Here come the drifters!

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Mark Bean / Craig Morley

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Jumping on the youth market bandwagon brought some much-needed life into Chrysler showrooms

Here come the drifters!
The Drifter

Even the most fanatical Ford and Holden owners must at times have spared a sympathetic thought for rival brand Chrysler.

The local arm of North America’s third biggest carmaker shocked Australia with its R and S Series Valiants, but then fell from favour as the USA parent failed to deliver other interesting cars. Lack of development money for local product didn’t help either.

Still, the 4.4-litre AP6 Valiant will forever stand as Australia’s first V8 family sedan, after which the Charger brought a uniquely Australian design to the local market. But that was about it.

Holden with its Sandman would during the 1970s take commercial models on a recreational romp across the nation and it was into this particular market that the folk from Tonsley Park thought they could plunge without seriously buggering the budget.

In May 1977, Chrysler released a panel van as part of the revamped CL Valiant range and followed it shortly after with a Drifter variation. 

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Nowhere on these stripe-heavy, usually V8-powered vehicles – not even Charger versions –
did the word ‘Valiant’appear, and nor did it need to. These were in every sense pleasure machines, well-insulated from Chrysler’s aura of conservatism and designed to deliver nothing apart from licentious fun.

Van Tastic

Headline act within the Drifter range was without doubt the panel van. 

Chrysler had never before produced a van for public sale and was predictably keen on using its new addition to charm surf culture devotees away from Holden showrooms.

The CL, it must be said, was not the first ever Valiant panel van. That distinction went to a VH-based creation loaned to Crawford Productions for use in its widely watched Division 4 police series. Yes kids, your mum or dad if they were actors during the 1970s might have got a lift home in the back of a Valiant Divvy Van.

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What a fabulous sight!

Chrysler when defining its Drifter concept reportedly ran what would today be called ‘focus groups’ in order to better understand the needs of its target market.

What emerged was a strong desire for the cargo area to be lined and carpeted, with its access door horizontally split so the rear window could remain open while driving.

Appearance was obviously crucial and it was decreed that Drifters would share the CL Charger’s four headlamp front. To help owners see better when nosing into secluded beachfront parking spots, halogen high-beam lights were standard too.

Three exterior colours were offered: Lemon Twist, Impact Orange and Alpine White/Bondi Beach White. A handful of Drifters would also be produced in Spinnaker White.

Apart from altering the Drifter nose, Chrysler resisted the temptation to add spoilers or other embellishments.  However, bold graphics keyed to the body colour were clearly part of the stylists’ agenda.

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Bucket seats – only the best for the Drifter.

Legend says that production-line workers at Tonsley Park whenever a Drifter rolled down the line would use spray bottles of water to keep the side panels slippery until the multicoloured decals could be perfectly positioned.

Despite the 1970s being a time of spiralling petrol prices, more buyers specified V8 power than preferred the Hemi six. 

Just 90 Drifter vans and a smaller number of utilities were built with 4.3-litre engines, opposed to a reported 216 vans and 120 to 140 V8 utes. Most buyers then chose four-speed manual transmission over the three-speed automatic.

Gordon Olsen’s four-speed, V8-engined Drifter van spent part of its early life carrying swap-meet stock for a Chrysler parts specialist in Queensland before being retired in 1990 and bought by a Mopar enthusiast.

It was meticulously restored during 2009, then in 2011 bought by Gordon’s friend Don Frost
and relocated to Cessnock in NSW. 

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Gordon is about to let go of the car.

During Don’s ownership, the van appeared at numerous car shows and won Best Van at Chryslers on the Murray in Echuca. 

During his ownership, Don obtained details from the Valiant Infobase which confirmed the van to be the only one to be made in Alpine/Bondi Beach White with Satin Parchment trim.

Gordon recently advertised the Drifter for sale with Unique Cars and immediately received offers from several people who were keen to own it. 

Keenest of them all was a prominent Chrysler collector who completed the purchase long-distance from Holland where he is currently working and who won’t physically
see the car until he returns home.

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Fully lined rear.

The Drifter Utes

Craig Morley is a Valiant enthusiast from Cooma, NSW. He very likely owns more Valiants than anyone else in the town, except maybe the bloke with the wrecking yard, and keeps his eyes open for any rarities that might appear.


Now that’s real patina.

His Drifter ute wasn’t something that appeared from nowhere, as some have been. Craig had known the car since he was a child, seeing it head through Jindabyne and towards Perisher in the heart of snow country.

More than 20 years ago, he was working on a farming property and saw the ute again. By this time it was grimy and faded but he recognised the stripes and asked the owner if he wanted to sell it. 

The response was a gruff ‘no’ and that was that until some years later when the owner himself became interested in selling and approached Craig.

Still, nothing occurred for about a year before a deal was struck and Craig with his trailer arrived to collect the neglected but basically rust-free Drifter.

"I think you might be buying a headache," the owner said as he watched his CL winched aboard, but Craig freely admits to relishing a challenge.

"Like several of my cars it had been sold locally in Cooma and spent its life in the district, ending up as a farm ute," he said. "Imagine that, a V8 four-speed being flogged around a property and surviving."


Craig’s Drifter is one of 34 utes built in Alpine White. 

Returning home with his prize, Craig was reluctant to do much except admire the rare Mopar. Finally he turned the engine by hand to ensure it wasn’t seized, then connected a battery, tipped fuel down the carburettor and hoped.

"After three cranks it fired and ran pretty well," he recalled. "It also drove okay, so after replacing the tyres, overhauling the brakes and replacing upper control arm bushes I headed for Chryslers on the Murray."

There the organisers had a portable dynamometer and Craig was amazed that the Drifter, with an engine that had been reconditioned a few years earlier and not run much since, still made 147 brake horsepower at the wheels. 

The Drifter is one of 34 utes built in Alpine White, of which only two are known to survive. Craig’s is the only one that remains unrestored. While exact figures aren’t known, Craig suspects that fewer than 50 genuine Drifter utes have survived. 

Jolly Green Drifter

This Drifter first came to Unique Cars’ attention in July 2021 at the height of COVID-19 insanity when it found fame as a Today’s Tempter on our social media page.

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Love the period canopy.

No, it isn’t a genuine Drifter ute, but according to Bart Khan of Pennant Hills Auto in the northern Sydney suburb of Thornleigh, it was built in tribute to the two V8 Drifter utes that were originally produced in this stunning shade, which appears to be Chrysler Amazon Green.

The tribute is a genuine CL V8 with the scarce factory canopy and was converted to Drifter specification during a complete restoration in the PH Auto workshops. The business restores many of the cars it retails, specialising in USA and Australian performance models. 

Sports Pack with a twist

A bloke called Mal also lived in Cooma, some years before Craig Morley was born and Mal wanted to own a Falcon van. Not any van though, but one with the same sinister looking ‘Concorde’ nose famously fitted to Mad Max’s Falcon Hardtop.


Big brute of a thing.

He paid a deposit but the van didn’t arrive, prompting an invitation from the local Chrysler dealer for Mal to visit Adelaide and inspect some Sports Pack vans being prepared for customers.

The first shed sparked no interest, but hiding amongst the candidates in Shed 2 was one that stood out from the rest.

"That one," Mal reportedly said with excitement. "I want that one." And ‘that one’ proved to be truly special.

The van was a promotional model, being readied for motor show and dealer display duty.


Its build plate denoted the van as white and its engine bay remains the original colour, but externally it had been repainted in a shade described as Moonstone. Cut into the sides were windows and it had murals which remain discernable today.

The van was named Moonraker and, despite suggestions that was to be a promotional vehicle for the upcoming James Bond epic of that name, that film wasn’t released until 1979, a year after the van had been sold

Still, its load area would have made the perfect lair for a Bond villain of dubious taste. It certainly must have horrified interior decorators and parents alike. 

On the floor was red shag-pile carpet, with red velour in abundance elsewhere. The headboard between the cabin and inbuilt double bed was mirrored, and built into the sides were a mini bar and music system; all the work of Cal Custom in Adelaide. 


Up front, things became more subdued with individual seats, a dash from a Regal SE, air-con and a sports steering wheel. 

Despite the van’s unique status a deal was done, on condition it wouldn’t be delivered until its round of show duties had been completed. 

That meant a wait of more than a year before Moonraker with its V8 and four-speed manual transmission was delivered through Cooma Chrysler on June 30, 1978.

For several years the van was used by its owner as a business vehicle, taking pinball machines to new locations. It then spent time under a leaky tarp in the town of Tathra, and from there Craig Morley takes up its tale.

"From Tathra it moved to a boat yard in Victoria where it was photographed and posted on a Facebook page, creating loads of interest," he recalled. 


"I wanted the van before somebody else got it, so I contacted Mal who was living in Thailand and agreed on a price."  

This occurred during Victoria’s COVID lockdown period and on his first attempt, Craig was twice intercepted by police and escorted back to the border, despite having a valid permit to enter the State. 

His second attempt was more successful. It saw the van headed home to Cooma and readied for a trip by trailer to Chryslers on the Murray.

"It runs and drives, the engine seems fine, but I wouldn’t trust the suspension or brakes on a long trip," Craig admitted. "On the inside, it is very good, with just a few little tears in the hood lining and it’s only done 189,000 kilometres." 

"It was #55 of about 1800 CL vans built and really does stand out from the rest.

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