Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Ben Hosking
What better time to feature a Valiant Charger than in the iconic Aussie coupe’s 50th Anniversary? Yes, that’s right – the Charger turns 50 in 2021. Doesn’t that make you feel old?
With Chryslers on the Murray – the major Mopar event in Australia – cancelled for 2021, that event’s planned birthday party for the Charger’s 50th has been put on hold. Thanks to the pandemic, the Chrysler faithful won’t be able to gather and mark the occasion in any other significant way, either – at least in Victoria or New South Wales at time of writing.
What should have been a feast of XLs, R/Ts, White Knights, Sportsmans and 770s (and maybe even a Drifter or two) for Mopar-loving spectators is off the table for now, but those fortunate enough to own a Charger like the unit featured don’t have to wait for Chryslers on the Murray or any other Mopar event. They can celebrate the birthday and enjoy their car right now – and indeed, all year round.
The story of the Valiant Charger has been oft repeated and most Charger owners can rattle off introduction dates, specs and features as easily as naming their children, but for the uninitiated, the basic story goes like this:
The Charger was introduced by Chrysler Australia in August, 1971. The local arm of Chrysler had offered a sporty two-door previously, but the Charger was all new. Based on the VH platform that was introduced in June, 1971, the Charger was very much a local creation, too. Despite its name being lifted from the US Dodge, the Charger was almost entirely local, as the VH Series Valiant was the first to be designed entirely in Australia.
The Charger used the same front-end sheetmetal as the VH Valiant sedan, but beyond the windscreen was a unique, fastback body with integral spoiler. The car rolled on a 6-inch shorter wheelbase than the sedans and was shorter overall, too.
Four different variants were offered initially – Charger, Charger XL, Charger R/T and Charger 770 – each priced to reflect their standard specification.
Eight engine options (comprising five actual engine capacities) and three transmission options were spread across the four variants, and while items like the suspension, brakes, wheels and electrics were common range-wide, there were some variations.
The base Charger was the ‘poverty pack,’ with a 215 cubic inch six-cylinder engine as standard, matched to a 'three on the tree' column-shift three-speed manual. Brakes were drums all round, there was no floor carpeting, no armrests, non-reclining seats and the rear side windows were fixed, amongst other economy measures.
You could option the base model with the larger and more powerful 245 Hemi six, which meant you got front disc brakes and the choice of a floor-shift four-speed manual or column-shift three-speed automatic.
Step up to a Charger XL and you got the 245 Hemi as standard, along with the wider transmission choices, although it was almost a year after the Charger’s launch before a four-speed manual was offered. Optional on the Charger XL was the larger 265 Hemi, but it wouldn’t be until the VJ series that a V8 was offered on this variant.
Styled steel wheels, whitewall tyres, wheelarch and sill mouldings, pop-out rear side windows and a better grade of interior trim (including standard carpeting and reclining front bucket seats) were all part of the XL spec.
The Charger 770 was more of a luxury offering, adding a different “sports” wheel design, blackout tail light panel and complementary black vinyl side trim panel, a chromed fuel filler cap and ventless door windows amongst the outside changes, while inside featured padded door trim, a soft-grip sports steering wheel and woodgrain dash fascia.
The 265 Hemi was standard on the Charger 770, but you could option up to a 318 V8. While it offered only a minor power improvement over the 265 (173kW vs 162kW), the V8 trumped the six in terms of torque (459Nm vs 354Nm).
The standout Charger amongst the original offerings was the R/T. While the other models were somewhat understated, the R/T (Road / Track) shouted its performance credentials, with a blackout bonnet, front guard stripe and rear flank stripe that wrapped over the tail, as well as bold ‘Hemi 265’ decals on the rear quarters, denoting the standard powerplant.
Available in 162kW form with a single downdraught carburettor, the 265 could be upgraded to ‘E37’ spec that featured a trio of sidedraught Weber carbs and other changes that kicked power up to 186kW. Hotter again was the ‘E38’ version of the Hemi 265, which added a lumpier camshaft, higher compression ratio and other tweaks to achieve 210kW. Tick the E38 box and you also got some of the lux interior items from the Charger 770. A three-speed manual was the only transmission offered, and like the XL and 770, the R/T couldn’t be had with a four-speed until mid-1972.
With a four-speed and even higher max power of 225kW, the ‘E49’ R/T soon became the must-have Charger, but the infamous “supercar scare” of 1972 put an end to wider release and further development of the hottest 265 Hemi, as well as a 340 V8 intended for future racing that produced 206kW and 459Nm in street tune. Coded ‘E55’, this performance V8 surreptitiously found its way into a handful of Charger 770s and Valiant sedans.
From that ’71 launch, the success of the Charger was almost immediate. Even before its public release, hype from the motoring magazines at the time meant the originally planned production volume of 20 units per day had to be increased to 43. In October, 1971, just two months after launch, Charger production had been increased to 83 units each day and there was a still a waiting list at Chrysler dealerships. Word of mouth, rave reviews and winning that year’s ‘Wheels Car of the Year’ award kept customers coming through the doors.
Bucking the trend of sporty coupes that were great halo models, but added little to overall sales volume, the Charger accounted for 50 per cent of all Valiant sales a year after its launch.
The downside was that Chrysler’s overall market share dropped in 1972, as it had for the previous three years.
Chrysler responded by dramatically trimming their model lineup with the release of the VJ Series Valiant in 1973 – down from 56 distinct variants to just 18, but most of what was available previously could still be had by picking and choosing through a long list of factory options.
For the Charger, rationalisation of the VJ range saw the R/T dropped, and while engine offerings remained at 215, 245 and 265 Hemi six, and 318 V8, the hot E37, E38 and E49 versions of the 265 Hemi were no longer available. Unofficially, some of the E55 V8s bled across into the VJ Series, while an ‘E57’ option replaced this in 1974, based on a 360 V8 and limited to the Charger 770.
Transmission offerings remained unchanged at three-speed manual, four-speed manual and three-speed auto.
Styling changes for the VJ Charger over the VH were mainly confined to the front end and tail lights, with the adoption of round headlights and vertical grille bars the easiest way to pick a VJ against a VH. New look striping was optional on the XL and a body-length rub strip (part of a Protection package) was optional across the range. The 770 retained its luxury touches and the base model maintained its Plain Jane appearance.
The standard spec list was improved in some areas, though, as Chrysler shifted the Charger’s focus from performance to luxury.
For a 1974 Charger XL like the car featured, ventless door glass that was previously confined to the R/T and 770 was added and seat foam was softer, but not much else changed. Engine-wise, the 318 V8 was now optional on the XL, as was an ‘E48’ triple Weber carb “6 Pack” option for the 265 Hemi that offered performance of 208kW and 431Nm - equivalent to the E38 spec.
You could match the 6 Pack with an optional Sports Package the featured stripes and graphics to create an R/T lookalike – of sorts.
Also on the very long options list for the Charger XL were things like wider wheels, whitewall tyres, power-assisted brakes, a sure grip diff, air conditioning, cloth seat inserts, push-button radio and power steering.
At this time, Chrysler Australia was arguably at the peak of its wacky colour phase, with the 'Green Go' on the feature car being part of a palette that also included ‘Vitamin C’ (orange), ‘Limelight’ (green), ‘Super Blue,’ ‘Ginger Bread’ (yellow) and ‘Plum Crazy’ (purple).
In the same year as the feature car was built, Chrysler also introduced a ‘Charger Sportsman’ that was based on the 265 Hemi/4-speed XL and limited to 500 units. All were finished in Vintage Red with white on the lower body and roof, which wasn’t as lairy as it sounds, although the white vinyl seats with plaid trims were!
The car featured is a 1974 VJ Charger XL that’s been in the possession of its current owner, Jeff Nairn, for almost 20 years.
Jeff’s a longtime Mopar man (his first car was a VJ Dodge ute) and Charger devotee, having previously owned a white VH XL amongst a large back catalogue of cars. When he sold that car in 1998, it didn’t take long for the Charger itch to return.
“I was ready to purchase another Charger in 2002,” Jeff recalled. “Not being able to afford an R/T, I looked for the next best thing and just as rare – a factory 265 HEMI 4-speed.”
Jeff had actually spotted this Green Go VJ XL at a Lake Macquarie car show back in 1995, so knew it was in circulation in NSW before it came on the market.
“As soon as I saw this Charger advertised, I contacted the owner and drove down to Sydney to have a look.”
While Jeff suspected what was being advertised in 2002 was the same Charger he’d spotted seven years earlier, he wasn’t certain until the covers were pulled off: “It was the same Green Go 4 speed 265 HEMI Charger I had fallen in love with back in 1995,” Jeff laughed. “I didn’t haggle and gave the gentlemen a $100 deposit. A week later, I had it parked in my driveway.”
What Jeff had bought was a fairly rare combination. Only 20 VJ Charger XLs with the 265 Hemi and four-speed manual were built in Green Go. And of that original batch, Jeff estimates only a dozen are still in existence today.
Research uncovered the Charger had been built on 22 November, 1974, and sold new through Crossroads Chrysler in the Newcastle suburb of Glendale on 29 April, 1975. Jeff’s the fifth owner of the Charger and he’s managed to make contact with all bar the original owner to get a full picture of its history.
Each of those previous owners have looked after the car and used it sparingly, as it had only 161,000km on the odometer when Jeff bought it.
The car has never been restored and retains all its original chrome, its original side glass and most of its original paint: “The rear third of the vehicle is still the original paint.”
While unrestored, this Charger hasn’t been untouched, with past owners undertaking some minor changes, like rolling the rear wheelarches, adding a roof antenna and cutting the front kick panels to fit speakers for a modern stereo – all in the day when these cars were far less valuable: “It would be sacrilegious to cut up a car like this now!” Jeff laughed.
That being said, Jeff isn’t averse to making some modifications of his own – but all reversible, of course.
After racking up an extra 12,000km on the Charger, Jeff swapped the car’s original engine for another 265 Hemi, which has been treated to a number of upgrades.
Bored 60 thou over, the engine’s been fitted with a Mahle piston and ring set, matched to SCAT rods and Torrington bearings on the original reground crank.
Billet camshafts were next, sourced through Tighe Cams in Brisbane, and with a profile that’s just below E49 spec, according to Jeff. Custom pushords, solid lifters and COMP aluminium roller rockers have also been fitted, along with hardened custom valves on CRANE dual springs.
The 265 heads were ground to match the honed block, with premium graphite gaskets fitted as part of the engine build done by Steve and Jason Elliott in Newcastle.
Pacemaker headers have been fitted, along with a dual 2-inch stainless steel mandrel-bent exhaust with Magnaflow mufflers and R/T-style upswept tips.
Topping off the heavily tweaked Hemi is a 465 Holley 4-barrel Street Avenger, with special jetting – 55 on the primaries and 70 on the secondaries. Jeff’s yet to dyno the car with this revised jetting, but it previously produced 220hp at the wheels, so he estimates there’s now 300+hp at the crank.
To handle the extra grunt, a custom twin-plate clutch and flywheel has been fitted, running the factory 4-speed to a custom diff comprising a Chrysler Sure Grip centre with 3.23:1 gearing.
Like the engine, the Charger’s original 2.92:1 BW diff has been removed and remains ready for refitting should Jeff want to bring this car back to stock.
The stock torsion bar front end was fully replaced in 2012, with some castor and camber changes made at the same time, while the rear suspension is original but slightly lowered.
When refurbishing the brakes in 2017, Jeff had the discs and drums machined, with Bendix pads and a new dual master cylinder kit fitted.
The Charger rolls on Chrysler-correct W35 14-inch wheels at each end, shod with Maxxis 760 Bravo radial rubber – 235/60 front and 245/60 rear.
As mentioned, this Charger still wears some of its original Green Go paint, but the years – all 40 of them before Jeff’s ownership – hadn’t been too kind, so a respray of the guards, roof and doors was required.
A member of the Hunter Valley Retro Auto car club, Jeff was able to call on a fellow member to conduct some body repairs and rust removal before the Charger was sent to Lingane Auto Body Repairs in Hornsby for repainting.
More recently, perished rubbers and damage around the front and rear windscreens required them to be replaced, but the bumpers, badging and stainless are all original.
Same goes for the interior, which is a feast of black vinyl and has survived the decades remarkably well – even the dash.
A Pioneer sound system installed by a previous owner remains in place, and given the engine mods, Jeff has wisely added a VDO oil pressure gauge and tacho, slung under the dash.
As well as being a stalwart Mopar man, Jeff’s also a stalwart Chryslers on the Murray attendee, using this very Charger to drive to and from the event every year since he’s had it – a round trip of around 1,600km.
And if you’re thinking the Charger would be murdering the juice following its engine mods, Jeff says it’s more economical than you’d think.
“Trundling along on just the two barrels, it’s very economical, but give it some and you open up the vac secondaries - the nose lifts up and you’re hauling!” Jeff laughed.
“It gets 10L/100km economy, which is good for a 300+ hp six cylinder Charger!”
Since that modified engine was installed, Jeff’s racked up a further 40,000+km, comprising weekend drives, club runs and – pre-COVID – various car shows.
A trophy winner at the All Chrysler Day Sydney, the Chrysler Wake Run in Toukley NSW, Tamworth Chrysler Nationals and many local charity shows, the Charger’s yet to jag an award at Chryslers on the Murray, but that doesn’t bother Jeff – he’s happy as long as he can drive it and enjoy it.
These days, that’s something we’d all like to do.