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Valiants and Darts of Mexico

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In the early 1960s, regulations forced car companies to assemble cars in Mexico, using local as well as imported components. The idea was to develop a national car industry in the country.

At that time Chrysler was well established in the country. It had good reputation and its cars were second to none. They were always perceived as technologically superior to Fords and GMs. In 1960-61 we had the Dodge Lancers, Valiants and Dodges like the Savoy. Plymouth was somewhere between the smaller Valiant/Lancer and the Dodges.

plymouth valiant acapulco

Through its affiliate, Automex, Chrysler built the Valiant, the prettiest car in its class, in 1963. A luxury version not unlike the Signet was dubbed the Acapulco; Alfonso Mayerstein wrote that the Acapulco lasted from 1963 to 1967, and was essentially a Signet V200 with bucket seats, an upgraded interior, and the option of a four-on-the-floor Hurst gearshift. He also noted that the Valiant convertible (in standard and Acapulco forms) was a converted sedan with a reinforced chassis, made in a separate building from the factory in Lago Alberto.

The 1964 and 1965 car lines were the same as in the U.S.

In 1965 we saw the Barracuda, some of which had the 318 engine. It competed well against Ford's Mustang, but from the front you couldn't tell it apart from a Valiant Acapulco, with which it shared the grille, trim and interiors. The Barracuda was roomier and had a better engine than the Mustang.

While being marketed as a "Valiant Barracuda" the trunk said "Plymouth," a brand that was dropped from 1965 to 1967. In 1968 and 1969 we saw the Plymouth Belvederes, only to be permanently deleted in 1970. We have not had a Plymouth again.

To comply with a new 60% local-content rule, which demanded that the engine, transmission, and rear axle all be made in Mexico, all Chrysler vehicles in 1966 had the slant six as the only engine. About 26,000 vehicles were made by Automex in 1966, including the more popular Valiants and trucks.

Automex Chrysler assembly plant in Mexico

Trim selection was never as wide as in the states, and engine selection was reduced to the Slant Six and the 318 V8 (I'm not sure when the "A" 318 was changed to the "LA" 318). The Slant Six was the 170 hp version until at least the very late 1960s.

In 1967 the Barracuda at last had its own body shell and front and rear ends, which carried over until 1969.

In the late 1960s, a Mexican partner was running Automex, when somebody had the brilliant idea of marketing the cars as "Los Bien Armados", "The Well-Assembled Ones." The timing for this could not have been worse, because production problems were causing poor quality. The good reputation of Dodge and Valiant deteriorated so much that Chrysler took over the whole operation, but it was too late, and the poor reputation of Chryslers persists even today.

1970 brought the Duster, sold as Valiant Duster, and its sports version, the Super Bee, in substitution of the Barracuda. The Super Bee shared all its body major components with the Duster. The Super Bee had air ducts on top of the hood and a tach attached to the top of the left side air duct; it used a 318 V8 with a 4-barrel carb and a harder suspension, as well as a four-speed manual transmission with a Hurst gear shift lever. This was one fast car and on many occasions it blew the doors off Mustangs.

The two-door Dart was redesigned, although the 4-door sedan carried over with the same body since 1967 all the way to 1976. It could be had with with either a six or an eight cylinder engine, and there was also a sporty version with a console mounted gear shift lever and bucket seats.

New for 1971 was the Dart-based Dodge Charger in two versions, the basic one that came with a 225 Slant Six engine and the SE which had the 318 V8. Though expensive, it sold well and the V8 was fast, capable of very good acceleration and allegedly, a top speed on top of 120 mph.

In 1973 we had 5-mph bumpers but no longer had the Charger. A first in the Mexican market was that Chrysler introduced electronic ignition in all its models.

A new Monaco was launched in 1974. For the first time, it had the 360 4-bbl carb. It sold well despite a stagnant economy, and it had a decent set of factory equipment such as electric everything and A/C. The Super-Bee also got that engine down the road, but it didn't last long. The Darts also managed to keep the 318.

From 1974 to 1976, Dodge and Plymouth had kept the U.S. versions of the cars unchanged. Taking advantage of the lack of Plymouth in Mexico, Chrysler attached Plymouth noses and tail-lights to their cars in 1976 as their annual update.

In 1976 the Super Bee had the 360 V8, making it by far the fastest Mexican car. A special version of a Valiant Super Bee was used by the Mexican Federal Highway Police. Those patrol cars were immensely successful and at the time it was hard to find anything faster. A Lamborhini Miura owner told me that a curious police officer raced his patrol car against his Lambo in a deserted stretch of Mexican Highway, and that the Valiant went head-to-head with the Lambo all the way.

In 1977, the new generation of Valiant and Dart, called Aspen and Volare, were brought to Mexico, but the Dart used the Volare nose and Aspen rear, and the Valiant used the Volare rear and Aspen nose. The Valiant was available only as a two-door sedan with the 225 Slant Six while the Dart had two or four doors, with the 225 Slant Six or the 360 V8, manual or automatic. The Super Bee lived on with its 360 4-barrel.

In 1978 the Chrysler LeBaron came; the radically different 2-door sedan had parking lights stacked neatly on top of the headlights, while the four door had a standard 360 4-bbl V8 and full luxury equipment. The Mexican market doesn't really reward technology over gadgets, so this car had every creature comfort ranging from ultra-comfortable seats to a great sound system, 15-inch wheels versus the 14-inchers of its more Spartan siblings, and a price tag to match.

Traffic in Mexico City was becoming impossible, so the LeBaron was right on target for those people who wanted a fully-equipped luxury sedan but did not want to drive around a behemoth like the Ford LTD or Chevy Caprice. The LeBaron was much smaller, yet it had everything the other cars had in a smaller, more maneuverable package that was easy to drive and to park. The success of the LeBaron prevailed until its demise in 1987.

The Super Bee bowed goodbye at the end of the 1980 model year, replaced by the Dodge Magnum. The Magnum had the large 360 V8 4-bbl, sport wheels, bucket seats and four-speed manual transmission. It was very powerful and kept well the tradition left by the Super Bee. Chrysler also brought down the Diplomat (based on the Volare, which was based on the Valiant) as a Dart in 1981, in both two and four door versions, with six and eight cylinders.

Mexico had many problems starting in February 1982 with a massive currency devaluation, which all but stopped economic activity in the country. By then Chrysler had deleted all its car lines and the K-car was already being sold in the U.S. Timing couldn't have been better in Mexico, because the K-car was exactly the car to buy in the middle of a crisis.

The Aries/Reliant were good sellers; the Aries came in as a Dart with the Reliant's front end, in two and four door versions, with 4-speed manul transmission or 3-speed automatic which made the car terribly slow. The Reliant was a Valiant. It only came in the two door version and standard transmission although some automatics might have made it to the market. These cars were a huge success and competed well against Chevy's Citation and Celebrity, both of which had V6s.

In 1984 Chrysler launched its turbocharged engines, which became instantly successful in Mexico, where as said before, people don't care too much about car technology. For the general market it was nothing short of a miracle that four bangers had power to match larger V8s, of which only Mustangs and Grand Marquises remained in the country. Notwithstanding rumors spread by ignorant car mechanics and probably the competition, Chryslers famous 2.2 liter turbo engine proved to be as reliable as its normally-aspirated counterpart. Until 1992, these little cars remained the country's fastest vehicles.

In 1986 we also saw the K-bodied Dart disappear and the new E-Body Dodge 600 appear as a Dart. The car was successful and this time it got the 2.5-liter engine. It was carried over until 1989, and the only change in the meantime was the grille, which Chrysler execs here decided was to be the one of the 1986 LeBaron, which was gone with the 1986 model year.

By far the most significant car to be introduced in 1986 was the new LeBaron, which was called Phantom in Mexico. It was another success in every aspect.

In 1988 the highway police drove E-body Volare patrol cars with the turbo engine. Specs were never released and although it was the 2.2-liter, it had been modified to get some extra power. My guess is that it was intercooled but I can't really say. It is worth noting that in Mexico we never had the Mitsubishi engines. All K-cars and their derivatives always had either the 2.2 or the 2.5 four.

In 1989 the K-bodies were dismissed in favor of the P-bodies, the Shadow/Sundance. These cars were now sold as Chryslers, no Darts, Dodges, Plymouths, Valiants or anything else for that matter.

The E-cars were dropped then in favor of the AA-body. The Acclaim never made it here, except when Chrysler put Acclaim grilles to Spirits. The Spirit was successful too in many counts: roominess, trunk space, improved power from the first carbureted and then fuel-injected 2.5. V6s never made it to the Mexican market although they were assembled in the Ramos Arizpe plant in northern Mexico, a plant that had been built to assemble the K-cars. At the time, Chrysler had the Mexico City plant, another assembly facility dating to the late 60s in Toluca, 40 miles west of Mexico City, and the Ramos Arizpe plant. Some 3.0 V6 Spirits made it to Mexico but allegedly this was a misrouted shipment.

Jorge Carlos Peña wrote: “Chrysler Mexico (formerly Fabricas Automex) built 318s until 1974, when it began the production of the 360, which was the only 8-cylinder option from then until the 1990s. From 1969 to 1973 we had a special version of 318 rated 270 HP gross [vs the standard 230 hp], and in Mexico the 318-4bbl version (Carter AVS and Thermoquad) was available since 1968. I have a Coronet 1968 that come with a 4bbl Carter AVS from the factory. The B engines were not available.” Jorge also wrote that the 273 and 340 were not available in the Magnum; Héctor López noted that they were, however, available in the Barracuda.

Final notes

There was also a Demon Sizzler, apparently similar to the Plymouth Duster Twister. It looks like a 340 car but had a 318 (we don't know if a 340 was optional. Thanks, Mike Sealey, for pointing this out.)

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