1960 Valiant. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
By the late 1950s the big North American carmakers were becoming concerned about the rising tide of imported cars. Led by small English cars and unorthodox, fast-selling Volkswagens and Renaults they were closing in on 10 per cent of the market.
Italian and Swedish cars were also gaining a foothold. Even the Japanese were starting to import their rather dumpy little Toyopets and Datsun 1000s to California, but they were in a somewhat primitive state and their success in North America was still in the future.
When General Motors, Ford and Chrysler made their first attempt to stem the tide of imports in late 1959, each company took a different tack. The Chevrolet Corvair with its air-cooled, flat-six, rear engine was clearly influenced by the Volkswagen, so much so that it was called an “American Volkswagen.”
Ford was still smarting over the failure of the Edsel, and under the guidance of its no-nonsense, no-frills president Robert McNamara it produced the starkly functional Falcon. With a conventional front-engine, rear-drive configuration it was not about to break any new ground.
Chrysler also stuck with the conventional layout, but was adventurous enough to offer something a little different, although not as daring as the Corvair. Its compact Valiant was bigger and more powerful (it wouldn’t carry a Plymouth badge until 1961).
The Valiant’s styling was more “European” with its simulated continental spare tire moulded into the trunk lid, and a trapezoidal grille that seemed inspired by the Chrysler 300.
Although it had a slightly shorter wheelbase the Valiant’s overall length at 4,674 mm (184 in.) was 76 mm (3 in.) longer than the Falcon, and 102 mm in. (4 in.) longer than the Corvair.
This extra overhang was said to give the stylists a freer rein, and it did contribute to a slightly larger trunk than the Falcon (25 cu. ft. versus 24.5). The Corvair, due to its rear engine layout, suffered badly in trunk capacity with only 9.8 cubic feet in front and 4.5 behind the rear seat.
The Valiant was also, at 1,247 kg (2,750 lb), some 136 kg (300 lb) heavier than its two competitors. And all three used unit-construction rather than the then more conventional body-on-frame (all Chrysler products except the Imperial adopted unit construction for 1960). Suspension was by longitudinal torsion bars in front, a rather daring move for an American car. In the rear the solid axle was suspended on conventional leaf springs.
In performance, the Valiant ran away from the other two. With 101 horsepower compared with the Falcon’s 85 and the Corvair’s 80, the Valiant was clearly a quicker car.
Road & Track magazine recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 13.9 seconds for the Valiant, 17.7 seconds for the Falcon and 19.5 seconds for the Corvair. All testers had three-speed manual transmissions. The Valiant was also fastest with a top speed of 153 km/h (95.2 mph) compared with the Falcon’s 140 km/h (87 mph) and the Corvair’s 142 (88).
The Valiant’s performance superiority came from its bigger engine, an outstanding newly developed overhead-valve, inline “slant-six” (Chrysler’s first overhead valve six), which displaced 2.8 litres compared with the Falcon’s 2.4 litres and the Corvair’s 2.3.
The slant six would become Chrysler’s workhorse engine for 28 years, powering everything from compacts to luxury cars to trucks. In replacing their venerable side-valve six that dated back to the 1930s, the engineers weren’t stingy. The slant six’s four main bearings were a generous 70 mm (2.75 in.) in diameter and its hefty crankshaft weighed 29.5 kg (65 lb), making the Corvair’s 11 kg 24 lb) crankshaft look positively puny in comparison.
The engine was sturdy enough to allow Chrysler to add another 25 mm (1 in.) to its 79 mm (3.1 in.) stroke. This and the 86-mm (3.4 in.) bore, produced a 3.7-litre, 145 horsepower unit which was powerful enough for Chrysler to use in its large cars.
This more powerful engine would be optional in the Valiant by 1962. The 2.8-litre version was enlarged to 3.2 litres in 1970. The cylinder head and block were cast iron, although aluminum was tried briefly in the ’60s.
The engineers tilted the slant six 30 degrees to the right, not for the usual reason of achieving a lower hood line but to produce a shorter engine by mounting accessories such as the water pump on the side of the block. This and a more slender cooling fan allowed the engine/transmission to be mounted farther forward for more leg room.
Slanting the engine also resulted in longer intake-manifold passages which gave a slight “ram” effect, or “natural supercharging.” The Valiant also introduced the alternator, which replaced the generator and provided higher electrical current at lower engine rpm.
The slant six was produced in Chrysler’s engine plant in Trenton, Michigan from 1960 to 1984 and was also built in Windsor, Ontario for a few years.
But time and circumstances would eventually see the slant six replaced by the smaller, lighter 2.2-litre, K-Car four-cylinder engine. The slant six was gradually squeezed out as demand for the 2.2 increased.
Valiant would be a very successful nameplate for the Chrysler Corporation, one that would outlast both Corvair and Falcon. It continued until 1977 when it was replaced by the Plymouth Volare.