The Plymouth Cricket would join a veritable swarm of small cars buzzing the U.S. market for 1971. While the Volkswagen Beetle was still the queen of the hive, Japanese makers were busy preparing for their next wave. Ford had its cute and perky Pinto on the way, as Chevrolet was readying its tech-on-a-budget Vega. Even quirky AMC had its quirky Gremlin. Projections called for the blossoming category to see sales well in excess of a million cars.
Plymouth wanted desperately to join the fun, but it didn’t have the money to develop a small car of its own. Parent Chrysler Corporation was in a financial bind of its own making. Several management blunders in the early 1960s left it strapped for cash. One of those had been the decision to purchase of Great Britain’s Rootes Group, who were overseers of the once respected, but no longer, Sunbeam and Hillman brands. To say that the Plymouth Cricket was a byproduct of Chrysler’s hurried quest to become a multinational automaker is like saying a staph infection is a byproduct of poor hygiene. Possibly thinking that two wrongs might equal a right, Chrysler decided to appropriate the Hillman Avenger sedan from its new British portfolio. They slapped a Plymouth badge on it and, voila, they had a small car for the U.S. at a fraction the cost.
The Avenger was a rather average British car, made at a time when British cars were on average pretty bad. One would think that after eight decades of designing and building cars to inhabit an island in the North Atlantic, that British engineers would have found a way to keep those cars from rusting. Think again. Avengers/Crickets began to disintegrate on their assembly line in Glasgow, Scotland, and did not stop until they were piles of red dust on the floors of their owners’ garages. Before they oxidized into nothingness, Crickets provided their owners with no pleasure whatsoever. The Hillman 1500cc OHV engine didn’t take well to U.S. emission controls. Sputters and stalls were common occurrences. When the engine did work, it propelled the Cricket from 0-60mph in only slightly less time than one of those endless matches of the sport with which it shares a name. Fit and finish was abysmal, and creature comforts were nonexistent. Owning a Cricket meant spending your drive time in the penalty box.
Predictions about the 1970s small car market were correct…for some at least…for a while. The Beetle faded away, but not before rising to a level of cultural icon. The Vega sold 2 million copies…before the engines either siezed up or melted into puddles of aluminum. Ford moved almost 3 million Pintos…before a number of them burst into flames when rear-ended. The Japanese offerings got better and better and came to dominate the market.
And what of the Cricket? Plymouth’s 3,500 dealers managed to move just 28,000 Crickets in 1971 (and half that many in 1972) before the exterminator was called. That is an average of less than 6 cars per year for each dealer…on whose showroom floor you could hear the crickets chirping.
Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson