Extinction. It happened to the dinosaurs, the wooly mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, trilobite, passenger pigeon, and the badge-engineered Plymouth Cricket. The Cricket's not just extinct, however, it's also all but absent from the fossil record, a car so obscure that many expert automotive paleontologists have never heard of it.
And no, I'm not exaggerating. Just try to find an intact Plymouth Cricket, I dare you. Neither Craigslist nor any of the major car-trader websites lists a Cricket for sale anywhere in North America as of this writing. There is no Plymouth Cricket owners' club, either--Google the phrase "Plymouth Cricket Club" and you get plenty of information about a community athletic league in England, but nothing about the car.
Jalopnik called the Cricket "the amazing disappearing Mopar" and speculated that it may have been the worst car Chrysler ever sold. It wasn't; the Aspen and Volaré have it beat by a mile in that department. Any car that "aspires" to the title "Worst Ever" has to be memorably bad to even be in the running--but the Cricket isn't even remembered for its inadequacy. Our own Chris Hafner, who once famously wrote that "bad cars can be incredibly interesting," has never so much as mentioned the Cricket in passing in nearly five years of blogging. That should tell you something right there.
Chrysler took a completely different approach. Between 1967 and 1970, it had acquired all of the stock of the Rootes Group, the British company which built cars under the Sunbeam, Talbot, and Hillman brand names. It also owned 81% of French carmaker Simca, and 15% of Mitsubishi Motors. These overseas affiliates were already building cars that would be suitable subcompacts for the North American market. The capital expense of Americanizing one or two of these offshore cars would be a whole lot less than the capital expense of creating a new vehicle from scratch, allowing Chrysler to get into the subcompact game on the cheap.
There were two such "captive imports" introduced in 1970 as 1971 models. Dodge dealers got a Mitsubishi Colt Galant badge-engineered into a "Dodge Colt." Down the street at the Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships, the subcompact on offer was to be an import from Rootes in Britain, the Hillman Avenger.
An "Avenger" from Britain--your first thought might be of The Avengers, the swank '60s spy-fi series with the very suave but proper Mr. Steed (Patrick Macnee) in his bowler hat and the beautiful Mrs. Peel (Diana Rigg) driving a Lotus Elan. The Hillman Avenger was not that kind of avenger, not even close.
Introduced in the UK in 1970, the Avenger was a conventional small car employing unibody construction, 161 inches long on a 98-inch wheelbase. There were two- and four-door sedans and an "estate" (wagon). It had seating for five, though the rear seat would have been a bit tight for three full-grown adults in the transverse dimension and Mr. Steed's bowler hat would be bumping up against the headliner no matter where he sat. The power plant was either a 1200 or 1500cc pushrod four-cylinder, connected to the live rear axle (coil springs and trailing links) through a four-speed manual or a three-speed slushbox. It had a MacPherson strut suspension up front and rack and pinion steering, and front disc brakes were an option.
A left-hand drive variant was already on sale on the European continent and in South America. All that was needed were front bucket seats with intergral headrests, sealed-beam headlights, and side marker lights, and it was legal for sale in the U.S. For the 1971 model year, only the four-door sedan would be sent across the pond. Small as it was, the interior volume was nevertheless greater than that of the Pinto or Vega, and with four doors it had far better rear seat access. Front disc brakes were made standard, as they were on most every American-built car by this time. The sole engine option was the 1500cc mill, which produced 55 HP measured by the "SAE net" standard introduced in 1972. With the four speed, it propelled the Avenger from 0 to 60 in 18.5 seconds, and down the quarter mile in 20.0 seconds. By modern standards, that's only slightly faster than continental drift, but it was competitive with the Vega (16.4 seconds 0-60, 20-second quarter mile), Pinto (17.8 & 20.6, respectively), Corolla (16.8 & 20.0), or Gremlin (17.7 & 18.6 with the base engine).
Even so, it was not the kind of straight-line performance an American driver would expect from something called an "Avenger." Rather than subject the car to the indignity of an inappropriate name and the inevitable jokes about not being able to avenge the skin off a pudding, Chrysler rechristened it the "Cricket," a more cuddly name with a youthful connotation (like "Beetle") that also referenced the vehicle's British origins. It was made available in nine groovy-mod colors including those '70s favorites Tangerine, Avocado Oasis Green, Harvest Aztec Gold, and Electric Blue. Print ads and brochures featured a cartoon spokesbug, and the catchy jingle for the TV and radio commercials used a chirping-cricket leitmotif--Cheep-cheep!--which also emphasized the low price.
Despite generally positive reviews from the automotive press, the Cricket's much-heralded arrival in the U.S. was greeted with the sound of crickets chirping. In a model year when GM sold about 275,000 Vegas, Ford about 352,000 Pintos, and AMC about 77,000 Gremlins, Plymouth didn't sell anywhere near that many Crickets. I couldn't find Cricket sales figures for particular model years, but the history books do record that only 41,000 Crickets total were sold over three model years. GM sold that many Vegas in about six weeks during the same period.
Why did the Cricket fail its test? For one thing, its cheap-cheap price point may have been less tha the Vega and dead even with the Pinto, but it was also within about $400 of the Plymouth Valiant, a larger car more suited to American tastes. When customers came in to their local Plymouth dealer looking for a Cricket, the salesman had plenty of incentive to upsell them to a Valiant--"it'll only cost you a few dollars more per month"--on which he could earn a higher commission, and for which the dealership could sell more accessories.
The real sticky wicket, though, was that two of this little bug's most prominent features were its 1970s British build quality and 1970s British (un)reliability. Crickets were prone to breakdowns and rust--common problems for '70s cars, and the eventual undoing of the Vega as well--but it probably didn't help the Cricket's appeal (or survival rate) that it was an outlier, mechanically different from everything else Chrysler sold.
For 1972, Chrysler offered a hopped-up Cricket GT with a two-barrel carb producing 70 HP SAE net, and a station wagon, but sales were still disappointing. Later in the model year, new smog regulations were issued with an effective date of January 1, 1973, and it was clear that the Avenger/Cricket couldn't be re-engineered to comply with them without spending more money than anyone could justify spending to do it. There were "1973" Crickets sold, but they were reserialed '72s imported before the end of December so that they could squeak in under the old regulation. They were pretty much all gone before the 1973 oil price shock hit, an event that might have done wonders for their popularity.
The Cricket's worst enemy, ironically, was Chrysler's other captive import. The Mitsubishi-built Colt being sold down the road at the Dodge dealer was comparable to the Cricket in size and price, and had much better performance. It also had the invaluable advantage of having been designed, engineered, and assembled by people who knew what the Hell they were doing, so that it didn't break down or fall apart as readily as the Cricket did. In the 1970s, that was a rare thing. Colts went galloping out the door in numbers the Cricket could only dream of: 36,000 in the first year alone, averaging about 60-70,000 every year thereafter.
Chrysler understandably decided to rely on Mitsubishi for its captive imports from there on out. The Colt was rebadged as a "Plymouth Cricket" in Canada for a couple of years, where it outsold its British predecessor 2 to 1. Plymouth dealers south of the border had to wait until 1976 to get their own rebadged Mitsubishi, the Plymouth Arrow.
Back in the home country, the Avenger stayed in production, and actually outlived its manufacturer. Chrysler merged Rootes and Simca into a new entity, "Chrysler Europe," which went bankrupt in 1978 and was gobbled up by Peugeot. Though the Avenger was by now well behind the curve for small cars, Peugeot kept it in production as the "Talbot Avenger" until 1981.
Judged purely on its own merits, the Cricket deserves to be forgotten, but I can't help but feel a little sorry for it. Much like the Vega, it was a potentially good little car undermined by design, assembly, and metallurgical inadequacies, and it deserved better. Imagine a restomodded Cricket with a Honda or Datsun prime mover and some discreet suspension upgrades. It would make one wicket little sleeper.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner