Big things with little cars
Big things with little cars

Hillman Avenger, Plymouth Cricket, Dodge 1800, Dodge Polara, Dodginho. This nimble little car, made for only 8 years, got a legion of fans in Brazil thanks mainly to its smooth ride and (after some mishaps in its début) great quality. It also had the honor of being the first test mule for an etanol-powered car. Want to know more? After the jump!

Green and yellow, like our flag. I’m particularly fond of this photo
Green and yellow, like our flag. I’m particularly fond of this photo
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First of all, Dodginho is such a Portuguese word. Then, a disclaimer. The suffix “inho” denotes a dimunitive, so Dodginho stands for little Dodge, or cute Dodge. The “nh” has the same sound as the spanish “ñ”, so you can say its name roughly as “do-djin-ño”. Now you can say its name like we Brazilian do, let’s go!!

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Chrysler acquired the Brazilian Simca company, rebadging the Regente and Esplanada in the 60's as Chryslers, until it began producing Dodges in ‘69. They began assembling larg cars like the Charger and the Dart and trucks, but they needed a smaller, cheaper car to sell to the masses. So they reached their European brothers and studied the Hillman Imp/Simca 1000 and Hillman Avenger/Simca 1100. The Imp/1000 were rear engined, so it would compete against the Fusca, and they had no chance to win this battle, so the Avenger got the crown.

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But Europe and Brazil are such different places... Many modifications were in order for it to be produced here. For the Avenger to be able to actually move with our low-octan gas the 1.5l engine was increased to a 1.8l, with 78 hp. Keeping the same block and same piston bore, the increase in volumetric capacity was achieved by increasing the piston stroke, giving a compression ratio of 7.7:1. And, since Brazilians wouldn’t buy a 4 door car (we used to think all 4 door cars looked like taxis, and no one wanted a taxi), it was redesigned to that sweet coupé look.

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So in ‘72, when the Brazilian versions of the Dodge Charger and the Dodge Dart on São Paulo’s auto salon were being introduced, the little Dodge 1800 delighted many. With a sporty coupé profile with two doors and a kink in the transition from the C pillar to the trunk lid, some featherlight 930 kg and compact dimensions with just 4.1 meters long, it quickly went to the top of many [WANT] lists. Some months later, in April 1973, it arrived on the dealerships nationwide before the immensely successful Chevrolet Chevette, the VW Brasília and Ford Maverick.

Shepherdzilla is watching you
Shepherdzilla is watching you
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Initially it was available in two trim levels: L (Luxo, Luxury) and GL (Gran-Luxo, Gran-Luxury). If you bought a GL you could have vinyl roof, and would get radio, chrome window borders, black-painted panel between tail lights and black wheels with chrome details. Later the GLS (Gran-Luxo-Super), even more equiped came, as well as this über-rare 1800 SE, the sporty version. The launching of such a light, economy car in 1973, in the same year of the oil crisis could mean that it would be a great success. People liked it in the Auto Salon, it was nimble, light, economical, the gas prices were high... What could go wrong?

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A lot of stuff. Dodge rushed so much to launch this car that the first 1,400 units produced were still from the pre-production stage, so the early adopters were actually the test drivers. The panel gaps were uneven, the rubber sealings were bad (much dust and water leaked inside), the carburettor was a POS and, consequently, the fuel consumption was very high.

Dramatic lightning
Dramatic lightning
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So, since Dodge wanted monies, they fixed those problems in 1974. Many parts were substituted, others redesigned and put a spanking new carburettor, so better than the former that Dodginho’s power increased from 78 hp to 82 hp! Now it finally got the respect it deserved.

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In 1975 some minor modifications were made, and in ‘76 it was rebadged as the Dodge Polara, getting better interior trims. Finally, in 1978, it got rectangular head lights, as many other cars in the time. Its swansong was the introduction of a three-speed automatic gearbox, the first on a Brazilian car, in 1979. Sadly, Lee Iacocca wanted to get rid of not-so-profitable subsidiaries and in ‘81 sold Brazilian Dodge/Chrysler division to Volkswagen. The Polara still lived shortly in Argentina as the VW 1500.

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So, what about the alcohol version? Time for another story! On the CTA - Centro Tecnológico da Aeronáutica (Aeronautics’ Technology Center, from the Brazilian military division) - Professor Urbano Ernesto Stumpf with Engr. Miguel Azevedo started researching the modifications to make on a engine for it to run with sugarcane alcohol. The team had over 160 people working on this project!

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The first car to run purely on sugarcane ethanol as a daily driver was the Dodginho from one of the engineers of the team, early in ‘75. In this same year they discovered, experimentally with that very car, the damage anhydrous ethanol could do on an unmodified engine: It correded completely almost all metal and Zamac parts on the regions that had contact with the fuel, including the fuel lines and carburettor.

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Finally knowing this, they treated the affected parts with an anticorrosion finish and in 1976 the Proalcool Caravan left the CTA to drive through the country with ethanol cars to show what the fuel could do. The cars were a blue Dodge 1800, a Fusca 1300 and a Gurgel Xavante, kindly loaned by Gurgel themselves.

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The results were good, so many state-run companies decided to convert their fleet to alcohol. The Fiat 147 only came years later, in 1979. And the rest is history :)

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Sources (in portuguese):

Blog do Polara - O 1º carro a álcool

Blog do Polara - A história do Dodginho

AutoEntusiastas - História do Dodge Polara

The Wronged Project: The Dodge 1800/Polara (in english)

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