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Forty-seven years ago, the Valiant Pacer grew from a desire by Chrysler to give its brand more appeal to the youth market and to provide an incentive for owners to dabble in motor sports. Here was a marque with a sedate, prestige image, so the idea of a sporty Valiant seemed almost far-fetched. Yet, the Pacer provided Todd Motors, the New Zealand Chrysler distributor, with an opportunity to market a car with a definite inclination to go motor racing — and thus provide spin-off for other Valiant models.
This well-priced sports version of a large family saloon was never going to be a big seller, yet it created a favourable impression for its flair and honesty. With a smaller six-cylinder engine, the Pacer had a mountain to climb against the might of the V8-powered Ford Falcons and Holden Monaros, but the plucky Chrysler hardly disgraced itself.
Low production numbers of both the VF and VG series Pacers may not be enough to warrant restored or immaculate original examples fetching upwards of $60K in Australia. That they can be worth as much as this and even more is indicative of the fact that these highly prized cars are becoming increasingly rare and thus worthy of collection.
Due to import restrictions when they were new, few were imported into New Zealand, yet the model made a significant impression and raised the Valiant profile.
A decade before the VF Pacer’s June 1969 arrival, Chrysler brought the Valiant to the US small-car market. Then, early in 1962, the corporation’s Australian arm launched an all-out attack on the lucrative medium-size six-cylinder market with a locally assembled version of the American model, taking on the best-selling Holden and Falcon. The first Valiant was longer and wider than the opposition, had dramatic styling, and outpowered and outperformed General Motors and Ford rivals.
Chryslers were first assembled in New Zealand in 1935, but it was the Valiant, built here between 1963 and 1979, that made the biggest impression. Valiants regularly outsold Falcons until the early ’ 70s. Early Valiants were powered by Chrysler’s then-new slant-six engine, inclined at 30 degrees from the vertical, which the company made in the US for two decades. Valiant’s stamped-steel body, shell welded as a single structural unit, provided rattle-free cars and offered less expensive, more rapid mass production.
Priced to sell, geared to win
Fast forward to the VF series and the first of the Pacer 225s, which I tested for a week in late 1969, describing the bright red test car as a practical five-seater sports saloon in a class of its own. Chrysler’s youth car may have been a low-cost basic Valiant, but it came with appealing extras, excellent performance, and a comfortable interior. Of course, it was built to a price, costing only $200 more than a standard Valiant in Australia. Even better, in New Zealand, the
initial $3640 sticker price was a mere $12 dearer than the bread-and-butter version.
Later examples were also great value for money — as one critic said, this was a car priced to sell, geared to win. The VG Pacer 245 was listed here at $3856 in late 1970, a price remaining unchanged until the last examples arrived in August the following year, and the facelifted VH version retailed for $4423. Availability was the downside, with the fully imported Pacer being available only with an overseas funds deposit, unlike the locally assembled standard Valiants.
You could scarcely miss this sports version, with its red and black grille, body striping, three VF Pacer 225 decals, simulated magnesium-alloy wheel trims, and wild colours. There were comfortable high-back bucket seats, with the headrest integral to the rest of the seat; blackon-white instruments; an awkwardly mounted dash-top VDO tachometer; and rubber floor mats. Following customer complaints, the tombstone seats were lowered for the VG. The window surrounds were devoid of the usual bright trim, a sporty black rubber moulding having been opted for instead. Even a heater was optional.
Appointment moved up a grade with the VG series Pacer, which was now fitted with carpets and better instrumentation. The circular 130mph (209kph) speedo and 7000rpm tacho were well laid out and easier to read. Small details — like hose clippings, plumbing, and paintwork — were well finished, adding to the stand-out appearance of the car. In keeping with the youth theme came bright new colours with snappy names: Kanga Blue, Thar She Blue, Hot Mustard, Little Hood Riding Red, Bondi Bleach White, Hemi Orange, and Tan Fastic.
The 3.7-litre (225ci) engine in the VF produced 130kw (175bhp), making it the most powerful six-cylinder engine in Australasia at the time. Standard Valiants ran a compression ratio of 8.4 to 1, but the two-barrel carburettor Pacer engine was uprated to 9.2 to 1, and boasted a livelier camshaft and special exhaust system. As standard, the car had 229mm finned drum brakes, while front discs and a
limited-slip differential were optional, but the torsion-bar suspension was lowered 125mm and anti-roll bars were standard front and rear. There was nothing unusual about the live rear axle suspended by semielliptic leaf springs, and the ponderous handling with heavy understeer was tamed by more negative front-wheel camber and further lowering of the ride height.
In competition, the 279-millimetre solid discs were prone to heat fade, and the shock absorbers also overheated during racing. As a result, Chrysler developed a heat-resistant nylon ring for the internal piston to stop oil leaking past the piston for better suspension control. This was an example that lessons can be learned from racing, as the ring became standard on all Valiants. A stumbling block for both VF and VG Pacers was the threespeed manual gearbox, a necessity since Chrysler did not make a four-speed box in Australia. A four-speeder became available on the VH Pacer later in 1971.
The styling was little changed for the arrival of the VG in August 1970, although the round headlights were replaced by rectangular lights in a new grille, and the tail lights were smaller. Across the Tasman, Stirling Moss was used to promote the model. Disc brakes became standard on all Pacers imported into New Zealand. It was the introduction of the Hemi 245 engine that distinguished this second-generation model. Designed, developed, tested, and manufactured entirely across the Tasman, the Hemi had hydraulic tappets and a seven-bearing crankshaft and was claimed, at the time, to be one of the most advanced sixes in the world.
Chrysler was reluctant to discuss power output, but this 3993cc overhead-valve six-cylinder produced 138kw (185bhp) and 315Nm of torque. Customers could also specify Option E31, with 145kw (195bhp) and a warmer camshaft, or the Option E34 engine, developing 175kw (235bhp) — this version included a fourbarrel carburettor, an upgraded clutch, larger radiator, different engine bearings, a special crankshaft and rods, and a high-capacity oil pump. It was all getting serious.
In standard trim, the VG Pacer came with a 68-litre fuel tank, but it could be specified with a 159-litre long-range tank with a relocated quick-fill fuel cap, while the A84 Track Pack comprised a revised-ratio transmission, albeit still three speed, plus further braking and suspension upgrades.
The oversquare large-bore engine had a shorter block than the 225 and was no longer inclined in the engine bay. In the US, Chrysler had originally worked on the Hemi for use as a heavy-duty-truck power unit, but, when the project was scrapped, the Australian arm took over development and spent AU$33M and five years bringing the engine to production down under. The efficient hemispherical combustion
chamber was the optimum cylinderhead shape, slightly domed so that petrol burned evenly and completely. Apart from two relatively small engine parts, the VG Valiant Hemi was the first Chrysler to be made almost entirely in Australia.
Rewind to the earlier VF, and I had to contend with clutch slip and a slightly sticky throttle on my debut drive. Still, the 10.1-second time to 100kph and 178kph top speed underpinned the car’s credentials and were sufficient to match any six-cylinder Monaro GTS. The tacho was green-lined to 4750 and red-lined to 6000rpm, with most power between 1500 and 4500 revs. At anything over 3000rpm, the motor gave a loud, healthy roar, and it ran to 6000rpm with performance not far short of a V8’s. While stiff to change, the floor gearshift was excellent; although, with reverse directly above first, inadvertent engagement of a gear was easy without the security of a lockout gate. For road use, the three-speed Borgwarner gearbox, with its rather low second ratio, seemed quite adequate because of the wide torque range of the engine and top-gear response.
Sitting on a wheelbase of 2743mm and measuring 4877mm, the Valiant could hardly be rated a medium-size car for our market, with its generous seating and a huge boot. Despite a firmer ride, the suspension changes meant the Pacer was much more nimble and had less body roll than the standard Valiant. My test notes said the car felt more predictable, although the driver still had to work hard with the unassisted recirculating-ball steering that was geared to four turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock. On loose gravel roads, the Pacer was a barrel of fun and easily controllable, while bumpy sealed corners occasionally threw the car about when pressing on.
Less than a year after sampling the VF Pacer, we were at Levin, pounding around the race track in a brand new VG Pacer. The new Hemi six was a winning solution, with more power, and a claimed 20-percent improvement in fuel economy. We then took a near-new VG Pacer from Wellington to Auckland and had little difficulty bettering 20 miles to the gallon (14.12 litres/100km).
Weighing around 1340kg, the Pacer’s top speed was still around 16kph less than those of the V8-powered Monaro 350 and Falcon GT 351, but, surprisingly, the Chrysler was only marginally slower to 160kph (100mph). On hand at Levin for the media launch was a VG Pacer fitted with the Track Pack option for Rodger Anderson to run in production saloon races. In addition to the close-ratio gearbox with higher first and second gears, this option comprised fatter six-inch-wide road wheels, up from 5.5-inch width, with
14-inch-diameter. The Track Pack was even lower than the standard Pacer, with more negative camber up front.
The magic 100mph barrier was easily broken on Levin’s main straight, and Anderson was soon lapping the Pacer in 63.7 seconds. This compared with a good production saloon lap time of 67 seconds for a Vauxhall Victor 3300. The engine ran freely to 4500rpm and the Valiant comfortably put all its power on the road out of tight corners.
The big difference between the VF and VG was the South Australian–built Hemi motor, which gave the newer car a substantial performance advantage over its predecessor. Top speed rose 12kph to 190kph, and the VG accelerated to 100kph in 8.2 seconds, an improvement of almost two seconds. Intermediate gearspeed maximums were 80kph in first and 140kph in second, and, even edging into the 5000rpm red sector in top gear, the car felt reassuringly stable.
By extending the gear ratios, the engineers essentially changed the transmission on the VG into a fourspeeder without a first gear, so the driver had to work harder off the line yet found the car better on the move. The gear linkages were also improved, but the change was never brilliant for town and urban running, although at least the driver could potter around without making too many gear changes. By contrast, the steering, clutch, and brakes were light, and the introduction of Kelsey Hayes Girling disc brakes for the VG was a positive. Good all-round visibility from a low seating position and a willing motor made the Pacer a relaxing cruiser, although pedal placement left no room to slip the left foot under the clutch, and heel-andtoe pedal operation was difficult. Owners could also expect intrusive wind noise around the opening quarter-lights, and ventilation was poor.
On the track, the Pacer failed to cover itself in glory, although the car was a class winner at the 1969 Sandown 250 three-hour race. Three Pacers were entered in the Golden 100 race at Pukekohe, held in conjunction with the Benson and Hedges 500 at Pukekohe in 1970, and all three suffered braking problems. Grady Thomson’s Pacer was running sixth when the clutch blew on the eighth lap, leaving Rodger Anderson’s similar VG Hemi to finish sixth, ahead of the third Pacer driven by Morton Brown. There was no question that the straight-six Valiants were outclassed by the V8 power of Holden and Ford, with their superior powerto-weight ratios.
Maybe this car never achieved legendary status, but it was a muscle car, a flagcarrier — and certainly special. Of the 52,944 VF Valiants built, around 5800 were Pacers. This encouraged Chrysler to continue with the sports model with the VG. In total, 46,374 VG Valiants were made, but no one seems to be able to put a finger on the number of VG Pacers to hit our roads. However, 1162 two-door VG Pacer hardtops were produced in 1970 and 1971. There were more VG Pacers than VFS imported into New Zealand as a result of extra licensing, and most came with the garish Mod Pack, comprising a matt black bonnet, side stripes, and a black stripe across the boot lid. The Pacer, of course, in either two- or four-door configuration, was a precursor to the highly successful two-door Charger — but that’s a story for another time.