Chrysler Valiant Charger: an Australian odyssey

| 12 Sep 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

In 1971, 52 years ago, we lit out of Adelaide, South Australia, in mid-afternoon with 855 miles north-east to Sydney ahead of us.

How long would it take? Perhaps 12 hours if it was as swift as most of the interstate trips my pal and colleague Peter Robinson and I undertook.

We could usually despatch the 560-mile run from Melbourne to Sydney in eight hours in a 5.8-litre V8 Ford Falcon GT or 5.7-litre Holden Monaro GTS.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

The duo couldn’t resist taking the Chrysler on track

There were no motorways between Australia’s biggest cities then, but there weren’t any speed limits, either.

We travelled often between Australia’s two biggest centres because Wheels, the magazine of which Peter was editor and I was deputy, was in Sydney, but Ford and Holden’s headquarters, and most of the foreign-car importers, were south in Melbourne; Chrysler was further west in Adelaide.

We needed to see them regularly. 

Flying was expensive, so more often than not we drove, and didn’t think twice about it.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

Note the magazine’s test kit in the passenger footwell

And, given the choice, we’d collar one of the Ford or Holden V8s boasting around 300bhp that were the basis for the homologated racers battling it out at circuits such as Bathurst in the legendary Ford-versus-Holden wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Their top-end oomph made them ideal for those long blasts through the night.

You needed grunt to pass the mighty Kenworth, White, Freightliner, Mack and Peterbilt 18-wheelers rolling at anything up to 80mph on the give-and-take two-lane that was then Australia’s prime highway.

Sometimes their drivers slipped them into angel’s gear – neutral – down long slopes and they’d wind up to 90mph-plus.

Those lusty Ford and Holden V8s with their four-speed manual gearboxes shot you past with the tacho climbing hard and the speedo cranking beyond 100mph until you were clear… and on to the next truck.

One night, Robbo and I overtook 600 lorries on that 560-mile drive.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

‘Robbo’ powers the Chrysler Valiant Charger R/T through The Dipper on the legendary Mount Panorama circuit

So, yes, we loved those robust, American-derived V8s with the performance of a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Porsche for less than a third of the price.

But as we cleared Adelaide’s suburbs that southern winter afternoon in 1971 and started peeling off the 150 miles to South Australia’s eastern border with Victoria, the wondrous bellow we were enjoying wasn’t from a V8.

This was a rip-snorting, Weber-fed 4.3-litre straight-six singing through the twin tailpipes of a Chrysler Valiant Charger R/T E38 Track Pack.

No lie: it sounded better than a Ferrari V12.

Chrysler had spent a puny $AUD2m (then £1.13m) slicing six inches (111in down to 105in) out of the wheelbase of its bread-and-butter VH Valiant saloon and 150kg off the weight to quickly create the jaunty, pillarless, two-door, fastbacked and Kamm-tailed Charger.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

Australia was a playground for the 280bhp Charger

It was a masterstroke: Charger sales, driven by a catchy ‘Hey Charger!’ TV ad campaign, took off.

At one stage, it nabbed 50% of all Valiant sales.

The standard engine was an in-line ‘six’ purloined from a cancelled American Chrysler light truck.

And in its biggest 4.3-litre/265cu in form that was the engine Chrysler engineers in Adelaide decided, with a twinkle in their eyes, to develop for their image-maker and contender against the Fords and Holdens in the annual 500-mile race around the Mount Panorama circuit at Bathurst, NSW.

Chief engineer Mike Stacy was under pressure to use an in-house four-barrel carb as the key element in boosting the unit’s power.

But he had a better idea: he nipped into an Adelaide speed shop and bought three 45 DCOE sidedraught Webers, bolted them on, loved the results and flew a car with racing manager John Ellis to Weber’s factory in Bologna, Italy.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

Chrysler’s iconic advert focused on the straight-six’s triple-carb set-up

Two months later, Ellis and Weber’s engineers had the triple twin-choke carburettor set-up working to perfection.

The Chrysler Hemi Six Pack was born, and Ellis went home to Adelaide with an engine delivering 280bhp at 5000rpm and 318lb ft at 3700rpm.

Besides the Webers, the Six Pack had 10:1 compression, a hot cam, larger valves and gorgeous-looking tuned exhaust extractors.

Chrysler made the most of their visual appeal in a dramatic colour advert in magazines that showed them glowing red hot. No-one who saw that ad forgot it.

At the time, the only in-line ‘six’ in the world with more power was the Aston Martin DB6’s twin-cam 4-litre, which pipped the E38 by just 2bhp with 70.6bhp/litre against the Charger’s 64.5bhp/litre.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

Capable of hitting 130mph, there wasn’t much capable of holding the Charger up on Australia’s highways

The hotter DB6 Vantage had a 45bhp edge, but for torque the Aussie engine won hands-down with 32lb ft more, and at lower revs.

However, the E38 ‘six’ wasn’t just a torque champ. Thanks to seven main bearings and standard blueprinting, it also loved to rev.

In a 1327kg car it provided 210bhp/tonne, competitive with the heavier rival V8s.

But Chrysler was naughty in calling the engine a hemi.

Its cylinder head wasn’t a crossflow in proper hemi fashion, and the combustion chambers were only partially hemispherical. Still, it added to the mystique.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

The well-stocked dash of this Charger

To help sort the suspension, Chrysler called in Australian Driver’s Championship winner Leo Geoghegan.

The componentry that greeted him was modest to say the least – torsion bars, unequal-length control arms and an anti-roll bar at the front, with a live axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear.

Geoghegan and Stacy shortened the rear springs and endowed them with selectable mounting points.

Along with variable damper settings, that allowed enough adjustability to give the Charger gentle understeer on the road and at fast circuits such as Bathurst, or easy oversteer at others.

Quicker recirculating-ball steering felt much sharper than other Valiants.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

A Chrysler Valiant ‘ute’ was used as a test mule to throw other manufacturers off the scent

For lap after lap, with Ellis observing, Geoghegan evaluated and honed the settings at South Australia’s Mallala race track, first with a Valiant ‘ute’ chopped down to the Charger’s wheelbase to fool any spies from GM or Ford, and then with a prototype Charger.

The weird thing – the thing that made the E38 Charger an oddball – was that local content rules forced it to have a three-speed manual gearbox.

Yes; a 130mph race car with a three-speed ’box. It would only have seemed wackier if the shift was three-on-the-tree.

A year later Borg-Warner finished developing a local four-speed ’box and Chrysler slipped it into a more powerful 302bhp evo model called the E49.

As Robbo and I crossed Adelaide to begin our run home, we learned that the hot ‘six’ retained plenty of the base engine’s flexibility and smoothness.

It was content to plug along at 35mph in top. When we hit open roads, we soon discovered its zeal.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

The Charger E38 prototype testing at Mallala race track in Australia

From 2500rpm, the car’s nose heaved high and lunged forward as the ‘six’ ran eagerly to 6000rpm, 1000 beyond the redline.

Development engineer Ken Paddick had told us with a proud grin to enjoy that.

Out in flat country we marked out distances and clocked performance times.

We thought the E38 would be quick, and it was, dashing off a standing quarter-mile in 14.8 secs, 0-60mph in 6.3 secs and 0-100 in 16.5.

It might have had just three gears, but it was no slouch; it was a Porsche 911S beater.

At 6000rpm, we had 55mph in first, 95 in second and, while she’d regularly do 128mph at 5600rpm, on one run the six spun on to 5800 for 132mph.

And with 70-90mph taking 5.5 secs, the trucks would be little more bothersome than in the V8s.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

The Porsche 911S-beating Charger looked the part at Mount Panorama circuit

Some 300 miles out we crossed the Murray River into New South Wales and, as the towns grew even further apart and the straights even longer, we could keep the E38 on a comfortable, rock-steady 115mph cruise as we flowed away from the setting sun.

Soon, we’d be on to the 200-mile-wide Hay Plains, the flattest expanse in the Southern Hemisphere.

We chuckled as we recalled our old pal, legendary Aussie motoring writer Bill Tuckey, hoodwinking a Canadian hitchhiker he’d picked up there.

The hiker, gazing around, commented on the plethora of stones stretching to the horizon on one part of the plain.

“They’re rock farms, mate,” Tuckey said. “Only things that’ll grow round here.”

But we weren’t far across the plain when the E38’s fanbelt let go.

A truckie towed us into Hay, the crossroads town where a friendly garage worked late to fit a new belt.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

Even the dirt roads near Mount Panorama circuit didn’t phase the Charger

With a bit of tucker under our own belts we stormed on through the night, eyes skinned for wayward kangaroos.

In the early hours we were climbing into twistier country where we needed to use the Charger’s gearbox.

Dropping from top to second wasn’t so grim, but the cumbersome shift down to first made it quicker to stay in second and rely on the engine’s flexibility.

As dawn approached, the E38’s character and ability through the bends emerged and compensated for the gearbox’s limitations.

Despite the so-so surface, the Charger was sure-footed enough to maintain an average close to 80mph. The limited-slip diff exorcised wheelspin out of tight bends.

It took a while to accept the hefty push needed to work the unassisted brakes, but once the front discs were warm they stopped well.

How they’d get on in a 500-mile race would be another matter.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

Clear of the highway’s 18-wheelers, the Chrysler Valiant Charger R/T could stretch its legs

I’ll let Robbo tell you about the 70 miles from Cowra to Bathurst as the sky ahead began to lighten: “There the E38 came alive.

“The mighty ‘six’ sang as we upped the pace, went in harder, clipped apexes, grabbing second, revs soaring, engine quivering.

“If the back end stepped out over bumps you could steer on the throttle, adjusting the car’s attitude, feeding in the power to cancel any tendency to understeer.

“We didn’t care that the E38 was crude. To drive the Charger was to understand how an inert mechanical object can connect with a human.”

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

The Chrysler kicks up dust on the dirt tracks

As we rolled into Bathurst we couldn’t resist turning off to the Mount Panorama circuit that climbs into then plunges out of the hills above town.

We were on the mountain top as dawn broke and paused to look down over the famous roads that had hosted so many monumental races.

We eased down through The Esses and on through The Dipper to Conrod Straight. It didn’t take much to imagine a race-prepared Charger winding up to 140mph down there.

Then we nipped out on to a nearby dirt road and found the Charger was sure-footed there, too.

We had 120 miles and couple of hours left to go to Sydney. You can choose between two main routes through the Blue Mountains to the coast.

In the Charger, we picked the less-used, sinuous and wonderful Bells Line of Road, which follows an ancient Aboriginal pathway and is so steep in parts that few cars had the power to climb it before WW2.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

‘At Bathurst Leo brought the E38 home in seventh; with decent brakes he could have stopped for lunch and still won’

Then a glorious dash down into the Sydney suburbs before entering the office about the time everyone else was arriving.

Despite the Charger’s pace across the plains and through the hills, the time we’d spent taking figures, sorting the fanbelt and enjoying our couple of tours of Mount Panorama meant the trip had taken nearly 17 hours.

We’d averaged 13.6mpg but the 35-gallon tank – de rigueur for a Bathurst contender – required only one refill.

We’d arranged to hang on to the Charger for a while then give it away in a contest.

It went to lucky Wheels reader John Ollivier, a teenage boy in a tiny NSW country town (see below).

Shortly after our trip, an E38 driven by Doug Chivas won its debut race at Oran Park.

But in the big one, the 500-mile race at Bathurst a few weeks later, the Chargers turned out to be 6 secs slower than the dominant Ford Falcon GT-HOs.

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

‘This wondrous bellow was a rip-snorting, Weber-fed “six” singing through twin pipes. It sounded better than a Ferrari’

Brakes were the issue, said Geoghegan, who brought the first E38 home seventh.

The discs, specced to meet local content rules, had two-piston calipers, not the four that were clearly needed.

Leo reckoned that with decent brakes he could have stopped for lunch and still won.

The E49 Charger that followed in 1972, with 302bhp and a smoother-shifting four-speed, was a nicer, faster car – quicker even than the revered Falcon GT-HO Phase III.

Yet, with the brakes still not top-notch, at Bathurst that year E49s came third and fourth behind a GT-HO in a wet race won by Peter Brock in another, lighter six-cylinder car, the Holden Torana GTR XU-1.

But there was something about the raw spirit and charisma of that hastily created E38 and its sublime Six Pack.

The drive it gave us across the plains and mountains of eastern Australia etched it deeply into our affections.

Words and images: Mel Nichols

School-run supercar

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

In 1972, magazine reader John Ollivier won the Charger in a competition

John Ollivier, now a retired mechanical engineer, was the lucky schoolboy who won the Wheels Charger E38 in 1972. “I was a 16-year-old petrolhead in Narrabri, a small town 360 miles north-west of Sydney,” he recalls.

“I think Peter Robinson and the Chrysler PR man were nervous about giving such a fast car to a schoolboy, but Dad told them I’d been driving for years on local farms.

“I had to wait four months to get my licence. On the big day I drove with Mum to the police station.

“The young copper on the desk asked if that was my Charger outside.

“Sergeant Carpenter came over and declared that he would conduct this test.

“We drove out a few miles, then back into town and parked outside the post office.

“For half an hour he leant on the Charger talking to the locals.

“Back at the station he told the young copper to write out my licence without further ado.”

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

John used the Charger for more adventures in Australia

“The Charger absolutely ate the miles on long trips,” he continues.

“The only trouble was filling it so I worked part time at a local garage, which also got me free servicing for it.

“Mum took a shine to it, driving it around town with the sunroof open.

“I wasn’t amused when I got home from school one day to learn that she’d driven some friends out of town and wound it up to over 100mph.

“After a couple of weeks’ cruising the plugs would foul up, so it was either pull them out and clean them, or take the car out of town and hold it flat in second.

“At 60mph the engine would miss and buck, but by 75mph the plugs would clear, the engine would fly around to the redline and she was right for another week.

“We did have to take it to Sydney every year for a dyno tune.

“One Friday night I did the 360-mile trip home in five hours; I averaged 72mph including stopping for fuel.”

Classic & Sports Car – Reliving a charge across Australia in a Chrysler muscle car

John sits in what was left of the Charger

“I kept the E38 spotless, including the engine,” John remembers.

“It never missed a beat and started first time if you followed the sequence: one throttle pump then a third throttle before turning it over.

“At 70,000 miles the compression was still high, but just before Christmas ’76 an elderly woman darted out to pass a tractor coming towards me on a country road.

“She swerved across on to the dirt verge on my left side then swerved back, hit the Charger’s front left and pushed us into the tractor. The E38 was totalled.

“The police charged her with driving without due care and cancelled her licence.

“She wasn’t insured and my cover was for a standard Charger’s value, so I only got $1000 plus the wreck back.

“I sold the engine for $1000. [In top condition, the E38 would now be worth around £110,000.]

“I still remember the day I got the phone call about winning the Charger – it’s etched into my brain.

“It was a source of joy and pride, and I still miss it to this day.”

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