Hillman Hustler: Aussie original
Chrysler's rootes group takeover led to a high performance variant of the Hillman Hunter, the locally-built hustler
NOTHING OUT-HUSTLES THE HUSTLER
The Hillman Hustler hardly drove into the ‘eventually collectible’ category on debut in October 1970, but it is now a rare machine of interest. Apart from what the Hustler tells us about automotive fashion and marketing ideas of the time, it also offers clues as to why some cars achieve classic status while other more likely candidates languish.
It’s difficult to think of any 1970 car that tells us more about the Australian motoring scene at that time. Even the choice of October for the launch appears more than coincidence. Journalists writing for Motor Manual drove a brand new one to Bathurst. While the Hustler never got beyond the carpark at Mount Panorama, it was dressed up as if that venue was the first stopover on its itinerary. This astonished, given the conservatism of the Hillman Hunter, successor to that stalwart of the 1950s and 1960s, the Minx.
The Hustler was a blatant expression of Chrysler’s recent acquisition of the Rootes Group. The HB Hillman Hunter made its UK debut in 1966, the year before Chrysler had completed its progressive takeover, meaning this Cortina-rival was the last Hillman designed by the old English firm. Looking back, the contrast between the products of the Rootes Group and those of Chrysler could hardly have been more extreme. Compare the 1962 Humber Hawk, for example, with the ‘R’ Series Valiant of the time.
Lord Rootes’s empire was in all kinds a hill, man? of strife – much of it due to the Hillman Imp’s failure to rewrite small car orthodoxy or win sufficient customers, to say nothing of achieving acceptable reliability – by 1964-’65; Lee Iacocca said in his autobiography that Chrysler should never have bought the Rootes Group.
Because the Hunter was assembled locally (in Port Melbourne rather than Tonsley Park alongside Valiants), Chrysler Australia executives saw the opportunity to piggy-back it onto the Valiant marketing strategy. In 1968-’69 when the Hustler was conceived, the Valiant was in the latter stages of its heyday but at the start of its foray into series production racing.
The marketing types were on a roll. The Valiant Pacer had immediately proved popular from its debut in March 1969. So the same formula was applied to the Hunter. The local HE facelift added some Valiant flavour to the Hunter range, including the VG-type grille, the steering wheel and neater taillights.
But the Pacer was a very different car to the British-inspired Hunter GT (complete with polished walnut dashboard) launched three months earlier.
Andrew Cowan’s 1968 London to Sydney Marathon win gave a new sporting edge to the Hunter and local ads exploited this. While the UK entry point was a 1.5-litre four, Chrysler Australia execs had wisely chosen the 1725cc version for our cars, including the entry level Arrow. In standard guise it made 55kW but the GT got the twin carb ‘Rapier’ unit and 70kW.
The Hunter GT was an even match for the Cortina GT but both cars were frowned on by insurance underwriters. Exorbitant premiums were introduced in a preview of what would later apply to any car with a turbocharger. Ford Australia dropped its car a couple of months before the October 1971 arrival of the TC range.
By contrast, the Chrysler product planners came up with a clever scheme. The Hunter offered scope not only for a plusher version of the GT (by another name) but also a Pacer-type entry level performance variant.
Why not combine the mechanical specification of the GT with the luxury of the Royal, while trading on the success of the Valiant Regal 770? So the Royal 660 (note the symmetry of nomenclature) became the new Hunter flagship. It was priced at $2638, $34 less than the Cortina GT.
Buyers who weren’t interested in the woodwork, forelock-tugging nomenclature and generally conservative image of the Royal 660 were given the choice of the $2378 Hustler. Two more different versions of the same basic car are hard to imagine even now.
The whole marketing plan was to reposition the Hunter as a compact Valiant. Like the Regal 770, the Royal 660 was aimed at buyers 25 and older, while the Pacer and Hustler were targeted to appeal to the kind of buyer who might have been driving a hot five year-old EH Holden.
Amazingly, the Hustler out-brashed the Pacer. Not only did it flaunt the red stripe across its grille and the same bright colour schemes but there were black bonnet panels and stripes along the lower flanks that looked crass even in 1970.
No other car in the price range was as quick or as extroverted; as the ads said, ‘nobody out-hustles the new Hunter Hustler’. There are hints of Ford Australia’s Super Roo theme to this campaign, spearheaded by a double page colour cartoon which appeared in the December 1970 editions of major motoring magazines including Wheels and Sports Car World, a month ahead of the road tests.
Motor Manual duly published its test of the Royal 660 in January 1971, rating it ahead of the Hustler. ‘Overall the finish was good and the car we thought was better than the Hustler which in comparison is very spartan. The Royal 660, as a replacement for the Hunter GT, is a far better package deal.’
Zero to 60mph took 12.2sec which was lineball with the much dearer Renault 16TS. Top speed was 99mph at a time when ‘the ton’ was still judged to be high.
The Royal had carpet which kept noise levels down compared to the Hustler with its entry level rubber flooring, but the engine proved intrusive beyond 4500rpm and top gear acceleration was modest. The Hustler managed 28mpg (10.1L/100km) on its return trip from Sydney to Bathurst.
Evidently the journos did not enjoy the Hustler’s noise, unsupportive seats, rattles and poorly tuned engine.
Time soon out-hustled the Hustler. The bright paint colours stood up poorly to Australian UV. Rust ate the panels. By 1980 Hustlers were already becoming rare; count the survivors now in single digits. And yet, collectors seek the brazen Hustler in preference to the Royal 660. Perhaps the Motor Manual pilgrimage to Mount Panorama provides the clue to why this is so; the 1970 variant is now highly sought. It was always more about the imagery than the journey.
HOW DOES A HILLMAN GO UP A HILL, MAN?
When Motor Manual staffers jumped into a Hustler to drive to Bathurst, were there jokes about Hillmans at Mt Panorama? (‘How does a Hillman go up a hill, man? Over the top in top, Pop!’).
Ironically, this flamboyantly sporty car was too late to have much chance for class honours in the rapidly evolving Hardie-Ferodo; 1970 was the second last year of series production at The Mountain.
The last Hillman to race in the Hardie-Ferodo 500 was an Arrow crewed by Nick Ledingham and Damon Beck the previous year. It started from 49th in a field of 63 and finished 10th in its class.
As late as 1967 the Arrow (lighter than the Hunter) had been competitive, placing second and third in Class B behind a Morris Cooper. It was the best ever result for a Hillman at Mount Panorama.
Plenty of them had gridded up in earlier years. A Minx ran in the first Armstrong 500 in 1960 with two competing in ’62. Ian Wells and Don Dunoon came fourth in class in the latter, behind a Renault Dauphine Gordini, a Morris Major Elite and a Simca Aronde.
The forerunner to the Hunter 660 Royal/Hustler, the Vogue Sports, appeared in ’64 but didn’t finish. Ditto ’65.
ALSO RAN IN IRAN
The Iran Khodro Paykan was to the Hillman Hunter what the Hindustan Motors Ambassador was to the Morris Oxford. In the same way that the ’56 Morrie soldiered on in the sub-continent for decades, the ’67 Hunter remained a new car in Iran until as late as 2005.
The Paykan did for Iranian motoring pretty much what the Holden 48-215 ‘FX’ did for ours.
In 1967, Rootes began exporting Hunters to the Iran Khodro company in CKD form. About 100,000 Paykans were assembled annually. By 1975, the car was built in Iran, except for the (1725cc) engine. But that soon changed, too.
There were Standard and Deluxe variants. Pickups, trucks and taxis followed. A commercial was on offer by about 1969 and in 1972 a GT was introduced; it looked much like the Aussie Hustler!
When there was no future for the Hunter, Iran Khodro acquired exclusive rights and the engine tooling when Peugeot acquired Chrysler’s European operations in 1978. Later, the Hillman engine was replaced by the 2.0-litre Peugeot 504 unit.
It has been estimated that up to 40 per cent of Iranians drove these cars in the early 1970s but the local youth aspired to cooler, more modern designs.
HILLMAN'S GREATEST WIN
A Hillman Hunter victory in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon was about as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition. In his A Boot Full of Right Arms (a first person account of the 1974 World Cup Rally), Evan Green describes both Andrew Cowan and the car in which the Scot won the event:
‘He possesses enormous quantities of a rally driver’s main asset: concentration at an intense level. And he can maintain that intensity over long periods. That’s why he won the Marathon.’
Cowan never gave up, even though pursuit must have seemed hopeless in such a heavy and underpowered car as the tank-like Hillman Hunter.
‘It was many times stronger than the standard model and had such non-Rootes Group items as an Aston Martin rear-end. It was built to survive the course, not win. Andrew didn’t believe it would have the speed to succeed.
‘"Build me a car to come last," was the classic request he delivered to the Rootes competition manager before the Marathon. He thought only a few cars would finish. He wanted to be one of the few.’
The course covered 7000 miles over eleven countries in the same number of days (not including the nine spent at sea between Bombay and Fremantle). There were 98 cars at the start. Remarkably, more than half the field finished. Of the fastest cars in the field, Ian Vaughan’s XT Falcon GT fared best with second. Tony Fall’s Austin 1800 was third. Roger Clark was fastest in the early stages of the rally in his Lotus Cortina and David McKay also did well in his Monaro GTS 327, but neither car finished.
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