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Road Test - Valiant VE (Wheels Car of the Year 1967)

Chrysler's moment of truth in metal grabs the CAR OF THE YEAR- The 1967 WHEEL'S Car Of The Year award has gone to the new VE Valiant series. This is the first time a Chrysler car has won our unique award, and the Valiant is a worthy successor to the four winners before it. As we said in our full test in WHEELS December, the VE is the first tangible sign of a new spirit in the hitherto loftily isolated Adelaide company. To be absolutely candid, we had to consider two Valiant models in previous COTY judging, and had discarded each without a qualm.

However, this year's award stands in close company with the 1965 award to the XP Falcon. This car won the bronze plaque because it represented a peak in consistent and thoughtful engineering development from what was originally a very poor start. Our terms of reference allow as much for this as for radical adventurism, The VE Valiant is much the same; The first Valiants were by no means as defective as the first Falcons, but successive models produced some fairly staid engineering thought that obviously strove to maintain the poor man's company director image that used to repeat, used to sell so many Valiants.

The VE is Chrysler's moment of truth in metal. It represents the day that the smallest of the Big Three decided that it was time it stopped shadow sparring and went in for some infighting. It went the whole route. We have tried to measure up what this car cost Chrysler in sheet metal tooling and engine work, but the company is either very shy about it or can't honestly add up its sums in this way. Either way it was a very, very expensive model change.

This, perhaps more than anything else, swung the balance in Chrysler's favour. It was prepared to go right out on a limb and be a big spender when it could have got by with only sheet metal and no major running gear alterations at a time when its capital investment in a new engine foundry at Lonsdale was formidable. It had to risk money on changing its whole attitude to engineering and marketing literally to discard a merchandising policy that had made the Valiant a real success story. This was the theme that people were prepared to pay a little more for a prestige product and hang the options race.

So Australia in November got a far more comprehensive and lavish range of Valiants than the US has ever seen, with some honestly indigenous styling and the first real safety features to appear on a local compact, including dual-circuit braking, high-speed nylon tyres as standard on some models and satin-finish wiper arms. With this Chrysler also found time to fix up a, number of the small points which have marred Valiants, in the past, like the positioning of the dipswitch, replacing vacuum washers with electric, and getting a better balance of ride and handling.

We traced the development of the VE right from the time it was first agreed upon as a build program on May 14, 1964. We plotted it through to the stage where we stood outside a, dynamometer room at Chrysler Park and watched the first Australian-built Valiant six burst into life on the stand. We walked past shrouded prototypes of tile VF and VG, still years away from birth, sitting in a huge experimental engineering bay where an amber light warned that we medium security risk visitors.

The first drafting lines for the program were laid down in September, 1964, and by the next month the basic styling theme had been approved within the guidelines, a distinctively Valiant, yet uniquely Australian car with more interior room but remaining in the medium priced concept. Model announcement date was set for three years thence, and the various groups then started working separately on matters like interior design, the new engines, tile power steering and the dual braking system. Mock-ups were sent to the corporation's Michigan proving ground for impact testing, and a separate parallel program was started to map out a different VIP version especially for the British export market.

As each area closed off its work, a certain number of "open ends" were left so that major and minor changes could be made at the last moment according to up to date advice from the market research and product planning people.

A little of the credit for the final look of the VE must go to Walt McPherson, Chryslers new chief engineer of less than nine months. Formerly head of the corporation's giant US proving ground in Detroit, he wasn't in on the start of the VE build but he arrived in time to apply an expert hand to the final touches. He arrived in the middle of a styling walk-around of one of the first mock-ups. The grille wasn't right, although the tooling had been bought; the bars did not extend beyond the inner edge of the headlights, and they agreed it narrowed the car too much "We have," says McPherson, "a fine set of front end tooling if anybody would care to make an offer." They changed it. Seven months before release they re-tooled for a new grille, which in motor manufacturing time terms is about equivalent to building the Sydney Opera House for its original estimated cost. We still don't think they got the grille right, but goddamn, they tried hard.

The styling of the VE was very much a free choice for the company. All previous Valiants have borrowed American drawings, although not tools, and have, apart from minor brightwork and other touches, been fairly faithful replicas of US models, in looks at least But with the VE they had to start with a clean sheet of paper, without knowing in 1964 what GM-H and Ford would be styling for 1967-68. From the start they had two guidelines, to make the styling evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and to maintain the "product identity" which means making it look like a Valiant, and enough like a Valiant to assure current owners that their resale would not be suddenly slashed by radical new styling. This was precisely the mistake GM-H made with the HD, which was too much for the customers to swallow at one gulp; in the used car yards, poor HD's now sell for about the same as good EH models.

So they went for the straight-through" look, which happily coincided with the trend in Phoenix (nee US Plymouth Fury) styling, which represented the mainstream of corporation styling thought and also fitted nicely with the idea that it is handy to have your compact looking like your top-of-the-pole lashup. As the styling developed they added a flattened roof line and concave rear window, again anticipating what will become a fairly strong trend here in the next two years. That concave rear window gave them a lot of trouble with its multiple curves, but the supplier eventually got it right. He had to: Chrysler's quality control chiefs are notoriously demanding of their suppliers.

The rest of the styling followed naturally (apart from the grille), The styling virtually decided the wheelbase, as often happens, and although future events will show that the Valiant is now about 3 ins. shorter in the wheelbase than its competitors, the styling still had them a big-looking car, which was what they wanted.

So they created the VD, a never to be used model designation that they satirically applied to the program cars, which ran all, the durability testing as VC models wearing VE running gear. These could go about in broad daylight, for Chrysler does not have a proving ground and does not intend to build one as long as the SA Government kindly provides free of charge hundreds of miles of good and bad roads around Adelaide. Had you looked closely at these program cars, a penny would have dropped' for the longer wheelbase is quite apparent in the way the wheels sit within the guards. With drivers in shoulder harness and ballast in the rear, the program cars turned up thousands upon thousands of miles as the engineers carefully sorted out spring and damper rates, ride levels, spring eye mounting' points, torsion bar heights, weight distribution, braking effort and the dozens of other things which have to be patiently juggled to achieve the best compromise.

The result is well known now. Chrysler has converted a slodgy, awkward handler into a responsive, good-riding car that nobody can claim is a sports car but which exceeds the ride-handling standards expected of current compacts. As the program went on, the engineers decided to seek more power from its six and V8 engines to match the Holden challenge with the 186S and the V8, which it knew to be coming Prototype engines in the program cars led to another sorting experiment to cope with the extra power, and somewhere in between they found time to insert the new "wide oval" tyres into the testing program to see how they dovetailed into the package. Fortunately, they not only dovetailed but improved things, proving once again that radial ply tyres are not the answer for some heavy, conventionally suspended cars.

Up came the power steering problem, and the research laboratory started testing alterations to the American coaxial power steering. This put up another set of problems; the basic floor pan layout (and only that) of the Valiant is still basically on American drawings. The engine is canted according to lefthand-drive requirements. This not only affected the power steering setup but also the desire to relocate the dipswitch anywhere but under the brake pedal, where it was. With the transmission tunnel meeting up with the wrong-way engine slant, no amount of floor pan retooling would get the switch anywhere significant, except in the automatics, where it went into the proper place. There was just nowhere to put it between a clutch pedal and the tunnel.

So while all testing was going on and the drawings slowly assembled and off-tool samples called for before final release of major drawings, they turned their attention to minor details. They found they could move the wiper motor from under the dash into the engine bay, and thus put some distance between the passengers and a source of noise. They tried flipcatch door latches, and they worked nicely. The quarter vents got a press-button catch (which took some major work, believe it or not) and a new locally made sealing strip called Nylex was lab-tested for the window surrounds and pronounced cured.

It seems a little hard to believe now, but somebody at Chrysler must have been reading the right toad tests. We get a little sick of complaining about the same faults model after model. This time they really got among the complaints. The dipswitch fixed as best it could be, they drew up an interior bonnet lock. They specified a power-operated wagon tailgate option, although we say that styling never saw the design of the switch. They got the electric washers in and reshaped their bucket seats, relocated the handbrake and took all the fruit salad off the dashboard, lengthened the wiper arms and fitted crushable sun visors.

You write all this down and it is easy to read, but to do all these things in one model change takes a prodigious effort. These are matters one normally attends to over three models or better. There is no doubt in our minds that the engineers really got their way on this car. It could have been enough to build it to meet the competition, but they went that little bit further and added some cream on top, and this is where Car Of The Year awards are won and lost.

But everybody makes mistakes. With the car signed off, some functionary who didn't know better was looking at the car for the first time and started trying to open the bonnet from the outside. With the top brass watching in mild amusement, he fiddled for a few minutes and then popped up the bonnet. Looks of horror all round, and a rush order to redesign the locking arrangement.

They could have left it as it was, and maybe nobody would ever have known. But that was the way of the old Chrysler company, and things have changed.