VG Valiant Pacer: The Better Aussie Six
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VG Valiant Pacer: The Better Aussie Six

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By JoeKenwright - 29 May 2013
The VG Pacer sedan at its best in a colour that maximises its full house A88 appearance option that included extra blackouts and wilder stripes. The VG Valiant with its trim lines was an Aussie favourite and whether the Pacer presentation improved it is still a subject of debate. What isn’t up for debate is how good it was as a practical performance package for around $3000.  (Photo by: gtho, Wikimedia)

The VG Valiant launch in May 1970 was a short-term move to establish the new Hemi six in a proven model then firm-up Valiant retail pricing to support the big investment in the VH due in June 1971.  It also delivered a new Pacer, one of the best Valiants ever sold in Australia.  

Don’t go looking for any US equivalent because there isn’t one. The new engine coupled to Australian transmissions allowed the VG to become the first Valiant to nudge 100 per cent local content. Local manufacturing and design input at least equalled Australia’s Own Holden HG series but that was only until the all-new Holden HQ took Australian intellectual content to another level in 1971.   

The VG’s austere metal dash might have been old hat compared to the fully moulded cockpits arriving in the late 1960s but down to earth Valiant buyers didn’t mind. The VG’s trim lines, sturdy build and compact size neatly charted a course between competing European and North American trends. The VG can now look newer than the later VH which overshot the short-lived Aussie affair with bulky-looking US cars.

Raced as a mainstream six cylinder family sedan, the VG also enjoyed a closer relationship between the track cars and the showroom models than any Aussie car since the EH Holden S4. By 1970, Ford and Holden were racing niche models with niche powertrains. After Chrysler joined that trend in 1971, the VG Pacer was the last full-sized Aussie family six sedan that had a red-hot chance at the podium.

For Australians ready to trade their EH Holdens and AP5 Valiants at a typical five or six year interval, the VG was an advance in most areas without the excess, an important consideration on single lane country roads. The same qualities allowed the VG Pacer to offer effortless interstate performance for five and a big boot. Aimed at the young and young at heart, it came without the outlay or running costs of a V8, still a big consideration with Aussie distances in 1970. 

Because these VG advantages proved even more relevant as the first of the fuel crises started to bite, most VG Valiants were driven hard and fast into the ground, especially the Pacer. Those that survived in original specification are now quite rare.

An unexpected bonus was the arrival of the VG Pacer as a Hardtop for the first time. Unlike the sedan, it also came with an automatic option and a full Mod Pak as standard. Local Valiant Hardtops were a mixture of imported long wheelbase Dodge Dart Hardtop panels and local Valiant front details. (Image from: www.chargerclubofwa.asn.au/)

 

Why were the VG sedans and hardtops so different?

For the first time, the VG Pacer was offered as a sedan and a two door hardtop. In the US context, they were different cars on different wheelbases. In local Ford terms, it was like being offered a GT sedan based on a Falcon and a GT coupe based on a Fairlane. How could this happen?

Back in 1967, Chrysler Australia went it alone as neither the latest US Valiant nor its larger Dodge Dart offshoot addressed the specialist needs of the local market. The Plymouth Valiant version looked a cheaper, smaller car on its 108 inches/2743mm wheelbase, shorter than the XR Falcon and coming HK Kingswood. Even if Chrysler Australia had spent its last cent on tooling for this new US Valiant, the end result would have been a sedan that looked undernourished against its local competition and there would be no wagon or ute. A new Aussie Valiant for 1967 was Chrysler’s VB Commodore moment.

The Dodge Dart of the same year, although built on the same 111 inch/2819 mm wheelbase as the XR Falcon and coming HK Kingswood, was a cheap stretch of this new Valiant and looked it. Its fat C-pillar and blanks behind the rear doors could do little to hide the smaller Valiant doors framed in the larger body. The Dart’s extra rear overhang was similar to a Holden Brougham, a model that shared the Dart’s wheelbase.  Yet its front was imposing and closer to previous local Valiants.

The Brougham’s immediate flop validated Chrysler’s decision not to turn the Dart into a local Valiant.

Chrysler Australia instead decided on another stretch of the AP5 Valiant platform, already in local production (and paid for) to create the VE series for 1967. Although the changes were so extensive that the models no longer looked related, the AP5’s unusual rear door shutline that carried over into the VE is the clue to what happened next. 

Without the lumps and bumps and wide wheels of local rivals, it was left to the cartoonists to depict what wasn’t there. Yet the ad copy says: “There’s nothing tricky about its clean, uncomplicated styling.” Trying to fathom exactly where Chrysler was pitching the VG Pacer was never easy. Its tarted-up economy car presentation was at odds with upmarket Valiant perception.

The 1966 VC facelift of the AP5 body started the bulking-up process that continued into the VE, except the VE was stretched to the same 108 inches/2743mm wheelbase as the US Valiant. Although shorter than the XR Falcon’s wheelbase, the VE was usefully bigger than the HR Holden at the time and the weight was in the right place. It was also filling in as a Humber Super Snipe replacement in the UK market after Chrysler took over the Rootes Group. 

The VE’s minimal overhangs and slightly smaller wheelbase were a real plus for Chrysler’s patched-on South Australian rural owners who lived on the edge of the outback.

Ever wondered why the HD/HR Holden was never raced seriously or developed by Holden into an S5? For the 1965 HD, Holden cynically moved the engine forward over the front axle and barrelled out the sides to create a bigger cabin on the outgoing EH’s shorter wheelbase and narrow track. To avoid the decline in Holden handling that discredited this process, Chrysler stretched the VE wheelbase ahead of the B-pillar, generating extra front seat room and maintaining chassis balance. 

By widening the VE’s front track and squaring up the upper doors and rear quarters, Chrysler could attach the imposing front clip of the larger US Dodge Dart. The VC’s rear quarters were stretched to match, their origins hidden by the VE’s narrow rear track. Clever concave C-shaped tail lights hid the step between the VC bootlid’s hard points and the extended rear quarters. 

Extra body detailing distracted the eye from noticing that Chrysler did not have the money to send local Valiant panels through the body presses as often as Holden and Ford to match their extra curves. It was an impressive smoke and mirrors exercise with links to the US Valiant and Dart. Most would argue that it did a better job than either.

Presenting the VG Pacer Hardtop as a wild Hemi Pacer 2-Door was a classic case of over-promising, under-delivering for an honest but straight-laced 6 cylinder Hardtop. It could never compete with the swoopier Monaro on looks but it did offer decent five seat accommodation with a longer wheelbase and clean, pillarless styling – a message that eluded this ad!

Another bonus for this approach was that it allowed VE wagon rear sheet metal to be sent to South Africa ready for the front clip of the latest US Valiant to be added.

The VF and VG facelifts completed the process as clever local tweaks squared-up the front and rear to remove any hint of the local VC Valiant or US Dart. This Valiant series was the product of a near identical stretching process that generated the LC/LJ Torana sixes albeit on a larger scale. No coincidence then that they shared similar balance on the track and the same shortage of rear legroom.

The wildcard was the unexpected VG Pacer Hardtop. Behind the windscreen, it was all imported Dodge Dart although there is still some debate over whether Chrysler extended its local sedan doors to fit or they were imported Dart items. 

The Dart rear sheet metal boosted the wheelbase to 111 inches/2819 mm or three inches (76.2mm) longer than the sedan. Because its proportions were closer to the Chrysler VIP and Ford Fairlane luxury models, it was initially marketed as an upmarket VF Hardtop. The Hardtop’s rear sections, similar to the Dart sedan, were always in short supply.  

Once the VF Pacer demonstrated there was room for a full-size hot Aussie six between the Toranas and the big V8s, why wasn’t there a VF Hardtop version? The longer body would have added at least 50kg to the VF Pacer’s weight and knocked the edge off the only mildly improved slant six’s performance. 

That all changed with the VG and its new Hemi six. However, compared to the VG Pacer sedan, the VG Pacer Hardtop was not only heavier and less agile, it was also sloppier structurally. More desirable in the appearance stakes maybe, it could never take over as the track or performance option. The Hardtop carried only a $200 price premium, not much considering its imported content. Despite this tiny premium for its far more exotic looks, Pacer Hardtop take-up was barely a third of the sedan.

A key to the VG Pacer’s local street credibility was its “Hemi” engine. As this shot of a Valiant cylinder head highlights, it was powered by a simple inline pushrod six with the slightest incline in its valve positioning. Even if it did contribute to a slight increase in efficiency, it was nothing like a true Hemi, and even less like Chrysler’s own ground-breaking Hemi V8 engines. Yet as a campaign, it worked! (Image from: drhemi265.com)

The Adelaide company responsible for the VF Pacer striping could now offer two VG Pacer stripe and decal packages. The Hardtop came with the full Mod Pak as standard. The special VF Pacer wheelcovers, also developed in South Australia, carried over. 

Plush high-back front seats ahead of any local rival, carpet and full instrument pack were on the money but the three speed manual on the floor and the lack of a centre console seemed to highlight the plain dash. The local single-rail Borg Warner four speed manual that gave local Fords, Chargers, Centuras and Leyland P76 such a big lift was another two years away. The other big omission for its time was flow-through ventilation, essential before air-conditioning became a local must-have option, and something that Chrysler never rectified.

Pacer presentation and the distorted cartoon graphics in the VG Pacer advertising campaign were at odds with the VG’s flat panels which Chrysler disguised with extra paint and stripes. Red and black grille highlights and colours like Thar She Blue, Little Hood Riding Red, Hemi Orange and Hot Mustard were a legion away from normal Valiants. The Pacer was also marketed on price, a new development after Chrysler traditionally maintained an aloofness from Holden and Ford entry models.  

Although Pacer sales along with the VG Valiant range seemed to flatline during this period, this was no indication of how the upgraded model was accepted. Chrysler was third on the waiting list for local components and materials after Holden and Ford. As the Big Three, as they were called back then, each enjoyed the 1970-71 boom, Chrysler couldn’t always get enough local steel to build the cars to meet demand.

Apart from the licence taken with the Hemi engine sketch and description which simply wouldn’t be allowed today, this ad finally got it right. The Hemi Pacer and how it performed really did speak for itself and the Clean Machine message had strong appeal for those who depended on the basics to deliver.

 

The Hemi that wasn’t a Hemi

The bottom line was that you had a better chance of finding a real “hemi” engine under a Peugeot or Renault bonnet in 1970 than any Valiant. 

The classic hemi-head design as fitted to Chrysler’s milestone V8 engines, has a spark plug deep in the centre of a cross-flow head with the valves at a fairly dramatic angle on opposing sides to create a hemispherical combustion chamber. The unburnt fuel enters one side, ignites in the middle, then exits on the other side in a single uninterrupted flow. Pure poetry if you were a drag racer in the 1960s and why the Hemi reference was so potent when applied to the VG Valiant even if it wasn’t technically accurate.

Another misleading notion floating around at the time (perpetuated by this writer with some regret) was that the VG Pacer’s hot new “hemi” six was an abandoned and unfinished US truck engine finessed into passenger car use by Chrysler’s Aussie wizards. It can create the impression that Valiant noses from this point were filled with oversized truck engines. The opposite was the case.

Yes, the Aussies did complete the engine ready for production but with help from visiting US engineers. It was not a truck engine. As the intended replacement for the slant six in the US, it incorporated every advance available for a simple long-life, cast-iron pushrod engine ready for coming emissions laws.  A separate and re-engineered 300 cu in/4.9-litre version for commercial use was to follow later.

After it exploited the latest thin wall casting with strengthening ribs where required and a stiffer seven bearing crankshaft, the new engine was lighter, stronger and much more efficient. For valve operation, it dispensed with a shared rocker shaft for individual rocker arms and ball end pushrods. This was the key to its new selling feature.

The VG Valiant was the second facelift of the Australian VE Valiant which was a local Car of the Year in 1967. Note the US Dodge Dart front mated to a local evolution of the 1963 AP5 Valiant rear on a shorter wheelbase than the Dart. The rear door shutline and the narrow rear track obvious in this photo highlight how two different generations were mated together for specific local demands. (Image from: slantsix.org)

From side on, the valves were inclined at an almost token 7 degrees. Because the spark plugs were in their usual place on one side and the inlet and exhaust manifolds were on the other, the in-line valves were jammed so close to each other in such a tight V-formation they could never match a true Hemi. However, the angled valve seats viewed with a squint did generate a hint of a curve. Several US V8 engines had the same feature.

Legendary engine designer, the late Phil Irving, described its Hemi label as a hemi-truth.

It was the Australians who added the bigger 265/4.3-litre version to the menu but not in time for the VG. 

Its vertical installation was another key difference to generate extra space for ancillaries such as power steering, air-conditioning and emissions equipment. For right hand drive markets, this was potentially a big advance as the engine was no longer competing for space with steering, brake and clutch systems.

Yet Chrysler Australia failed to address an issue that had compromised every Australian Valiant from the first and would now continue to do so until the very end. Although not so obvious with the slant six, all Aussie Valiants had their engines mounted offset to the right or Aussie driver’s side to generate extra space on the US driver’s side. This scenario was never corrected.

Apart from reducing space for power boosters and other parts, this offset engine location forced Chrysler Australia to mount the Valiant steering box on the body, not the special K-rack/suspension structural member engineered for this purpose. Because the old engine slanted in the wrong direction, there was little point in moving it.  However, the new Hemi six with its vertical architecture should have been the catalyst for Australian Valiants to at last share the same steering integrity as the US models. 

This is the US Dodge Dart series that shared its front section with local Valiants from 1967. Note the different rear doors shared with the equivalent US Plymouth Valiant version. These doors plus the blanks behind them, extended C-pillars to cover the extra wheelbase and extra overhang would have created nightmare tooling costs for Chrysler Australia only to deliver a new model that would have been a liability on Australian rural roads. (Image from: Oldparked cars.com)

Instead, the Hemi engine stayed offset on the wrong side just like its predecessor and the steering box stayed bolted to the body structure, not the K-rack. Criticism of the Valiant’s lost motion between the steering box and the rest of the steering system grew in direct proportion to the extra performance, better brakes and stickier rubber as each exposed the loss of rigidity and strength in the Australian steering box location. 

As Saab discovered with the first GM-based Saab 900/9-3, steering mounted to body sheet metal no matter how it is strengthened or boxed, does not work. In Aussie Valiants, there was the added safety consideration of the metal fatiguing over time and rusting out which could allow the steering box to break free for serious steering failure.

What should have been Chrysler’s proudest moment with the best and most advanced six cylinder engine unique to Australia at that point, was tainted by the growing criticism of the local Valiant’s steering. The job wasn’t complete. 

Plans to export the engine didn’t materialize either as the US market further consolidated into smaller sixes for economy cars giving the slant six a second life. The new generation small V8 engines that caused the Hemi six to be handballed to Australia in the first place were now entrenched as the next step-up.  

In Australia, where buyers equated extra cylinders with extra fuel use, the Hemi charted a perfect middle line between Holden’s wheezy sixes and the niche small V8s.  Without the Hemi six and its easy-going torquey nature, the VG Pacer would have been just another cosmetic package, the later Charger would have been just another coupe, and the local Valiant would have disappeared much earlier.

It was the true hero in this story.

Another shot of the equivalent US Dodge Dart. The Dart’s extra size and weight would have knocked the edge off the Pacer’s class-leading six-cylinder performance and agility as the local Hardtop version based on this larger model demonstrated.  (Image from: oldparked cars.com)

 

Some VG Pacers Were More Equal than Others

 Pacer: Entry 245/4.0-litre Pacer engine with two barrel carburettor, free breathing air cleaner, modified camshaft and twin-outlet exhaust manifold. Power was not disclosed.  Stock Valiant two barrel 245 option was rated at 185 bhp gross leading to estimates of 200 bhp/149kW for the Pacer, typical of a small V8 at the time. A modern DIN equivalent would be around 126kW.

E31: Two-Barrel Track Pack. Bore increased from 3.76 inch/95.5 mm to 3.80 inch/96.52 mm bore for a capacity boost to 251 cu in/4.1 litres from 245/4.0-litres.  Warmer cam profile, sump baffle to reduce oil surge, smaller four blade 16 inch fan. 

E34: Four-Barrel Track Pack. 251 cu in block. Special four barrel inlet manifold and Carter AVS four barrel downdraught carburettor, Pacer exhaust manifold with blanked-off heat riser surplus to water-heated inlet manifold, triple-core radiator as for air-conditioning option, performance cam profile, sump baffle, engine torque-arm under bell housing located with bump stops to protect engine mounts and restrict inlet manifold contact with nearside shock absorber mount, larger vibration damper/harmonic balancer, four blade 16 inch fan, dual plate clutch, race quality main and big end bearings, shot peened con rods, high volume oil pump, manual choke, revised instrument panel with choke provision. 

E35: Four-Barrel Street Pack: 245 block with four barrel inlet manifold and Carter AVS four barrel downdraught carburettor, standard Pacer two-barrel cam profile, torque-arm under bell housing located with bump stops to protect engine mounts and restrict inlet manifold contact with nearside shock absorber mount, dual plate clutch, manual choke, revised instrument panel with choke provision. 

A84 Competition Package: Close-ratio three speed (2.12:1, 1.43:1, 1.00:1 compared to 2.71:1, 1.55:1. 1.00:1) manual, larger diameter tail shaft, deleted front disc brake shields, deleted rear brake adjusters, 6 inch rims, stiffer shock absorbers, finned rear drums, rear brake proportioning valve, lower front ride height, deleted horn ring. 

Had Chrysler Australia kept pace with the latest Dodge Dart facelifts, the VG Valiant Pacer would have looked like this. The big question is whether it would have sold better. In hindsight, this front along with other tweaks were probably closer to what Australians wanted than both VG and VH Valiant series as it pre-empted the popular 1973 XB Falcon facelift. It might have even saved Chrysler as the big investment in the lack-lustre VH didn’t really deliver. (Image from: photogallery.classiccars.com)

J42: 35 gallon/159 litres long range fuel tank located between boot hinges behind rear seat, fast fill flip-top filler cap behind nearside C-pillar on top of rear guard, locating straps bolt into modified boot floor, modified fuel lines and revised wiring loom for fuel tank sender unit, modified boot mat. 

A88: Pacer Sports Dress-Up Package or Mod Pak: Performance lower side stripes end in a Pacer 245 roundel on the rear quarter then continue up and across the bootlid. These replaced the standard hockey stick stripes that curved ahead of the front wheel arch. Plus A88 side window blackouts and the twin black bonnet panels separated by 245 Pacer Hemi centre graphic, black wiper arms and blades. The Pacer Hardtop came with A88 standard. 

B51: Brake power booster. The VG Pacer’s new front ventilated disc brakes come only with power assistance if you ordered it. 

D52: 2.92:1 Suregrip limited slip diff.  

D53: 3.23:1 Suregrip limited slip diff. 

D66: 3.50:1 Suregrip limited slip diff. 

Stirling Moss was to Aussie family car buyers in 1970 what Peter Brock was to later generations. Hemi or not, every Australian who needed to know got the message that the Valiant had a clever new engine. Just a shame that Chrysler never had the will or resources to give it the home it deserved beyond the E49 Charger.

Model Codes 

Pacer 4 Door: VG-7 S 41 (manual) 

Pacer 2 Door: VG-7 S 23 (manual) VG-8 S 23 (auto) 

Total Build: 4547 (Source: Gavin Farmer, Great Ideas In Motion) 

E31: 209 

E34: 212 (n/a as a hardtop) 

E35: 18 

Only 3 E31 Hardtops and 18 E35 Hardtops were built.  

(Source: Glenn’s Valiant Pacer Website)