Chrysler Valiant CL/CM: Buyers' Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Ellen Dewar

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Chrysler limped into the eighties with the CL/CM series Valiants, cars overtaken by a brave new world. What was old-hat then is endearingly old-school now

 

Chrysler Valiant CL/CM

Although Chrysler’s Valiant came and went in less than 20 years it managed to burn itself into Aussie culture. These days, of course, any Val sedan or wagon in good condition is a cool cruiser.

The very first R Series Valiant in the early 60s sold out almost immediately. Survivors from the initial batch of just 1008 cars that were assembled locally (the panel sets were imported) now command big money. Australia’s first family V8 (rather than luxury/gangster -class cars) was a Valiant, setting a trend that would continue for decades. By the 1970s, the American styling had made way for an all-Aussie effort, including of course, the Charger.

The last major styling update came in 1976 with the CL series that featured sheet metal changes front and rear to accommodate a distinctive new grille between four headlights, bigger tail-lights and a modernised interior. The doors and centre body section were carried over.

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Apart from the quite separate Charger, the range comprised the basic Valiant sedan and station wagon, the Regal also in sedan and wagon form plus the top-line Regal SE sedan. They were available with high or low-compression versions of the 4.0-litre, Hemi-badged six, with 4.3 litres in the Regal. The long-serving 5.2-litre V8 managed to survive and was fitted as standard to the SE and optional in other versions. Costing almost 40 percent more than a standard Regal, the SE included air-conditioning, power windows and steering plus a range of comfort and a bit more all-round ritz.

Joining the range in April 1977 was Chrysler’s first-ever Valiant panel van. It came as a basic workhorse with the low-compression 4.0-litre motor and three-speed manual transmission. There was also a special one called the Drifter. It was available with six-cylinder or V8 power, a four-speed manual transmission, sports wheels, quartz halogen headlamps and a range of eye-searing colours typical of the 1970s. The basic van cost $5307 and the Drifter $1000 more. That pitched it against Ford’s V8 Falcon van and only slightly below the keenly-sought 5.0-litre Holden Sandman so no one was very surprised when Chrysler’s vans disappeared after only 18 months in the market.

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Mid-way through the CL’s run, Chrysler added a Handling Package to all vehicles in the Valiant range. Heavier springs, revised damper rates and alterations to camber and castor settings delivered significant improvements and helped Chrysler keep pace with Holden’s HZ series cars fitted with RTS – Radial Tuned Suspension.

At a time when petrol prices and fuel consumption were popular bar and barbecue chat topics, Chrysler also adopted (from its US parent) Electronic Lean Burn (ELB) technology. The ELB system’s electronic brain altered spark advance depending on variables including throttle position, engine load, engine revs, and air and engine temperature.

Economy improved by a measurable 15 percent and there were claims of up to 25 percent in favourable conditions. Unfortunately as with many other products in the early days of consumer electronics, the system was not as reliable as the mechanical package it was strapped to.

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With Aussie families migrating to Datsun 200Bs, Toyota Coronas and Chrysler’s own Sigma, the Valiant range was cut to just three models by 1978 when the CM Valiant series was announced. The 4.0, the 4.3-litre and V8 engines survived but the vans and utility were gone (as was the Charger).

Again heading the list of CM Valiants was the Regal SE; going all out to justify a $12,000 price-tag against Holden’s long wheelbase Caprice and the class-leading Ford LTD despite being built on the same wheelbase as the rest of the range. Alloy wheels were standard, so was air-conditioning, power windows, leather seat trim, radio-cassette sound system with power aerial and an overhead console.

The 5.2-litre V8 was still standard but came with Chrysler’s fuel pacer warning light mounted to the front mudguard to advise drivers when their foot was resting a little too heavily on the throttle.

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In hope more than expectation, Chrysler added a sporty GLX version (there was also a Sigma GLX by then) to its last-ever range of Valiants. There was no V8 option for this one but the 4.3-litre (265 cubes in the old money) delivered decent performance hooked to a four-speed manual transmission.

In the end the demise of Valiant was due to old age – not only was it looking old, but its production tooling was just about worn out – and the chart-topping success of the Sigma, also produced by Chrysler Australia. Following its 1980 acquisition of Chrysler’s South Australian manufacturing facilities, Mitsubishi Motors Australia saw its future in an as-yet-unseen version of the Japanese front-wheel-drive Galant that, after being widened and toughened by ex-Chrysler Australia engineers, would be called Magna.

The last-ever Valiant was made 28 August 1981. It was ceremonially gifted to the dealer Purnell Bros in Bankstown, Sydney.

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ON THE ROAD

Driving a Handling Package Valiant in isolation won’t highlight the wealth of improvement it delivered when compared with earlier versions. The uprated cars were by no means an exceptional design but anyone who spent time behind the wheel of a mid-1970s model – especially one equipped with cross-ply tyres – would rejoice in the difference.

When pushed hard on a loose or bumpy surface, these Valiants still maintain the ability to surprise by snapping with little warning from mild understeer to wrist-twisting oversteer. Most people who own these cars may never push them hard enough to provoke such behaviour but it’s worth being aware of it before venturing onto the back-roads.

Manual Valiants have become pretty hard to find and the three-speed transmission may have played a part in their demise. The column-shifter was vague even when new and didn’t improve with age and the distance through which it moved when changing from first to second was just ridiculous.

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The four-speed manual gearbox fitted to GLX cars and some commercial versions is durable and easier to use, however most surviving CL and CMs will be automatic with a column selector or console-mounted T-bar. The Borg-Warner auto (used in many other 1970s cars) is tough and is easy to overhaul.

These cars despite their age can still work viably as regular transport and most families will fit very comfortably into a Valiant wagon. With bench seats front and rear they legally seat six, all without impinging on the huge cargo platform at the back.

That said, the bench seats aren’t great and the buckets fitted to the Regal versions are not much better. Shorter drivers may find they can’t easily see the front corners and getting close enough to the pedals can mean being too close to the steering wheel.

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If you can find a car with the 4.3-litre engine, buy it in preference to a 4.0 or 5.2-litre. With just a two-barrel carburettor and some exhaust extractors, the ‘265’ matches the V8 for performance and delivers superior economy. If you find one that still has its ELB system in functional condition, 9.4L/100km should be achievable on the highway. Just keep an eye out for that little blinking light on the mudguard.

People with performance on their minds might hanker for the sporty but rare GLX, however a well-maintained SE-equipped Regal offers plentiful luxury plus decent performance as well. The auto transmission may sometimes need a hefty dose of throttle before it will downshift and using the T-Bar shifter is the quickest way to select a lower gear.

When considering a Valiant or Regal wagon remember to check that the rear seat folds flat and the tailgate and its window don’t creak and groan when being lowered.

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BUYING

Almost 50,000 CL and CM Valiants were built but with declining sales, only around 16,000 were the later CMs. Well-kept examples of the CL and CM fortunately are still available and not ridiculously expensive. Said another way, values sadly haven’t grown as much as some other Aussie classics: That’s both good and bad for today’s enthusiasts. Good, because it makes them more affordable to own and bad when one deteriorates past the point of being roadworthy, it is often simply not worth the money to keep it alive for anyone but a hard-core enthusiast. Some cars in reasonable condition are being stripped for parts.

Most Chrysler collectors chase Chargers but there are some interesting toys in the rest of the range: There were just 400 Regal Le Barons made and the late-make manual GLX sedan and V8 Drifter panel van are both quite rare, too. But no matter what, as it is with similar-era Kingswood and Falcon sedans and wagons, a late '70s Chrysler Valiant sedan or wagon is a cool way to ride these days.

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BODY & CHASSIS

Rust – and a lot of it – has spelled the end for most of Australia’s Valiants. Most serious is rot around the front sub-frame and steering box mounting points. With the car on a hoist also carefully inspect the rear spring attachment points, floors and inner sills. No matter how good a car looks from the outside, terminal rust can exist behind the shiny panels. Regals were often supplied with vinyl roof covering and any bubbling or staining around the seams means the turret is almost certainly rotted. Some rust repair panels are available – but not as many as there are for Ford and Holden.

ENGINE & TRANSMISSION

Mechanically, these all-iron sixes and V8s are tough but many ELB cars will have had their electronics dumped in favour of after-market parts. A car that is hard to start and performs poorly may be suffering ELB gremlins. Oil leaks are common and usually not a major issue. Rebuilt six or eight cylinder engines are not a headache and if you can cope with a non-matching numbers car, there are still usable 4.0-litre motors kicking around in people’s back yards.

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

Virtually everything needed to return a Valiant’s suspension to better than new condition is available from after-market suppliers. Replacing parts that mostly haven’t been touched in over 30 years isn’t a low-cost exercise. Kits of new bushes, ball joints and idler arms cost over $400 and a set of reconditioned rear springs $500. Brake rotors that are heavily scored or make the brake pedal pulse when lightly applied need replacement. Reconditioned brake boosters are available at around $400. If the road wheels are scuffed or bent they need replacement. Wider rims with lower profile tyres will help with the handling.

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INTERIOR & ELECTRICS

The cloth trim fitted to Regals and the GLX will by now have reached or exceeded its effective life-span. Retrimming is the solution but matching the original material is difficult. Sometimes entire interiors appear for sale and we have seen complete dashboards with instruments for $150. Seat runners jam and the seat frame in cars with a bench can twist. Make sure the seats move easily and lock in place. Air-con should by now have CFC-free refrigerant but may be suffering other problems. Listen for noises from the compressor when the a/c is activated and make sure the air delivered to the cabin is truly cold.

CHRYSLER OWNER: MATT WOOD

It's kind of sad to admit, but it’s starting to look like this is my mid-life crisis car. What can I say? I’m a Val nut. I’ve owned this 1981 CM Valiant since 2009 and it’s a work in progress, as well being my daily driver. I kind of like the dorky ’80s beige anonymity of this beast. The most memorable quote came from a dodgy-looking old fella who told me that a Valiant was "the best car he’d ever stolen".

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By the time my Val rolled out of Tonsley Park, Chrysler Australia was toast; in fact this one was born in the last month of production. As a result it wears Mitsubishi tags and is a hotch-potch of different options. It wears no Regal or GLX badges and has no air-con or power steering, but came equipped with an S-block 265ci Hemi six and a floor-shift auto. I get the impression that someone on the assembly line was rummaging around in a near-empty parts bin when it was assembled!

It’s had the inevitable cancer removed from around the rear window, as well as some dings ironed out of the rear quarters. The 265 dropped a valve (among other things) a while back and has now been fully re-built and balanced, with a mild cam and some head work. A new set of Lukey headers and a 2.5in exhaust emphasise the distinctive Hemi rumble. It’s my little time capsule, from a time when the first of the Big Three bowed out of Aussie manufacturing.

SPECIFICATIONS

1976 - 1981 CHRYSLER VALIANT CL CM

NUMBER MADE 32,672 (CL) 16,005 (CM)
BODY STYLES Sedan, station wagon, utility and panel van
ENGINES 4015cc, 4342cc six-cylinder or 5205cc V8 POWER/TORQUE 120kW@ 4600rpm, 305Nm@1200rpm (4.3)
TRANSMISSION 3 or 4-speed manual, 3-speed auto
SUSPENSION Independent with torsion bars, telescopic shock absorbers (f) Live axle with leaf spring and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES disc (f) drum (r)
TYRES FR78S14 radial
PRICE RANGE $2000-25,000 (sedan & wagon)
CONTACT http://www.regals.com.au/

 

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