt so that the security men are appeased on the way out.

Any slight irritation the customer feels at undergoing these formalities—which have to he gone through to collect BL or Ford bits as well—should disappear on meeting the man who planned the London-Sydney Marathon effort for the Cowan/Malkin/Coyle Hunter. His name is Des O’Dell and he is responsible for all Chrysler UK enthusiast activities. O’Dell is essentially the traditional wily competition manager, who has temporarily had to turn his talents (he was with Aston Martin at the height of their sports car racing successes) to making money for the conversion side, so that a limited amount of support can be given in saloon car racing, rallying and rallycross.

The car used by these works-assisted Rootes runners is still the delightful Imp, with the exception of the rallying world where the sturdy Hunter is occasionally used by privateers. During last year, and into this year as well, O’Dell and a dedicated mechanic have taken the trouble to appear at most of the rounds of the British Saloon Car Championship and both ITV and BBC televised rallycrosses. They go to these events with a well-stocked van and an eye for competitive drivers in Chrysler products. This may sound a somewhat haphazard operation but the results they have achieved in co-operation with these privateers are out of all proportion to the money or parts available. Bill McGovern, in a George Bevan-prepared and entered Imp, actually won the national Saloon car title last year, despite the presence of works Ford Escorts and a superbly prepared Ford Boss Mustang for Frank Gardner. O’Dell freely admits they were as lucky in beating Ford on this occasion as they were in the London-Sydney, for Ford unaccountably left the 1,000 c.c. division wide open and the sparkling Sunbeam Imp amassed so many class wins that the Escorts and the Mustang—both with pretty active class competition—were unable to prevent a Chrysler Victory.

In the tarmac and bumpy field sport of rallycross, O’Dell also helps a number of “Impmen”, most prominent and successful of that number being Peter Harper in a car that is still perfectly turned out in Alan Fraser Racing colours. Apart from being a pretty car, Harper also invested a considerable amount in making his Imp the most powerful in existence. The engine is a particularly advanced 1.1-litre unit giving approximately 125 b.h.p. with the aid of a Coventry-Climax cylinder head and a pair of twin-choke sidedraught carburetters. In fact, the crankshaft on the Harper unit runs in five main bearings as well, compared to the normal three bearings of the production and previous hotted-up 1-litre units. This engine is strictly a one-off and the most one can buy from the factory at present is a 998-cc, unit (which we tested in 95 b.h.p. form last year), though we were able to try an Imp with a long-stroke, 1,140-c.c, engine, during our visit to Coventry.

Incidentally, an Imp prepared by a former Rootes Competitions Department employee, Dick Guy, won the Osram-GEC club racing championship for 1970, driven by John Turner. In view of this we would state that readers who live in the West Country have probably the best supply of Rootes parts in the country for Guy Engineering operate from Marnhull in Dorset, whilst the reputable Hartwell concern have premises in Bournemouth. It may also interest readers to know that the author has tried two Hartwell converted Imps with 60- and 65-b.h.p. 1-litre engines and found them to be exceptionally useful road cars, enhanced by Hartwell’s short spring kits, which improve already good roadholding and handling to the point where these small saloon cars could compete with everything bar Lotus standards of roadholding on public roads.

Although the number of staff has been reduced in the Customer Competition Centre, Chrysler are now able to offer anything up to full racing equipment for the Imp, considerably more powerful and better handling Hunters, plus a few parts for the Avenger. On the latter subject we wheedled O’Dell out in a 1250 Avenger that was equipped with a 1500GT units, twin Weber 40 DCOE carburetters and Janspeed/Chrysler manifold plumbing. A Holbay Rapier-type air cleaner was fitted as well, and this sophisticated air box (as used on the Marathon) creditably cut down the racket from the Webers joyfully gobbling up air whilst accelerating.

In fact, this Avenger was particularly interesting to drive because, for engineering purposes, it had ordinary steel wheels coupled to freshly fabricated and shorter length coil springs, competition MacPherson struts (general deliveries should have commenced from Armstrong by the time you read this) and adjustable rear shock-absorbers. The highest numerical final drive, at 4.375:1, was fitted and the combination has given excellent results at MIRA proving ground with a fifth wheel to check on the performance improvement. We were told that the car reached 60 m.p.h. from a standstill in 10.8 seconds, whereas the same car prior to modification was taking 13.2 seconds to reach the mile a minute point.

We drove the modified Avenger for a short spell out in the country around Coventry and then in towards the city centre. The biggest improvements from production models came in the easy way the car accelerated up to 6,000 r.p.m. and an indicated 70 m.p.h. in 3rd gear, plus the much improved handling which is to the standard that the standard GT should be, with much less body roll and understeer than the standard car.

O’Dell has seen the car proved for many thousands of miles, including development work to make sure that it does not suffer from carburetter icing, but he is still not convinced about marketing all the parts to the public at present. The reason is one that so many accountants scorn, “if I had a Colin Malkin or Andrew Cowan to take the car out on an RAC Rally and then brought it back in one piece, then I would know that the bits are ready for general sale”. The Competition Centre manager is a perfectionist and that is the reason that Avenger parts are not yet ready for general sale, though we would guess that they soon will be due to the encouraging number of enquiries coming in from all those new Avenger owners.

We also had a brief trial of O’Dell’s Hillman Hunter equipped with 111-b.h.p. Holbay Rapier H120 power unit, lowered suspension and a host of other detail modifications aimed at improving the Hunter for fast road use. O’Dell says that such a car “will not frighten the Roger Clarks of this world, but it is dead reliable and was built to prove that such a car can be well engineered at very reasonable cost for the club rally driver”.

The Holbay Hunter was also equipped with overdrive for 2nd, 3rd and top gears, which means that legal limit motoring is nearly practical in overdrive-2nd with the high (low numerically) rear axle ratio fitted. The Hunter is appreciably lighter than the Rapier and thus acceleration can be better than the more sporting-looking machine, together with very acceptable 100-mph. cruising abilities. The Holbay engine is a lusty unit, but compared to a Ford T-C or BDA it lacks the ability to sound happy about sustained r.p.m. over 6,000. As the normal Ford crossflow engine, or BL push-rod, has the same characteristics at constant crankshaft speeds in the 5,500-6,000 band, we were not really too worried about this feature. From 2,000 revs onwards there is useable 3rd and 4th gear pulling power, with a satisfactory surge of surplus horsepower and torque at 4,000 r.p m.

Normally the car would have its ride height increased for rally use but, as the Holbay-Hunter has stayed firmly on tarmac so far, the ride height was dropped by approximately one inch, still retaining the strut front suspension and leaf-sprung rear. Wider wheels also contributed to the feeling of stability during brisk cornering.

The department also have a 998-c.c. Imp based on the lighter Imp De Luxe, but this economically converted machine was in the hands of one of the company directors, so we were unable to lay hands on it.

However, we do know from previous experience that just substituting a wet liner 998 cylinder block and pistons on an Imp Sport will push the car firmly into the 90-m.p.h. class with good fuel economy and 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration times similar to those recorded by the Cortina/Capri 1600 GTs. The cost of this exercise would be in the £70-80 range.

For the future we were told that all the parts necessary for a decent Hunter-Holbay (or just plain Hunter) would be available plus the usual mammoth list of bits for Imps and possibly some Avenger equipment. They also offer some assembly and machining services for the Imp, such as crankshaft balancing, head skimming, insertion of Wills Rings for the cylinder head, rebuilding a transaxle and building complete power units.

The division also look after competitors pretty well, offering a 25% discount on all parts where the customer can prove, or is known, to take part in competition using a Chrysler product. The service support van is also likely to be available at most rallycrosses, major rallies and RAC Saloon Car Championship rounds as well. There is also a very helpful series of duplicated sheets compiled by the staff on FIA regulations and how they affect the Hunter or Imp in respect of homologated parts.

Naturally we saved the best until last, driving off to lunch in the 1,140-c.c. Imp (the same bodyshell and registration as we tested in 998-c.c. form) with its ultra low rally/rallycross gearing. Top speed is confined to the mid-90s in this form, but that lengthened stroke really makes its presence felt and the car gets up to 90 appreciably quicker than the excellent 31.2 seconds we recorded when the car was in 998-cc. form. Since our test, and the change of power unit, a stern warning of doom in the shape of a thick red line has been imposed at 8,000 r.p.m., but none of the original smoothness appears to have been sacrificed in the enlarging process. In fact, this car reinforced my belief that in modified and production form the Imp is the best 1-litre steel-bodied car available. How much longer they will be produced by Chrysler is unknown at present, for the Imp still sells well in 875-c.c, form, but I would still think that there is still room for a bigger-engined version to please both sales staff and the public.—J. W.

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